‘Ask Me Anything’ with Xavier Niel, founder of Free, 42 coding school, Kima, and STATION F

You have not seen him on stage during STATION F’s launch party, you rarely see him in the media, you almost never see him during events: Xavier Niel, the guy behind STATION F (and so many other things), has spent a whole day with us, answering our burning questions.

Xavier might be discreet in his public life, but he is very invested in the communities he’s building: many of our entrepreneurs have seen him wandering around STATION F campus (and by the way, he rarely says no to a selfie). That’s why we was thrilled to spend not just one hour, but a whole day with all 3,000 entrepreneurs based at STATION F.

The story of STATION F started when Xavier decided to buy the building that is now our home: a beautiful former train station in concrete, listed as a historical monument for its special architecture and design. He wanted to have a huge, emblematic place where thousands of entrepreneurs could thrive, surrounded by experts, resources, and above all, other entrepreneurs. Less than three years later STATION F has opened its doors to thousands of entrepreneurs, investors, experts, and more.

It is just the beginning of STATION F’s story, but today, September 20th, was pretty special.

OuiCrea and Arts et Métiers Accélération, 2 startup programs based at STATION F

A day with Xavier Niel

10 am: Xavier starts with meeting all startups taking part in a partner program on campus. STATION F counts 26 different startup programs, and 24 are managed by leaders in their industries like Facebook, vente privee, Thales, Microsoft, Ubisoft, Naver, and more. Although each program is run independently, they are all sharing an open space, attending events and meeting with each other all the time.

12pm: time for lunch with our Selection Board. Selection Board members are entrepreneurs helping us select candidates who applied to the Founders Program. In total, we have more than 100 entrepreneurs in our Selection Board, coming from 21 countries. All together, they raised $5billion in funding, have 25k employees worldwide and went through 32 acquisitions.

In the picture, you can spot some of them: Rachel Delacour from Zendesk (her startup Bime was acquired by them), Quentin Sannié (Devialet), Eric Carreel (Withings), Séverine Grégoire (MesDocteurs.com, Monshowroom.com), Lara Rouyrès (Selectionnist), or Marc-David Choukroun (La Ruche Qui Dit Oui).

STATION F’s Founders Program Selection Board

2pm: Now it’s the Founders Program’s turn to meet with Xavier! Almost 200 startups take part in the program. We’re proud to say that applications came from 50 different countries and that 40% of them have female founders!

Ask Me Anything session with Xavier Niel

4.30pm: the Master Stage, STATION F’s biggest auditorium, has never been that packed for an event. A.M.A sessions happen once or twice a month at STATION F with great speakers like the founders of Zenly, WeTransfer, or Jeff Clavier. The concept is simple: STATION F residents can attend and ask all the questions they want!

Here’s a selection of answers we got from this session, and you can watch the full version below!

For a lot of people, you are an inspiration: people want to identify to you. We have no time machine (yet) but tell us, what kind of person were you when you were the age of our residents?

“I was exactly like them but we were in a world that was less entrepreneurs-oriented than today, but this world always existed. I created my first company at 16, with no real legal status, and a real one at 18. It was the same state of mind at that time thanks to the Minitel, even though on a smaller scale!”

What are the top 3 entrepreneurship advice you ever received, that still resonate with you today?

  • “Optimism: back in the days, we had the right spirit. We were highly optimistic, we knew we were going to make it. Being optimistic has a huge impact and allows you to realize a ton of things.
  • Think global to reach the largest market possible: you need to have a business that can impact the entire globe. It is better to be small on a big market than to be big in a small market.
  • Last but not least, what comes on top of everything is fun: everyday, when I go to Free for work, I feel happy.”

How can entrepreneurs, especially foreigners, use France? What has the tech ecosystem to offer here?

“We have a fantastic chance to be in France — after all, “entrepreneur” is a French word. First of all, we have a great political environment. We are in a country where the current 39-year old President, knows, understands and loves startups.

