“The only truth for an entrepreneur is perseverance”

Maxime Marzin, head of the Sciences Po business incubator, talked to us about the fantasies, setbacks and successes of the students he accompanies on the great adventure of entrepreneurship.

  • How does the Sciences Po incubator differ from those of other universities?

Nobody comes to Sciences Po to be an entrepreneur, that’s a given. So we weren’t going to create a specific Master’s programme. However, if any of our students do want to start a business, at whatever stage of their studies, we want them to find the support they need. That’s the objective of the programme we’ve developed.

Our incubator is strongly supported by Sciences Po and that is one of our strengths. Our ability to activate our faculty and alumni networks means that our start-up founders can meet the right person at the right time.
I know of incubators where start-ups are told, “I’m not here to be your sales rep”.
At Sciences Po, it’s the opposite. We think it’s perfectly reasonable to put people in touch and we’re not afraid to get our feet wet. We are also willing to place real orders with some new start-ups so they can have Sciences Po as a client, and thereby get some practice and test their products.

Finally, some incubators only give their start-ups three months to take off. Personally, I can’t imagine Thomas Edison thinking: “I’ve got three months to succeed, then I give up”. We set our incubation period at twelve months. It’s a little arbitrary, but that way Sciences Po gives companies the time to form and move forward. It’s a luxury.

  • Do you know in advance if a start-up is going to take off?

No, it’s impossible to say. Luck is a big factor. Out of all the start-ups that have been through the incubator, a third died in the first six months, a third haven’t quite found their business model, and a third have become small businesses. But while I can’t tell in advance which ones are headed for success, I know which start-ups are doomed to failure.

  • Why?

Paradoxically, the incubated companies that run aground are usually the ones that either stick too closely to what we tell them, or apply less than 20 percent of the advice we give them. The first are not critical enough, and they haven’t understood that if there were a formula for success, everyone would follow it. The second are too stubborn to realise that even if they want to change they world, they have to start with the world we’ve got.
Those who succeed are somewhere in between. They are free to choose from the advice they’re given, but they apply at least some of it.

  • So is there no rule for success?

There’s only one thing I’m sure of: the only truth for an entrepreneur is perseverance. Discouragement and even failure inevitably lie in store somewhere along the road. The curve that I drew on my office window, which was designed by Paul Graham, founder of the US incubator Y Combinator, represents this state of mind.

It describes the psychological states that you go through when you found your start-up. First, euphoria, which might come after the first article in the press, for example. Then a fall, followed by a phase Graham calls “the trough of sorrow.” Next, when you change your product or concept, you plummet even further, and it is there, when you have reached rock bottom, that you realise your ability to bounce back and start to recover. The key thing is to know where you are on this curve, so you won’t be surprised at what comes next. That is what I explain to the new recruits at the first meeting I hold with them; I talk to them about this curve, and about the dangers of taking into account 20 percent or 100 percent of the advice they’re given.

  • And do they listen?

At that first meeting, yes. In fact I tell them a lot of things very early on, because afterwards I have no influence. And that’s perfectly normal, because in the incubator the rookies go through different phases. When they first get going, there’s all the excitement, particularly the thrill of not having anyone above them. Strictly speaking, they have no boss! At that stage they stop listening to me. When they come up against their first difficulties, they come back to me. Next, they find their feet and start raising funds, and then, very often, they take their distance again. It’s when they leave the incubator that they get back in contact – often with a touch of nostalgia.

Interview by Clémence Fulleda (class of 2014) and Anne-Sophie Beauvais (class of 2001)

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