Author Archives: Hervé Lebret

A letter to and about America

While looking at old files, I found a letter, written by a family member in october 1993. At the time, I was living in California. I read it again, loved it so much for personal reasons but also found it so farseeing that I decided to share it here. Hopefully some of you will like it. If you read French, go to the French page, if not forgive my awkward translation…

Tell me, my good friends, what is America? The roughness of the confines, this impossible frontier where humans find themselves by violence stripped of lies, where the truth is revealed? The old southern lands, so carnal, so indolent, so cruel? The devastating wind gusts and hurricanes in the business that are moving people across the country? The Blacks, the Yellows, the Darks, the Goldens and the Indians who open casinos in their reservations, just to take some power from the Whites? The Indians are a faded dream, like Route 66, like the Rocky Mountain train. In Europe, paradoxically, we experience America in a visual mode more than in writing or thinking. Everyone does not read Tocqueville, but then, who is Tocqueville’s successor? There remains the image. Fake images where violence and melodrama reigned, between popcorn and ice cream, the tanned men of westerns, statues of dust and wind, the dazzling comedians of the musicals, Miles Davies, head down, dark glasses, emaciated face, pushing on his trumpet in a corner, excited suffragettes and delusional sodomites. The true and the false mix, merge. The memory stutters. De Niro continues to return to his companions, the steelmakers, on a rainy night, climbing a muddy street lined with small pavilions, in the blue-gray, monstrous and motley decor of foundries; Kennedy collapses again in the back of his big convertible car, under the bewildered look of Jackie; and I still go around Long Island and Brooklyn to approach the arrogant challenge of the Manhattan Towers. Or I fly high mountains, deserts, lakes, endless plains, where the eye hangs, staking the immensity, pressed and tight clusters of skyscrapers, mounds of the day, monuments of glass and concrete in the silence of nights, built to the glory of which unknown dead god.

I watch sometimes CBS Evening News, I see people worry about everything and anything, to the obsession. Haunted by cancer, cellulite, poisoned milk, fast weight loss, tobacco smoke, the nimble hands of men and the eyes of others. I wonder: what has become of proud America? Or did it ever exist only in presidents’ speeches on the state of the Union? What is America? Thoreau and the transcendentalists, Charles Ives, the musician insurer, who has captured better than anyone else the roar of the choral society, the feast and the provincial slowness, the immensity of the lands and the simplicity of the beings? Or Blacks who are perhaps the most American of Americans since they have really lost their roots (Africa is not a place, but a myth and rhythms while emigrants still have families, which in Sicily, which in Korea, which in Mexico, which in Ireland)? Or this “melting pot” that does not mix, but that unites because in the manner of the feudal society, the membership is aimed at people, the sworn faith, requests the individual to the noblest of itself? (Perhaps we should not laugh too much at the Bibles deposited in the hotel rooms, which symbolize the direct and intimate relationship that Protestants establish between man and his creator. Transposed, we perceive the direct relationship, transcendent of all the administrative, legal, institutional mediations that unite the American man to America: God is America. Like God, would it be inaccessible to our intellect?) We find everything, apparently in America. Would it be the store of the creator, La Samaritaine of eternity? Is America out of time? Alice in the land of rubble wanders among abandoned silos, deserted factories, discarded jerrycans, worn tires, rusted bodies, to discover in the spreading fields the unexpected, the surprising, the eternally new. America, pioneering and tired.

I say this to myself, but maybe I’m wrong. The ambiguous attitude that we Old Europeans have towards America is rather a parent-child relationship that combines ambition, hope, expectation and disappointment, surprise and misunderstanding, rapture and exasperation, tenderness and anger. Recognition, ignorance. A new being has come out of us, which prolongs us but which is not ourselves and whose destiny escapes us. America, America, the dream of the emigrant, but also in some way our dream to all of us. The new Jerusalem or the new Babylon. Something strikes, if one tries to fly over the centuries. The other side. The other side of the hills, the other side of the mountains. We are people of little witnesses, of limited horizons. Who have often quarreled, fought, gorged from valley to valley, from castle to castle, from village to village, from country to country. Less to take, if not rapine, less to enlarge than to establish a place, a domain, a territory as part of oneself, from which the other will be excluded, tolerated at best, always in an extraneous situation. And suddenly, these Lilliputians are leaving. Do you realize, my friends, what such a departure represents? It is not exactly a question of travel, of the traveler’s curiosity – there has always been Herodotus, Marco Polo. No more the trade or the wandering that follows the path of exchange. Demographics, economics, politics of the powers, religion can nourish the motivations and satisfy the historian. Still, there needs to be a higher determination that guides choices. How to name it? The call of the unknown, the will to force the destiny, the ability to face the mystery? We are lacking beings, says the philosopher. Beings of desire. To miss is to have the desire of something else, which can not be defined since one has a negative idea of it. An incredible audacity: to deny the present to open oneself to the mystery. Standing, eyes open on the horizon. To confront the immensity of the ocean and its fury, to approach lands as vast as the sea, to sink deep in immense forests, shadow cathedrals swarming with a strange life, to follow the trace of the sun in the mirages of gold of the desert, to discover bizarre, incomprehensible, wild manners, and peoples more numerous than grains of sand on the beach. But above all to be in front of the excess in the excess without yielding. And to stay, or to come back, with in the head, the distant little world, so far away, left so long ago, whose tiny outlines slowly become numb in the sleep of remembrance. What was at the heart of this obstinate will? Perhaps the secret trace of a very long memory. After all, each of us goes down more or less from distant invaders. Celts, Franks, Germans, Goths, who were our ancestors? And have we kept in the recesses of our desires the imprint of these ancient migrations?

