We want to relate our story about intercultural adaptation, as French people who started a company in San Francisco and then launching a branch in France.
In September 2016, we, at Daylighted, started the Refiners startup program in San Francisco. The Refiners is a cross border acceleration program for foreign startups who want to become global by learning the Silicon Valley way. We’ve been based in San Francisco from the very start of the company and we were used to be working in an American context. So we saw in the program an opportunity to network and raise money much more than to learn about the American Way of working. But for the first few days, we went through the cultural adaptation workshops about how to do business as an American. We thought that we knew it all but we actually learned a lot and it helped us really adapt to the specificities of American business. That’s a great learning - and a bit humbling - experience.
In March 2018, our team decided to open an office for the European Market, in Paris and we’ve been quickly accepted to Paris & Co program for foreign startups. It was fun because this time again, we had to go through an Intercultural Management workshop about How To Do Business… in France! We thought we knew enough about how to do business in French… But we actually had a lot of fun! For a French entrepreneur who got used to American business for 6 years, we found it quite entertaining to re-learn how the French people are making business. Here is a few excerpt of the cultural differences we learned and experimented.
“Don’t be late” vs “Don’t be too early”
In the US, being late is one of the first big mistakes you do as a French person. American like to stay in control of their calendar and love to start on time. Being late can really offense the person you’re meeting with. It’s even current practice in Silicon Valley to send an email to your host mentioning “I’ll be 6mn late”.
In France, we prefer to favor relationships than dictatorship of the agenda - and finish a discussion in the office even if that puts us 5 min late. It’s generally not a problem if you’re 15 minutes late, and it’s usually a rule: an event or a meeting with more than 6 people will generally start 15 minutes late. I’ve heard some peers joking around about “being early can become a bad sign of you not being busy enough”… It might be a legend but on this point I prefer the American way and try to be on time without being too stressed about it.
“15-min coffee” vs “2-hour lunch”
When I asked the intercultural management expert if I could ask a French person for a 15-min call or a 30-min meeting, she said “I would at least double the length of those meetings”. While American are quick and efficient and can seal a deal over a coffee, French business.wo.men prefers to create a relationship and discuss topics (sometimes far from the main topic) over lunch, dinner and long meetings. So doing business in France, prepare to eat a lot - good thing the food is amazing :-)
“Let’s meet tomorrow” vs “Let’s meet next week”
American are usually in charge of their calendar and like to schedule a coffee in the next few days, such as Warren Buffet who is known for scheduling meetings for the day right after and not later. French prefer to meet the following week and almost never the day after or the same day. Again I heard rumors saying that this is a way for French want to look busy…
“How are your children doing?” vs “Ca va?”
Contrary to American, French people separate personal and professional life pretty clearly. Whereas in the US, we casually share family, private trips or even sexual preferences during a professional meeting, in France, when someone asks you “Ca va?” in the hallway, it’s just a way to say “Hello” or “What’s up?”. They don’t want to hear about your personal stories except if you’ve already become friends. It’s the Coconut vs Peach theory and it applies for business meeting as well. It’s a very interesting difference and need to be used on both side: connect on a personal level very early in the US while connect on more general topics in France - like strikes or Paris weather.
Overall, it’s pretty fun to do business in France coming from the US. The startup ecosystem is very dynamic and large companies, governmental institutions or more traditional businesses all want to work with startups. Yet it’s more relaxed, but it can sometimes feel a bit less efficient. But is efficiency really the objective? Don’t ask a French person :-)