Where are the great European internet companies – the Euro Google, eBay or Facebook? They are out to lunch. That's the view, at least, of Michael Arrington, the Silicon Valley-based founder and CEO of the technology blog TechCrunch.
Earlier this month in Paris, at Le Web '08, Europe's largest new-media conference, Arrington suggested that one reason the Europeans haven't created new-media companies able to compete with top Silicon Valley firms is because of the more relaxed European work culture, with its two-hour lunches and copious bottles of wine.
He was responding to remarks by Loïc Le Meur, a French entrepreneur and the organiser of Le Web '08. According to Le Meur (also CEO of the social networking video start-up Seesmic), the big difference between the new-media culture in Europe and America is that US entrepreneurs "don't know how to take time and have lunch". Europeans, he told Arrington, "want to know people" and don't judge all work relationships in strictly utilitarian business terms.
This much publicised exchange has, of course, been grist to the mill of all the xenophobic Yahoos on the internet. But beyond all the predictable culture-warrior baggage that goes with this kind of debate, there is a serious question about why European entrepreneurs and companies have generally struggled to compete globally with Silicon Valley.
I spoke to both Arrington and Le Meur on the telephone to get a more measured take on their debate. Arrington, an ex-lawyer who partially grew up in England, acknowledged that European new-media entrepreneurs face two fundamental obstacles: first, arcane European employment and payroll tax structures and the legal difficulties of setting up corporations; and second, in contrast with a Silicon Valley culture that venerates risk-taking, entrepreneurs are looked down on in Europe where, Arrington believes, money-making is still considered grubby.
Le Meur, who once advised President Nicolas Sarkozy on digital matters and who himself moved to Silicon Valley in 2007 to found Seesmic, agrees with Arrington about the added structural problems of doing a new-media start-up in Europe. He also sees the fragmented nature of the European state system as being a massive logistical problem. Le Meur cites the examples of the Silicon Valley-founded YouTube, now the leading video portal in the world, and the less well-known French video site DailyMotion, two relatively identical start-ups begun at about the same time, as evidence of the natural advantages of being an American entrepreneur in an internet economy dominated by Silicon Valley capital and the English language.
I wonder, however, if there is another more fundamental difference between American and European entrepreneurs. In his book Tribes, Seth Godin, an American marketing blogger, confesses to obsessively checking his email at 4am while on holiday in Jamaica. "It took me a long time to figure out why I was so happy to be checking my email in the middle of the night," he writes. "It had to do with passion. Other than sleeping, there was nothing I'd rather have been doing in that moment." In Silicon Valley, then, work is passion; in Europe, I suspect, passion is something else.