Today was Valetines Day and I spent it in the beautiful city of Paris...without my wife. Call me a "love rat" if you must (and okay it is true that I appeared on an ITV programme about Love Rats, but I deny everything!) but sometimes a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.
The reason I was in Paris on today of all days was that I was invited to an event and awards ceremony at the French Senate organised by the Netxploratuer group. Garlik was honoured to receive an award as a "Top 10 Netxploratuer of 2008" company and I went to speak at a session on digital identity and to collect the award.
I thought it was a bit odd arranging it to clash with Valetines Day until someone pointed out to me (too late) that I was probably supposed to use the opportunity to take my wife with me. Whoops! Sorry!
Anyway, I jumped on the 9.13am Eurostar from the very impressively refurbished St Pancras Station and off I went. I haven't done that trip for a few years now and I must say it's really impressive to get on a train with no fuss or bother and just over 2 hours later you are in the heart of Paris. That's less time than it usually takes me to get to Manchester and much less hassle than getting a plane.
I have spoken previously of my difficult with languages, so I was relieved to be picked up by an English speaking limo driver at Gare du Nord and whisked off. I was, however a bit taken aback when the limo stopped at a posh hotel instead of the Senate, the door was opened and the driver said "Here you are at the hotel, sir, I will pick you up in an hour". I politely stepped out of the car and he sped off leaving me scratching my head. The hotel doors were opened so I swept in as if I knew where I was going and strode around the foyer for a few minutes whilst the staff looked at me suspiciously. Anyway, after wasting lots of time testing out the hotels various rest-rooms, I wandered around the streets for a while before heading back to wait for my very jolly and very assertive driver (Note to self: in future must stand up to French limo drivers when they chuck me out on to the street unexpectedly).
The Senate (we finally got there) is based in the incredible Palace du Luxembourg (see picture). I arrived halfway through the first day of this two day event and it was really quite lively. There is a strong, emerging entrepreneurial spirit in France and there was a great mix of French start up guys, corporates interested in inovation and politicians and policy makers present. I also bumped in to Chris Kelly, Chief Privacy Officer of Facebook who sat in on my session, and I narrowly missed Mitchell Baker, Chair of the Mozilla Foundation who had to leave promptly after her talk that morning. The French media was there in force and I somehow managed to squeeze in six back to back interviews.
There is a lot of interested in digital identity in France, if this audience was anything to go by, but the nature of the discussion reminded me just how culturally dependent attitudes towards privacy are. I shared the stage with a professor, who seemed to be suggestion that we should all effectively disguise our online identities by using avatars and that there should be a tightly controlled central database that provided the one and only link between your real world identity and your anonymous avatar. Quite a vision and one that I did not fully subscribe to.
The other thing that struck me is that the issue of identity theft that we face in the UK and the USA, does not seem to have hit France in a material way (yet). One suggestion was that availability of credit is more limited and tightly controlled so it is much harder to steal someones identity from online sources and then just go ahead and apply for credit in their name.
The third interesting observation was the strong presence of non commercial "good cause" type of initiatives in the list of Top 10 companies. The winner of the overall Grand Prix was Psiphon, a very impressive human rights related project from Canada providing uncensored internet access to people who live behind state firewalls. It's a great project and a very worthy overall winner, but I think in an equivalent UK or USA tech start-up awards event it would fall in to a different cateogry to the commercial ventures. In fact one interviewer asked me, somewhat unexpectedly, "if what Garlik does is so important for the individual then why don't you offer the DataPatrol service for free?". I didn't actually say "Because I would end up living in a cardboard box, eating fresh air" but it wasn't a question I typically get from UK or US media.
The awards ceremony itself was very plesant. The guest of honour was Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the former Prime Minister of France. Each of the "Top 10 for 2008" winners including Garlik, were called up to receive the award and say something about the importance of their company to society, more speeches, more applause, more networking, time for two more quick interviews and then off home. Back by 11pm, tired but pleased I went as I met some interesting and useful contacts, reconnected with a couple of guys and it is always nice to be recognised and get a pat on the back when the team's done a good job. I think we might treat ourselves to a bottle of bubbly tomorrow (hopefully my VCs don't read this, and if they do don't worry it will be very cheap bubbly. Possibly just sparkling water. Prepared by filling a glass from the tap and shaking it hard :-)
The actual award gift itself is something quite special and unique. It is a bronze statue from West Africa created using the cire perdue or Lost Wax casting technique, which was entirely appropriate as my first start up tech company is called Lost Wax, named after the same West African sculpting technique. Some things just feel right.