- Interview -
the gifted prodigy
In addition to his pleasant manner and passionate nature, Xavier Niel is a brilliant visionary gifted with an exceptionally keen mind. This is a man who knows all about originality, since he has never wanted to follow the crowd.
Xavier Niel, Iliad Group’s majority shareholder and founder as well as founder of Free and co-owner of newspapers such as Le Monde, is an IT specialist who started from nothing and has become a telecom giant, an inescapable business figure making major investments in the world of startups, media and real estate. From his early years as a 19-year-old computer programmer with just a baccalaureate to his name, he went on to launch an internet box in 2002 and revolutionized the mobile phone industry in 2012. Free has changed his life and his sphere of activity is constantly growing.
Yours is an atypical career in that you’re a self-taught man who has achieved impressive success and enjoyed a spectacular rise. What are the character traits that have enabled you to achieve this?
Above all it’s a matter of luck. Being in the right place at the right time. Luck is one of the key elements in any success, as is the determination to do things thoroughly. Often, people come to see us and tell us they have a super idea, but it doesn’t have much value in its raw state. What really counts is how capable they are of truly owning it and transforming it into a concrete project.
Do you think you have to be original in order to succeed?
Here at my company, we do indeed wish to do things differently. We don’t want to do what has been done elsewhere, but instead to imagine how tomorrow’s technologies will be used. Working on these premises, we develop projects that are both viable and valuable.
You contribute a great deal to your country; what is your motivation?
I am convinced that the state no longer has the means and thus the ability to make the country evolve, whereas it historically took on such a vast range of commitments. The other factor is that civil society has amazing capacities, notably through associations and other initiatives, so I think it’s important for everybody to do their part in their own way.
You have revolutionized the world of mobile phones with your low-cost rates; do you see other sectors in which margins could be slashed?
I don’t know whether one can describe it as a low-cost approach; it’s really just a matter of making a sector more affordable that it was before. Could that in fact be the definition of the “uberization” of society? In actual fact, some revenues are based on de facto legal or historical monopolies with very high overheads; and having now entered the digital age, are we not capable of reinventing all these sectors?
Basically it’s a logical evolution of consumer habits and has always existed in the past; perhaps the real difference is the speed at which it’s happening?
Exactly. Historically such changes took place over several generations, but these days they can happen in a few months. We live in a world in which creating a group no longer requires a lot of capital. If your grandparents wanted to found a major company, it necessarily involved factories and so that meant money. Today, the top global corporations in terms of capitalization are tech companies, invented by people with no liquid assets. That actually makes capitalism fairer, more accessible and more acceptable.
What would you like to do now?
My one and only true profession is in telecoms. I exercise it many different places, but what I really like is doing it here in France, in my home country.
Do you have a motto?
Not really. I’m an inveterate optimist. Doubtless one of my secrets is telling myself that anything is possible and that we will succeed. I think as far as any project is concerned, that if you start with a negative outlook, you will never make it.
Interview by Anouk Julien-Blanco