Asia, Africa, America, all these continents were not equally offered to the coming settlers. Asia, Africa, worlds too full already or natures too difficult, too hostile. There remained America, and particularly North America, with a cowardly occupation whose Atlantic coast, at the 40th parallel, was not altogether so exotic for Europeans. The spirit of enterprise of Protestants did the rest. One could build a New England and imagine that one would reproduce while purging it in a sort of Virgilian dream the old mother Europe. What is America then? Viewed retrospectively, it can appear as the development of a simple historical conjuncture, as the fruit of chance and necessity. Or would one say such was the fate inscribed, almost from all eternity, on this piece of continent? Why do I think that, thinking of America, I have the feeling of an infinitely old reality and an unfinished promise? In this sense, if America stems from a destiny, this destiny is always to come, always remains an opening on the unexpected.

This for example, which is about understanding. We Frenchmen have the religion of a well-conducted text, according to the order of the reasons: we like a well-conducted reflection and what is more amiable than to go from the idea to its consequences; we are legislators of writing. American pragmatism tends to advance general ideas that are supported by the analysis of facts. [I put this in bold, it was not in the letter.] This does not free them from prejudices, but gives them a powerful mobility and protects them against the excess of systems. But I believe that in the intellectual crisis that we are going through, we will not be able to find the way if we do not find a satisfactory understanding of the multiple and multiplicity, which is blocked, or at least thwarted, by the need for a unitary interpretation, a deeply rooted need as it comes from Christian theology and its Hebrew antecedents. Because America is essentially multiple, because the unitary is at home only the means to associate and coordinate these multiplicities in the faith in America and the faith in the individual, perhaps the novel thoughts will come from across the Atlantic. And as usual, we will systematize them. For the pleasure of order. Eternal youth of America? But what is America?

Forgive me for writing to you so late. (I hope this overloaded letter will come to you.) Thank you for giving me some news. So few people do it. But I am a bad letter-writer. I run after the money that runs after clever evils and I miss the time.
I kiss you,
Georges, October 2, 1993.

Deeptech generation – a guide to young aspiring entrepreneurs

I just read two very nice guides about deeptech entrepreneurship. They’ve been published by BPI, the French Public Investment Bank. Either you read French or you will only read a couple of quotes I translated. I have however put the slideshare links at the end of the post.

So here are some testimonies:

Do not be afraid to start your startup, even if it may seem complex and endless. Whether the result is positive or a little less, it is an adventure that you will not be taken away from, just like a PhD. Entrepreneurship brings so much into your life, into your curriculum. Entrepreneurship is a continuous training that can only be rewarding.

The transition from my doctorate to the status of entrepreneur came naturally. The technology of […] was my doctoral topic, we had already developed several prototypes that we had evaluated and which were promising. We could not stop there without giving end users, who really need it, the benefit of this innovation. We decided to create the startup and to launch it until the commercialization of the device.

The world of entrepreneurship opened me up to new horizons and brought me experiences that I never imagined when we started a few years ago.

The creation of a startup is a very beautiful experience, a human one first of all. By creating […] I met people I would never have otherwise. It’s also a work experience, because doing research and ending up with a finished product is not at all the same thing. Finally, as a laboratory director I consider that valorization is part of my missions, and it also brings us a lot of visibility at the regional level, because we create value and jobs.

What drives you to do that is a human experience: be willing to go to the very end of a topic that you are passionate about. Do not do it because it’s fashionable but because it fascinates you.

When you go from researcher to entrepreneur everything changes: the way former colleagues and friends look at you, the prospects of professional evolution. The question must be asked: “Am I aligned with my personal values?”

To go from scientist to entrepreneur is often to put what you like aside. You have to get into finance, IP, contracts … It’s a real change of mindset. In parallel, meetings and the emergence of new opportunities require a real agility in the way of thinking and constantly questioning the vision of your work.

Contributing to the creation of […] allowed me to discover an unknown world, that of the industrial world and marketing, and brought me a lot of things: the additional respect of my colleagues, the recognition and the […] gratitude […] for the positive impact (to come) on the economic activity of the region. This brought me a real satisfaction because my academic research finds consumers and therefore a real usefulness. And more people are working on my ideas since I started the business.

