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Forward To The Past

These are just a few strong convictions held by entrepreneur Nicolas Colin, whose Hedge: A Greater Safety Net for the Entrepreneurial Age, argues that Europe has a lot to teach the world—and particularly the United States—about how technology could help narrow the inequality gap and create widespread prosperity.

Colin is the cofounder of The Family, a pan-European incubator with a bold personality and a very big vision—to nurture a continent-wide network of startups through events, education, funding, and, if you believe their marketing material, “unfair advantages.” Hedge, which was published this past July, is deeply connected to this work. It weaves historical context and current events with Colin’s professional and personal insights—from his early career, in the French civil service, and, later, as a startup founder, himself—to recommend ways of reimagining the system of social supports that elevated standards of living across the Western world in the middle of the last century.

The idea for the book grew out of The Family’s own interactions with policymakers: “What we realized is that when you make the case that it is possible to have economic security in the new paradigm, people are very interested,” says Colin. “We don’t have all the money that the Americans have to pay lawyers and lobbyists, so we need cheaper ways of making our case that startups are good, not bad.”

Talking with Colin—or reading an edition of his packed newsletter—includes the scrappy logic of a founder, the well-populated endnotes of a career intellectual, and a sense of history that imagines the new way as the Great Safety Net 2.0.

“We need cheaper ways of making our case that startups are good, not bad.”

“The pitch that I do a lot is ‘forward to the past,’” he says, adding that many of today’s crumbling “cathedrals”—large state bureaucracies such as the British National Health Service, and monolithic corporations alike—date back to the 20th century. “And because they’re so young, at the scale of the history of humanity, there is no particular reason to think that they are here to stay forever.”

The Long View

Hedge’s argument is based in part on Carlota Perez’s theory of “great surges of development,” which charts the ways in which society has been transformed by each technological revolution, from the Industrial Revolution to the Information Age. “Carlota has helped most of us realize that the shift doesn’t just happen in the corporate world,” says Colin. “It’s the realization that everything needs to change around businesses because production changes and consumption changes and ultimately, it’s the whole way of life.”

Colin believes that, technology aside, we have more in common today with people living in the 19th century than the 20th century. This idea first occurred to him while listening to Ben Horowitz’s 2015 Columbia University commencement address, in which the influential tech investor described his initial skepticism when meeting Airbnb founder Brian Chesky. What eventually turned Horowitz’s head was Chesky’s secret: Reimagining a time before hotel chains, when each community was a “village,” filled with inns and bed and breakfasts—and then pulling out all the digital stops to make it totally transparent and convenient.

In Hedge, Colin applies a similar line of thinking to the global housing crisis. “If you go back to the 19th century, there were no cars, so people had to live close to where they worked,” he says. “In the industrial sector, it was convenient: You open the factory, and then you hire the people living nearby to work in the factory.” This is not to discount the myriad complications of this approach, not least of which was that few but the very rich owned property, but “it also came with solutions, in that people were very mobile,” he says. “And during this time of mass industrialization, urbanization, there was a density.”

Density is good, in theory, because it provides diversity, opportunity. It can be bad, in practice, because it causes scarcity, and, beyond that, the damaging ways people respond to the fear of scarcity. In Hedge, Colin argues that by using policy to rewrite the rules, we can free up opportunity.

For example, to return to housing for a moment: Colin believes it is less useful to see people as renters or owners, than it is to see them as as either hunters and settlers. Settlers are the people who still reach for that modern dream of slowly paying off the “forever home.” Hunters are a growing percentage of the global workforce, especially entrepreneurs, who are networked—attuned to opportunity, adapting to challenges, and inventing their own future in a world increasingly uncertain.

Entrepreneur Nicolas Colin, cofounder of The Family.

The Family You Choose

Now based in London, Colin was born in Normandy, France, and raised in a middle-class home by professional musician parents. After trying piano, clarinet, and saxophone, he settled on bass guitar and double bass. He’s a jazz fan with the YouTube channel to prove it; his hero is Miles Davis, one of the world’s great masters of improvisation. He lights up when he talks about music and is quick to make links to entrepreneurship: flexibility, creativity, timing. Like, for instance, the ultimate downfall of a little-known California heavy metal band called T-Ride—which he discovered as a teenager in the mid-Nineties, with a bootleg cassette tape—was the fact that they labored for far too long on their debut, and well past 1992, at which point grunge had rendered them wholly irrelevant.

A student of engineering, Colin graduated and landed a prestigious post working for France’s elite Inspection générale des finances; Emmanuel Macron was a colleague. While co-chairing a blue-ribbon commission that analyzed the impact of digital disruption and piracy on the state-run entertainment industry, Colin was inspired to take a leave of absence, to start his own tech company. “I thought, This is where it’s happening. It’s not the government, it’s these entrepreneurs who are harnessing the vast potential of technology and making it happen.”

