So I contemplated for a long while before replying my interest in interviewing Fabrice Grinda., CEO and founder of OLX.
In my reply, I told them that I am neither a tech savvy person nor an economic expert. The interview was arranged a few days later.
So on Friday night, after putting Malcolm to bed, I logged onto MSN. I began the chat with a brief introduction of myself and told him a little about this site. My main reason for the interview was to understand the challenges he faced as a self made entrepreneur and also to understand how his chldhood might have helped to shape him into what he is today.
Many time during the chat, I was blown away by this man’s determination and perseverance in achieving his goals and making things happen. His story has inspired me, a lot and I hope you may draw inspiration from his story as well.
Goethe: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
1. What were you like when you were a child ?
I was born in Paris and grew up in Nice. When I was a kid, I basically fell into computers. I was super studious and introverted otherwise and computers were a true passion. In a way it was luck. Because my passion actually turned out to be very practical in the future
2. Why did you choose to study in an American college when you were already doing so well in the French education system ?
I went to the US for college – Princeton because I loved the intellectual curiosity fostered by the American college system. In an education system like the one in France (or Singapore) which is very rigid and structured, there are lots of hours of class, but it’s not as creative and even challenging as the US for college.
3. What were the challenges you faced when you went over to Princeton and what did you learn from them ?
I could not believe that Nobel Prize winning professors had to have office hours!
My English was very limited and the difference in education system. I had a terrible French accent and probably the lowest English SAT score of anyone who got into Princeton. But I worked extremely hard at overcoming those challenges.
I underestimated the cultural challenge but in truth I thought the experience was fun. I had so much fun studying everything and anything – math, econ, the roman empire, molecular biology, etc. The intellectual freedom was incredibly liberating and energizing.
I realised that I had nothing to lose, I could always go back to France and do the “traditional path”.
4. Were you on scholarship when you study in Princeton ?
No. I had 4 jobs while I was studying. It definitely helped that at the time I was shy
All I did was work and study 🙂 I was a tutor in math and econ, a TA in accounting, a consultant for the economectrics department and I ran a small computer export business
5. Was moving over to Princeton the biggest plunge you had taken ?
The biggest jump was probably not France to Princeton but McKinsey to startup.
Imagine – I had a fantastic high paying well regarded job and I decided to leave it for a startup
My parents thought I was crazy! They felt I was risking a fantastic job for something that would in most likelihood go under and as I had never failed in my life, it would crush me.
6. You managed to start a computer export business when you were in college and you grew your 25k to 300k in 2 years’ time from 1996 to 1998. Were you taught about money since a young age ?
Not really – my parents had several taboo topics. Money was never really discussed, I just observed it. It helped that my dad was a businessman but we never truly discussed it. I just learned from the environment and frankly hands on learning.
The best way to learn something is often just to do it and ask for advice from others with more experience. Several of my older friends ran computer stores and they helped and it also helped that computers were my passion.
7. Was it because of your passion that prompted you to go into internet business ?
Yes and no. I have 9 business selection criteria to help select what business I want to do. Some of them include:
A scalable business – which the Internet is perfect for
Another is: “Do something you love” – and I truly love technology so the Internet was a natural fit.
When I became an Internet entrepreneur in 1998, it definitely felt like I was “at the right time, with the right skills”
8. Since your passion is computers, why not a computer programmer instead ?
The thought crossed my mind, but I did not think it was scalable – as a computer programmer you are limited by the number of hours you can work. As an entrepreneur, the potential is limitless. I love programming, but I love building a company and product even more.
9. Is being an entrepreneur your childhood dream ?
My childhood dreams were not specifically to become an entrepreneur. That’s why my heroes were always people like Octavian/Augustus, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Bill Gates.
Given my interest in computers Bill Gates and others of that generation were definitely role models I considered becoming an Economic professor but I felt that I would have a stronger contribution to the world as an entrerpeneur.
10. Was the American Dream part of the reason for choosing Princeton ?
I went to study at Princeton to be able to study everything and anything with some of the smartest people! Pursuing the American Dream was indirect. It was the reason to stay in the US. Princeton was both a means to the American Dream and a fantastic learning experience. I value intellectual pursuits for the sheer pleasure of the intellectual stimulation
11. Were you drill to study hard when you were young ?
No my brothers did not study hard. I just LOVED studying. I LOVED learning. It came naturally and easily. It felt like the right thing to do.
12. What do you think of parents pushing for academic excellence in their children ?
Pushing a child is not necessarily a bad thing. Having high expectations of kids usually pushes them positively.
13. Do you think that academic excellence is the ticket to success in life ?
On average students earn an extra 8% of income per extra year of studying. It leads to high paying jobs – consulting, banking, programming, lawyesr, doctors. So on average it leads to more successful lives.
HOWEVER The most successful entrepreneurs are often the C students or the college drop outs. If you have something to lose – say a high paying job you are less likely to want to take risks by becoming an entrepreneur. Whereas the C students have less to lose so end up often taking more risks and succeeding more. In my case, Princeton led to McKinsey which definitely helped me become a better entrepreneur.
