Pilgrimage — Foundation Episode 3

Foundation is an eight-part documentary series about entrepreneurs at Station F–the world’s largest startup campus–and it follows the pitfalls and triumphs they experience while establishing their businesses.

Episode 3’s opening montage depicts empty corridors leading to places unknown, hinting at the possibilities that lie behind each door. The hallways are unpopulated, but there’s a feeling that people could fill them at any moment.

It’s a visual metaphor for the startup journey, where founders must navigate a maze of choices for their businesses and hope that doors will open to them before others swarm in to stake claim to the same space. In this episode, that journey takes one team to the heartland of entrepreneurship: Silicon Valley.

The founding members of Les Sherpas–Daniel Saadia, William Mievre, and Etienne Porche–go to San Francisco to take meetings and explore opportunities to expand their company. In a quick succession of clips, they take a tour of the city’s most iconic sights with youthful exuberance. It’s a joy to witness the three of them take a break to play with drones in a parking lot before heading back inside to make founder decisions.

The Sherpas team makes their way to 42, a free coding college, which bills itself as an institution that’s “disrupting engineering education.” One of its classrooms houses seemingly endless monitors partitioned by zig-zagging geometric lines–it’s a farm of techies illuminated by rows of fluorescent lights, but it’s also intended to please the eye.

One of the reasons entrepreneurs flock to Silicon Valley is to seek mentorship. The Sherpas trio meets with Sylvain Bureau, Chair of Entrepreneurship for ESCP Europe, to pitch the benefits of their service and listen to his advice about ways to bolster their program. Bureau also points out which challenges they should watch out for down the road.

After the meeting, the Sherpas attend a lecture at 42 about failure, surrounded by the other hopeful startup founders that crowd the classroom. The lecturer urges them to understand that failure is, statistically, almost inevitable. It’s difficult to tell whether the faces looking back at him are believing that the message applies to them.

The seduction of success despite long odds is palpable when the Sherpas visit Braintree, a payments startup. The Braintree team eagerly recounts how immensely they have grown in the last five years as they take the Sherpas on a tour of their substantially-sized and impeccably designed office space. They’re practically extending a hand to the Sherpas and saying, “You can do this, too.”

Meanwhile back at Station F in Paris, Jasmine Anteunis, founder of Recast.AI, is perusing LinkedIn for talent. As she clicks through profiles, she laments the difficulties of recruiting developers as a startup. She says skilled developers receive “literally thousands of offers,” often from large companies that have bigger teams and more resources than she can offer.

Facing different but equally draining challenges is the Torq Labs duo, Justin Swenson and Julian Holtzman. As they trudge through a product meeting, their designer notices that Swenson looks exhausted and tells him to take care of himself. Later, there’s a shot of him working away in Station F after everyone else has gone home, the expanse of glass cubes serving as an isolating frame for his slouched figure. As he sips from an espresso cup, he says this will be his fifth night in a row of sleeping at the office. And there’s that optimism again: he says he recognizes that he and Holtzman are in the trough of a wave, but insists that from here, they can only go up.

This is the mindset that keeps founders going. As Delphine Asseraf, Leader of My Mobility Ecosystem for Allianz France, says, “There’s a certain state of mind, a unique mood that makes anything seem possible.” It colors the whole environment of Silicon Valley–although, as the key players at Station F assert, it is an atmosphere that can be replicated inside a former rail station as well.

Watch the third episode on Foundation’s website or YouTube channel.

This Review was first published by All Turtles on April 20, 2018.