France wants to be known as a “start-up nation.”
Indeed, lot has been done in order to change the image of a country where one could eat and drink well but where doing business was complicated. In a short time lapse appropriate policies have made of France the European country with the highest growth rate in IT.
This evolution has conquered some of the big players in the world. Last year Cisco invested 200 million dollars in the French start-up ecosystem, while Facebook opened its AI lab in Paris and Intel its 7th research lab in the country (in Aix-en-Provence).
In 2015, French start-ups mobilized 1,8 billion euros in VC against 897 millions in 2014. We are talking here about a 100% growth in only 12 months. Even if data are not accurate, French-Tech (the governmental agency in charge of supporting French Start-ups) estimates that approximately 8000 start-ups were currently active in 2015 in the French territory. The current number of French unicorns is 3 (Ventes-Privées, Criteo and Bla bla car) and other 4 French Companies entered this year the Growth 50 ranking (Activity, Cedexis, Sigfox and Synthesio).
These are the good news.
The bad news is that actually few French start-ups attract the necessary investment that would allow them to get to the consolidation stage and grow. While the early stage start-up scene is thriving – with plenty entrepreneurs, engineers, incubators and angel investors, there isn’t the tier one venture capital and knowhow that is required to build start-ups into scale-up companies.
From our experience working communication and branding with start-ups struggling to consolidate their activity, we have come to a conclusion: French funding landscape needs the most improvement.
Let’s do numbers again.
We said VC mobilized 1,8 billion euros in France last year. Having 8000 French active startups, what would this amount mean if it was equally divided between all the start-ups? approximately less than 250K VC capital invested per start-up? Just for comparison, during the same period, 4,3 billions where mobilized in Great Britain. Globally speaking from the total financial amount raised in Europe for start-ups 14% was raised in France compare to 33% in Great Britain.
French funding landscape needs to progress in all financing stages but specially in the initial ones (start and taking off) since these phases are key to allow start-ups achieving the critical size. Short-term profit funding culture need to be changed. From a public policy / government perspective it seems urgent (specially when elections approach) to understand that the competitive advantage, for a nation, lies not only in its business creation potential but in its capacity of allow businesses develop quickly so that they can make economy and employment grow.
A start up not always can create jobs. A “scale-up” does.
The challenge for France is to go beyond the « start-up nation » and becoming a true « scale-up nation ».
By the way #French2017 candidates (both right and left), what are your proposals ?
 EY Baromètre du capital risque en France : http://www. ey.com/FR/fr/Services/StrategicGrowth-Markets/EY-Barometre-ducapital-risque-France.
Starting up a business is hard work, really hard work. I know a little bit about it myself; my agency was launched a few months ago. We’re not a start-up per se but as most of them, we took the decision to start this project believing we had an original value proposition and wanting to do things our own way. Like most of them, we also work hard to find our place in a very competitive milieu.
The first months are hard. Here we are. Multitasking between pitching potential clients / investors, reassuring the doubters, taking care of clients, managing bureaucracy and providers… Excitedly thinking our product is so unlike the rest out there that people and clients will just start clamouring over it as soon as they hear about it… With no clear plan about what follows, tempted to leave the initiative to consumers, trusting demand will decide for us.
In summary, getting into the market is difficult and could be potentially fatal if obstructed during the planning stages of the next step: staying in the game and eventually winning it.
ESCAPING MINIMAL VIABLE BRANDING
As it happens with your first minimal viable product (as defined by Frank Robinson, Steve Blank and Eric Ries), it’s difficult to escape from the “minimal viable brand” that allowed you to go out into the market and start in the first place. Staying in the market and eventually evolving into a bigger and stronger company requires a robust branding, a defined identity.
In the above situations it’s easy to overlook the importance of a brand’s strategy as it is easy to mistake it with immediate (and more tangible) elements such a name, a logo or a product strategy.
Branding, done right, is not complex but remains a rigorous process. Shortcuts almost always end up costing more in the long run. It’s no different than investing in efficient machinery that won’t break down.