14. Do you think creativity can be taught in school ?
It’s hard to teach creativity – it comes from the environment and structure you create and in countries where
“following the rules” is culturally entrenched it will take time to change. However, with time, I am sure they can succeed. Look at the boom in entrepreneurship in China which only 30 years ago was conformist!
15. What do you think are the main qualities to be an entrepreneur ?
Grit, tenacity, passion, attention to detail.
Grit and tenacity are key – you need to see it through and want to succeed no matter what. Too many people give up too early.
Note that I did not mention intelligence. Sometimes intelligence gets in the way because instead of just testing everything you keep looking and thinking of the perfect solution so it is actually alot to do with character of a person. Especially on the Internet a lot is done through trial and error and I am convinced that can be taught. So when a kid does something well you should always tell him: “good work” instead of “you are so smart” this way when he hits a roadblock he does not think he is not smart enough but merely that he did not work hard enough
16. What has been the toughest part with your startups ?
The hardest thing changed dramatically from startup to startup. For the eBay of Europe it took me 6 months to find the idea, but I would not say it was that hard. Raising money was not extremely hard because it was the Internet bubble days and money was easier to raise. For that company it was probably hiring and managing people. I was 23, I had no experience, I made countless hiring mistakes!
For Zingy, the next startup – raising money and convincing the phone companies was the hardest. It was impossible to raise money because the bubble had burst and people hated telecom and consumer businesses and large phone companies are hard to deal with.
17. Which is the real you, an introvert or an extrovert ?
The current me is the real me
I was an extrovert stuck in the body of an introvert 🙂
18. You believe that personality can be changed. How did you do it ?
It’s HARD but if you really want to change you can change. It’s similar to the way I learned English. 2 words a day every day. I definitely wish I had been less shy when I was young, but that’s ok 🙂
19. Did you learn determination and perseverance through sports when you were young ?
I always had it though i loved skiing and tennis as a kid
20. So you don’t usually give up? or do you ?
When I realize I am wrong or that it’s not going to work no matter what – but really only after trying extremely hard
21. Imagine you having an idea where everyone says no, will you still go ahead ?
Absolutely. Everytime I started a business people said it was a terrible idea! When I created Aucland, the eBay of france people said:
We don’t care about collectibles like these crazy americans
We have minitel, we won’t use internet
We don’t have a garage sale culture etc.
When I created Zingy in the US people said the same thing: It’s only crazy Europeans and asians who like ringtones etc.
22. So was it about proving them wrong ?
No . It’s not to prove them wrong. It’s to do what I think is right.
23. So does people still say no to your ideas now ?
Of course. I have a lot of ideas 😉 Many are going to be wrong. It’s always good to hear people out but if I am convinced it will work, I will still do it 🙂 There are several types of advice.
Those who say: “It will never work” are usually wrong.
Those who give you advice about how to improve what you are doing, how to approach it differently – that’s usually good advice
In other words “positive advisors” are valuable. Negative advisors are not.
24. What advice do you have for those who wish to start a business but were held back because they can’t get pass the ‘WhatIfs” ?
The good news is that it often does not cost much to start a business. My recommendation is usually just to try it. If it works great. If it fails it was a learning experience. You learned something interesting AND you also have no regrets. You don’t want to be someone who is 90 and thinks “I wish I had done…” Lead live with no regrets! If you do that you WILL make mistakes but you will be glad you tried.
Well it’s like being rejected. You try something that fails and then you realize it’s not a big deal! You are still there. You still have your family. Your friends. Your health. Maybe you lost a little bit of self esteem but you did not really lose anything. So it’s worth a shot. I know the first step is scary but once you get started it takes a momentum of its own and you are too busy to be scared!
25. I realise that you have a lot of your own questions answered. Which do you do more, read or reflect ?
Both. But I definitely read a lot of nonfiction – especially biographies and I network with other entrepreneurs so I learn from them. The power of introspection. It’s very important to know yourself. You can read this
26. How do you describe yourself other than being an entrepreneur ?
I would like to believe I am more than an entrepreneur – I am also a student and lover of life and a wannabee Renaissance man!
27. Are you more of a rational or an emotional person ?
I am very passionate and can feel intense emotions, BUT I am supremely rational. For topics I know a lot about: I trust my instincts. For topics I don’t know a lot about: I trust logic
28. What are your fears ? How do you manage them ?
I hate the fact that we are mortal or the fact that we age. But I face it.
29. What are your failures ?
Well I had lots of small failures. Some companies I invested in failed. And many times within the overall success story I failed to do a deal, to raise money, etc. At the end you look back and say: “It was a success” but I did not know ahead of time how it would pan out.
30. What advice do you have for aspiring young entrepreneurs ?
Just do it! Create your company and pursue your dream. Try it out. You have nothing to lose! And don’t give up! Keep trying until you figure it out!
Note : Fabrice maintains a blog at Musings of An Entrepreneur
Here are 3 interesting articles from his blog
How it all began
How he raised his very first round of financing
Graduating from College: Starting your own business or joining an established company?