Xavier Niel doesn’t do things like everyone else, everyone else tries to do things like him. A free thinker, a gifted entrepreneur, a maverick investor… Xavier Niel, the very public vice-president and director of strategy at Iliad, will go down in history as the man who broke the mold of what a French entrepreneur could be.
The notoriety of his name conceals a personality that is as mercurial as ever, oscilating between a thirst for progress and an obsession with proving people wrong. Beyond being a captain of industry, the French digital doyen impresses observers of the business world and fascinates even seasoned political moguls.
Father of the set-top box
“Innovation has been the making of Free, not our low prices.” Responding to criticism of his low-end products, Xavier Niel took the opportunity to remind everyone of the key to his upstart success against the established players of the telecoms market: the rejection of existing business models and the embracing of avant-garde inspiration. The father of the set-top box in France, Niel was the first to proposed the triple-play offer of internet, television and telephony. With it, broadband internet became accessible to the masses. His frantic race towards the democratization of technology didn’t stop there: the Free wi-fi network, the Free box with built-in Blu-ray player, Free mobile - a secret weapon that rivals have still not fully come to terms with… Niel understands the battlefield and has boldly crushed competition with his innovative concepts.
Starting from nothing, Xavier Niel managed in just seventeen years to create a company valued at more than eleven billion dollars. How did a shy teenager from the unfashionable Paris suburb of Creteil, who had no taste for school, manage to become the poster boy for French business?
Sex sells… Mintels
The adventure of this born conqueror began with the Minitel computer in the 1980s. Aged 20 and studying science, he understood the commercial potential of this forerunner to internet enabled devices, which was a common sight in French homes thanks to public subsidies. Niel saw dollar signs and decided to drop out of college to get rich quick. He immersed himself in computer science and began to develop call and chat programs for Mintel’s connected individuals. Around the same time, he hacked into a phone directory held by the government and the President of the Republic, gaining access to inumerable contacts.
But make no mistake about it, it was with the Minitel Rose program, - think cyber-sex meets teletext - that he made his, and Mintel’s, fortune, as people up and down the country ran up hefty phone bills exchanging steamy messages with one another. After buying and selling short story service Pon Editions for 800 times what he paid, at the age of 24 Niel was now a millionaire with the means to industrialize his Mintel Rose operation, making thousands of pages of content available to keep users seduced.
Niel attracted the wrath of competitors, who denounced his activities, and also his methods, which ignored the unwritten rules of business in France. After investments in Parisian sex shops and the unauthorised copying of the French telephone directory, the future spearhead of the French economy was in a delecate position in the eyes of the law. In 2004 he was found guilty of receiving stolen company property, although cleared of a second charge of pimping.
Respectability and philanthropy
For this founding father of French Tech, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since the mid-noughties. Xavier Niel surfed a wave of success due to his internet access provider business and married Delphine Arnault, one of the heirs to the LVMH empire. Now accepted into the French business fold, these days he makes headlines because of personal initiatives to help a new generation of innovators. In March 2013, he established l’école 42 a school dedicated to giving access to computer programming to all by offering high-quality training free of charge regardless of ones qualifications. More recently, in June 2017, Station F – the self-styled largest incubator in the world – commenced operations. More than 170 million dollars have been directly invested in Station F by Niel who has willingly taken on a civic responsibility for the development of French startups. The standard bearer of innovation remains a key figure in the French tech movement. Niel also co-owns Le Monde newspaper and is on a first name terms with president Macron. This shaper of public behaviour is now a shaper of a public opinion, which seems more devoted to him than ever.