Category Archives: Silicon Valley and Europe

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.

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

Steve Jobs in Paris in 1984

My friends at INRIA just mentioned to me a short but great interview of Steve Jobs by French Television in 1984, when he was asked if France could have similar start-ups to Silicon Valley. Here is his answer:


Even if you hear more the French translation, you can hear his voice too:
– Research level is good but concrete applications seem to be a problem, and this is an important step for innovation
– This is coming from a lack of companies ready to try
– The risk is seldom taken by large corporations, but by small ones
– You need many small firm with talented students and venture capital
– You also need champions you take as models, that enable saying “innovation is this”
– There is a more subtle problem, a cultural one: in Europe, failure is serious. If you fail in Europe right after university, it follows you for ever. In the USA, we keep failing all the time.
– What you also need is a solid software industry, because software is the new oil. You need hundreds of small firms and then you can dominate an industry.
– You need talented students, a good understanding of technology and encougare young people to create small firms.
– It’s all about private initiative. Big companies should not interfere, neither the government should. We should let entrepreneurs own it.

Thirty-five years later, is the situation different? And if he was still alive, would he say the same things? I let you judge …

Incubators are for Chickens

I could have tweeted only (and not blogged) about the picture below. Its author whom I met today authorized me to put it online. It is good to remember the fundamentals, the basics of entrepreneurship. It does not mean entrepreneurs do not need support, but not too much except if they are too fragile. In the past I had heard many similar things (incubators – incinerators?), and Wikipedia explains that incubators have various functions such as a device used to care for premature babies in a neonatal intensive-care unit, a device for maintaining the eggs of birds or reptiles to allow them to hatch. Once they are out of incubators, at least they are ready for accelerators…


“Incubators are for Chickens – In Doers We Trust.”

Silicon Valley 2018 : The Libertarians Have Replaced the Hippies

While Trump and Harari were in Davos, I visited Silicon Valley for the nth time. Even more than during my last trips in 2014 and 2016, I could feel the gap that has been created between the Silicon Valley that I discovered and loved in the late 80s and the one that exists today (and that I still love).

As one of my interlocutors mentioned, the Hippie generation – which Leslie Berlin describes in her Troublemakers and which until Brin and Page tried to democratize technology – has been replaced by the Libertarian self-interest of social networking that even Reid Hoffman will have a hard time to balance (see It’s time to change the culture of Silicon Valley). The skyscrapers climb in San Francisco, the poor had to leave or live in tents all over the bay, the venture capital funds do not perform as one might think, the unicorns might disappear one after the other, it takes 3 hours to drive from Berkeley to Palo Alto at 6am, one finds more founders than entrepreneurs according to Leslie Hook, and even Steve Blank is looking at a little less at startups and focuses more on innovation of government organizations.

This is a bit the “Querelle des Anciens et Modernes” and I am not sure Steve Jobs would pass the baton to this new generation when he said in 2005 [death] clears out the old to make way for the new. Some think that Silicon Valley is reaching its limits, but AnnaLee Saxenian said the same thing … in 1979. Will we live old enough to have the answer?

Where the Small-Town American Dream Lives On

“As America’s rural communities stagnate, what can we learn from one that hasn’t?” is the subtitle of Our Town by Larissa MacQuhar in the Nov 13, 2017 paper edition of the New Yorker. The online title is Where the Small-Town American Dream Lives On. It is a strange and fascinating analysis of America. (By the way in the same edition, you can also read The Patriot a critic of the collected nonfiction of Philip Roth, another enlightening explanation of what American-ness is.


The Chamber of Commerce in orange City, Iowa. Photograph by Brian Finke.

Towards the end of this 10-page article, the author writes: In his 1970 book, “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty,” the economist Albert O. Hirschman described different ways of expressing discontent. Your can exit – stop buying a product, leave town. Or you can use voice – complain to the manufacturer, stay and try to change the place you live in. The easier it is to exit, the less likely it is that a problem will be fixed. That’s why the centripetal pull of Orange City was not just a conservative force; it could be a powerfully dynamic one as well. After all, it wasn’t those who fled the town who could push it onward, politically or economically -it was the ones who loved it enough to stay, or to come back.
Americans, Hirschman wrote, have always preferred “the neatness of exit over the messiness and heartbreak of voice.” Discontented Europeans staged revolutions; Americans moved on. “the curious conformism of Americans, noted by observers ever since Tocqueville, may also be explained in this fashion,” he continued. “Why raise your voice in contradiction and get yourself into trouble as long as you can always remove yourself entirely from any given environment should it become too unpleasant?”

There are many other interesting descriptions of people leaving and those staying; and of their ambitions, their motivations. I am not sure how this relates to innovation and entrepreneurship, but I remember Robert Noyce, one of Silicon Valley’s fathers with born in a small town in Iowa… and moved first to MIT for his PhD and then West.

