Denis Payre can still remember how shocked his friends were. In 1990, he and Bernard Liautaud, a colleague at the French division of Oracle Systems Corp., the U.S. software maker, quit to go out on their own. The French, says Payre, view startups as "doomed to failure," and they figured Payre would soon be bankrupt.

Wrong. Liautaud's and Payre's company, Business Objects, was the most successful technology startup floated on NASDAQ in the U.S. last year. No wonder. Sales rose 114% in 1994, to $30 million, while profits rose tenfold, to $2.4 million. The stock, now trading at around 31, has risen from the initial price of 171/2.

DAUNTING TRIP. Liautaud and Payre, both 32, were galvanized by their exposure to U.S. business culture. Liautaud studied engineering and management at Stanford University, while Payre worked for two years in the U.S. for Thomson. Their key breakthrough was recognizing an engineer's brilliant idea and licensing the technology to develop a new software niche. While the client-server revolution technically gave every manager access to huge data banks via personal computers, navigating the programming language to get the data was daunting. Liautaud and Payre developed decision-support software that makes the personal computer's communication with the mainframe easy, just as Apple Computer Inc.'s original Macintosh used icons to let the operator click from one application to another.

Major U.S. investors jumped in, including Goldman Sachs, Alex. Brown, and former Oracle Chairman Donald L. Lucas. Business Objects went global from the start, setting up a U.S. headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., and the language of the company is English. "We don't view ourselves as a French company, but as a Euro-U.S. venture," says Payre. Until there are more European success stories, that hybrid formula is probably the best bet that technology entrepreneurs in Continental Europe have.

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