Category Archives: Innovation

Doris Lessing again – about great men

I wrote in Testament or Testimony ? Lessing, Reich, Grothendieck, Jobs, Arles how much I loved reading The golden notebook.

I just read another strange page which stroke me. And even more strangely, I discovered that the French translation (that I first discovered) was quite different from the original version. Have a look here at the French post if you read French or at my translation below. Here is the original text:

You and I, Ella, we are the failures. We spend our lives fighting to get people very slightly more stupid than ourselves to accept truths that the great men have always known. They have known for thousands of years that to lock a sick person into solitary confinement makes him worse. They have known for thousands of years that a poor man who is frightened of his landlord and of the police is a slave. They have known it. We know it. But do the great enlightened mass of the British people know it? No. It is our task, Ella, yours and mine, to tell them. Because the great men are too great to be bothered. They are already discovering how to colonise Venus and to irrigate the moon. That is what is important for our time. You and I are the boulder-pushers. All our lives, you and I, we’ll put all our energies, all our talents, into pushing a great boulder up a mountain. The boulder is the truth that the great men know by instinct, and the mountain is the stupidity of mankind. We push the boulder. I sometimes wish I had died before I got this job I wanted so much – I thought of it as something creative.

Now here is my translation of the French translation, and it is quite different from the original version!

But, my dear Anna, we are not the failures we think we are. We spend our lives struggling to get people hardly less stupid than ourselves to accept the truths that great men have always known. They have always known, for ten thousand years, that by locking a human being in total isolation we can make him or her an animal or a beast. They have always known that a man who is poor or terrorized by the police or by his owner is a slave. They have always known that a terrorized man is cruel. They have always known that violence leads to violence. And we know it. But do the great masses in the world know this? No. Our job is to tell them. Because great men cannot waste their time on it. Their imaginations are already busy inventing ways to colonize Venus; they are already creating in their minds a vision of a society made up of free and noble human beings. Meanwhile, human beings are ten thousand years behind them, and are locked in fear. Great men cannot waste their time on it. And they are right. Because they know we are here, the rock pushers. They know that we will continue to push rocks on the first foothills of a huge mountain, while they are already free at the top. They are counting on us, and they are right. And that’s why we are ultimately not useless.

I am not sure which version I prefer, but I was quite amazed by what Doris Lessing had written more than 50 years ago, all the more it reminds me again the quote by Wilhelm Reich in the post I mentioned above.

Testament or Testimony ? Lessing, Reich, Grothendieck, Jobs, Arles

August is a good time to look back at things. It’s when I was thinking of this, that I wondered if there was a common etymology to Testament & Testimony. Apparently, there is not. Whatever… 1370 posts since July 2007 (in fact close to 700 as the blog is bilingual French-English, that’s about one per week), about 600 comments (ah ah!) and a lot of lessons.

August was also special on different sides, particularly cultural… I’ve been reading The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, a remarkable novel. Here is an extract: The Communist Party, like any other institution, continues to exist by a process of absorbing its critics into itself. It either absorbs them or destroys them. I think: I’ve always seen society, societies, organized like this: a ruling section or government with other sections in opposition; the stronger section either ultimately being changed by the opposing section or being supplanted by it. But it’s not like that at all: suddenly I see it differently. No, there’s a group of hardened, fossilized men opposed by fresh young revolutionaries as John Butte once was, forming between them a whole, a balance. And then a group of fossilized hardened men like John Butte, opposed by a group of fresh and lively-minded and critical people. But the core of deadness, of dry thought, could not exist without lively shoots of fresh life, to be turned so fast, in their turn, into dead sapless wood. In other words, I, ‘Comrade Anna’ — and the ironical tone of Comrade Butte’s voice now frightens me when I remember it — keep Comrade Butte in existence, feed him, and in due course will become him. And as I think this, that there is no right, no wrong, simply a process, a wheel turning, I become frightened, because everything in me cries out against such a view of life