Emily Heyward from Fast Company says “Brand early, not often”.
I would add “Brand right”.
Branding right starts with strategy and building a robust brand platform. It requires a discussion about who you are and what you want to achieve, and how to express that through language, interactions, and design.
It’s a road worth taking and it pays back.
In the end you will have a North Star that establishes a foundation for your business, ensuring that your team is aligned around the same goals; helping to determine how you want to grow and how you plan to differentiate.
FIRST STEP: DEFINE YOURSELF
Think of The Who’s song and answer the question: who are you?
Most start-up leaders have a clear idea of what they want to become, what they want to accomplish. However, few are able to give a clear answer when asked what their new company does. They will respond with abstractions and tech jargon or they will reduce the company to their product when they actually aim at becoming much more.
Simplicity is common place yet it remains true that start-ups should try to summarize what they do with brevity and clarity. That’s the most straightforward though challenging way to do so.
It’s mandatory to avoid pretentious proclamations: most of us /most of you won’t be changing the world, or introducing a new paradigm even if we’re tempted to believe so from time to time.
Breaking down your WHAT (what you do) in a simple way demands a significant amount of conversations with your closest partners and team members, word picking and back-and-forth trips around philosophical questions such as what your business strategy is, how do you see yourself today and where do you want to be tomorrow.
This requires guidance to drive you through the process in an efficient, rigorous and creative way.
BRAND STRATEGY “SUPER POWER”: DIFFERENTIATION
Most of the time a simple and clear WHAT is not going to be enough. You’ll be defining yourself at the same time as many others proposing similar stuff are.
We live in a world of ER companies (as defined by Denise Lee Yohn), companies that “are like the x brand but cheap-er, light-er, healthi-er”, nic-er etc. Very few have the real McCoy, the rare thing that will turn heads.
As she says, “being DIFFERENT sets the bar quite high. Not every product, every technology can be truly new to the world. Yet, even if an offering is somewhat derivative, the brand can – and must – be clearly different”.
We believe a well-conceived brand strategy and positioning can help place your brand as a breakthrough deriving the maximum possible advantage from your WHY, WHO, and HOW.
WHY: building authentic and compelling purpose and values, opening up a powerful and unique way to connect with people (investors, customers, partners, society).
WHO: helping you distinguish yourself based on who you are for or, in some cases, who you are not for.
HOW: spotting the best way to manifest your unique brand personality and infuse every aspect of your operations with your unique character.
OUR APPROACH: CLOSENESS, MULTIDISCIPLINARITY AND DESIGN THINKING
Every agency tries to sale its unique recipe for branding. The truth is that, as for start-ups, it’s difficult to be truly new. This is somewhat reassuring since branding remains a methodical process with a few mandatory steps all branding agencies respect. The first and most important of them is certainly getting to know your clients and trying to get in their shoes.
At La Colmena, our process involves extensive conversations with clients to understand their soul, their audience and their expectations. We spend time trying to grasp their character and their aspirations and we work hard to help them articulate their vision.
If we do what every other agency does, our difference lies in our HOW: and out-of-the-box approach, supported by multidisciplinary actions and Design Thinking.
Each project is unique and so is our commitment as far as dedicated teams are concerned. We bring together a great variety of intellectual, editorial and creative resources establishing tailored teams led by specialists from very different horizons: social and human sciences, design, communications and art, technology, engineering, economic intelligence and marketing. We use Design Thinking as a tool-box that helps us stay curious and human-centred and gives us a structured approach to creative thinking and co-building with clients.
By doing so we aim to escape from single mind-set traps, homogeneity and standardized solutions; seeing a larger picture and making unexpected and inspired connections that fuel our client brand and differentiation.
BRANDING AS A WEAPON.
Everything in Paris these days (January 7th) makes it difficult to escape the memory of what happened at Charlie Hebdo’s office one year ago. Not to mention the recent November attacks. The jihadist madness that has stunned us twice this year is anchored on a powerful and sadly efficient branding strategy. At La Colmena we wanted to dig into it a little in order to understand (as much or as little as we can) beyond emotional reactions.
