Loic Le Meur on LeWeb and London

By Ivo Spigel on May 16th, 2012

At first, it was just a rumour. After being personally encouraged by Prime Minister David Cameron himself, Loic Le Meur would be moving LeWeb from Paris to London. Le Meur then denied it: LeWeb would stay in the French capital.

Then, a few months later, the news finally broke: LeWeb would take place in both London and Paris in 2012.

Without a doubt, LeWeb is one of Europe’s premier tech conferences. What started in 2004 as a conference for 200 people (without coffee!) has today evolved into a masterfully produced spectacle, with 3,000 participants converging on Paris every December to hear what the best and the brightest in tech have to say about trends, start-ups, technology and the ever-expanding digital universe.

The Kernel caught up with Le Meur to ask about LeWeb and where it’s heading.

What brought about the decision to set up a LeWeb London, and how did the rumour begin in the first place? Did David Cameron really ask you to bring it over?
Yes, it’s true. We met David Cameron at the Founders Forum in June last year. When we shook hands, he told me, “You should move LeWeb to London.” It was Brent Hoberman’s idea, he introduced us to the team at Number 10. The context is that they’d like a lot to happen around the Olympics. Brent suggested LeWeb to them, and that’s how it started. My answer was, “LeWeb started in Paris and it will stay there, we love Paris. But we could talk about doing another one.”

I didn’t say “no”, as that would be impolite. I was honoured and flattered, it was impressive. But London wasn’t at all in our plans. I then posted a stupid tweet, as I always do, and was surprised by the traction that it got.

How did the French react?
It’s never, ever been a question that we would replace LeWeb in Paris. A team from the French Presidency contacted me to ask what was going on, since we’d had the speakers’ reception with the President at the Elysée Palace. But the rumour that we were moving LeWeb was completely untrue.

LeWeb is in a strong position. We’re probably the most international tech event in the world, with attendees from 76 countries. It’s different from anything else, and it’s fantastic to see that both the French and British governments realise it. No one cared as much, before. You only cared if you were in the technology sector.

So yes, we’re doing LeWeb London. It’s taken a few months because, as you know, LeWeb is just me and my wife Géraldine, plus a team of about 100 great freelancers. A herculean effort goes into ensuring that 3,500 gadget-crazed geeks have uninterrupted connectivity, something which most other conferences – even much smaller ones – fail at. Multiple cameras film the event, and it’s streamed for free and available to watch again in full HD. It wasn’t quite like that when we launched eight years ago, it’s a huge investment now.

How did LeWeb start?
I was frustrated as a European entrepreneur and  at the time, I wasn’t in the US yet, I was still in Paris. I always had this idea that the issues a European entrepreneur has are much bigger than the ones in Silicon Valley. So, for example, you have to travel a lot – if you want to be successful you have to go to different places. If you want to meet the best entrepreneurs, you have to fly around.

So we wanted to have everyone in the same room, with everything in English. Doing a conference like this in English in France is weird. It actually started controversially because I told the French participants that if they don’t speak English, they shouldn’t come.

Roughly half of the audience is French, and half is international. This is very unusual for an event held in Paris. It shows a pattern: it’s about having an eco-system around you. It’s more difficult to raise funding in Europe because there are fewer business angels. You need the business angels, you need the VC’s… And here’s something else: I didn’t want the best of Europe on stage, I wanted the best of the world! I’m trying to help the European ecosystem and to have as many Europeans on stage as possible, but if you look at the program, it’s always at least half Silicon Valley people.

Why? Because half or more of the leaders of the tech world are from Silicon Valley. I wish that it would be a majority from Europe, but it’s not representative of reality. For example, I’ve never been willing to listen to copycats, that’s just how I am. Even if they make a lot of money, they’re not very interesting.

There’s a message behind LeWeb, which is that if European entrepreneurs try to become leaders, then they can either succeed or they can fail, right? But success is a series of failures until you succeed. If, in your mind, you want to dominate Spain, then the best you can do is dominate Spain. It’s a question of ambition. If you want to dominate Paris – which I did, when I started as an enterpreneur, because that’s the way you think by default – then you might end up dominating Paris, but by the time you do this someone with broader vision and bigger ambition will end up doing a copycat elsewhere. Facebook is a great example – how many copycats of Facebook have succeeded? Fortunately Europe isn’t about copycats anymore, we have now fantastic companies and I have a lot of European countries on stage, such as Angry Birds, SoundCloud, Wonga, etc.

Another novelty is that many people come to LeWeb whether they’re speakers or not, simply because everyone’s there. In Paris last December, I think we had twenty dinners organised every evening, it’s crazy. It became a full-week thing in Paris, there were around 25 events scheduled around it.

You’ve often said LeWeb is a start-up. Does that mean we can expect many new LeWebs as the start-up scales up? Moscow, Beijing, the US?
Well, right now it’s just my wife and me, with a few great people working with us as contractors. With two events, we’ve already seen this change. We took people who were very close to us when producing Paris on an almost full-time basis. Running two events justifies it. But we’re building it slowly. We’ve become an “overnight success” in eight years.

We’re the opposite of the classic start-up model. We’ve never taken any funding, it took us eight years to start building a team and we don’t care about competition because there were already hundreds of events running when we started.

It’s like slow-cooked food. If you go to a three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris, it’s slow food; the chef has spent his life learning what he does. We’re like slow food, aiming for top quality.

Is this going to change in the future?
No, we don’t want to scale, we want to offer the same quality of event. At a top restaurant in Paris, where we take some of our speakers, they offer a five-hour dinner with fifteen courses. It doesn’t scale very well and the chef wouldn’t be able to host more guests.

You and Geraldine must have thoughts about the future. Where is LeWeb going?
I don’t know yet; seriously, I don’t know. We experiment and we iterate like a start-up. London is a new product launch. We’ll see how that product does, and then we will decide what to do. It’s shaping up pretty well so far.

So there’s no long-term vision?
No, I’ve never had any, you know. It’s funny, because you always think that founders need a product vision and so on… I really never had any for LeWeb.

My only vision with LeWeb was to help entrepreneurs and give them quality content, networking and a great experience. To build a platform for success. But I don’t want to take over the world with fifty events. I don’t have a hidden agenda. So I’m doing London now, but then what? I live in San Francisco, right, and we’ve got two events in Europe now, so…

How important is it for you to be in San Francisco? Do you have plans to move back?
San Francisco is very important to me; my roots are there now. Not my cultural roots – I’m French – but my friends are there. I’ve got a lot of friends in Europe, but I live in the San Francisco ecosystem now. That’s what gives LeWeb a Silicon Valley touch as well. Most of the guys on stage are also friends or people that I know; and if I don’t know them, they’re quickly becoming friends.

Being in San Francisco also helps me get a feel for upcoming trends in Silicon Valley, such as Evernote a few years ago, Instagram last year and so on. I’m in touch with the eco-system, and LeWeb also helps keep me connected to Europe. In my mind, I live in the middle of the Atlantic. I’m between Silicon Valley and Europe, trying to bring the two together.

I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished – or, rather, I should say what my wife has accomplished, really – especially when we see so many LeWeb participants become successful, raising funds, getting traction and press. At the last LeWeb, Evernote got no fewer than 36 interviews! That makes us really happy, and that’s what LeWeb is really about, making entrepreneurs successful and inspiring new ones. Nowadays, the youth should aim to creating their own jobs instead of seeking one, and I’m proud that LeWeb helps them reach that goal.

The Kernel is a media partner of LeWeb London, which is being held on June 19-20 at Central Hall Westminster. Find out more information and reserve your place here.