Researchers and entrepreneurs: it’s possible! (part 2)

A second post about this enlightening book after this one. A multitude of quotes that make this book really fascinating. The importance of the human component; entrepreneurship is not a science after all. The experience of the field probably counts as much as the academic knowledge, the adventures are unique in spite of their common features. Here are some new examples:



“The first meetings with investors are dialogues between human beings: they will see in you the person who takes risks, who has the ability to develop a strategy and execute plans. Three major criteria are of interest to investors: the team, in particular the CEO [Chief Executive Officer] who creates and inspires the company on a daily basis, and then the product and size of the potential market.”
Pascale Vicat-Blanc.

“It is essential to open your idea, your project as soon as possible. The upstream contacts are very rich and can be quite simple”. Stéphane Deveaux. [Page 43]

“The creation of a company is first and foremost a work of definition and development of an offer and the positioning of this offer in the market”, explains Éric Simon. “I met a company that was immediately very enthusiastic. We had to solve many technical challenges that we had not encountered in the world of research. [But this first big client] led us into a dead end. […] I stood firm and remembered that even if you have an important client, you must immediately diversify so as not to be at his mercy.” [Page 55]

While market research and marketing training are often present in incubators, know-how is sometimes difficult to transfer. Researchers-entrepreneurs insist on the importance of the field. “So we did a lot of interviews, visits to customers, prospecting to really know our market. This is the best market research compared to buying ready-made studies.” Benoit Georis, Keeno [Page 61]

There arethen discussions about the relative importance of public and private investors, a phenomenon so specific to France. Yes an exciting book!

Researchers and entrepreneurs: it’s possible!

Here is a book that I just discovered about stories of startups in the French digital field, those from Inria, the national institute (for research in computer science and automation) dedicated to digital sciences. It’s written in French ans is entitled Chercheurs et entrepreneurs : c’est possible !

I have read only a few pages so far but the quotes I read are so meaningful that I cannot help but extract some examples:

“Our friends were creating their business in Silicon Valley, like Bob Metcalfe with 3Com or Bill Joy with Sun. I had toured groups I knew on the other side of the Atlantic, at MIT, Berkeley, Stanford, explaining our project to them, their positive reaction reinforced the idea of getting started.” Silicon Valley was often a source of inspiration …

“What interested me was not doing research in itself, it was advancing technology to solve real problems. We had more and more funding; we have made satellite configurators for aerospace, ports, buildings and a strategic simulator for nuclear submarines” says Pierre Haren, the founder of Ilog. The product yes, but above all for customers …

“By definition, [we were] a high-tech company. [… but] As in any creation, at the beginning, we do everything even cleaning the floor! We took care of the commercial approach, of the optimization of the offer, and even of the premises. When we take care of a society, we are never quiet, we never take it easy. Whether we are ten or ten thousand people, the person in charge is always in the mine,” according to Christian Saguez, founder of Simulog and he further adds “My first advice to hesitant researchers is to take the step of creating without seeking comfort at all costs. You learn life and it’s all the beauty of doing business. With Simulog we had to invent everything and the model worked.”

There are many great lessons: I will certainly finish it soon. Thanks to Laurent for the gift 🙂

The Code – Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America – by Margaret O’Mara

About 15 years ago, I was challenged by a colleague, who knew my passion about Silicon Valley, about why the region should survive and lead for the years or even decades to come. I had just arrived at EPFL and now that I am leaving this place where there are many people I love, I could give the same answer to my colleague: the talent and capital gathered there, with an expertise which seems to be never lost and an appetite for experiments and risk with not too much fear of failure, at least no stigma, are reasons why Silicon Valley has a bright future. Yes it has many drawbacks and weaknesses, but even when there is a major crisis, there is stil, whatever we think, enough diversity to continue to strive.

Margaret O’Mara probably thinks the same. At least she has written one of the most comprehensive history of the region and describes brilliantly all its strong and weak, positive and negative attributes.

The Code
Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America
By Margaret O’Mara

You have to think of it like a horse race, Morgenthaler would explain. That’s how the high-tech game worked. The horse was the technology. The race was the market. The entrepreneur was the jockey. And the fourth and last ingredient was the owner and trainer – the high-tech investor. You could have the best jockey, but if he rode a slow horse, then you wouldn’t win. Same thing if you have a fast horse but a terrible jockey. Great technology without good people running the shop wouldn’t get very far. And the race had to have good stakes. Riding a fast horse to win at the country fait wouldn’t reap many rewards, but the Kentucky Derby was another matter indeed. So it went with the market. These needed to be customers and growth, not saturation. [Pages 11-12] (You can check the Computer Museum archive about Morgenthalerhere (as a pdf).)

The flow wasn’t about transfer of technology, it was about talent – about people who moved back and forth from the labs of Stanford to the offices of its research park to the ramshackle warehouses and prefab office buildings that began stretching southward down El Camino Real. Everywhere else in the 1950s, academia was a true ivory tower, surrounded by impregnable walls between town and gown, between “pure” research and business enterprise. At Stanford, those walls dissolved. [Page 32]

“Inventions come from individuals,” observed Regis McKenna, “not from companies.” [Page 152]

“Good ideas and good products are a dime a dozen,” [Arthur Rock] later explained. “Good execution and good management – in a word, good people – are rare.”

