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“42” School: why Xavier Niel’s initiative may fail

Non-French people are likely not to know Xavier Niel. He is however a famous tech entrepreneur, a billionaire and the CEO of Free, the telecom company that has been shaking the grounds of telecom competition landscape for years. Xavier Niel declared a war to the three French telecom operators (SFR, Orange and Bouygues) in 2012 when he launched in January its own mobile phone offer starting as low as 2€/month. One year after starting in the mobile phone business, Free has captured (“stolen” one would say) more than 5 million customers from the three other operators.

Niel is certainly an entrepreneur who loves to be in the light, be it for controversial reasons (his rageous attacks against his competitors) or for less controversial ones. In late March Niel announced he would finance and start his own IT engineering school in the heart of Paris. A 5000-sqm building had been bought for this purpose and Niel proudly said that no degree will be delivered (graduates will not earn a degree but a job, so Niel), that studies will be free-of-charge, and that nothing will be required to have the right to apply.

The only principle that will apply is the so-called “meritocracy” which is a well-anchored principle in French political language (the principle of “equality” carved on top of each town hall France guarantees, in the theory, that everyone, whatever his or her origin, can climb the social ladder). Applicants will be welcomed this summer in Niel’s school and judged on actual achievements rather than on their CV. After this summer screening the students chosen will onboard in September. Although the project got a good press coverage, journalists were wondering whether Niel had a hidden agenda; namely training the people who will become Free’s future workforce.

To manage his school Niel has hired directors from competing IT schools. Those schools have reacted politely to Niel’s initiative (as you can imagine) but you could feel, in the press releases, that they were not really happy about it (pretty logical since they had lost their top managers).


Why Xavier Niel may fail

Although Niel has recruited top guys to manage his school, the heart of the problem will be in getting the professors onboard. Niel refused to cope with the norms and wanted to create a system of his own. This arrogance may well be fatal to Niel as competing schools may well make him pay his treason. How will Niel eventually recruit professors? They usually come from the very same system Niel refused to cope with. Will Niel find enough courageous people to follow him and daring jeopardizing their career. If Niel fails, those professors may well be stigmatized by those who chose to remain in the system. Will they then be able to find back a job? Many professors will have this question in mind when thinking about joining Niel.


Advice for your business plan

Any business plan should encompass aspects related to the core team at the heart of the project. But you should include also a detailed section on how you think you will grow, including how you plan to recruit the right people. This exercise is a very sound one as it will enable you to reflect on the motivators for employees to join you.

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Dr. Pierre-Nicolas Schwab is the founder of IntoTheMinds. He specializes in e-commerce, retail and logistics. He is also a research fellow in the marketing department of the Free University of Brussels and acts as a coach for several startups and public organizations. He holds a PhD in Marketing, a MBA in Finance, and a MSc in Chemistry. He can be contacted by email, Linkedin or by phone (+32 486 42 79 42)

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