“Romania is a country that truly shines”: Interview with business angel and serial entrepreneur Grégoire Vigroux

Grégoire Vigroux is a well-known French business angel and serial entrepreneur who decided more than a decade ago to make Romania his second home and the start of his successful entrepreneurial journey. He is a true believer in the great potential of Eastern Europe, and has co-founded and invested in 16 companies in Romania and Bulgaria so far.

We spoke with Grégoire about the advantages of the Romanian startup ecosystem, why social and environmental impact is a main driver in his investment decisions, the lessons he’s learned, and launching Bucharest chapter of ‘La French Tech’ to support French startups expanding to Romania and vice-versa.

Hello Grégoire, thank you for joining us. Could you please give us a short overview about your journey in entrepreneurship in Romania as well as angel investing?

I have been living in Romania for 14 years. I came to this country to become an entrepreneur. And you know what? This choice is one of the best decisions I made in my entire life! It never even crossed my mind to leave Romania.

I was born and raised in Paris. I used to work in Los Angeles and New York as an intern during my studies. But contrary to some colleagues of mine from Business School and MBA who decided to go and work for a multinational in Paris, or launch their startup in London or Silicon Valley, I chose to become an entrepreneur in Bucharest. I never left, and I will probably retire here.

As a French national, what made you choose Romania to start your first business?

In our modern world, most businesses are digital. Technology plays an increasing role in our daily lives. I believe Eastern Europeans are fully embracing digitalization and information technology. Romania has more IT engineers per capita than the US, France, Germany, China or India. The successful presence of global high-tech companies, including Microsoft, IBM, HP, Oracle, Amazon, and TELUS International, confirms Romania’s IT experience and potential.

I believe Romania’s adaptability and multilingual culture is also a major contributor to startup development. Romania is a country that truly shines thanks to its cultural openness and a large number of multilingual individuals. A study conducted by the ABSL found an impressive array of language capabilities amongst students in Romania. English is spoken by 90% of university students, French by 26%, Spanish by 17%, German by 8%, and Italian by 5%.

These facts are very encouraging to all those who, like me, believe in Romania’s development and think it has a bright future to grow local tech startups.

In your opinion, how does the Romanian startup and investment ecosystem compare now to a decade ago?

Despite COVID-19, Romanian startups had a sustained activity in Q1 and Q2 this year, raising approximately €20 million in 30 deals from business angels and VCs. It might not seem to be a big figure compared to France, Germany and the UK, but it is definitely on an upward trend, and it is way higher than a decade ago. In 2010, there were just a few business angels in Romania and no local VC at all!

So far, you have invested in over 10 Romanian companies. What is your investing philosophy?

To date, I co-founded and invested in 16 companies in Romania and Bulgaria. When launching or investing in businesses, my number one driver is their social and environmental impact, in addition to their business potential.

My luckiest venture is TELUS International Europe, formerly named CallPoint, which I co-founded 13 years ago. The outsourcing company (from which I exited as a shareholder in 2017) currently employs 5,000 team members in the region. Apart from my non-executive board member and administrator roles with TELUS International, I launched and invested in 15 impact companies to date. The latest one is the refurbished smartphones online store Fenix.eco, which intends to solve the environmental issues (CO2) caused by manufacturing new devices.

Talking of Fenix.eco, can you tell us more about your interest in social impact ventures, and about launching in the middle of the pandemic?

In April, I decided to invest €200K to launch fenix.eco online store, together with former Amazon Executive Adrien Arnoux (CEO) and later digital entrepreneur Hector Destailleur (CMO). Fenix.eco is a Romanian startup specialising in selling refurbished phones, currently boasting over 20 refurbished high-end smartphone models. We started this business with a clear market positioning in mind: fenix.eco is an online store for smart buyers, whether corporate or retail consumers, who can save up to 50% per phone compared to new smartphones, without compromising on quality. All fenix.eco phones are sold with a 12-month warranty. Besides the refurbished phone itself, the box also contains accessories, including a new cable and new headsets.

Manufacturing a new smartphone has a significant negative impact on the planet: it requires 13 tonnes of water, produces 55kg of CO2, and uses up to 35kg of raw materials. Just like an increasing number of entrepreneurs, I believe in Tech for Good – the confidence that technology is one of the main solutions to improving social, societal, and environmental outcomes. We have incorporated the principles of the circular economy in our business model, which makes our solution even more compelling in these challenging times.

I think that COVID-19 brings eco-friendly behaviour out of consumers. One of the most important lessons of the coronavirus is the need to care for our planet. With factories shutting down and people staying at home, pollution plummeted everywhere. Since the lockdown, all monitored pollutants in Bucharest have been significantly below the acceptable levels.

I see environmental awareness rising among entrepreneurs, too, like never before. I trust we are on the brink of a green revolution, in which responsible founders are stepping up to help make the world a greener place.

Many would argue that launching a new business amid the difficult times generated by the COVID-19 pandemic was quite risky, considering that consumer behaviours have changed and that purchasing power to be on a downward trend. The online refurbished smartphone store was launched in the middle of the crisis, at a time when retailers were shutting down their shops, when most companies were instructing their employees to work from home and when the financial markets were down by almost 50% in a month.

“It’s not the right time to launch!”, my friends warned me. But it’s a calculated risk we took. Anyway, isn’t it true that entrepreneurship is about risk-taking? I am an entrepreneur, after all. I see opportunity where others see risk.

What is the main lesson you have learned as an entrepreneur and also angel investor?

The three most valuable career lessons I learned are:

  • Be humble and always surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are. If you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room.
  • Be kind to people. Treat your partners, team members, suppliers and clients nicely, fairly and with respect. Always. Caring about people also entails giving back to people in need, through CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility).
  • Company values and culture are equally important (if not more important) than revenues and business growth. The true success of our lives shall never be measured in revenue or EBITDA. The real metric for success is the social and environmental good that we make.

You also recently launched in Romania La French Tech, an ecosystem of entrepreneurs, startups, investors and public administration aimed at developing projects and businesses using new technologies. Could you tell us more about this ecosystem and how it will support Romanian entrepreneurs?

Established six years ago as part of the French Finance Ministry, La French Tech currently has over 50 communities worldwide and 40+ in France. The ecosystem supports startups in their international development with mentoring, coaching, international connections and promotion to enter the French market.

Since June 2019, French Tech Romania offers Romanian startups financing, as well as support on the expertise and scalability side. Our ecosystem also supports French startups interested in expanding to Romania. We also organize quarterly business events, which our 400 Romanian members (startup founders and employees, community builders, business angels and VCs) are invited to.

The board of La French Tech Romania is currently made of 12 members, including investors and the executive director of the French chamber of commerce CCIFER. I have the pleasure and honor to be the Founder and President of La French Tech locally.

What is your advice for young Romanian professionals aspiring to kick off their own entrepreneurial dreams?

Never start a business just to make money. Start a business to make a difference!

 

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