More controversial maybe is John Doerr’s comment: Much later, one of the regions most successful and influential VCs, John Doerr, got in hot water after admitting that a major factor guiding his decisions was “pattern recognition.” The most successful entrepreneurs, he found, “all seem to be white, male, nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard or Stanford and they absolutely have no social life. So when I see that pattern coming in”, he concluded, “it was very easy to decide to invest.” [Page 76]

After HP went public in November 1957, fortunes rose along with its share price. Yet from the start, the two founders consciously presented their firm as a business concerned with higher and better things. “I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money,” Packard once told HP managers. “While this is an important result of a company’s existence, we have to go deeper to find the real reasons for our being.” Nonhierarchical, friendly, a change-the-world ethos paired with an unflagging focus on market growth and the bottom line – HP created the blueprint for generations of Silicon Valley companies to come. [Page 33]

The missile maker, the entrepreneurial university, the distinctive business sensibility, the professional networks, the government money, the elite (and homogeneous) workforce: many of the key ingredients were coming together in Palo Alto by the middle of the 1950s. [Page 38]

O’Mara combines anecdotes, stories and economic trends. For example, more than 500 companies went public in 1969. Only 4 did in 1975. […] in 1969, the national venture capital industry had raised more than $170 million in new investment. In 1975, it raised a paltry $22 million. What’s more, only one venture investment in four went to tech companies. [Page 158]

She shows there were thousands of similar (and unknown) companies to the one which became phenomenal success. In parallel to Apple, there had been ProcTech (or Processor Technology), IMSAI, Cromemco, Xitan, Polymorphic. Vector Graphic, with an initial $6’000 investment in 1976 reached 4’000 units and $400’000 in sales in 12 months, and $25M fiver years later. By 1977, there were 50,000 personal computers in use. [Pages 144-6]

(A side comment about a book I did not know of: The Innovation Millionaires: How They Succeed by Gene Bylinsky (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1976.)

She also clearly illustrates the role of public intervention and support. One story I did not know about is how much John Doerr was involved in fighting proposition 211 in 1996. It shows that despite the general view that Silicon Valley has no interest in politics, on the contrary, many individuals and institutions are much more interested than generally thought. (See Proposition 211 ) [Section The Litigator – Pages 333-8]

Similarly, the complexity of things is illustrated with Peter Thiel, a famous Libertarian, a strong advocate of weak states and of President Trump: he is the (funding) founder of Palantir, a startup which most revenues at least early in its history, came from the government… [Pages 384-7]

But culture is never far. When Russian president Medvedev visited Silicon Valley in 2010 to try and understand the region’s secrets, he concluded that there simply wasn’t enough appetite for risk. “It’s a problem of culture as Steve Jobs told me today. We need to change the mentality.” [Page 388]

So Silicon Valley’s success does not stop… “By mid-2018, Facebook had made 67 acquisitions, Amazon had made 91, and Google had made 214.” [Page 391] Let us remember tough that in the GAFAM group, 2 companies are not based in Silicon Valley, showing how powerful the region is, just in terms of perception! Let me just add here an old post about startups M&As: Cisco A&D published in 2016.

It is also from an architectural standpoint as mention on Page 392. With the new Facebook building in 2015, or Amazon biospheres and Apple Park.

And there is a lot of money made. Google has a few years after its IPO more than 1’000 employees or former employees with a $5M wealth including an in-house massage therapist. [Page 392]

As a conclusion of my reading, a final quote:

“As wealth grew, so did the mythos around how Silicon Valley was able to generate one innovative company after another. It was about allowing risks and not penalizing failure, they’d say. It was about putting engineering first – finding the best technical talent, with no bias about origin or pedigree. It was about that “pattern recognition” so fatefully identified by John Doerr, looking for the next Stanford or Harvard dropout with a wild but brilliant idea.

Of all those assertions, Doerr’s slip-up came closest to the heart of the Valley’s secret. “West Coast investors aren’t bolder because they are irresponsible cowboys, or because the good weather makes them optimistic”, wrote Paul Graham, founder of the Valley’s most influential tech incubator, Y Combinator, in 2007. “They’re bolder because they know what they’re doing.” The Valley power players knew tech, knew the people, and knew the formula that worked.

They looked for “grade-A men” (who very occasionally were women) from the nation’s best engineering and computer science programs, or from the most promising young companies, and who had validation from someone else they already knew. They sought out those exhibiting the competitive fire of a Gates or a Zuckerberg, the focus and design ascetism of Kapor or Andreessen or Brin and Page. They funded those who were working on a slightly better version of something already being attempted – a better search engine, a better social network. They surrounded these lucky entrepreneurs with support and seasoned talent; they got their names in the media and their faces on the stage at each premier conferences. They picked winners, and because of the accumulated experience and connections in the Valley, those they picked often won.” [Pages 399-400]

Loonshots or how to nurture crazy ideas by Safi Bahcall

This is one of the best books about innovation I have read in years. The importance of crazy ideas, not the recipe on how to make them successful, but the attitude to make them less crazy. And more importanly, crazy ideas have much more impact on our lives than we may think. A must read. Here are some extracts to convicne you…

Loonshot : a neglected project, widely dismissed, its champion written-off as unhinged.