This reminded me another post dated May 2009 about innovation and revolution which I found a little similar. “Entrepreneurs are the revolutionaries of our time.” And he had added: “Democracy works best when there is this kind of turbulence in the society, when those not well-off have a chance to climb the economic ladder by using brains, energy and skills to create new markets or serve existing markets better then their old competitors” You’ll find it here, Entrepreneurs and Revolution. And also a quote from the autobiography of Malcolm Little , which I had copied in my book. “When he was still at school, he wrote, his teacher asked him what he would like to become as an adult. A lawyer, he answered. Uncomfortable with his answer, she told him he’d rather think about becoming a carpenter thanks to his manual skills, but also because of his status. From that day on, he decided not to listen to such advice”.

August was also the opportunity to see some of the Rencontre photographiques in Arles.

A few exhibitions, from left to right and top to bottom: Masculinities, Pieter Hugo, Jazz Power!, Sabine Weiss, The New Black Vanguard, Thawra! ثورة Revolution!, Desideration (Anamanda Sîn)

Street artists have also been active in August. Just have a look at Banksy or Invader. Artists show the world as it is, the crises, more and more of its diversity, its uncertainties too. Transmission, accepting to disappear have been recurrent topics here, a rather darwinian view of the world. And that’s why I would just like to mention again a few other important quotes to me:


“I want to tell you something, Little Man; you lost the meaning of what is best inside yourself. You strangled it. You kill it wherever you find it inside others, inside your children, inside your wife, inside your husband, inside your father and inside your mother. You are little and you want to remain little.” The Little Man, it’s you, it’s me. The Little Man is afraid, he only dreams of normality; it is inside all of us. We hide under the umbrella of authority and do not see our freedom anymore. Nothing comes without effort, without risk, without failure sometimes. “You look for happiness, but you prefer security, even at the cost of your spinal cord, even at the cost of your life”. Wilhelm Reich already posted in March 2010.


No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. Steve Jobs already posted in July 2007.

Finally, not a quote but an extract from a text about how Alexandre Grothendieck also discovered this painful passage from youth to future disappearance: In May 1968, the machine goes wrong. Shourik, as his relatives call him, goes to Orsay to dialogue with the “protesters”. The anar is scolded by the “enraged”. The outcast discovers he is a Mandarin. “After that, he was not the same” […] “It was a terrible slap, it was incredibly violent”. I spoke about this math genius in March 2016 and August 2020.

I finish this post which may look a little gloomy with a link to a very good article about trusting science: How to make the future more rational. It is optimitic, enthusiastic and shows that we can be realistic about the world, and our limits and still be positive and happy. Just a testimony or small, fragile testament.

Knowledge, skills and personality of entrepreneurs

A friend (thanks Kevin!) just retweeted the following: What kind of Knowledge, skills and personality traits are common to successful entrepreneurs?

I tend to agree 100% but I may have an idealized view of my own experience! It also reminded me another quote from the same period (2011 vs. 2010) by Steve Blank: Over the last decade we assumed that once we found repeatable methodologies (Agile and Customer Development, [Lean Startup], Business Model Design) to build early stage ventures, entrepreneurship would become a “science”, and anyone could do it. I’m beginning to suspect this assumption may be wrong. It’s not that the tools are wrong. Where I think we have gone wrong is the belief that anyone can use these tools equally well. In the same way that word processing has never replaced a writer, a thoughtful innovation process will not guarantee success.” Blank added that “until we truly understand how to teach creativity, their numbers are limited. Not everyone is an artist, after all. The full interview can be found on

and also Komisar: “I think there’s stuff you can’t possibly learn in school and I’m not even sure you can learn that on the job. There’s an entrepreneurial character. Some people have it and some people don’t. Some people may not think they have it, and they may have it. A lot of people they think they have it, and many don’t.”

A comparison of the Swiss and French innovation ecosystems

Here is ma latest contribution to Entreprise Romande, it dates back to february 2020, that is before the Covid19 lockdown…

A comparison of the Swiss and French innovation ecosystems.
Hervé Lebret, former head of the start-up unit, EPFL.

