After being a company director and then setting up on his own, Jean-Michel Ledru founded EDHEC Young Entrepreneurs (EYE), the startup incubator of EDHEC business school, which he has run for the past five years. EYE helps EDHEC students and graduates set up businesses in Paris, Lille and Nice.
What’s the typical profile of these young entrepreneurs? What sort of assistance do they need? What advice could future entrepreneurs benefit from? Jean-Michel Ledru gave us the answers to these questions and more.
The incubator: EDHEC’s “after-sales service”
Jean-Michel Ledru: When we start working with EDHEC students and graduates, they’re still at the idea stage. So we’re at the exploratory phase. Once the concept is validated, we move onto the incubation phase, after which the company is created. The entrepreneur then goes before a commission that decides whether or not to assist them, and if they do, that’s the end of the incubation phase and then there’s a 3-year consolidation phase. For some companies, we can offer a further two years of acceleration.
Everything we do is for free: we don’t take a stake in the company, even in Paris and Nice where we house startups on our premises.
“We offer an additional service to the school: we’re a sort of after-sales service for the academic side of things!”
Afterwards, we’re still available for the startups once they leave the incubator: they’re part of our community, are invited to events and can help coach and support the entrepreneurs in the incubator. Sometimes they seek help elsewhere, but we saw them “grow up” and have built up a bond of trust with them – and it’s difficult to get that from an investor. We have a special bond with these entrepreneurs, which is why they come back to as at strategic phases because they want to get our insights or share doubts with us.
What sort of entrepreneurs do you work with?
What’s different about our organisation is that 40% of our entrepreneurs are women. That’s well above the national average in France (37% for entrepreneurs and 25% for female company heads, according to an article in Les Echos). But that‘s only natural because there’s a good gender balance among our students.
Since its inception in 2010, EYE has helped set up 90 companies which have created 450 jobs and raised €10 million in funds. These include Pumpkin, a Lille-based startup that was on the EDHEC and Euratechnologies incubator programmes, which has developed an app whereby individuals can pay back loans to their friends and raised €600,000. Page Yourself, a service for customising your Facebook page, won the City of Paris Innovation Prize, and Lemontri, a startup that specialises in waste sorting for recycling, raised €400,000 of funds.
It’s our job to help all these entrepreneurs, not just the companies that specialise in new technologies: we work with jewellery and clothes brands, as well as entrepreneurs in cutting-edge sectors like IoT. There are actually lots of similarities between helping technology companies and generic companies: the aim is always to help them structure their governance as effectively as possible and get organised.
What’s the typical background of an entrepreneur who comes to see you?
We provide coaching and mentoring services, which involves getting the entrepreneur to ask themselves the right questions. We don’t do things for them, we just guide them. In the end, it’s always down to them to make the decisions.
“We are very committed to respecting the entrepreneur’s freedom: we’re not there to control them or mould them. We’re a bit like personal trainers: our goal is to make sure our protégés win the race!”
We have a network of members of the teaching staff and alumni, but also external partners such as the Entreprendre network, banks, lawyers. They all bring their expertise and insights in specific areas and we work with them to help the startups put together their business plan, prepare for meetings with banks and business angels, draw up financial dashboards, etc.
But we don’t just give them advice – we give practical help. And everything we do is on a one-to-one basis: we don’t manage things collectively because we believe each subject is unique.
As an entrepreneur, you have to set yourself targets and learn how to manage your time
In what areas do entrepreneurs need the most help?
It varies. As we cover a variety of areas of running a company, there are no limits. But our speciality is organisation and project management.
“Entrepreneurs, and not just young ones, lack experience in time and team management. People who’ve worked in companies have had some sort of structure but when you’re on her own, you need self-discipline and have to set yourself a personal excellence goal for your project because there’s no outside pressure to do so.”
What advice would you give someone who wants to set up a business?
The first piece of advice would be to draw up a plan with specific goals for each day, week, month, quarter and year. You have to ask yourself: how can I best use my time today? What do I want to achieve by the end of the week, month, quarter? And you need to answer these questions based on those targets.
When you’re on your own, or even when you’re in a team, and there’s no outside pressure, you have to create it! To do that you need to implement a governance system with a steering committee – even if the members don’t have a stake in the company – which will mean you have to produce regular reports and commit to objectives.
Another thing to be careful about: time management.
“When you set up a business, there are two energies: money and time. As you usually start off with limited resources, it’s vital to know how much time to spend on a project.”
What sort of obstacles can an entrepreneur come across?
One of the difficulties is striking a balance between the dream and reality. A lot of our entrepreneurs are in a dream: they want to change the world and quote astronomical figures. It’s good to be ambitious and have a vision, but you also need to be very down-to-earth about what needs to be done, here and now. You can’t waste time on pipe dreams! Sometimes I use the following analogy to get this idea across:
“It’s all very well wanting to build a hotel on Mars, but when you’ve never sent anything into space, you have to start by trying to send a rocket round the atmosphere: if you don’t do that, you’ll never make it to Mars!”
What sort of qualities does an entrepreneur need?
It’s hard to generalise because all entrepreneurs are different. For example, some have loads of charisma and fail, whilst others have none and succeed.
“It’s actually rather reassuring that there isn’t such a thing as a typical entrepreneur profile: anyone can set up a successful business if they really put their mind to it.”
I believe we all have a spark within us that, given the right circumstances, can create a business!
Are more young people setting up on their own these days than a few years ago?
Definitely. This year, we’re setting up a network of student entrepreneurs: we’ll select 50 students from the September intake at EDHEC. They’ll be exempt from optional lectures in the second term so they can spend time setting up their business. We’ll shortlist 20 projects from the Master 1 and 2 classes and give them a flexible class schedule.
Digital: fostering entrepreneurship
Is it easy to be an entrepreneur?
20 years ago, apart from Chambers of Commerce, there weren’t many organisations to help entrepreneurs. Whereas now there are lots of non-profit organisations, incubators, accelerators, networks… So from that point of view it’s much easier now.
Digital also helps entrepreneurship because it means you can do things quickly.
“Before digital, you couldn’t really say: ‘I’m a student and an entrepreneur’. These days, all you need is a computer to set up your own business! With digital tools, we’re seeing the emergence of younger and younger entrepreneurs.”
Read our series of articles on entrepreneurship:
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