The Loonshot thesis :
1. The most important breakthroughs come from loonshots, widely dismissed ideas whose champions are often written off as crazy.
2. Large groups of people are needed to translate those breakthroughs into technologies that win wars, products that save lives, or strategies that change industries.
3. Applying the science of phase transitions to the behavior of teams, companies, or any group with a mission provides practical rules for nurturing loonshots faster and better. [Page 2]

“Bush changed national research the same way Vail changed corporate research. Both recognized that the big ideas – the breakthroughs that change the course of science, business, and history – fail many times before they succeed. Sometimes they survive through sheer chance. In other words, the breakthroughs that change our world are born from the marriage of genius and serendipity.” [Page 37]

“But the ones who truly succeed – the engineers of serendipity – play a more humble role. Rather than champion any individual loonshot, they create an outstanding structure for nurturing many loonshots. Rather than visionary innovators, they are careful gardeners. They ensure that both loonshots and franchises are tended well, that neither dominates the other, and that each side nurtures and supports the other.” [page 38]

“As we will see over the next chapters, managing the touch and the balance is an art. Overmanaging the transfer causes one kind of trap. Undemanaging that transfer causes another.” [Page 42]

A project champion: On the creative side, inventors (artists) often believe that their work should speak for itself. Most find any kind of promotion distasteful. On the business side, line managers (soldiers) don’t see the need for someone who doesn’t make or sell stuff – for someone whose job is simply to promote an idea internally. But great project champions are much more than promoters. They are bilingual specialists, fluent in both artist-speak and soldier-speak, who can bring the two sides together. [Page 63]

Contrarian answers, with confidence, create very attractive investments. [Page 63]

LSC: Listen to the Suck with Curiosity. LSC, for me, is a signal. When someone challenges the project you’ve invested years in, do you defend with anger or investigate with genuine curiosity? [Page 64]


Some famous creators of Loonshots:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akira_Endo_(biochemist)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juan_Trippe
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_H._Land

Years later, Land became known for a saying: “Do not undertake a program unless the goal is manifestly important and its achievement nearly impossible.” [Page 96]

“Then the author has an amazing thesis about team size. “I will show that team size plays the same role in organizations that temperature does for liquids and solids. As team size crosses a “magic number”, the balance of incentives shifts from encouraging a focus on loonshots to a focus on careers.” [Page 164]

This magic number is

“Where G is the salary growth rate with promotion (for example 12%); S is management span – if it is narrow, each manager has a small number of direct reports and there are many hierarchical layers, whereas if it is wide, there will be more direct reports and less hierarchy – E is the equity fraction which ties your pay to the quality of your work. The final parameter F for fitness is return on politics vs. project-skill fit.
In many cases the magic number M equals 150… [pages 195-200]
Safi Bahcall has many other rich descriptions including the importance of power laws in innovations [Page 178] or this one [Page 240]

For a loonshot nursery to flourish – inside either a company or an industry – three conditions must be met:
1. Phase separation : separate lonnshot and franchise groups
2. Dynamic elequilibrium: seamless exchange between the two groups
3. Critical mass: a lonnshot group large enough to ignite.

Applied to companies, the first two are the first Bush-Vail rules discussed in part one. The third, critical mass, has to do with commitment. If there is no money to pay for hiring good people or funding early-stage ideas and projects, a loonshot group will wither, no matter how well designed. To thrive, a loonshot group needs a chain reaction. A research lab that produces a successful drug, a hit product, or award-winning designs will attract top talent. Inventors and creatives will want to bring new ideas and ride the wave of a winning team. The success will justify more funding. More projects and more funding increase the odds of more hits – the positive feedback lopp of a chain reaction.

How many projects are needed to achieve critical mass? Suppose odds are 1 in 10 that any one loonshot will succeed. Critical mass to ignite the reaction with high confidence requires investing in at least two dozen such loonshots (a diversified portfolio of ten of those loonhsots has a 65 percent likelihood of producing at least one win; two dozen, a 92 percent likelihood).” [Pages 240-1]

Disruptive innovation again [Page 263]

Use “disruptive Innovation” to analyze history; nurture loonshots to test beliefs.

