Niel joins the list thanks to his stake in Iliad SA, a major player in the French telecom market. In 1984, while still in high school, he established Minitel, France's forerunner to the internet. He launched the country's first internet provider, WorldNet, in 1993 and sold it for $50 million just before the internet bubble burst. Three years later he launched Free/Freebox, bundling internet, phone and TV via ADSL. Iliad went public in 2004; Niel now holds over 62%. He also owns a stake in distinguished but struggling French newspaper Le Monde.
Niel came from a middle-class family of four and looked up to his grandfather, a larger-than-life butcher in Paris who sang songs and smoked incessantly, says Solveig Godeluck, a Les Echo reporter who co-wrote the Niel biography The Path of the Pirate with colleague Emmanuel Paquette.
When he was 17, Niel forged his father’s signature to get a second phone line installed to the Minitel. On the dial-up network, he chatted to other computer nerds like himself and helped develop Minitel Rose, a chat service dedicated to cybersex that became one of the most lucrative on the network.
When he was 22, Niel had earned enough to buy the short-story Minitel service Pon Editions for 2,000 francs, then sell it for 1.6 million two years later.
While Niel's investments grew, the Minitel didn’t live up to its potential. It fizzled out in national isolation while the more groundbreaking World Wide Web took off globally. Niel looked to the U.S. for inspiration, and with his capital gains from selling software he cofounded France’s first internet service in 1994, called Worldnet. At 33, he sold Worldnet at the height of the dot-com boom in 2000 for more than $50 million.
In 2002 he launched Free, the world’s first triple-play of Web, TV and phone, well before AT&T and Verizon did the same. Then with his telecoms company Iliad, Niel went after France’s suffering mobile customers. In 2002 he launched Free, the world’s first triple-play of Web, TV and phone, well before AT&T and Verizon did the same. Then with his telecoms company Iliad, Niel went after France’s suffering mobile customers.
Niel started dabbling in tech investing with his Kima Ventures. Kima claims to be the most active venture fund in the world, with more than 400 companies in its portfolio. Lead partner Jean de la Rochebrochard only sees Niel in the flesh about once or twice a year.