French Startups Take Refuge in New York

French entrepreneurs are building a Little Paris in New York's tech scene.

ilan French Startups Take Refuge in New York

Mr. Abehassera.

We won’t attempt to spell the way Ilan Abehassera pronounces the word “entrepreneur.” It’s as elaborate, grand and guttural as you’d expect from a French native, but you can tell he’s holding back a bit, Americanizing the consonants and clipping his vowels just slightly. It’s probably unconscious; the entrepreneur has been in the U.S. for eight years, most of them in New York. “NYC Entrepreneur” is the title of his website. He is the founder and CEO of productivity suite Producteev.

It’s funny, the tech industry is so obsessed with entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. “I’m an entrepreneur,” says Justin Timberlake in the Social Network, with a cocky half-smile, as he pulls a shirt over his head after bagging a Stanford hottie. It’s a favorite descriptor in Twitter bios and LinkedIn pages. Lately, nothing is sexier than “an owner or manager of a business enterprise who makes money through risk and initiative.”

We forgot it was a French word, we admitted. Mr. Abehassera laughed. “I don’t know why though, because you have much better entrepreneurs than in France,” he said.

We reached the founder by phone this morning to chat about the French startup scene which he says is taking root in New York. Besides superstar Fabrice Grinda, the ubiquitous imp who made a name for himself by launching cookie cutter versions of U.S. startups (eBay, Craigslist) in Europe, there are a number of French entrepreneurs in the city, Mr. Abehassera said. “Not many have taken notice but NYC has indeed become de rigueur with us French tech geek entrepreneurs,” he wrote in an email.

“France is not a country where they really promote entrepreneurship,” he explained. “From an administrative standpoint, starting a company in France, it takes a month and a half. Here it’s like 20 minutes online.”

There are other barriers, he said, including high taxes, a small pool of hiring talent, and restrictive rules. “It’s impossible to fire someone,” he said. “If you don’t get along with someone you just hired and it’s often the case, there is no way you can let him go. He will tell you basically, ‘I will stop working, I will leave every day at 5 p.m.,’ and you can’t have nothing to do. If you fire him, he will put you to court and he will win.”

Employees can’t be fired unless they’ve done something really serious or criminal, he said. It’s a great country for employees, but not so great for new companies.

“It’s not a country for entrepreneurs,” he said. “You do have innovation, but like, just name one French startup that you know. You can’t! Some of them have made it in the U.S., like Netvibes and a couple ad tech companies.”

Fred Wilson has observed the same. “Entrepreneurship is a French word and modern day venture capital was invented by a Frenchman named George Doriot,” he wrote in 2008. “If you don’t know about Doriot, you haven’t been reading this blog recently. But even though the French have a historical connection to entrepreneurship and venture capital, the French economy and society doesn’t seem to be particularly supportive of entrepreneurship.”

And so the French are coming to New York. It’s closer to France than Silicon Valley, and they like the city. “In addition to Producteev, FreshPlanet, Dashlane and Totsy are a few other examples of Paris-originals that are benefiting from the local tech community,” Mr. Abehassera said in an email. “FreshPlanet’s founder relocated from Paris a few years ago, and is quickly becoming a young social gaming darling. Totsy is another example. They are a member-only private sale site for moms and kids products—and one of Forbes 2011 Most Promising Companies. Dashlane just got funding from NYC-based VC and is looking for office space to hang a shingle in NYC.”

Dashlane is currently shacking up with Producteev in Chelsea, he said.

And Mr. Abehassera is doing what he can to make the newcomers feel welcome. “In the past couple of months, I’ve received way more inbound meeting requests from French people than ever before,” he said. “One to five emails a week from people I don’t know who are coming to New York and want to meet. I had way less before. Now I need to say no once in a while.”

He co-hosts a weekly show about French startups in the U.S. for the tech blog French Web, and he and four other French entrepreneurs are organizing “something we call the New York French Geeks.” It takes place on the first Wednesday of the month at Bubble Lounge in Tribeca with “Francophiles or French people” in the startup scene.

french geeks French Startups Take Refuge in New York