Having left Switzerland last August after more than twenty years at the service of high-tech innovation to come back to my beautiful native country, France, where I will continue to work with the founders of startup, I will try to make here a brief comparison of the two innovation systems, with the aim of giving some advice to my friends who stayed in Switzerland, assuming that it may not be necessary!

At the risk of disappointing the reader, it is at the margin that I see differences and this is undoubtedly good news. In the past twenty years, all European states have understood the importance of innovation for the future of the economy and jobs; one speaks about FrenchTech, SwissTech, but in reality one speaks all the more of the same thing as the mobility of ideas, people and companies attenuates the national characters.

However, there are still some differences. What strikes the most, at the risk of caricature, is that France remains the centralized state that Louis XIV then Napoleon sculpted while Switzerland is viscerally federal. For example BPIFrance, the National Public Investment Bank, is critical to innovation both in Paris and in the regions and I don’t think there is an equivalent in Switzerland. The CTI, which would be closest to a national innovation agency, manages a few hundred million Swiss Francs where BPI manages tens of billions of Euros. The ratio is out of proportion to the relative size of the economies of the two countries.

The two agencies have great similarities in the sense that they finance a number of programs from awareness-raising and training in entrepreneurship to funding innovation projects in research centers and personalized advice to entrepreneurs. There is, however, a significant nuance: the public authorities do not directly finance companies or investment funds in Switzerland and these activities are left to the private sector, while in France, BPI finances startups and venture capital funds. . This is a major difference which partly explains the weakness of venture capital in Switzerland. The impact remains difficult to measure, however, because Swiss startups find capital abroad.

The French system also remains more bureaucratic despite major changes in recent years. Switzerland remains more pragmatic: philosophically it seems to me that the law expresses what is allowed in France, what is prohibited in Switzerland, it is a nuance which makes Switzerland more flexible and let us not forget that smaller size has many advantages over complexity. However I have wondered in recent years if the Swiss system has not had a certain tendency to become more complex and even to become more rigid like the French system, but this is just a feeling; I do not have enough data. I am refering, for example, of all the national or international programs, the objective of which is to make the ecosystem more visible: Digital Switzerland on the one hand, Startup Nation on the other; Human brain on one side, quantum computer on the other. Woe to those who are not members of them…

So if I can allow some advice, innovation is not a big machine that we can plan. A multitude of initiatives is better than big programs. Faced with the France of the CAC40, Switzerland has always preferred its fabric of SMEs, at the risk for each country to forget the importance of startups. Both countries have positively evolved, but I have a little fear of convergence towards this complex and slightly bureaucratic planning that I briefly mentioned. In reality, innovation is a fragile object, it is necessary to deal with a good deal of benevolence and tact [1].


The amazing challenge of finding great startups

“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” attributed to Niels Bohr.

I was asked yesterday which startups I knew were the most promising, not to say the greatest. So I prefer to refer you to the quote above as I did not understand the potential of Google and Skype when I first heard of them. I am less shy of my lack of talent as this difficulty in predicting has been acknowledged by others.

Already in 2011, I had posted on the topic in The Missed Deals of Venture Capitalists. You should read the examples of Amazon and Starbucks by OVP.

So I did a little search and found again some more examples from again the antiportfolio of BVP (Bessemer Venture Partners) as well as from the book The Business of Venture Capital by Mahendra Ramsinghani. Enjoy!

First from the book The Business of Venture Capital on page 207:

Legendary investor Warren Buffet admired Bob Noyce, cofounder of Fairchlid Semiconductor and Intel. Buffet and Noyce were fellow trustees at Grinnell College, but when presented, Buffet passed on Intel, one of the greatest investing opportunities of his life. Buffet seemed “comfortably antiquated” when it came to new technology companies and had a long-standing bias against technology investments.

Peter O. Crisp of Venrock adds his misses to the list: One “small company in Rochester, New York [came to us, and one of our junior guys] saw no future [for] this product… that company, Haloid, became Xerox.” They also passed on Tandem, Compaq and Amgen.

