Postcard from Paris: why FinTech’s future looks bright in the City of Light

Paris is fast becoming a FinTech frontrunner. Azimo Product Maestro and French expat Richard Giannetti took a trip back home to find out why.

Last month I travelled to the French capital to attend the Paris Fintech Forum. The event was held in the stunning former home of the Paris Stock Exchange, Palais Brongniart on Place de la Bourse, and the old-school location provided a fitting contrast to the disruptive buzz within – as a native Frenchman now living and working in London, I was fascinated to see how much FinTech is changing the traditional world of French finance.

The intensive two-day forum attracted an impressive 200+ C-level senior speakers and at least 1,800 delegates, which meant I got the chance to meet and listen to some of the industry’s leading lights, both local and global. And the overriding message? That the French FinTech scene has developed beyond all recognition in the space of a few years.

Not so long ago, if someone had asked me if anybody at banking giant BNP Paribas would have a clue what MVP, Sprints or Agile meant, I would have laughed out loud. But not any more. Today French tech talent is sprinting alongside San Francisco and London.

Collaboration is the key, with young start-ups and major incumbents such as Orange and BNP combining to create an open mindset around sharing best practice, an incredible willingness to disrupt a bloated market, and the desire to go beyond the old banking system status quo to offer a vastly improved customer experience.

Agile dinosaurs

During the last year or so BNP Paribas has established a cross-functional initiative, gathering together a small group of experts with differing skill sets to brainstorm new ways to improve the overall customer experience. From conception to execution, the team is fully autonomous. I’ve grown used to this kind of forward-thinking approach in smaller start-ups, but it’s hugely refreshing to see it adopted by industry giants like this.

One of the most absorbing speeches during the forum was entitled “Bank + FinTech, A Love Story?”, and it featured Crédit Mutuel Arkea CEO Ronan Le Moal and Leetchi/Mangopay CEO Céline Lazorthes. The pair showed the audience how the two companies had managed to make their teams work together towards a common goal. The result of this agile cross-platform learning had been a better user experience across the board. Finally, French “dinosaurs” are realising the huge advantages of working with start-ups rather than against them.

Paris – a new start-up star

During her speech at the forum, Minister of State for Digital Affairs Axelle Lemaire waxed lyrical about the tech start-up talent in the French capital – and with good reason. Opening in April 2017 in the 13th arrondissement, Station F will be the largest start-up campus in the world with more than 3,000 co-working desks for hire in the old Halle Freyssinet train depot.

It will also be home to Facebook’s Startup Garage initiative, the company’s first-ever business incubator – not a bad coup for a country often lampooned for its rigid labour market, crippling taxes and seemingly never-ending strikes. You know things are changing for the good when Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg praises you as “a city of new ideas”, and Paris is taking full advantage of its neighbour’s Brexit separation anxieties to flourish as a fully-fledged FinTech hub.

Generation oui

Wandering around the Palais Brongniart, it was clear that the old establishment is still strongly represented in the French start-up scene. But even here things are changing – HEC, Polytechnique, ESSEC and other French business grandes écoles are no longer the only routes to success. I met plenty of young people from less traditional backgrounds using their own unique skills to change the FinTech rules – and the grandes écoles themselves are changing with the times as they open up incubator programmes to anyone with a great idea and an even better execution plan. As I boarded the Eurostar to head back to London, one thing was abundantly clear: Paris is now firmly on the millennials’ map.

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