In an article addressing recent controversy about the notion of disruptive innovation, Christensen explains why Uber is not disruptive, by his definition, and why the iPhone also began as a sustainable innovation. In Chapter 3, we saw that American Airlines – a large incumbent, not a new entrant – led the airline industry after deregulation with many brilliant “sustaining” innovations targeted to high-end customers. Hundreds of low-cost, specialty airline startups, “disruptive innovators” failed.
If the transistor, google, the iPhone, Uber, Walmart, IKEA, and American Airlines’ Big Data and other industry-transforming ideas were all initially sustaining innovations, and hundreds of “disruptive innovators” fail, perhaps the distinction between sustaining vs. disruptive, while interesting academically or in hindsight, is less critical for steering businesses in real time than other notions.
That, at least, is why I don’t use the distinction in this book. I use the distinction between S-type and P-type because teams and companies or any large organization develop deeply held beliefs, sometimes consciously, often not, about both strategies and products – and loonshots are contrarian bets that challenge those beliefs. Perhaps everything that you are sure is true about your products or your business model is right, and the people telling you about some crazy idea that challenges your beliefs are wrong. But what if they aren’t? Wouldn’t you rather discover that in your own lab or pilot study, rather than read about it in a press release from one of your competitors? How much risk are you willing to take by dismissing their idea?
We want to design our teams, companies, and nations to nurture loonshots – in a way that maintains the delicate balance with our franchises – so that we avoid ending up like the Qianlong emperor. The one how dismissed those “strange or ingenious objects”, the same strange and ingenious objects that returned in the hands of his adversaries, years later, and doomed his empire.

Fail fast or succeed slowly?

Here is my lastest contribution to Entreprise Romande in their special summer edition “Le Temps, éternel insaisissable”.

If you are not a subscriber, here is a copy.

Fail fast or succeed slowly?
Hervé Lebret, head of startup unit, EPFL

Slow food, slow thinking, slow growth. After decades of hyperactive and probably destructive frenziness, humankind seems to want a pause. Yet for years I have been complaining that I do not see the Swiss and European startups growing fast enough and, natural corollary, I do not see failing fast enough these “living dead” as they are called in Silicon Valley, these startups that have or would have no future. So was I wrong too?

The debate between the supporters of Schumpeter’s creative destruction, “disruption” and those of a more sustainable incremental progress is as old as the word innovation itself. When I fell into the pot of startups during my American journeys, I quickly wondered why Europe had not experienced such spectacular success such as the GAFAs (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon). Whether it is desirable or not, the question is valid: is this difference not related to another less known phenomenon, namely that our startups never die or at least not fast enough?

Recently, the Swiss Startup Radar [1] gave the point of view of an Israeli: “In Switzerland, I observe a strong focus on the survival rate. Startups are encouraged if they have collateral, such as patents, and take a cautious course. As a result, eight out of 10 startups from ETH Zurich are still active five years after their foundation. In Israel, on the other hand, more attention is paid to the economic impact. What matters when assessing a project is the prospect of growth and the creation of new jobs.” The survival rate of companies after 5 years in Switzerland as in the USA is 50%. It is 90% for technology startups from Swiss academic institutions. It can be argued that researchers from these prestigious institutions are better trained and better able to withstand entrepreneurial storms. So why in Silicon Valley where researchers are probably no less well trained, the survival rate is only 75% after five years. And especially less than 50% after 10 years while we are still 80% in Switzerland? In fact, the multiplicity of support, mainly public, probably contributes to artificial survival and slow growth.

I fear that the debate will remain open and lively after this chronicle and only convince the already convinced. Impact and growth cannot only happen through cautiousness and moderation; they are also the result of risk taking and specialized financing which undoubtedly increase the failure rate: “Being an entrepreneur is not for the faint of heart” declared Bill Davidow, a famous American venture capitalist, the expectations are extraordinary and fatality is terrible. The investment horizon for venture capital is very short. Success must be visible in less than five to ten years and the success must be dazzling for these investors. It is a world that does not make any prisoner and failures are up to the ambitions, and worse, very fast (the famous “fail fast”). To have more impact, to create more capital value and also more jobs, it also requires investments of this kind. There is no question of the survival of startups of a few dozen employees, but the impact of a Google that in just twenty years will have created nearly 100,000 jobs, perhaps more than all European startups combined. We can criticize this industry for being very impatient and I understand that some entrepreneurs and political or economic decision makers are the first critics. I remain convinced that this is part of the price to pay for this larger impact.

[1] https://www.startupticker.ch/en/swiss-startup-radar

Bill Campbell, the Trillion Dollar Coach (Part II)

A short second post following my recent one, here. Short notes.

Eric Schmidt and its coauthors emphasize the importance of teams, of people and of products. For example:

“In our previous book, How Google Works, we argue that there is a new breed of employee, the smart creative, who is critical to achieving this speed and innovation. The smart creative is someone who combines technical depth with business savvy and creative flair. […] As we were researching this book and talking to the dozens of people Bill had coached in his career, we realized that this thesis misses an important piece of the business success puzzle. There is another , equally critical, factor for success in companies: teams that act as communities. integrating interests and putting aside differences to be individually and collectively obsessed with what’s good for the company. […] But adhering to these principles is hard, and it gets even harder when you add factors such as fast-moving industries, complex business models, technology-driven shifts, smart competitors, sky-high customer expectations, global expansion, demanding teammates… […] To balance the tension and mold a team into a community, you need a coach, someone who works not only with individuals but also with the team.” [Pages 22-4]