ARCH Venture Partners missed Netscape – that little project Marc Andreessen started at the University of Chicago. An opportunity that, according to Steven Lazarus, would have been worth billions! “We just never knocked at the right door,” he would say. Eventually, ARCH decided to hire full-time person to just keep tabs on technology coming out of the universities to “make certain we don’t miss that door next time.”

Deepak Kamra from Canaan Partners comments on his regrets: “Oh, God, I have too many … this gets me depressed. A friend of mine at Sun Microsystems called and asked me to meet with an engineer at Xerox PARC who had some ideas to design a chip and add some protocols to build what is now known as a router. The drivers of bandwidth and Web traffic were strong market indicators, and he was just looking for $100,000. I really don’t do deals that small and told him lo raise some money from friends and family and come back when he had something to show” That engineer was the founder of Juniper Networks. He got his $100,000 from Vinod Khosla. Khosla, then with KPCB, added an IPO to his long list of winners. Juniper slipped out of Kamra’s hands because it was too early.
And of course, those were frothy times when everyone was deluged with hundreds of opportunities each day.

KPCB missed an opportunity to invest in VMWare because the valuation was too high: a mistake, according to John Doerr.

Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ) was initially willing but eventually passed on Facebook (ouch!), as the firm believed the valuation was too high at $100 million pre-money.

KPCB, not wanting to be left out of an opportunity like Facebook, invested $38 million alt a $52 billion valuation.

Tim Draper of DFJ, turned down Google “because we already had six search engines in our portfolio.”

K. Ram Shriram almost missed his opportunity to invest in Google when he turned the founders away. “I told Sergey and Larry that the time for search engines had come and gone but I am happy to introduce you to all the others, who may want to buy your technology. But six months later, Ram Shriram, who had once turned Google down, now invested $500,000 as one of the first angel investors.

By the way Tim Draper’s father Bill also missed Yahoo. You can check The Startup Game by Bill Draper.

Now some examples of the updated BVP antiportfolio:

AirBnB: Jeremy Levine met Brian Chesky in January 2010, the first $100K revenue month. Brian’s $40M valuation ask was “crazy,” but Jeremy was impressed and made a plan to reconnect in May. Unbeknownst to Jeremy, $100K in January became 200 in February and 300 in March. In April, Airbnb raised money at 1.5X the “crazy” price.

Facebook: Jeremy Levine spent a weekend at a corporate retreat in the summer of 2004 dodging persistent Harvard undergrad Eduardo Saverin’s rabid pitch. Finally, cornered in a lunch line, Jeremy delivered some sage advice, “Kid, haven’t you heard of Friendster? Move on. It’s over!”

Atlassian: Byron Deeter flew straight to Atlassian in 2006 when he caught wind of a developer tool from Australia (of all places!). Notes from the meeting included “totally self-financed, started with a credit card” and “great business, but Scott & Mike don’t ever want to be a public company.” Years and countless meetings later, the first opportunity to invest emerged in 2010, but the $400m company valuation was thought to be a tad “rich.” In 2015, Atlassian became the largest tech IPO in Australian history, and the shares we passed on are worth more than a billion dollars today.

Tesla: In 2006 Byron Deeter met the team and test-drove a roadster. He put a deposit on the car, but passed on the negative margin company telling his partners, “It’s a win-win. I get a great car and some other VC pays for it!” The company passed $30B in market cap in 2014. Byron paid full price for his Model X.

eBay: David Cowan passed on the Series A round. Rookie team, regulatory nightmare, and, 4 years later, a $1.5 billion acquisition by eBay.

But one of the nicest stories I had heard of is Nolan Bushnell, founder and CEO of Atari, declining Apple… I heard of it through (absolute must-watch) Something Ventured. More here How Atari’s Nolan Bushnell turned down Steve Jobs’ offer of a third of Apple at $50,000.

The lean startup – my skepticism

I read again today about the importance of the lean startup movement. I have never been a big fan. Of course you need to interact with customers (at least to sell something) but you should not become a slave of your customers and pivot as soon as you can not get validation from them.

