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The keys to international development: Entrepreneurship in Quebec

More and more French startups are marketing their solutions internationally. These start-ups often favor mature markets that are culturally similar and well-structured, with access to a large pool of potential consumers. Quebec, where the language is not a barrier to entry and the entrepreneurial ecosystem is very dynamic, is one source of exciting opportunities for French start-ups.


For an entrepreneur, the choice of the export country is a crucial step in the international development process. Startups often prefer well-structured markets such as the United States, which offers a gateway to a potentially huge market. But another North American market also attracts French start-ups: Canada. Whatever the reason - for the quality of the working environment, or the range of financing available - more and more French startups want to set up business there. Here’s some advice from five experts to help you expand internationally in Quebec.

Research local opportunities to choose your destination

Over the past few decades, Canada has earned a reputation as the country that attracts the largest number of job seekers and students. These newcomers get direct support from the Canadian government to create small businesses, notably through the Business Start-Up Visa scheme. Since 2013, the government has offered this initiative to attract immigrant entrepreneurs in the technology sectors, making room for new projects from around the world.  The country also strongly encourages international entrepreneurship by facilitating access to financing and support for foreign entrepreneurs. Quebec is also a good alternative for those who wish to set up business in Canada and benefit from the proximity of the American market - without any language barrier! In recent years, a number of Franco-Quebec agreements have been signed to attract and facilitate the arrival of young French entrepreneurs.

Nathalie Narboni-Isal, Head of promotion for the “Entrepreneurs and Partnerships” program at the Quebec Ministry of Immigration in France, presented the opportunities available in Quebec at the Hacking de l'Hôtel de Ville in Paris on 6 March 2020.  During the round table "The keys to international development: Entrepreneurship in Quebec", Nathalie Narboni-Isal explained that the notion of proximity is a pillar of Quebec's innovation ecosystem. "There are 8.6 million inhabitants in Quebec. If you participate in networking events once a week, after a month you will be called by your first name!”.

To do business in this North American market, you need to be well informed and to immerse yourself in the already highly developed entrepreneurial fabric of the region. "A lot of support and services are available from incubators, accelerators, schools and universities or research networks," explains Nathalie Narboni-Isal. All these players work within the ecosystem to encourage the arrival of new French projects. Several initiatives encourage project leaders to make the leap, such as the International Startup Festival, Montreal’s annual summer tech event launched in 2011. It highlights entrepreneurship and attracts more than 2,500 local and international participants each year.

To find out more about financing mechanisms, cost of living and taxes, go to the link below for fact sheets on Canada produced by Business France:

Relays in France offer support during the process

Once the destination has been chosen, entrepreneurs can count on relays in their country of origin to launch their international development project. Several years ago, in response to the need for startups to go international, support structures in France began to gradually weave their international network. After initial studies to determine which locations are most in demand, these support structures form partnerships with sister organizations in the countries concerned or sometimes offer their own acceleration programs abroad. Paris&Co works in coordination with the MTLab, the first and only incubator specializing in tourism in North America, to promote collaboration and facilitate the development of French startups in Quebec.

Other French structures, such as Business France, support French companies abroad while helping foreign companies to invest in France. Business France has already accompanied more than 800 startups in their deployment abroad since 2014. It provides a range of programs adapted to each phase of maturity, to help young companies go international. Business France helps early-stage startups gain visibility via French Tech's flagship events abroad. More mature startups can ask Business France for individual support to generate concrete commercial leads and assimilate local business methods. Thomas Vial, Director of the Startup Acceleration Consulting Department at Business France, points out that Quebec remains geographically remote and that local deployment requires solid financing. French structures can facilitate contacts with local partners and investors.

The cultural barrier remains a real obstacle for many young French companies. The choice of Quebec makes it possible to overcome the language barrier and get a grip on Anglo-Saxon working methods in a region where French know-how is highly recognized and appreciated. Yet Nathalie Narboni-Isal insists on the fact that although French is spoken in Quebec, consumer habits and work methods are not the same. Abdoulaye Samba, founder of Gigz, a French startup that has successfully established itself in Quebec, acknowledges that the corporate culture is different: "I salute Quebec's pragmatism. We go straight to the basics. When we left meetings, we would be asked what we had learned, what were the next steps to take. We immediately got the go or no-go. In France, it's different - we never say no, never yes". 

Building partnerships to overcome cultural barriers

By choosing Canada, French startups often seek a market fit related to cultural barriers perceived as less difficult to overcome. However, many entrepreneurs insist that it is crucial to establish partnerships with pre-existing structures to get around cultural barriers. "At the cultural level, it's complicated. We chose to work with a local Quebec company to do the sales piece. As a Frenchman, it seemed complicated, despite the very warm welcome I received," explains Abdoulaye Samba. Of Franco-Senegalese origin, this young project leader received financial assistance from the Franco-Quebec Office to implement his solution in Quebec. Gigz analyzes consumer purchasing behaviors to help companies roll out highly targeted digital advertising campaigns and increase their conversion rates. Thomas Vial adds that recruiting talent directly onsite can facilitate market integration. “I encourage you to visit the Team France Export service platform, a complete program for assistance in how to adapt your international strategy and in particular, how to structure your team.”

Martin Lessard, Managing Director of the MTLab, insists that it is vital to connect with foreign entrepreneurs who have successfully deployed their business internationally, to learn about the difficulties they may have encountered. Peer-to-peer learning is a method widely used at the MTLab to facilitate the arrival of foreign entrepreneurs. This key step in successfully deploying your solution abroad fosters collaboration amongst entrepreneurs, encouraging and strengthening the entrepreneurial fabric of Quebec.