Jacques-Antoine Granjon, CEO and founder of Vente-privee.com © Magali Delporte for the FT

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Jacques-Antoine Granjon is something of an accidental entrepreneur. The founder of flash-sale pioneer Vente-Privee.com struck out on his own aged 22 in 1985, long before creating a start-up was fashionable. “I was not an entrepreneur, I was just someone who wanted to be free,” he recalls. “And to be free you have to earn money. I didn’t want to have a boss. I just wanted to make money to take my girlfriend on travels, restaurants and to have nice cars.”

This kind of nonchalance is typical of Mr Granjon — known affectionately by his initials JAG — who is a mass of Louis XIV-esque long dark ringlets, black shirts and jewellery. But Mr Granjon’s rock-star appearance and easy manner mask both the grit involved in building his company and the scale of his ambitions. Vente-Privee is an ecommerce company with €3.1bn in revenues and is one of only three unicorns (private companies valued at more than $1bn) in France.

Its business model is pinned on basic tenets of behavioural finance. Sales last for a few days and are announced only 24 hours in advance. Brands only appear twice a year. By frustrating demand and putting on time constraints, Vente-Privee aims to create desire and impulsive buying.

Mr Granjon says: “You need something, you go to Amazon. With Vente-Privee, you need nothing but something in your head says: let’s go and see if there’s something fun, or if I can go and buy something cheaply.”

The group has moved beyond its roots in clothing by adding lines of accessories, household equipment, toys, travel, sports times, entertainment and gastronomy.

Based in a former print plant for Le Monde newspaper, Vente-Privee’s headquarters are almost a personification of its founder: flamboyant and eccentric. Guests are greeted by a giant David Mach gorilla made of metal coat hangers, and Mr Granjon’s extensive collection of contemporary art adorns the walls. An outdoor balcony is home to an apiary where his cherished bees produce jars of Vente-Privee honey.

Jacques-Antoine Granjon, CEO and founder of Vente-privee.com © Magali Delporte for the FT

Leaning back on the sofa in his office, beside a stuffed tiger (a work by Belgian artist Pascal Bernier that denounces the maltreatment of animals), Mr Granjon reflects on Vente-Privee’s journey, an entrepreneurial adventure that began over 30 years ago with a Fr20,000 gift from Mr Granjon’s father (around $3,500 at today’s exchange rate). Vente-Privee has “a history of good and bad decisions”, he says, including swift adaptation but also mistaken expansion and bad hires. Nevertheless, it has been “profitable from the beginning. No debt. Independent. Never raised money.”

Mr Granjon’s acumen has helped earn his position as EY Entrepreneur of the Year for France in 2016 and his place in this year’s World Entrepreneur of the Year event in Monaco.

The first iteration of Vente-Privee specialised in the wholesale of discontinued lines, then in 2001 Mr Granjon decided to sell directly to consumers, launching its fully digital model. He says the arrival of broadband in France three years later meant online shopping both at home and at work began to take off. There was a 500 per cent increase in Vente-Privee’s customers that year.

Mr Granjon has been able to envisage how technology — first the internet and then smartphones — would transform the retail experience. Vente-Privee launched a mobile app in 2010 and now more than 55 per cent of turnover and over 80 per cent of site visits comes from mobiles. The group is using data to personalise the customer experience and help brands target a more precise audience. Last year it became a shareholder in French start-up Adotmob, which specialises in mobile advertising campaigns.

Since 2014 Vente-Privee has used its dominant position in the market to acquire smaller rivals operating in Spain, Italy, Brazil, Mexico, Switzerland, Denmark, Poland and Belgium. Mr Granjon is candid about the one notable failure in its geographical expansion: an attempt to enter the US. Dazzled by a business proposal from American Express chief executive Ken Chenault, Mr Granjon says he ignored his sense that the US was not a good market for a flash sales company and embarked on a joint venture in 2011.

But his instincts proved correct: many US brands already manufacture for outlets so there is less stock for operators like Vente-Privee. Mr Granjon says he drew several lessons from the venture, which he withdrew from in 2014: “I learnt that even when you know all the mistakes you can make, you can still make them. I learnt that you can have your brain transformed by romantic ideas, which is not bad in life. And I learnt that you can survive big failures.”

He adds: “In France when you are failing, you are condemned to death. And what I learnt from the US is that you can start something else. And I like that.”

Among other projects, Vente-Privee is investing in Station F, a start-up campus backed by Mr Granjon’s close friend, telecoms entrepreneur Xavier Niel, that will be home to 1,000 new companies. Vente-Privee has launched an accelerator inside Station F where it will select and work with start-ups to help them grow.

“The goal is to give young people the chance to test their ideas and discoveries in real life,” says Mr Granjon. He is an active investor in France’s start-up scene and thinks of his funding as a kind of “social tax” that he pays to help others, in the way that his father helped him.

Like many other French tech leaders, Mr Granjon is excited about France’s prospects under its new president, Emmanuel Macron. Mr Macron’s pro-business, pro-Europe and pro-globalisation mentality resonates with Mr Granjon, who says he is sad about the UK’s vote for Brexit. He describes himself as “a true believer in Europe”. What France lacks is size: with a unified continental market “we could start bigger companies in Europe.”

Mr Granjon likes the idea of a universal basic income but one that is firmly rooted in a free market economic model that stimulates growth. He says: “It’s so important that you never leave people without education, without a house, without culture and without health . . . but to create that you have to make sure that companies are successful because it doesn’t work without companies.”

And that brings him back to Vente-Privee, where he aims to increase revenues to €5bn by 2020. “I’m a long-term guy,” says Mr Granjon. “Today is only the beginning for Vente-Privee.”

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