Do not get me wrong, I am a big fan of Steve Blank and customer development, I use his work a lot. But there is so much uncertainty, the tool should not replace the vision and intuition of the entrepreneur. Let me quote again Horowitz for example: “Figuring out the right product is the innovator’s job, not the customer’s job. The customer only knows what she thinks she wants based on her experience with the current product. The innovator can take into account everything that’s possible, but often must go against what she knows to be true. As a result, innovation requires a combination of knowledge, skill, and courage. Sometimes only the founder has the courage to ignore the data.”

It reminded me I had read something about this from Peter Thiel. I found it again in a 2014 post: Should entrepreneurs have start-up skills? Two counterintuitive answers. Here is what Thiel had said: “What do I think about lean startups and iterative thinking where you get feedback from people versus complexity that may not work. I’m personally quite skeptical of all the lean startup methodology. I think the really great companies did something that was somewhat more of a quantum improvement that really differentiated them from everybody else. They typically did not do massive customer surveys, the people who ran these companies sometimes, not always, suffered from mild forms of Aspergers, so they were not actually that influenced, not that easily deterred, by what other people told them to do. I do think we’re way too focused on iteration as a modality and not enough on trying to have a virtual ESP link with the public and figuring it out ourselves.”

And this morning I found another 2015 contribution to the debate which is worth reading: Peter Thiel is right about Lean Startup.

In a nutshell, “Lean Startup is best used as a teaching tool for those who need a little help in learning how to use their mirror neurons to feel the real needs of the real people they are seeking to serve. It can help to reduce waste. It can help to slow the rate of decline of organizations that are being disrupted.”

Whats’s a startup? (part 4)

I used today again Steve Blank’s marvellous definition of a startup that I had used last time in 2013 here.

You can listen to him giving it in Helsinki in 2011 at Aalto University

or through his Mooc here:

It’s obvious once you heard it and took so many years to be designed!

In these uncertain times of Coronavirus, I can only advise you to relax. One way for me was tonight through Recomposed by Max Richter – Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

Applied Sciences? Does it exist?

I had to wait many years to discover there was a book written about science and innovation which convincingly shows there is not such thing as a linear model of innovation described usually as Basic research → Applied research → Development → (Production and) Diffusion

Thanks to Laurent for mentioning to me Pasteurs Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation by Donald Stokes. There is more on Wikipedia.

Pasteur himself apparently said: “There is not pure science and applied science but only science and the applications of science”. More precisely he seems to have said according to Wikipedia again:
« Souvenez-vous qu’il n’existe pas de sciences appliquées, mais seulement des applications de la science ».
(Remember that there are no applied sciences, but only applications of science)
« Non, mille fois non, il n’existe pas une catégorie de sciences auxquelles on puisse donner le nom de sciences appliquées. Il y a la science et les applications de la science, liées entre elles comme le fruit à l’arbre qui l’a porté »
(No, a thousand times no, there is not a category of sciences to which we can give the name of applied sciences. There is science and the applications of science, linked together like the fruit to the tree that carried it.)

I have agreed with this for so many years and for the same reasons I never really understood the concept of R&D, I mean why the concepts of research and development would be associated in the same unit, but that is a slightly different topic!

Here is a long extract from Stokes (taken from a pdf found here) worth reading I think:

The examples from the history of science that contradict the static form of the postwar paradigm call into question the dynamic form as well. If applied goals can directly influence fundamental research, basic science can no longer be seen only as a remote, curiosity-powered generator of scientific discoveries that are then converted into new products and processes by applied research and development in the subsequent stages of technology transfer. This observation, however, only sets the stage for a more realistic account of the relationship between basic science and technological innovation.

Three questions of increasing importance arise about the dynamic form of the postwar paradigm. The least important is whether the neatly linear model gives too simple an account of the flows from science to technology. An irony of Bush’s legacy is that this one-dimensional graphic image is one he himself almost certainly never entertained. An engineer with unparalleled experience in the applications of science, he was keenly aware of the complex and multiple pathways that lead from scientific discoveries to technological advances-and of the widely varied lags associated with these paths. The technological breakthroughs he helped foster during the war typically depended on knowledge from several, disparate branches of science. Nothing in Bush’s report suggests that he endorsed the linear model as his own.

