France was an unlikely choice of location for Mark Heath’s new start-up, given that the American’s mastery of the French language is, by his own cheerful admission, “atrocious”.
But the fast-talking New Yorker is among a growing crowd of British and American entrepreneurs drawn to France by an optimistic mood under President Emmanuel Macron and political worries at home.
“Every man has two countries — his own and France,” said Heath, quoting his favourite old expression. “That saying has new wind in it these days, especially with the way things are going geopolitically.”
Heath is set to launch his company Talaria at Station F, the cavernous Parisian train depot that has been transformed into the world’s biggest start-up hub.
The 35-year-old fell in love with France while serving a Nato stint with the US air force. He enrolled in a French business school last year, and is now developing a telecoms cable for financial markets.
Aside from wanting to learn French, he picked Paris over Silicon Valley because of a tech scene fast becoming one of the most exciting in Europe.
Anglophone entrepreneurs have long regarded France with trepidation, not least because other European countries were seen as happier to do business in English.
Yet Station F took more applications from US and UK start-ups last year than any other countries, surprising even its director Roxanne Varza.
“What we’re starting to realise is that it may also be the political climate that is making these start-ups look for a new place,” said Varza, herself an American.
President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration tirades have rattled start-ups reliant on international talent, she said, while some British firms are grasping for a European foothold as Brexit looms.
‘So long, fish and chips’
A vast glass and concrete structure filled with modern art and MacBooks, Station F is emblematic of Macron’s vision for a dynamic new France.
Funded by telecoms billionaire Xavier Niel, the 3,000-desk “campus” opened in June shortly after Macron’s election, with Facebook and Microsoft among companies nurturing its start-ups.
Macron has said he wants France itself to “think and move like a start-up”, swiftly moving to reform its complex labour regulations.
That has already tempted back some French entrepreneurs who previously turned their backs on home.
In a blog post titled “So long and thanks for all the fish and chips”, Frenchman Jean Meyer said Macron’s reforms had prompted him to move his dating app Once from London back home to France.
“I have lost track of the number of developers, marketing managers or data scientists who refused to join us following the Brexit vote,” he added, saying the labour reforms were the icing on the cake.
Yet much of what is drawing tech firms to Paris predates Macron.
State investment bank Bpifrance, set up in 2013, has played a leading role in developing the sector, and it was Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande who set up new visas for start-ups entrepreneurs.
And tech firms say it is long-term factors, such as universities that produce talented engineers, that really make France attractive.
Yet investment firm Atomico credited Macron with fuelling higher optimism in France than anywhere else in its 2017 State of European Tech report, not least thanks to his planned tax cuts.
Britain remained the biggest recipient of venture capital funding at $5.4 billion (4.4 billion euros) with France behind on $2.1 billion — but France closed the most deals, it noted.
“The amount of support given to entrepreneurs is certainly in my perception much stronger than we could possibly get in the UK,” said Tom Pullen, a 41-year-old Londoner who launched his consultancy Innovinco in Paris last year.
“Here we’re sure to remain inside the single market,” added Pullen.
“For a start-up business like mine which is targeting large corporations — it will necessarily make things easier.”
But for Zahir Bouchaala, another Brit who has moved into Station F, it would be an overstatement to say that doing business in France has changed overnight.
“It was a lot simpler to open and a maintain a company in the UK,” admitted the 35-year-old software developer, though he too is positive about the mood under Macron.
Station F has a large office connecting entrepreneurs with officials to explain complex regulations, from patents to social security.
Even so, Bouchaala is grappling with a bewildering stream of paperwork on everything from pensions to health care, now that his firm Bevolta has grown into a team of 10.
“France is still a country that is employee-focused more than boss-focused,” he said. “Even in the start-up world.”