Ten years ago, the Islamic State was a fantasy. Today, “Radical Arab Sunni revivalism”, as defined by Scott Atran in The Guardian , is a “dynamic, revolutionary countercultural movement of world historic proportions, with the largest and most diverse volunteer fighting force since the second world war”.
We could add that, from a brand strategy perspective it is a macabre success: the self proclaimed ISIS inspires its international following with an efficient mix of propaganda, social media and Hollywood storytelling that has more to do with the corporate world than with classic terrorist group communication techniques.
They have a key goal and, in order to achieve it, they have established an accurate diagnosis and hold perfect target knowledge.
Quoting Atran, chaos is what ISIS is looking for: “finding, creating and managing chaos”. And they have a manifesto setting out their main chaos management guidelines: Management of Savagery discusses the need to create and manage nationalist and religious resentment and violence in order to generate long-term propaganda opportunities for jihadist groups and establish a new caliphate.
With this “playbook” in its hands, ISIS is reaching out to fill the void wherever a state of “chaos” exists, as in central Asia and Africa. And where there is insufficient chaos in the “lands of the infidel”, it seeks to create it, as in Europe. In our continent ISIS has proved itself most than efficient when it comes to exploiting the middle-class crisis, the revival of identitarian closure and nationalism. In France, the UK or Belgium they have been extraordinarily skilled at using the lack of perspective and strong sense of exclusion felt by the youth of immigrant background.
And here is where the “perfect target knowledge” intervenes.
#MISSION AND IDENTITY
Like a new and disruptive entrant in a marketplace, the ISIS “product” – the declaration of an Islamic caliphate in Iraq – was derided by the establishment (moderates and regional leaders). But the establishment was never the target audience; the ISIS leaders were finding ways of connecting to the next generation of young adults. They were sending a message to young potential millennial extremists that here was a devout fighting force that had achieved tangible success, massively disrupting the old order. The “brand” offers them an inspirational and thrilling mission – restoring the caliphate / reclaiming lost glory – that promises grandeur and esteem.
And it works. The core of Western recruits are essentially millennials at transitional stages in their lives having left their homes and looking for new families. Marketing itself as a strong, defiant group – unlike other terrorist organizations, it doesn’t present itself as the underdog – the terrorist group has been particularly successful in creating a common sense of belonging and identity among its followers. “From a marketing perspective, what they’re selling is the image of strength,” says J.M. Berger, co-author of the book “ISIS: The State of Terror”.
As Atran describes it, ISIS appears as “an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious, cool – and persuasive”. And clearly, this version of Jihad sells. A U.S. government report released in September 2015 estimates that ISIS has lured 25,000 foreigners to fight in Syria and Iraq, including 4,500 from Europe and North America.
#STORYTELLING AND SOCIAL MEDIA STRATEGY
From the start, social media and storytelling have been integral to the rise of ISIS.
Terror on Twitter, an article from the on-line magazine Popular Science, describes how, “when the militants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State descended on the Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014, they didn’t just march into town – they simultaneously launched a Twitter hashtag campaign, #AllEyesonISIS”. Within hours, images of ISIS barbarity spread throughout the Arab world, sowing fear among Mosul’s residents and defenders, and a militia of no more than 2,000 ISIS fighters captured a city of 1.5 million. Military action was supported and amplified by a digital marketing strategy.
The same article depicts the evolution of this strategy: “What started with the choreographed execution video of James Foley, blasted across the Web through an army of dummy Twitter accounts, has now morphed into something more devious and distributed”. ISIS’s social-media strategy cultivates followers at home in the U.S., Europe, Africa, and Asia. And it can use them to spread terror, as we have recently seen in Paris or San Bernardino, California.