The spokesmen of the scientific community who lent themselves to this oversimplification in the early postwar years may have felt that this was a small price to pay for being able to communicate these ideas to a policy community and broader public for whom science was always a remote and recondite world of affairs. This calculation may well have guided the draftsmen of the second annual report of the National Science Foundation as they stated the linear model in the simplistic language quoted earlier in this chapter. In any case, these spokesmen did their work well enough that the idea of an arrow running from basic to applied research and on to development and production or operations is still often thought to summarize the relationship of basic science to new technology. But it so evidently oversimplifies and distorts the underlying realities that it began to draw fire almost as soon as it was widely accepted.

Indeed, the linear model has been such an easy target that it has tended to draw fire away from two other, less simplistic misconceptions imbedded in the dynamic form of the postwar model. One of these was the assumption that most or all technological innovation is ultimately rooted in science. If Bush did not subscribe to a linear image of the relationship between science and technology, he did assert that scientific discoveries are the source of technological progress, however multiple and unevenly paced the pathways between the two may be. In his words,

new products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science.

Even if we allow for considerable time lags in the influence of “imbedded science” on technology, this view greatly overstates the role that science has played in technological change in any age. In every preceding century the idea that technology is science based would have been false. For most of human history, the practical arts have been perfected by “‘improvers’ of technology,” in Robert P. Multhauf’s phrase, who knew no science and would not have been much helped by it if they had.


But the deepest flaw in the dynamic form of the postwar paradigm is the premise that such flows as there may be between science and technology are uniformly one way, from scientific discovery to technological innovation; that is, that science is exogenous to technology, however multiple and indirect the connecting pathways may be. The annals of science suggest that this premise has always been false to the history of science and technology. There was indeed a notable reverse flow, from technology to science, from the time of Bacon to the second industrial revolution, with scientists modeling successful technology but doing little to improve it. Multhauf notes that the eighteenth-century physicists were “more often found endeavoring to explain the workings of some existing machine than suggesting improvements in it.”

Tinkering and Innovation (without forgetting Christensen)

Tinkerings is not a word, I think, that is easily or commonly associated with innovation. And yet! It appears several times on this blog as indicated by the #tinkering tag. And here is the reference to a nice article by Paul Millier entitled The engineer, the tinkerer and the innovator (L’ingénieur, le bricoleur et l’innovateur). I’m not sure if you can have free access so here is a brief excerpt:

The other way of innovating is that of the “Tinkerer” [1], who, on the contrary, collects pieces to get an idea of ​​the whole. He collects disparate elements from the left and the right which he preserves “in case it could be useful”. He brings them together, he assembles them, he organizes and reorganizes until suddenly – almost surprisingly – it makes sense and the innovator can say “eureka”. Damn, but it’s obvious! How had we not thought about it before? The suitcase and the wheel existed separately from each other until the day when someone brought them together to make the suitcase on wheels. How could we imagine traveling without a suitcase on wheels today? This is a radical innovation.

[1] The term “Tinkering” used here has no derogatory character, quite the contrary. It corresponds to a profound distinction proposed by Claude Lévi Strauss in “La pense sauvage” (1962) between two approaches (both valid) that of the “scientist”, of the “engineer” who defines himself by a project, and that of the “Tinkerer” who deals with the “means at hand” (and therefore with the client in the case of innovation). This term is quite positive for this author as for all those who, in strategic analysis, semiotics or sociology, have appropriated this notion.

The word “Tinkering” in innovation, I discovered it with a magnificent text by Tom Wolfe, The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce, which I strongly encourage you to (re)read!

PS: Not mentioning the death of Clayton Christensen on 23 January 2020 would have been a mistake and just mentioning it as a postcript here is probably another one, but I could not say anything better than
1- The Economist –
2- or Nicolas Colin –
If you did not know Clayton Christensen, you are lucky, you can now discover his work!