Criteo shows entrepreneurs how it’s done

By Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry on October 31st, 2013

Yesterday the French ad-tech company Criteo went public on the Nasdaq.

This post isn’t about Criteo’s business, or its market, or its technology.

This is about its story.

Criteo is a story that should not happen. It’s an ad-tech company that started in Paris, competes with industry giants such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, and yet has kept winning at the game and growing every year. When it got started, the company had to pivot several times and ended up executing on a different idea than the one it raised money on.

But what’s most inspiring about Criteo is what should have happened.

Which is a big exit to one of the giants in the sector.

When entrepreneurs are told that they should keep their companies independent instead of selling to the highest bidders, they are usually reminded of the stories of people such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. And that’s fine, but for many entrepreneurs this may have the opposite effect – those peoples’ stories are so extraordinary that many might feel they don’t have what it takes to go the whole way.

But Criteo proves that it’s not just the Zuckerbergs of this world who can build a big, sustainable, independent company. Criteo today is worth around $2 billion, or 2% of what Facebook was worth on its own IPO day. But $2 billion is a lot of money, and please raise your hand if you’ve helped create that much amount of market cap over your lifetime (I certainly haven’t, though I’m still holding on to the dream).

For Criteo, the decision to go independent has been deliberate and serious.

A few years ago, Criteo raised a big round of money from international VCs, and its management team moved from Paris to Silicon Valley to build up the company’s American and international business. For most outside observers, this was the prelude to the inevitable acquisition by Google or Yahoo.

But then Criteo did something strange. Not only did the management move back to Paris, but it rented an office block, turning it into the kind of luxurious headquarters that Silicon Valley companies have, and announced that it would also be the site of an R&D lab to work on future products and services for the company.

This is not the stuff that companies waiting for an acquisition do. Often, it is not the stuff that venture investors will support. But it is the stuff that entrepreneurs building for the long term do.

So congratulations to Criteo. It shows that you don’t have to be Mark Zuckerberg to build a long-term independent, important company, and it shows that you can do it from anywhere. Even Europe. Even France. That’s something many of us can aspire to.