Last time, we took a peek into entrepreneur Ning Li’s psyche.
"Entrepreneurship was initially rooted in necessity,” he said, “but now it appears to be rooted in observation.
"To become an entrepreneur, focus on your creative process and expose yourself constantly to different cultures. Build a strong network of like-minded individuals to be used as support and a mentoring structure."
He mentioned how he was taught entrepreneurship, and how two people were highly instrumental in his life choices, his success: Marc Simoncini and Alain Bloch. So I crossed the Channel to meet with them and learn more about mentoring among entrepreneurs, and the peculiar concept of ‘teaching’ entrepreneurship.
Marc Simoncini is, without a doubt, the French equivalent of Brent Hoberman. He is known as the first French web entrepreneur. He founded Meetic, the very first European online dating site, at the end of 2001. Four years later, it was established as the European leader.Growing steadily since (expanding to over 30 countries), it is still a household name world-wide today.
He has now embarked on a new missionto re-kindle the spirit of entrepreneurship in French youth via his first school.EEMI (European School of Web based profession).Similarly, his investment fund Jaina aims to help new entrepreneurs succeed in the highly competitive technology industry.
MA-P: Regarding mentoring and entrepreneurship, what made you choose Ning as a mentee?
MS: At first, Ning was a resource for me. At the time I was exploring the possibility of launching Meetic in China, and I someone to work in business development. I was adamant about getting someone who would understand the culture, assess the market and also do the groundwork structuring the business model.
Ning was perfect. I knew him from his internship, but we did not have a very structured relationship back then. Ning was more of an observer. It created an interesting dynamic in meetings, as people wondered why I had an intern with me at all time!
I think the mentoring came later, when he was spearheading the business development team in Asia. I was impressed by his speed of execution, his problem solving abilities and his work capacity.
On paper, Ning is the complete opposite of me! He was educated in the best schools, I was not. He has spent a huge part of his life abroad, I have barely moved around France!His first venture was successful; Mine – not so: I once even resorted to selling and then re-buying my car a few months consecutively to solve my cash flow issues! But we had a similarity of ambition. I sensed the same desire to be involved, the same passion for creating things, the same thirst for autonomy.
I remember vividly how absent-minded Ning looked when he came to negotiate his stock options with me after his first year. He told me, ‘’You have helped me discover what I really want to be’’.
I knew then that he was lost to us; he was going to blaze his own path. Actually, I am proud to have been instrumental in his decision. It reminded me of my own conversation with my first mentor Edmond Chaboche, some twenty years ago. That conversation led me to start my own first venture.
Mentoring in entrepreneurship is similar to a mirror effect. I could see a lot of me in Ning, I had tested his potential firsthand, so I wanted to help him and be part of his success. I am sure that one day, he will be the one helping me.
MA-P: In the end, what do you think you taught Ning and what has he taught you?
MS: I think he is the best person to answer that! As mentioned earlier, I was not in an active teaching role with him. I would not dare say that I taught him anything. I think - I hope - that as he had a chance to observe me, he picked up a couple of things. He understood the importance of authenticity in what you are and what you do.
I know that with Meetic’s Chinese adventure, he experienced firsthand the need for resilience, for indefatigable energy. I hope he learned that failure is just a learning opportunity, and that with work comes success.
I told you earlier that I have been always very impressed by Ning’s abilities to execute and to problem-solve. I remember asking him once over dinner, “How many of you are there in China?” He replied, totally unfazed, “About ten million. Why?”
Can you imagine ten million people of Ning’s calibre ready to be unleashed on the world economy? When I think about France and our culture founded on risk aversion and where only success is recognised, I feel worried. Our economy does not stand a chance. I believe rekindling a culture of entrepreneurship in our youth should be the pressing priority for us, or indeed any European country.
MA-P: To finish on a high note, you are yourself a very successful entrepreneur. Is there any piece of advice you would like to share with wannabe entrepreneurs?
MS: Believe in serendipitous encounters. Provoke encounters as much as you can. Working for Edmond Chaboche put me at the center of the Internet revolution in France and helped me develop the skillset critical for launching Meetic; Being the agony uncle for two of my best friends getting over their divorces planted the seeds for Meetic; Having dinner one night in Monte Carlo led to my investing in and mentoring Yseulys Costes, the founder of 1000Mercis, one of the most successful marketing ventures in France.
Be humble and acknowledge that you do not know everything. Be ready to learn from everywhere and from anyone, regardless of age or experience. I learnt from Ning, I am learning from Yseulys and others…
Can this really be taught or it is inherently part of who he is?
Are we one step closer to concluding our quest? Or have we introduced another angle: cultural support for entrepreneurship? Does it exist in British culture? Or we would be better off being shipped to China to observe in vivo? What does it tell us about the influence of our environment on what we do?
Alain Bloch, my next interviewee, is definitely the right person to explore this dimension with, as a respected member of the French Academy.