“Bill started his business career as an advertising and marketing guy, then added sales to his portfolio after joining Apple. But through his experiences in the tech world, in his stints at Apple, Intuit, Google, and others, Bill came to appreciate the preeminence of technology and product in the business pecking order. “The purpose of a company is to take the vision you have of the product and bring it to life,” he said once at a conference. “Then you put all the other components around it – finance, sales, marketing – to get the product out the door and make sure it’s successful.” This was not the way things were done in Silicon Valley, or most other places, when Bill came to town in the 1980s. The model then was that while a company might be started by a technologist, pretty soon the powers that be would bring in a business guy with experience in sales, marketing, finance, or operations, to run the place. These executives wouldn’t be thinking about the needs of the engineer and weren’t focused on product first. Bill was a business guy, but he believed that nothing was more important than an empowered engineer. His constant point: product teams are the heart of the company. They are the ones who create new features and new products.” [Pages 67-8]

About teams again, and trust : “Not surprisingly when Google conducted a study to determine the factors behind high-performing teams, psychological safety came out at the top of the list [1]. The common notions that the best teams are made up of people with complementary skill sets or similar personalities were disproven; the best teams are the ones with the most psychological safety, And that starts with trust.” [Page 84]

About talent: Bill looked for four characteristics in people. The person has to be smart, not necessarily academically but more from the standpoint of being able to get up to speed quickly in different areas and then make connections. Bill called this the ability to make “far analogies”. The person has to work hard, and has to have high integrity. Finally, the person should have the hard-to-define characteristic: grit. The ability to get knocked down and have the passion and perseverance to get up and go at it again.” [Page 116]

And finally, may be most importantly, about founders: “He held a very special place in his heart for the people who have the guts and skills to start companies. They are sane enough to know that every day is a fight for survival against daunting odds and crazy enough to think they can succeed anyway. And retaining them in a meaningful way is essential to success in any company. Too often we think about running a company as an operating job, and as we have already examined, Bill considered operational excellence to be very important. But when we reduce company leadership to its operational essence, we negate another very important component: vision. Many times operating people come in, and though they may run the company better, they lose the heart and soul of the company.” [Page 178]

In conclusion, People, People, People.

[1] More details about the study can be found in James Graham, “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” New York Times, February 25, 2016.

The Ideology of Silicon Valley by Fred Turner and Jean-Pierre Dupuy (among others)

Excellent issue of the famous French review Esprit on The Ideology of Silicon Valley. You’ll find contibutions by Emmanuel Alloa, Jean-Baptiste Soufron, Fred Turner, Shoshana Zuboff, Antonio Casilli and Jean-Pierre Dupuy.

I was especially struck by the surprising interview with Fred Turner: Do not be Evil. Utopias, borders and brogrammers. This is in fact a translation from LogicMag, which you can find here: Don’t Be Evil. It is really worth reading! It is his explanation of the roots of Silicon Valley that surprised me the most and how they still influence today this region which in the end is not very ideological, even if the other authors have different points of view.

For example: “It owes its origins to 1960s communalism. A brief primer on the counterculture: there were actually two countercultures. One, the New Left, did politics to change politics. It was very much focused on institutions, and not really afraid of hierarchy. The other—and this is where the tech world gets its mojo—is what I’ve called the New Communalists. Between 1966 and 1973, we had the largest wave of commune building in American history. These people were involved in turning away from politics, away from bureaucracy, and toward a world in which they could change their consciousness. They believed small-scale technologies would help them do that. They wanted to change the world by creating new tools for consciousness transformation.” Then on the influence today: “It varies depending on the company. Apple is, in some ways, very cynical. It markets utopian ideas all the time. It markets its products as tools of utopian transformation in a countercultural vein. It has co-opted a series of the emblems of the counterculture, starting as soon as the company was founded. At other companies, I think it’s very sincere. I’ve spent a lot of time at Facebook lately, and I think they sincerely want to build what Mark Zuckerberg calls a more connected world. Whether their practice matches their beliefs, I don’t know. About ten years back, I spent a lot of time inside Google. What I saw there was an interesting loop. It started with, “Don’t be evil.” So then the question became, “Okay, what’s good?” Well, information is good. Information empowers people. So providing information is good. Okay, great. Who provides information? Oh, right: Google provides information. So you end up in this loop where what’s good for people is what’s good for Google, and vice versa. And that is a challenging space to live in.”

Jean-Pierre Dupuy in “The New Data Science” brilliantly explains there is no data science. Science is about causes, data are more about correlations which can not really help in predictions (I hope I understood his message!). Let me quote one sentence: “The ideology that accompanies big data, meanwhile, announces the advent of new scientific practices that, putting the theoretical requirement in the background, endanger the advance of knowledge and, more importantly, undermine the foundations of a rational ethic.” Really brilliant!

Le bonheur, une idée neuve dans les entreprises ? (selon France Culture)

(Sorry I was too fast, this should have been posted on the French version… where it is also now. For non French-speaking readers, this post is about new management techniques that were born in Silicon Valley…)

J’étais invité ce matin à débattre des méthodes de travail et de management (y compris “l’utilisation du bonheur”) importées de la Silicon Valley. Je mets plus bas (après les tweets) les notes que j’avais prise pour préparer cette émission

Voici les notes que je m’étais préparées.

