If Emmanuel Macron wants to turn France into a startup nation, he would do well to take direction from Xavier Niel, billionaire entrepreneur and founder of Iliad, the communications company that has brought its revolutionary system to Italy's communications market.
Born 51 years ago in a suburban Parisian banlieu, Niel is the perfect example of a self-made man, having built himself a financial empire from the ground up. Today that success comes from Iliad, which secured a million customers in Italy in under a year. But technology has been in Niel’s blood since before the turn of the century: back in the 80s when he was still a student, he founded Minitel Rose, a Minitel hotline of huge success.
And that was just the beginning. Niel’s fortunes surged forth with the progression of technology: in ‘94 he was the face of Worldnet, the first French internet service provider, which he launched together with three partners after a trip to the US to discover the new frontiers of the internet. The scheme’s key features were the same ones that would become the leitmotif of his career: low prices and breaking down the commercial status quo, which, in France, meant rates that were much more affordable than France Telecom’s.
His leitmotif has remained the same as always: low prices and breaking down the commercial status quo.
After Worldnet came Free, another internet provider that was yet more innovative, not requiring a phone line and offering even faster speeds. And so Iliad, his companies’ parent group, began to expand: in 2000, the company’s network was interconnected with Telecom’s, in 2004 it was all set to go on the Paris Stock Exchange and, in terms of success with customers, it became the second most frequently chosen French operator after Orange.
The rest is more or less recent history: an agreement between 3 and Wind threw open the doors to a new mobile telephone services supplier in Italy and Iliad stepped into the country with an unprecedented offer that had its competition retreating to lower rates.
But Niel does not operate solely in telecommunications. In March 2010, he founded Kima Ventures alongside Jeremie Berrebi. The fund invests in a hundred or so startups around the world every year, enough that Business Insider called it, “The most active seed-stage fund in the world.” Niel also became co-owner of Le Monde - one of France’s largest newspapers - in 2010.
Niel has decided to pass his wealth (and not just his financial wealth) onto young people, by opening a very special programming school: “All you need is an ID card and proof that you are aged between 18 and 28,” he once said. “You don't need a CV and we don't want to know anything about the candidate’s past. The school receives about 70,000 applications. We run a first selection stage consisting of online games, then we throw around 3,000 young people into the ‘piscine’ [literally, swimming pool, effectively meaning bootcamp], where they work fairly constantly for around 450 hours over the course of a month. The best 1,000 who prove they are ‘able to swim’, become students at our school”. Say goodbye to conformism.