France is definitely a welcoming environment for entrepreneurs, French or foreigners. This is key when you know that 75% of Silicon Valley founders were not born in the US!

Some love to mention France taxation policy or a so-called lack of capital in the ecosystem but this is just a question of perception: when you have a good project, there are no funding issues.

We are in a country that accepts failure and this is commonly accepted since 4 or 5 years (look at this book from Marc Simonci published in 2012). Many entrepreneurs at Station F told me it is their second or third startups and no one is going to ask them what happened with their former companies.

But relying on political initiatives is far from being enough: they change the structure but not the country. It is up to the society, it is up to you entrepreneurs to have this impact to change the life of billions of human beings.”

As an investor: everyone here dreams to have you in their capital. What do you look at: which qualities in the founders? Size of the market? Product’s features?

“First of all, I don’t handle my investments directly, my VC firm Kima does. The first criterion is: are the founders motivated enough. Of course they look at their projects… but having an idea is so simple. What is not, is how you execute it. All successful companies pivoted 3 or 4 times. Take Slack: it was a videogame company that was heading straight for disaster and was just their internal tool of communication. At the time, people bet on the founders, not the idea. Facebook? There are still ongoing pivots from their birth to today.

Now timing is also important. When is the right time to raise funds? We advocate for startups to raise as late as possible. The less you raise, the less you dilute yourself, better it is! Today, it is an element of pride now when you mention a D-round… but it shows you are not profitable! US VCs look at exponential KPIs. What disturbs me the most is more “the grey zone”: raising when you don’t need it.”

What are your views on “new” markets like weed-tech, cryptocurrencies ?

“On the weed tech, even though it is still anecdotal, it’s interesting to see how different are our views from France vs California. What surprises me the most is how California opens up to new horizons overnight: once it has been legalized, everyone was on the start to create its own business. I admire how fast they adapt to new challenges. We need to be as fast in France once there is a change in our regulations.

Regarding cryptocurrencies, I am a shareholder through Kima of fantastic crypto startups. With the ban of cryptocurrencies in some countries like China, there is a real opportunity in Europe and there are still many things to do to be up to the challenge.”

What is your take on diversity in entrepreneurship?

“We are proud to have 40% of our startups founded by women here at STATION F. This is insane: when I tell that to people, no one believes me! They think I’m just exaggerating figures, that STATION F is just like… 1,000 sq meters!

The truth is that we have built STATION F for diversity. It is led by a woman, the STATION F team respects gender parity. We have entrepreneurs from all over the world, from all kinds of backgrounds.

The pillar of STATION F is to foster all kinds of diversity. This is the focus of the Fighters Program, but on the whole campus, you can already see a lot of diversity everywhere.”

“We are proud to have 40% of our startups founded by women here at STATION F” Xavier Niel

What is next for STATION F?

“Well we are just in phase 1! Coming next: the launch of our Techshop makerspace and the Chill zone which will be the biggest private European restaurant, co-living spaces are coming next year, a 5-star hotel and a youth hostel will be ready in 2 years next to STATION F etc. We are a living organism and STATION F is just the first brick!”

What is the biggest dream you have not realized yet?

“I would not changed a single thing in my life: I am passionate about my work and my life fulfills me. With Roxanne, we have this dream with STATION F: the more startups we will have, the more successes we will get. We are not going to be shareholders but we will have this tiny little pride that we were able to help an entire ecosystem, to help different startups and to push some people towards entrepreneurship, to invent things. It is a proxy dream: we need you, we rely on you!”

Last but not least… What’s your favorite F-word?

“Two actually: France and Freyssinet! Let me concede it, I am proud French patriot, I love my country and I have great respect for Eugène Freyssinet: he invented an impressive new concrete technique that allowed us to work in this legacy building that is STATION F.”

F for France and Freyssinet!

6pm: the end already. We hope we will have another “Xavier day” soon. Thanks for stopping by!