“If France was more like Netvibes, things might be a lot better here,” says Tariq Krim, with disarming frankness. The website, which he runs out of Paris, is the most popular of a new class that lets users snap together individual components such as blog feeds, e-mail accounts, news headlines and videos to create a “dashboard”, or home page, that displays all their online information. If only his country — with its grand projects, restrictive labour rules and social hierarchy — showed similar flexibility, laments the 34-year-old Frenchman. Politicians on the stump seem to agree. Having snapped together journalism, business ventures and politics in his own career, Mr Krim is now cast as a paragon of Europe’s new generation of internet entrepreneurs.
The son of well-to-do Algerian immigrants, Mr Krim grew up in the Marais, a chic Paris neighbourhood. He was given a computer at the age of nine, and by the age of 12 he was cooking up his own software for Minitel, France’s national data network, which predated the web. In secondary school he insisted on being taught English with an American accent, corresponded with an American pen pal and spent a few weeks as an exchange student at a high school in New York. After completing his studies in engineering at ENST in Paris, one of France’s grandes écoles, he went back to America for an internship at Sun Microsystems, a computer-maker that was expanding fast as the internet took off.
Mr Krim duly caught the internet bug, but instead of becoming a computer engineer, he began covering the internet for La Tribune, a business newspaper. “At the time, few journalists in France knew the internet and many distrusted it,” says Paul-André Tavoillot, his boss at the time. Mr Krim felt his countrymen were not taking the new technology seriously, and wanted to do something about it. “In France the internet is a gadget,” he says. “In America the net is a real industry.” One day in 1999, while interviewing an executive from an online-music start-up at an internet conference in San Francisco, Mr Krim changed tack yet again. “What am I doing?” he remembers asking himself. “I’m on the wrong side of the interview.”
So he launched a site called mptrois.com, which grew into GenerationMP3.com, a popular network of French music blogs. The inspiration for Netvibes came to Mr Krim one day as he was trying to track the activity on all his blogs. To save himself having to click from one to the next, he used “Web 2.0″ programming tricks to enable him to oversee all his blogs from a single page. Backed by angel investors including Martin Varsavsky, an Argentine-Spanish entrepreneur, and Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape, Mr Krim turned the tool into a business. Launched in September 2005, Netvibes attracted 15,000 users on the first day and has since grown quickly: the number of users is expected to exceed 10m this month. Last August two venture-capital firms, Accel Partners and Index Ventures, invested €12m ($15.4m) in the company. Originally launched in English and French versions, Netvibes has since been translated by volunteers into 50 other languages, including Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, Russian and even Catalan and Basque. So far the firm has relied entirely on word-of-mouth promotion by its fervent adherents to attract users.
France’s politicians have also noticed Netvibes, and have courted Mr Krim. Speaking in December at a conference in Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy, the centre-right candidate in France’s forthcoming presidential election, cited him as one of the country’s examples of “exceptional talent” in the internet realm. Not to be outdone, Ségolène Royal, Mr Sarkozy’s Socialist rival for the presidency, is using Netvibes to distribute news about her campaign.
Since the grim blocks of Paris’s banlieues, best known for the car-burning riots of 2005, are far from Mr Krim’s soigné background, he has resisted attempts to make him a mascot for successful beurs — French slang for people, such as the footballer Zinedine Zidane, of North African descent. He is, however, making his own political use of technology, bringing together 1,000 French business people and activists in an invitation-only online think-tank called Digital Catalyst. “There’s a lot of people like me in France, but we don’t know each other,” he says of the group. “It’s key that the right people meet one another. If this works, we could have Politics 2.0.”
The €64m question
It may be popular with the politicians, but will Netvibes prove to be a viable business? Mr Krim has replicated the Silicon Valley start-up model right down to the “build it and they will come” attitude of the late 1990s. Rather than cluttering up users’ dashboards with advertising, the obvious source of revenue, Netvibes follows a sponsorship model. Les Echos, for example, a business newspaper, offers a Netvibes module that provides financial alerts and drives traffic to its website. Netvibes also has revenue-sharing agreements with firms such as eBay and Snap.com that offer services through its site, but these are not yet making much money. Investors do not seem to be worried, however. A site that millions of people are using as their internet home page “will have many interesting revenue opportunities,” insists Neil Rimer of Index Ventures.
Today’s trend is for start-ups to attract a large audience and then sell themselves to a giant such as Google, Yahoo! or eBay. Mr Krim’s co-chief executive at Netvibes, Pierre Chappaz, did just that, selling Kelkoo (a comparison-shopping site) to Yahoo! for $575m in 2004. As the leader in personalised home pages — its MyYahoo! service has over 50m users, though it is less sophisticated than Netvibes — Yahoo! would be an obvious buyer. But Mr Krim insists that he wants to stay independent for the time being. “Since I was a little kid, I wanted to be my own boss,” he says. In a country where most students say they dream of growing up to become civil servants, this makes him — whatever Mr Sarkozy would wish — the French exception.