Shhhh, don't tell: France wants its own Y Combinator

Back in August, rumors started surfacing about a potential French Y Combinator. Since then, the tweets of several well-known French entrepreneurs and investors have made it clear that they have ambitions of being the French Paul Graham, including Deezer co-founder Jonathan Benassaya and Kima Ventures co-founder Jérémie Berrebi. And there are definitely more out there.

I’m starting to feel like a broken record, but France has been slowly but surely inching its way towards this since the beginning of the year. The launch of the new seed funds (Jaina Capital, Kima Ventures, ISAI…), the success of various mentor programs (like the Founder Institute, etc) and the numerous new events are starting to conolidate. Could the next stop be a seed-mentoring model ?

Recently, France’s Silicon Sentier launched an attempt at a Y Combinator-like model called Le Camping, boasting a demo day with over 100 seed investors. Hey, that sounds familiar. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens. The first round of applications closes on November 28 and it the program is not exclusively for French startups.

Given Seedcamp’s success in Europe and TechStar’s recent link-up with Startup Bootcamp with in Denmark, I’m sure France is not the only European country questioning whether or not a local Y Combinator would work. Some of the French entrepreneurial crowd criticized the idea, saying that the success of Y Combinator is heavily dependent on its founder, Paul Graham, on the large US market and on the active local investors. So I got in touch with Mr. Graham to see if he agreed. Here is what he had to say:

“I think you could create a Y Combinator without me specifically but you couldn’t do it with completely random people.”

Obviously the mentors are very key to the success of the startups and Graham stresses a team with a strong entrepreneurial background, solid programming skills and a good product sense.

“Y Combinator’s financial investment doesn’t make much difference. It’s just to cover people’s living expenses during the 3 month Y Cominator cycle.”

As all the startups selected to participate get an initial investment totaling no more than $20K per company when they begin the program, I was wondering how much of an impact this had on the development of the startups. Apparently, not much according to Graham. What’s essential is rather the strong seed investment environment to support the company’s afterwards.

“The most difficult part would be the lack of investors afterward, especially angel investors.  You can start a Y Combinator yourself but you cant just snap your fingers and call other investors into being.”

This is perhaps the key element lacking in France at the moment. Today we have a few seed funds and a few VCs that do seed investments, but nothing compared to Silicon Valley. But this absence of active seed funding isn’t necessarily specific to France alone. Graham actually believes that there are certain places in the US where Y Combinator would not have been able to flourish the way it does in Northern California.

“I don’t know for sure how important the local market is because I’ve always had the luxury of being in a big one.”

OK, so obviously it’s difficult for Graham to know how much of an impact the fragmented European markets will have on product development, traction, scalability, etc. as he’s only worked with the US. Nonetheless, as France is one of the larger European markets with a developing startup ecosystem, I bet we’ll see more Y Combinator wannabes shortly.