The software tools that Colin’s startup designed were successful, but ultimately he had little interest in running an IT firm. “I failed, like most startups do, but I had the experience of raising funds and hiring developers and selling a project,” he says. 
 
Through that work he met Oussama Ammar, a fellow founder whose company was backed by the same investor as Colin’s; Ammar introduced him to Alice Zagury, the founder of a nonprofit French accelerator called Le Camping. The trio’s inspiration for The Family was a shared view that, at the time, France—and all of Europe—was “toxic” for innovation. “We felt that it’s not working: the angel investors are bad, the VCs are feeble, and we have to change everything,” says Colin. “And to do that, we’ll create this very small firm, with 10 entrepreneurs as a start, and we’ll make sure that it’s working.”

One cornerstone of The Family’s philosophy—that no European entrepreneur is limited by the resources of their own country—also has roots in the 19th century. Before the European Union, before the World Wars, there was not much “glue” holding Europe together, aside from the Treaty of Vienna, says Colin. But what there was, he says, was haute finance, exemplified by the Rothschild family and, in particular, the five sons who, in the firm’s heyday, each managed distinct offices in London, Frankfurt, Naples, Paris, and Vienna.

The story goes that each of the brothers wrote a daily letter, says Colin: “To share everything that was happening in the city…not only finance but business, culture, politics, society, everything.” In so doing, “they built an information system, almost in real time.” They were better informed than any of their competitors; they knew, firsthand, which government was too aggressive, what political regimes were bolstering confidence, or destroying order. “So the theory is that the Rothschilds glued Europe together by allocating capital and rewarding all the governments willing to stay in peace.”

They didn’t do it out of idealism, says Colin; neither does The Family. “When you talk about startups, you hear a lot about competition: Is London the startup capital, is Paris…” he says. “This is our secret—that Europe is very small, and it’s very easy to travel from one city to another, and so instead of trying to attract everyone in Paris in a good ecosystem, we can simply work with everyone we like in Europe—and we will own that ecosystem.”

“It’s not the government, it’s these entrepreneurs who are harnessing the vast potential of technology and making it happen.”

The 21st century twist on all of this is that, in this new age, entrepreneurs don’t need to be hindered by high rents or local competition, he says. “Technology makes it possible to connect all the large cities in Europe, and to create that European society that used to exist and then ceased to exist in the 20th century, when people retreated [behind] national borders.”

Manifest Density

The Family’s pan-European point of view challenged some of the initial early stage founders they were supporting, mostly in France, who were uneasy about carving out the time to practice their English or shelling out cash for the Eurostar.

“We have to realize that Europe is much more fragmented than most people think,” says Colin. “The same politicians are speaking all day long about Europe and Brussels and the EU, but this doesn’t exist in everyday life. You are where you are, and you watch your TV in your language. Weather reports in France are a map of France; we don’t care that it’s raining in the UK.”

Colin has been critical of the crisis in France today, sparked by the Gilets Jaunes movement—which he has described as “a rolling catastrophe.” He also has complicated feelings about Macron. “His formative years were the same as mine,” he says. “My luck is that I’ve been working with entrepreneurs ever since, which forces you to revise constantly. He works with technocrats…stuck with what they learn during their formative years.”

It is steady work, fostering connection across borders and language barriers. After five years, The Family now has hundreds of startups in their portfolio, and more than double that in their network. Last year, they hosted more than 300 events, their online coverage of these gatherings only adding to their position that the European startup world can be a supportive and colorful club.

Content is a core business function, says Colin, who adds that every member of the team is producing material on a weekly, if not daily basis. (Colin himself contributes regularly to both French and English publications, as well as The Family’s well-populated Medium channel.) It’s one of a handful of key tasks that he says that “every normal firm would outsource.” Another is branding and design, which is all overseen by Zagury, the firm’s CEO.

The Family has also made cuisine a calling card at their events, employing a full-time chef who oversees large functions, whether in one of their offices in London, Paris, or Berlin, or somewhere new, as part of a bid to expand their network. (Kiev, Bucharest, Budapest are all on The Family’s 2019 docket.) “We’re French, so we try to raise the bar in terms of food in the startup world,” says Colin. “It’s not beer and pizza. You may be an entrepreneur, but we will still sit at tables and drink good wine.”

The emphasis on style is certainly striking at a time when it seems Europe is cracking up. But it also creates a sense of possibility echoed in an early chapter of Hedge, in which Colin writes of a desire to reconnect with the sense of optimism he felt when he first encountered technology in the 1990s.

“We’re not doomed because, as always, we can go back,” he says. “Maybe us, maybe a group of players, will glue Europe together as countries are effectively drifting apart.”

“It’s effectively technology and finance that will make Europe a stable place and not governance,” he continues. “And we’re proud of that.”

→ For more on the inspiration behind Hedge, read the profile of Carlota Perez in Hacking Finance No.1: Movement

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