It is a slightly rainy afternoon in Paris, but a golden pineapple, stuffed toy lions and dotted clusters of beautifully upholstered red velvet chairs are here to lift my spirits. I am visiting the snazzy headquarters of TheFamily, a home for start-ups in the city, to meet with Alice Zagury, its inspirational CEO. Admiringly called ‘audacious’ by Elle, Alice co-founded the business in 2013 and has since taken the French start-up scene by storm. She is a huge advocate of youth, talent and ‘doers with empathy’, promoting founders who pour their experience and resilience into their businesses.
With the desire to challenge the ‘toxicity’ of the French tech environment, TheFamily courageously set up as an infrastructure and support system for entrepreneurs, complete with capital investment to help them flourish. This start up greenhouse has bloomed some huge successes – notably Algolia, a program which optimises in-site search functions, won $21 million in its three investment rounds, and is looking to challenge Google, and Capitaine Train, which was bought up by Trainline in 2016, reportedly for a sum approaching $189 million. TheFamily has recently expanded to London and Berlin, and has now accompanied over 500 start-ups on their way.
Alice herself manages to combine irrepressible energy and a thoughtful, considered approach to business, life and start-up culture, making for a bubbly and wide-ranging conversation – without even a coffee in hand!
Her experience before TheFamily is multitudinous; having studied business and management in Lyon, she then drew inspiration from the art world, working in galleries and an art tech incubator in Paris. Seeds were sown for TheFamily when she launched Le Camping, the first start-up accelerator in France, in 2009. When it came to making the jump to entrepreneurship full-time, it was her co-founder, Oussama Ammar who told her she had to be the CEO, something she hadn’t even considered previously.
We have half an hour and her words of wisdom come thick and fast…listen up!
Q: Creating a tech start-up is no longer the ‘unusual outlier’ choice, but has become far more mainstream. Why isn’t the share of women in tech growing?
AZ: I feel like digital is always going to be a crazy area to be in, and it has been a revolution in terms of making new start-ups. All the barriers that were so tough before have suddenly been lifted! You are free to learn anything from Google, to contact anyone through email, and platforms like Facebook make for a world that couldn’t be more open.
Women should be the perfect candidates to get involved in this open-minded, untraditional, no-rules environment, but they aren’t here. Even at TheFamily only 5% of our start-ups are led by women.
The paradox is that in this brave new world, all the biases that play against women in their professional lives should be thrown out the window, but in fact they are multiplied by 10. In traditional secure jobs, you know you have to speak louder than the guys, in order to be heard. In tech it’s magnified – you’re thrust into a world of non-stop pitching, trialling and proving yourself. No one will look at you unless you are ready to prove what you’re doing right from your guts. It’s a real barrier because women aren’t used to this kind of behaviour.
Q: You have been outspoken about problems with the start-up culture in France. What do you see as the main differences between here and abroad?
AZ: France is an interesting culture as people here have a strong belief in ideas and balance, considering both sides and thinking theoretically – it’s partly how we are trained at school, to create a hypothesis and then argue for and against it before summing up in a balanced manner. It prevents people nailing their colours to the mast and getting fully behind an idea, which is detrimental to start-up culture.
I like the UK/US approach, which I see as more ‘choose your camp and defend it’ – that is the entrepreneurial mindset. They take more risk in the US!
You have a choice when you see a toxic environment around you, or an issue requiring change. Either you are bored by it, but stick within it, or you use all your energy to yell that it’s not good, and do your best to change it. At TheFamily, we wanted to provide another ‘bubble’ for people to develop their thoughts in – a bubble where you had room to breathe and try new things. People also don’t yet know a lot about start-ups here in France, which is why such a lot of our work and events are around education and training.
Q: You have worked in a number of different places. How did you end up leaving these behind for TheFamily?
My attitude towards projects and jobs is to remember that they are temporary. More than the generation before us, the jobs we take do not dictate the rest of our lives. When I started working I realised I was far less interested in gaining skills and competencies, and more intrigued with the process of learning about communities that were out of my reach. How do they behave? What are their codes? Who inspires them? Very psychological!
When I was studying business at one of France’s ‘grands écoles’, it was disappointing not to come across more of these types of people. Both that, and my first job, were exactly what I hated – people coming from a very elitist system, with parents who belonged to the same world.
One of the most attractive things about these workplaces is that people there are very smart and stimulating. But they seem to have ended up working there by default after university, not because they chose it. That path is very difficult to leave – and it’s also not easy to say ‘ok, I’m going to earn a lot less money – but I don’t care’.
It was easier for me I think, as I have always had something of a general feeling that I don’t fit. I have parents from different places, and although I grew up in the banlieues of Paris, which are typically less well-off areas, my dad was a doctor, so I saw both sides of the picture. It’s been very liberating. Especially when I started working, I came to realise that come what may, I won’t fit in any box. So I feel happy taking a direction that is all my own.
Q: Who do you admire on the tech scene, and why?
AZ: We hosted Sheryl Sandberg here recently at TheFamily and she was brilliant. What I really like about her is how I think she has answered to the next challenge for me and my team here – as you hire more and more people, you begin to dedicate time to training them and helping them develop. I would say that Sheryl spends about 70% of her time just doing that and it shows in her business.
The first steps at TheFamily were exciting and adrenalin-filled because I was doing everything myself. Now I get the same buzz from this new phase – we have 40 people, we have surrounded ourselves with people who are better than us at certain things, and I want to help them grow.
Q: Tell us about your co-founder…
AZ: One thing you have to know is that your co-founder is a more important choice than your life partner. Seriously!
Entrepreneurship is about being really exceptional at one thing. Ignore what you have been told about being balanced, and well-rounded, and choose a co-founder who has the skills that you don’t. But in addition to this, you need to trust them 100%.
When I met Oussama, he was good at all the geeky, techy things that weren’t my area (although he’s a great teacher too!) – my talents are in team leading, filling people with energy, connecting, and reaching out. It was so easy to worry in the early days, about everything from money, to hiring, to admin. But we always had the same notion of what was a ‘real problem’ and what was ‘not a real problem’, and who would address each problem, which is vital.
If you can’t trust your co-founder to look after their parts of the business, your business is dead before it starts!
Q: Was it easy to make the leap between your full time job and TheFamily?
AZ: At the beginning, it’s super cool to leave your old job behind. Jumping is great – it’s like being in love. It’s easy and you reach this really high level of energy that goes into everything you do.
Keeping going is the next big step. In the second stage, once you’ve sorted out your product-market fit, the real work begins. People know about you and get used to you on the scene, and your next aim is keeping that same energy alive all day long.
It’s like after 3 years in a loving relationship – it’s not about passion, but about growing up together, being wiser together – finding the next thing to excite you.
Q: What is your one top tip for budding entrepreneurs?
AZ: Never be nostalgic.
The past is important, and everything you do or work on will help you learn something – but don’t try to keep the things you’ve done as if inside a museum of your life. I think of things in terms of the next three months.
There’s a French phrase which you hear all the time which I think holds people back, ‘Il ne faut pas lâcher la proie pour l’ombre’, or ‘don’t throw away the substance for the shadow’. It’s similar to ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’, and means ‘don’t take risks, you may lose’. I couldn’t disagree more!