Foundation: A documentary series about startup life at Station F

“A start-up is an organization that is looking for a repeatable business model, that’s also scalable,” declares Etienne, a 24-year old entrepreneur, citing noted Stanford professor Steve Blank. Moments later, Etienne’s mood has darkened and he lists some of the reasons start-ups fail: No demand, no money, wrong team, we got screwed by competitors, cost or price issues, product not up to standard, and so on. “Some didn’t have a business model, but that isn’t huge,” he tells one of his co-founders, revealing both youthful enthusiasm and dogged optimism.

Etienne Porche is a co-founder of Les Sherpas and he’s one of five entrepreneurs portrayed in Foundation, a new eight-part documentary series released online today. The series follows the travails and successes of founders hoping to create the next big thing at Station F in Paris. The other entrepreneurs include Jasmine Anteunis of artificial intelligence company Recast.ai, Loubna Ksibi of food service Meet My Mama, Julian Holtzman and Justin Swenson of smart athletic apparel maker Torq Labs. (Editor’s note: The series refers to the entrepreneurs by their first names, a convention which this article follows.)

 

Etienne Porche of Les Sherpas. (Image credit: Foundation)

Station F opened last June as the world’s largest start-up campus covering more than 34,000 square meters inside a renovated train station. It proudly aims to be the centerpiece of France’s burgeoning tech ecosystem.

“President Macron was at the opening of Station F and said entrepreneurs are the ‘New France,’” series producer Damien Réty told me. “You could feel the heartbeat of the people at the opening. It was very exciting.”

Today, Station F is host to a range of companies like Facebook, HEC, and Amazon Web Services, while also offering 3,000 desks for rent to entrepreneurial teams. (Disclosure: My employer, All Turtles, also has an office there.)

 

President Emmanuel Macron helped celebrate the opening of Station F.

Director Olivier Blaecke followed the young entrepreneurs from September to December, capturing footage of them at moments high and low. The episodes track the upstarts as they travel from their workspaces at Station F to Lisbon for Web Summit, to Silicon Valley for investor pitches, and home at night, where the work never ceases.

Spoiler alert

“We had stopped shooting at end of December,” Riety recalled. “In Episode 8 you can see how hard Jasmine has been working, you can hear the fatigue in her voice.”

“So, do we need to change something in our strategy, in our product?” Jasmine muses to herself, gazing upon a cavernous open area inside Station F. “Do we need to find a partner or someone to work with to undertake a project bigger than us? Do we need to stop everything? Do we need to … you know what I mean?” She nearly says quit and says she doesn’t think she can give it even another six months.

At the time, Recast.ai had spent just six months at Station F. More than 30,000 developers had used Recast.ai’s technology to build bots. As captured by Blaecke, Jasmine is visibly tired and discouraged, and she seems to fight back tears. Yet all that would change.

In January 2018, SAP acquired Recast.ai, making Jasmine’s company the startup campus’s first exit. Jasmine was just 26 years old.

 

Jasmine Anteunis of Recast.ai (Image credit: Foundation)

Not all the entrepreneurs’ journeys in the series have a happy ending, but they’re compelling human journeys, rich with pathos.

“When you’re in this environment, this sort of startup race, you better know what you’re signing up for,” confesses Julian of Torq Labs in the final episode, after he and his co-founder have hit a wall. “It’s difficult doing it sometimes, day in, day out. It’s sorta tough, but you know, what are you going to do, give up? No.”

Foundation is available for binge-watching in French and English beginning April 4, 2018 from The Foundation site. It will also be distributed weekly by TechCrunch and French television station BFM Business, and across social media including Station F’s Facebook page, and BFM’s LinkedIn and Youtube pages.

This Review was first published by All Turtles on April 4, 2018.