Another remarkable article in the MIT Technology Review, November/December 2015 issue, decrypts the ISIS Internet phenomenon and their social media campaign. ISIS emerged after important technological shifts and has learned how to master the use of Hollywoodesque brand content and online propaganda to spread their message of terror, engage and recruit: choreographed execution videos, hashtag hijacking, documentaries, press releases or instagramming the caliphate. The propaganda effort includes a slick online magazine called Dabiq. They also have a division called Hayat Media, which targets Western audiences and cleverly addresses national and local grievances.
But the key to its success is the approach: the Islamic State’s social media campaign is networked, reflecting the networked nature of the space ; and intimate.
The broader social media campaign is decentralized, aided by sympathizers in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere producing their own content in multiple languages. As potential recruits are persuaded/drawn in, ISIS supporters engage them in one-to-one chats that are often switched to encrypted channels.
ISIS dominates the on-line struggle because it “grew up” using the tools. The average age of foreign fighters who traveled to join ISIS is 24, meaning tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are what they have grown up with. The immense pro-ISIS social media constellation helps keep this “identity group” together.
Part of ISIS’ success – its recruitment/engagement capacity in foreign territories – comes from its modern approach of messaging, branding and communication tactics. They may not be communication geniuses but they have been doing pretty well in copying what works best for leading figures and brands.
For the moment, Western counter-narratives, message branding and technological responses to stop recruitment need to improve their effectiveness. Reactions seem focused on immediate security (in our cities, our transport etc., sometimes limiting fundamental freedoms), whereas we should think more about the terrorist “carrier” as a whole and not just about the moment he shoots a gun or blows himself up. Understanding enrollment causes, logic and processes will be essential to reverse this trend.
In a fascinating BBC News article – Fishing and ultraviolence – Charlie Winter tells us about his submersion in the world of the thousands of civilian men, women and girls who leave their homes for the so-called ISIS caliphate. He took a one-month snapshot, spending two hours a day “going through its Arabic-language support network on Twitter navigating between its various forms of propaganda”. What he found was shocking, but not because of its brutality. In just 30 days, ISIS’s official propagandists created and disseminated 1,146 separate units of propaganda of different types: from photo essays and video or audio statements to radio bulletins, posters, magazines or pamphlets. Some of the pieces (radio bulletins and text round-ups) were released in six languages – Russian, Turkish, Arabic, Kurdish, French and English.
Winter says “After grouping the different language versions of the same item together there were 892 units in total. All of it was uniformly presented and incredibly well executed, down to the finest details.”
When one looks at the Western governmental response (North American or French for instance) it is hard not to think that our institutions have not done their “strategic planning homework” well: most of what they say is a one-way broadcast, in no way interactive. There’s too much “corporate” response and not enough peer-to-peer strategy and dialogue; not to mention the limited pressure brought to bear (meaning the amount of social media and counter propaganda presence), clearly insufficient compared to the magnitude of ISIS’s output (As Winter says, “the secret of the IS media strategy – “produce, produce, produce”).
A few days ago, French TV broadcast a documentary on the Charlie Hebdo attacks from a Government reaction perspective. At some point a specific picture was saying more than a thousand words: a war-room full of baby-boomers chasing millennial terrorists.
There’s lot to say and to explore. La Colmena strongly encourages you to read Charlie Winter’s article and his report “Documenting the virtual caliphate”:
It is a perfect in-depth analysis of the ISIS very nuanced brand message.
 Scott Atran is an anthropologist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, Oxford University, John Jay College and the University of Michigan. He is co-founder of Artis Research and author of Talking to the Enemy and In Gods We Trust.
 Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Islamic Nation Will Pass, also translated as Administration of Savagery, is a book by the Islamist strategist Abu Bakr Naji, published on the Internet in 2004. It aimed to provide a strategy for al-Qaeda and other jihadists whereby they could create a new Islamic caliphate.
 The Survey is quoted by the MIT Technology Review in its article «Fighting ISIS Online» – November/December 2015.
 ISIS is trying to build its online image highlighting the lighter side of life through many social media accounts such as @ISILCats.