Ross Douglas, Autonomy: Why I Chose Paris
Portrait of Ross Douglas, Founder & CEO of Autonomy, and the reasons why he chose Paris to set up the Urban Mobility Summit.
Founder & CEO
I am an English speaking entrepreneur. The anti-French joke in the English press is that “if the French aren’t striking, they’re out having lunch”. Why did I start a business in Paris and not London, or some other capital?
I started my working life as a tour guide in the Okavango Delta, which led me into wildlife filmmaking for National Geographic and other broadcasters. It was a time when large tracts of farmland were being converted to wildlife reserves to cater to the growing demand for safari tourism.
That was back in the 1990s and then in the 2000s I switched to creating art events, most notably the world’s first art fair focused on contemporary African art: The Joburg Art Fair. During my time involved in the business of art I still harboured a passion for the environment and read obsessively about global warming.
When I left South Africa for Paris it struck me that I could combine my knowledge of the events business with a subject devoted to reducing carbon emissions. Efficient urban mobility was that subject. Not only is it one of the best ways for the world to reduce emissions, but it’s also vital for reducing pollution and congestion.
Paris is a great place to build an international event on sustainable transport. With the world’s most transport companies head-quartered there. Paris lays a legitimate claim to ‘mobility capital of the world’. Paris has the political will to be a ‘post-car metropolis’; and it is located in the middle of Europe, connected to London, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt by high speed train.
There are other advantages too:
- A pool of well-educated, multilingual graduates looking for meaningful work.
- The startup scene is strong.
- Transport is excellent and you can get around to numerous meetings in a day.
- Paris is hosting the 2024 Olympics.
- It’s a top tourist destination.
Despite having the right idea at the right time in the right place, it’s still not easy building a business. Autonomy, now in its 4th year, is enjoying 40% growth and has developed a strong brand in the space; but these wins have come at a substantial investment in time and money. It may take longer to build a business in France, as opposed to Britain or America, but with fewer copycat entrepreneurs than those regions, you can more easily defend your gains.
The annual Autonomy event attracts over 8 000 delegates and 200 mobility companies and startups from Europe, the United States and Asia as well as policymakers from over 60 countries. Our content site (Urban Mobility Daily) and newsletter (Urban Mobility Weekly) draws an audience of 10 000+ readers and subscribers from around the globe. Mobility as a sector is on the rise and Autonomy’s growth reflects this.
Has Paris been the right decision? Without doubt. London would have been difficult, what with Brexit and given that attracting European policymakers is key for us. The US would have been difficult too, as President Trump continues to move sustainability down the agenda. Every year we have more and more American clients wanting to deploy new mobility solutions in Europe, because car ownership is low and urban density high.
On a personal note, Paris is a great place to bring up a family. The social services are excellent and the schooling is of the world’s best. There is a magic to Paris that makes it a Mecca for tourists. But it’s more than a tourist destination, it’s a way of life that values civility and social good. I’m proud and honored to be part of a business dedicated to improving not only the functioning of the city, but its livability too. The city understands social good and values what we’re trying to do. I’m honored to be part of that story.