The life and death of Francophilia
“Frenchify your life! Juicy news tidbits & spicy culture bites from France.”
In 2007, about a year after I got to Paris, I launched Francophilia.com, a Web startup project I had begun conceptualizing in the mid-90s. When I first bought the domain name, my idea was to build an online directory (crowd-sourced, moderated) of French and French-flavored places, services, organizations, activities, events, etc. in San Diego (at first), where I’m (mostly) from.
By 2007, the Internet had changed a lot. By then, my concept had grown into a “3Cs” platform (community, commerce, content) that would offer Francophiles one-stop shopping for all things French all over the world:
- A “niche” social network where users could interact with other Francophiles (and not bore their non-Francophile friends on Facebook with their French obsession).
- An Etsy clone where French artisans could sell their creations (Reasoning: only about 25% of French artisans can live off of their crafts; they’re highly dependent on sales during tourist season and hurting in off season; many of the traditional crafts are endangered). I also envisioned opening the commerce site to merchants and creators worldwide selling French-themed stuff and of course sellers from any Francophone countries!
- A magazine in the image of the unconventional content I was curating (and creating) and publishing daily, which was vastly different from the generally bland content of conventional Francophile mags (the requisite annual articles on the Beaujolais nouveau and macarons were markedly absent…).
I started the Community using a white-label social network platform (Dolphin). On Twitter and Facebook – every day around 7-8 am California time – I published a single tidbit of curated Content (before anyone called it curating content!) harvested from a couple dozen RSS feeds I’d created based on keywords (I miss you, Google Reader) plus my own French and Francophone cultural expertise and discoveries as an expat living in Paris.
In 2009, I added the “magazine” – the Francophilia Gazette – on a self-hosted WordPress site. But before going live with the Gazette, I had manually taken all of the links I’d ever tweeted – over 300 – and made each one into a post. That was some serious manual labor! Why did I do that? Because at the time only 19% of Internet users were using Twitter, and I wanted to reach the rest…
While dreaming of funding to build the Commerce site through which French and Francophone artists and artisans could sell their creations to Franco-starved people worldwide, I created an Amazon store and stocked it with Frenchy stuff. I also put merch up on CafePress. Need a Francophilia thong? I thought so!
2008: With a (technical and design) partner, I split the cost (12,000 €) to build the beginnings of a marketplace platform, and then went looking for funding – just as the financial crisis hit – with nothing but a half-built shop, the screenshots below (the community site shots are real, the commerce platform 100% dream), a sexy positioning graphic, the proof that people googled “French” more than they did “Harry Potter” or “iPhone” (but not as much as “sex” or “football” ;) and some other stuff (like stats on the readership of major Francophile mags, the dollar value of French exports to the U.S. by category, and a lot more. I did my homework).
That should have been enough, right??
Unfortunately, investors at that point had pretty much stopped investing in Internet startups that didn’t already have “traction” (income and a significant user base) and the financial crisis dried up the flow too. But without funding, I couldn’t finish my e-commerce platform or grow the whole project, so voilà.
In its heyday (~2010), @Francophilia had over a 99% retweet rate (99% of my tweets were retweeted). I got about 10 new Twitter followers a day, and had over 100K page views on the Francophilia Gazette some months. I constantly received solicitations from French and American companies, artists, publishers and more to promote whatever they were selling to my qualified (fanatical Francophile) user base, and was thus able to have an almost monthly giveaway for two and a half years.
I abandoned the project in 2011.
I had spent years devoting myself to this dream. Startup founders do it all: vision and mission, business concept, business plan, business development, market research, feasibility study, financial projections, branding and image, message, design, content curation and creation, community management…
I learned so much! And I had so much FUN! And because of this project I became part of the Paris startup scene and because of that I became a tech blogger for some major U.S. blogs (Web Worker Daily (GigaOm), Read Write Web, Huffington Post). I went to LeWeb – Europe’s largest, and the world’s second-largest tech conference – for several years with press passes from these blogs.
It’s all good.
Today, the only surviving part of Francophilia is the Twitter account. @Francophilia has over 10,000 followers on Twitter and is followed by hundreds of French teachers, French embassies and consulates, the U.S. Embassy in Paris, the French Embassy to the U.S., Alliance Française chapters all over the world, and French government entities and individuals, including His Excellency Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the United States, who followed @Francophilia in January, 2016 with his personal account.
What went wrong
OSEO is a French government entity that will match private funding for French startups, and if you get OSEO’s seal of approval, you’re more likely to get the private funding in the first place. I went to them – with my French partner (the slick, young, handsome Parisian co-owner of a multimedia design company ;) – but OSEO didn’t think there were enough Francophiles in the world for Francophilia to work.
Also, I based one key element of the commerce part (the sellers) on the “build it and they will come” fallacy. Specifically, I assumed that French artisans would beat down my doors to sell their stuff on my platform. But there were just a few minor flaws to this assumption…
The seller I envisioned was a gifted and skilled artisan d’art in a studio creating unique and beautiful objects using centuries-old traditional methods in some remote corner of France (which is most of France outside of Paris) and selling them out of a shop that depended on foot traffic in a village or small town. Like Paul Buforn, maître émailleur in Limoges (click pic to go to a video):
Back in 2008, however, my imaginary seller barely even used e-mail, much less a digital camera or the Internet… Smartphones and their cameras were just coming out. Plus, in French culture in general, people have a certain antipathy towards commerce, and they tend to be resistant to change. And they HATE the post office! In France, the people, the culture, the infrastructure, and the services were just not geared towards commerce the way things are here in the States. (Which is a good thing, of course.) This has since changed somewhat.
Example: I went into a shop in the Latin Quarter that sold higher-end souvenirs (many actually made in France) to ask the owner if he’d be interested in selling things through my platform. The shop was empty but for him and a young sales associate who was twiddling her thumbs. The owner immediately resisted, asking when and how he’d find the time to pack things to mail. I pointed to the young woman and said she could do it right now, with no customers in the store, and added what a benefit it would be to have higher year-round sales and not be so dependent on tourist season. He wanted nothing to do with it. Plus, he’d “have to go to the post office.”
God forbid!! (Actually, after living there for 9 years, I fully grasp their post office hate.)
Reaching these sellers and selling them on the idea – basically changing a mentality and culture – would have required a lot of money, time, effort and diplomacy, and I never would have been able to do that without funding.
So there you have it. Hope you’ve enjoyed the journey. I certainly did.
(And if I won the lotto I’d start over today! ;)