Seven things to know about Xavier Niel, the self-taught billionaire

Posted on January 24, 2023, 10:44 amUpdated on January 24, 2023 at 10:46 am

At the age of 55, Xavier Niel is what is called a “serial entrepreneur”. Born in Val-de-Marne in 1967 to a middle-class family, as a teenager he quickly became passionate about the developing world of computing in the 1980s.

According to the latest ranking of the economic magazine “Forbes”, he is today the eighth wealth of France with 8.9 billion dollars of personal wealth. The head of Iliad, the parent company of the telecom operator Free, Xavier Niel is directly or indirectly involved in about fifty companies, either as a manager, shareholder (minority, majority), investor or simple advisor. This, in two key sectors of today’s economy: telecom and internet.

Overview of what makes the businessman singular among the great French entrepreneurs.

1. First steps as an entrepreneur in… Pink Minitel

“I only have one job in my life, it’s free, the rest are related activities. “. This is the phrase that Xavier Niel likes to repeat to the press. The world of telecom is really where it all started for him. His first steps there were also unusual: since 1984, the then high school student started an autodidact in the “pink Minitel”, creating there several services with erotic content.

With his degree in hand, from 1987 he bought with Fernand Develter, former head of Société Générale, Fermic Multimedia, a company specialized in the production of this type of content for Minitel . The two partners named it Iliad, which has since become the parent company of the successful Internet and mobile operator Free.

In addition to this activity, the two entrepreneurs invest in sex shops and “peep shows”. These two profitable activities allow Xavier Niel to become a millionaire at only 24 years old. On the flip side of the coin a few years later: in 2006, the boss of Free was sentenced in court to two years of suspended prison and a fine of 250,000 euros for concealing the abuse of social property in his sex shop business. .

2. Web pioneer in France

His taste for computers and technological innovation in general naturally made the future big boss interested in the arrival of the Internet in France.

An intuition that led him, in 1995, to invest in Worldnet, the leading provider of Internet access to the general public in France, sold for 40 million euros in 2000 to the former telecom group Neuf Cegetel (itself merged with SFR in 2009). This experience allows Xavier Niel to gain knowledge in the technical and economic functioning of the Internet.

3. Inventor of the “web box”

In 1999, the entrepreneur decided to launch his own Internet access offering by creating the Free subsidiary. With his two closest collaborators at the time, Rani Assaf, his technical director, and Michaël Golan, his right-hand man, they had the pioneering idea of ​​creating a “box” that made it possible to pair through the same line, telephone. , television and internet.

A technical concept that had to be invented from A to Z because the technology did not exist. The bet was won with the official release of the first Freebox on November 1, 2002, along with the first French triple play offer.

4. Free, her hen that lays golden eggs

Thirty-five years after its creation, the Iliad group remains the main company of Xavier Niel, in which he holds the majority of the capital (96.40%). The Free entity is one of its main economic engines, as the fourth French mobile phone operator and the second in the Internet via fiber.

On January 10, 2012, Free launched, for only 19.99 euros, an unlimited mobile call and SMS package with 3 GB of internet data per month. All without commitment. The offer at that time was unprecedented from the quality/price ratio, it disturbed the market. The current French operators (Orange, Bouygues Telecom, SFR) will align, reducing the cost of their packages over the years.

After several decades, at the end of 2021, Xavier Niel decides, against all odds, to withdraw the Iliad from Bursa so that it is less subject to pressure from the financial markets. The decision has so far paid off, with a 29.2% increase in group turnover between March 2021 and March 2022, to €7.6 billion.

5. One of the most prolific French investors

Individually or through his investment funds, Xavier Niel is one of the most prolific investors in France and the number 1 impresario of beginning french. With his investment fund Kima Ventures, launched in 2010 with French-Israeli entrepreneur Jérémie Berrebi, he has invested in more than 800 start-ups.

Among its successful investments in French Tech, we can mention the music streaming platform Deezer, or Devialet, the French manufacturer of high-end audio systems. Recently, we find in his Sorare portfolio the start-up for the exchange of virtual sports cards using blockchain, the online insurer Alan or even Zenly, a Parisian start-up for the geolocation of individuals, since the American social network Snapchat bought for 300 million euros.

Among the international nuggets for which Xavier Niel had a flair, we find the leader in tourist rental among individuals Airbnb, the VTC giant Uber or Nestlabs (now Google Nest), which produces devices for connecting everyday electronic objects via the Wi-Fi network .

6. Active press chief

While his core business remains centered around telecom and digital technology news, the man also plays an active role in the print sector. His most important achievement was his entry in June 2010 as a reference shareholder in the “Le Monde” group, publisher of the evening daily, as well as other important titles such as the magazines “Télérama”, “Courrier international” or « Obs ».

In this operation to recapitalize the group, which at the time was in financial difficulties, he joined forces with businessman Matthieu Pigasse. Since then, the two bosses have invested around fifty million euros.

Xavier Niel is also present in the capital of other media, some newly born, others in difficulty. In 2010, for example, he was one of the first investors in the online investigative newspaper “Mediapart”. In February 2020, he took over the local press group of the daily newspapers “Nice-Matin”, “Monaco-Matin” and “Var-Matin”. In March 2020, he summarized the regional daily “France-Antilles” and the equestrian newspaper “Paris-Turf”.

In 2016, the entrepreneur joined forces again with Matthieu Pigasse and Pierre-Antoine Capton to launch Mediawan, a European audiovisual group that he finances through a SPAC-type stock market vehicle. Today, the production company is valued at 1 billion euros and has produced successful fictions such as the series “HPI” or the feature film “November”.

Today he is a candidate for DTT frequencies. With, in front of him, the M6.

7. Creator of digital schools

Convinced of the ability of the digital sector to create jobs in France, the entrepreneur is behind the creation of several start-up incubators and French higher education institutions. In June 2017, “Station F” was inaugurated in Paris, considered today as one of the largest start-up incubators in the world. Xavier Niel financed most of the project, in the amount of 250 million euros.

The boss of Free opened in September 2011 the European School of Internet professions. Accessible after graduation, this private school offers training in three or five years for operational functions in the digital world (web designer, data scientist, web traffic manager, graphic designers, etc.).

Two years later, he started school 42 , focused on learning computer code and the clean internet. This other educational facility is free and accessible without qualification, subject to an entrance test considered difficult. A US campus for the school opened in 2016, in Fremont in Silicon Valley.

In early 2021, the telecom mogul is doing it again by opening the Hectar “Farm-school”, which offers entrepreneurial training in organic farming. And, the following year, he founded a data-focused business school, the Albert School.

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