Silicon Valley, 20 years ago

Twenty years ago, I entered the VC and startup world. What an anniversary! It was fun and exciting. I would have forgotten it if I did not have a lunch two days ago with people from Logitech. When we talked about Logitech offices in Silicon Valley, I told them I had a document from Businessweek which showed that Logitech was considered as Stanford’s Progeny.

I had to find that document and it was fascinating to go through this 50+ page special issue of Businessweek dated August 18, 1997 and entitled: Silicon Valley, The People, the Deals, the Culture, The Future – How it really works. So let me go through it again.

First the cover. This is a nice little quizz. How many people do you recognize? The answer is at the end of the post.

Second, the table of content. It could be the same today. So things have not changed so much. For example, the migrant factor; the craziness of the area, because of cost, stress; and the invisibility of women, this “subtle sexism every day”.

Third, the recurrent question of why the efforts to duplicate Silicon Valley have all failed…

There are the classical arguments: local governments offer tax incentives or small investments but have no hand in inventing or commercializing technology. And there is an interesting piece: Even private efforts to clone the Valley have fallen flat. Terman, the father of Silicon Valley, was hired in the 1960s to recreate the magic in New Jersey and Texas. He focused on establishing strong research institutions, like Stanford, that could provide a petri dish for bright ideas. But Terman was hired by large organizations, including Bell Labs and Texas Instruments Inc., and few company men were willing to chance a startup. ‘He failed, in part, because he overestimated the importance of academia and in part because he was hired by large companies with no entrepreneurial traditions.’

Finally, what are the lessons learnt? Well known and still valid today…

If you want the pdf, just ask me. This would be a private gift. Whereas putting the full document onlien would be copyrigth infrigement…

Answer to the quizz: A dozen of the Valley’s brightest stars: (top row, left to right) Larry Ellison, Oracle; Marc Andreessen, Netscape; Andy Grove, Intel; Al Shugart, Seagate Technology; Gordon Moore, Intel; John Chambers, Cisco Systems (bottom row, left to right) Steve Jobs, Apple Computer, Pixar; Scott McNealy, Sun Microsystems; John Doerr, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers; Larry Sonsini, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati; Lew Platt, Hewlett-Packard; Jim Clark, Netscape.

The top US and European (former) start-ups in 2017

Since I published my book in 2007, I have regularly been doing the exercise of comparing the largest US (former) start-ups and their European counterparts. You can look at my data in 2016 in The top US and European (former) start-ups in 2016. Here are my update lists:

Things have not changed that much. Yahoo is out. Rovio is in…

Is Switzerland a Startup Nation?

This is the question I was asked to answer at the EPFL Forum today. Well it was even “Is Switzerland the Startup Nation?” I did not answer the question but tried to provide food for thought and I invite you to look at the slides below.

Now that you may have read them, I will add two points I did not mention in my talk:

First Swiss newspaper Le Temps analyzed the issue: Are we, too, a start-up nation from the point of view of the Israelis? ‘I have a message for Switzerland, Dov Moran announces: you do not have enemies and so you do not have to spend 20% of your GDP on your protection. If you’re less entrepreneurial than us, it’s not that bad.’

Then again Orson Welles about creativity and war… “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” in The Third Man, said by Holly Martins to Harry Lime…

Just food for thought.

A new toxic pattern in Silicon Valley – Sexism and even worse?

Silicon Valley is talking these days a lot about sexism and harrassment. If you have nmot heard botu it yet, you may just want to read:
Women in Tech Speak Frankly on Culture of Harassment from the New York Times, dated June 30, 2017.
Uber’s Opportunistic Ouster in the New Yorker, dated July 10.

I have already mentioned here some dark features of Silicon Valley. For example:
Is Silicon Valley crazy (again)? in January 2016,
Something rotten in the Silicon Valley kingdom? in January 2014,
Silicon Valley and (a)politics – Change the World in NOvember 2013,

There is no doubt Silicon Valley is not a paradise. But i had never seen it as a sexist place. At least not more sexist thn the rest of the planet. And yes, there has been terrible stories, such as rapes on the Stanford campus, but my recollection of the area is more of an asexual place, mostly of introvertite people, like you could see on HBO’s Silicon Valley (right from its 1st episode). Just read (again?) the funny and sad comment: “That’s weird, they always travel in groups of 5, these programmers. There is always a tall skinny white guy, a short skinny asian guy, a fat guy with a ponny tail, some guy with crazy facial hair, and then an east indian guy. It’s as if they trade guys until they have the right group.
– You clearly have a great understanding of humanity.”

But if there is something ot be said about all this, is that hwoever complex a society is and it is never easy to explain human interactions without being simplistic, what some and maybe too many individuals are doing in Silicon Valley is unacceptable and should be fought so that it happens less and less often…