On ne peut pas mettre dans les même paquet tous les GAFAM. Tout d’abord Amazon et Microsoft qui par coïncidence ne sont pas basées dans la Silicon Valley, mais à Seattle ne sont pas connues pour un management original. Ni Bill Gates, ni son successeur Steve Ballmer, ni Jeff Bezos ne sont connus pour des styles de management innovants. Par contre Google, Apple et Facebook ont sans doute des similarités:
– ce sont des méritocraties et le travail est la valeur “suprême”, plus que le profit, au risque de tous les excès: recherche de performance, concurrence et risque de burn-out. On ne tient pas toujours très longtemps chez GAF
– on y recherche les meilleurs talents (sur toute la planète et sans exclusive, au fond le sexisme et le racisme n’y existent pas a priori)
– le travail en (petites) équipes est privilégié.
Du coup le management a innové pour permettre cette performance et reconnaître les talents (par le fameuses stock options mais aussi une multitude de services pour rendre les gens toujours plus efficaces)

J’aimerais vous mentionner 3 ouvrages (sur lesquels j’avais bloggé pour 2 d’entres eux)
– Work Rules décrit le “people management” chez Google (ils ne parlent “plus” de ressources humaines). L’auteur Lazlo Bock qui fut le patron de cette activité a quasiment théorisé tout cela. Vous trouverez mes 5 posts sur ce livre par le lien: http://www.startup-book.com/fr/?s=bock. C’est un livre en tout point remarquable parce qu’il montre la complexité des choses.

– I’m feeling Lucky décrit de l’intérieur ces manières hétérodoxes de “foncer”. Un pro du marketing montre comment Google a tout chamboulé par conviction / intuition plus que par expérience. http://www.startup-book.com/fr/2012/12/13/im-feeling-lucky-beaucoup-plus-quun-autre-livre-sur-google/

– Enfin un livre hommage sur Bill Campbell vient de sortir écrit par l’ancien CEO de Google Eric Schmidt. https://www.trilliondollarcoach.com. Comme je viens de commencer ce livre, je peux en parler plus difficilement mais il serait dommage d’oublier cette personnalité qui fut le “coach” de Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt et Sheryl Sandberg, trois personnes majeures pour justement les GAF! Or ce Bill Campbell, décédé il y a 3 ans, fut une personne essentielle à cette culture du travail et de la performance. Ses valeurs sont décrites dans https://www.slideshare.net/ericschmidt/trillion-dollar-coach-book-bill-campbell. Bill Campbell revient de temps en temps sur mon blog pour des anecdotes assez étonnantes. (http://www.startup-book.com/fr/?s=campbell). Par exemple, chez Google on a souvent pensé que les managers étaient inutiles. L’autonomie d’individus brillants devait suffire… mais ce n’est pas si simple! – voir http://www.startup-book.com/fr/2015/09/01/google-dans-le-null-plex-partie-3-une-culture/.

A nouveau excellence des individus et travail en équipe, reconnaissance des talents à qui on donne autonomie, responsabilité(s) avec peu de hiérarchie semble être le leitmotiv… Tout cela on pas pour rendre les gens heureux, mais pour leur permettre d’être plus efficace parce qu’ils sont “heureux” au travail. “People First”. L’objectif c’est de fidéliser, de rendre plus productif, mais c’est aussi une mise en pratique de la confiance en les autres.

Alors comme je l’avais lu chez Bernard Stiegler, à toute pharmacopée sa toxicité. Les excès dans des valeurs conduisent à des abus. Trop de travail, de concurrence, de pression conduit au burnout. J’ai l’impression que la politique et même le sexisme y jouent moins de rôle qu’on pense, même s’il y en a comme partout. Quant au racisme, il me semble limité (et on est aux USA!) Le sexisme est un vrai sujet, mais je vois plus des nerds qui ont peur ou ne connaissent pas les femmes que des “old boy clubs of white men” qui dirigeraient les choses comme je l’ai lu (même si cet élément existe j’en suis sûr). La polémique sur la congélation des ovocytes chez Facebook peut être lue de manière contradictoire j’imagine. J’ai aussi abordé le sujet dans le passé, http://www.startup-book.com/fr/?s=femmes ou http://www.startup-book.com/tag/women-and-high-tech/. L’autre sujet de diversité, est plus clair: il y a tellement de nationalités dans les GAFAs et les startup en général que le racisme est dur à imaginer. Indiens, chinois surtout sont présents et jusqu’au somment (les CEO de Google et Microsoft aujourd’hui). Seule la minorité “African-American” est sans doute sous représentée et on peut imaginer que tout cela est corrélé avec le problème de l’accès à l’éducation (qui existe moins en Asie)

Voilà, c’est déjà beaucoup pour ne pas dire trop… je trouve que commencer par Bill Campbell est une manière simple et efficace d’entrer dans le sujet. Et maintenant que j’y pense tout cela est d’autant plus facilement que vous verrez que mes lectures récentes sont liées au “sens du travail” (Lochmann, Crawford, Patricot) http://www.startup-book.com/fr/?s=travail