“We must admit that startups can teach large groups things”

Working in collaboration with startups allows innovation to emerge, especially in accepting the possibility of failure.

Interview Olivier Roussat , Chairman and CEO of Bouygues Telecom

L’Atelier: What complementarity can there be between startups and large companies in a joint development?

Olivier Roussat : I believe that working with start-ups for a large company like Bouygues Telecom can be beneficial for two main reasons: untie innovation on the one hand, and better respond to market fluctuations on the other. It should be understood that the vision of the market or of the services is not the same whether or not one has significant resources. Startups clearly show that innovation is born out of constraint. Large groups for their part often do not have, due to substantial budgets, sufficient constraints to risk innovation. The advantage of startups is thus not to be involved in the processes necessary for a large group for it to function harmoniously. In a large group, if the idea can emerge well, it risks being polished, sanded by the process and by the inheritance of what has been done previously. A startup does not have the weight of this historical vision, or much less strongly, and can create and follow an idea, a concept, pure, where large companies risk distorting it by successive filtering. Working with these startups allows us to really listen to our environment without filtering information.

It is first of all the creation that interests you, it is not a question of investing in order to resell?

Our role in the relationship we have with startups is not that of business angels. We work in the true sense with the startups that we help by selecting them according to their activity and their complementarity with our network. We do not enter a subject if we are not sure that we have immediate use of it through our structure. In this case, the few times where we tried to push a startup without sponsoring it by one of our operational staff, it did not work perfectly, despite the quality of the ideas. Our goal is to promote the startup in the use it allows us to highlight in our own services. It is a balanced approach because it pays off for both the company and the startup. We expressly choose not to integrate startups into our business because the integration would kill the operation. By imposing the processes we were talking about, we are restricting the freedom of innovation that is the strength of the startup. On the contrary, Bouygues Telecom brings its advantages to startups without the flaws of the large structure, particularly in terms of administrative expertise or human resources, for example. Our starting point is simple: you have to admit that the startup can teach you things that you don’t know, even if you are a large group.

You mentioned in the factors that reduce the potential for innovation the fear of failure, can you elaborate?

The culture of failure is precisely the strong point of startups, the reason for their quality of innovation. These companies are created by successive failures and do not hesitate to make profound changes in their operation to respond to the market. The cultural problem with regard to failure is however present upstream, in universities and schools which do not necessarily teach us that failure is not completely negative, that making a mistake is almost a necessary step. It is irrational to want to make students believe that one can be the best in everything, the omniscient does not exist in the economic world or in the real world. In large companies, for example, this fear of failure is embodied in the inability to admit that a project is not good. Rather than changing it, we will in some cases strengthen it to try to force it to succeed. It is difficult for a large company to admit that a project cannot work, precisely because it is an acknowledgment of failure, whereas it is the strength of startups.