On a warm day in July 1998, Fabrice Grinda '96 walked out of the New York office of the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. He was 23 years old and held a coveted position of associate business analyst. He had completed one of the biggest projects of his career earlier that day.
And he had just quit his job.
"I dropped everything and left. I sold my New York apartment and all of my stocks. I had made my decision," Grinda said. "I had worked as a consultant long enough. I learned to do business and loved it, but I wanted to have more fun."
Now 25, Grinda, who may be the most successful Internet entrepreneur in France, wanted to enter the startup world. He created his own Internet business — www.Aucland.com — from scratch, and two years later, he is setting his sights on the rest of the world.
"We are already established and running in Spain, Italy, France and the U.K.," said Grinda, who was born in Paris. "Within three months from now, we will launch in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Poland and Turkey."
Aucland.com, which can be translated as "option-land," is the French version of www.eBay.com . It is an online auction house, where buyers and sellers settle transactions independently over the Internet — bartering everything from coffee tables to Barbie dolls. The Website is active 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and runs on an international scale.
"When I was at McKinsey, I spent a year soul-searching. I figured out that a consultant's goal is to create the perfect presentation," Grinda said. "And I wanted to create a company."
When Grinda, who is the CEO of Aucland, left his job at McKinsey, he had already planned his strategy for breaking into the startup world.
"I decided that I wanted my own Internet business in January of '98. I looked for an idea for several months and finally decided upon the eBay model in June. I finished my last project with McKinsey and quit that day," Grinda said. "I thought that if I was going to work as hard as I was working for McKinsey, I might as well work for myself and not someone else."
"People say that it was a really risky move to drop everything and leave. I have to disagree," Grinda continued. "But it is something that you can do when you are 23, not when you are 40 with a wife and kids. You couldn't come home one day and say to your family 'Guess what! I sold the apartment and all of our stocks so that I can go work 100 hours a week on a company that might not work.' That wouldn't fly too well."
Grinda knew his company would have a good chance of succeeding if he jumped into a market that provided the right ingredients for a lucrative Internet company — and he decided that market was Europe.
"Europe was my redemption," said Grinda, who is fluent in four different languages — French, Spanish, English and Mandarin. "I knew that the Internet penetration into Europe was two or three years behind the U.S. Only four or five percent of France's population was online and only seven percent of the U.K. was online, while over 30 percent of the U.S. was connected."
After leaving McKinsey, where he had worked since graduating from Princeton, Grinda immediately moved back to France with his idea and $400,000 from the sale of his apartment and stocks in hand. Having already acquired another $400,000 from Business Angels, a company that invests in startups, Grinda met up with two other men who were going to help him — a childhood friend and an acquaintance who had a Ph.D. in computer science.
"With $400,000, you can't even make a dent in the U.S. Internet market," said Grinda, who said he has played with computers since he was eight. "With $400,000 in Europe, you can conquer the world."
"I contacted my friends in July, and we started working on the company outside my back garage in Nice," he continued. "My friend from my youth is now the French country manager. The other guy is the co-founder and currently the chief technical officer."
Since its conception behind the Grinda family's garage, the company has taken off. Its French Website was launched in April 1999 and had raised $18 million by July. By August, Aucland had co-founded Deremate, Latin America's largest consumer-to-consumer auction site.
In October, Aucland launched a Website in England. In November, Spain. In December, Italy.
It was a farfetched idea that had led Grinda to boldly walk away from Wall Street at the age of 23. Now it was off the ground — and he was a multi-millionaire.
"From February 1999 to February 2000, we went from two employees to 130," he said. "By the end of the year, we should have over 300 employees all over Europe."
Aucland has come a long way in a short time, but Grinda said he is not yet satisfied — even though his Website has more than 200,000 subscribers and is growing by 3,000 registered users each day. In January, Aucland will begin publishing a magazine and offering multiple-platform access — not only for the Internet, but also for cellular phones through a call center and an auction television station.
"I would really like to conquer the world," said Grinda, who plans for his company to go public by the end of this year. "I want to create a world trading platform with Asia, Europe and Latin America. I knew that I was either going to succeed or fail. One or the other, all out."
Yet Grinda remains modest about his wealth. "I am a multi-millionaire many times over, but it is all virtual," he said, adding that Aucland should break even in 2002. "It is all wealth on paper."
"I still haven't hit success yet," he continued. "But we are burning cash right now and need funding. If the NASDAQ falls, then it is all over. We have had early success — a promising start. I hope that we will make it big."
Grinda is not going to let up. He is currently working 18-hour days, seven days a week — giving interviews, holding conferences and working on raising between $30 million and $60 million. He claims that he answers more than 200 e-mails each day and frequently travels to the company's offices around Europe.
"I don't own my own place yet. I live at my aunt's in Paris, at my grandmother's in London, on my country manager's sofa in Spain and in a sleeping bag in Italy," he said, adding that he took his first vacation in four years last month. "I have not had time to catch my breath. I would really like to start working [only] 80 hours a week."
At Princeton, Grinda was active in the business world. An economics major who graduated summa cum laude with a departmental GPA of 4.26 and an overall GPA of 4.12, he was the founder, owner and manager of Princeton International Computers. As a sophomore, he started this small retail store that assembled and sold $175,387 worth of computers to Europe with profits of $23,542.
"I would get orders from Europe and communicate with my suppliers. Within 10 days of the order, I would ship the parts or the computers to Europe," Grinda said. "It paid for my education and allowed me to buy an apartment in New York."
"I only wish that I had begun an Internet startup then. At that time, all you needed was knowledge about the Internet, and I had that. I didn't do anything with it earlier," he said.
Grinda, who received the Halbert White '72 prize — which is given to the most distinguished economics student — and the Wolf Balleisen Memorial Prize for the best economics thesis, also worked as a statistics consultant at Princeton. In addition, he taught weekly tutorials to 30 students and was promoted to head teaching assistant.
"I really loved to learn. I think I am a scholar at heart," Grinda said. "I would love to get a Ph.D. in economics, but the opportunity cost for four years of studying is huge. There is a world to conquer out there."
"I haven't given to Princeton because I am cash-poor, and I haven't gone to Reunions because I haven't had the time, but I loved my time at Princeton. If all goes well, I am sure that I will be a heavy giver later."
Though Grinda believes he was "at the right place, at the right time, with the right skills," he does not believe the opportunity for entrepreneurs on the Internet is over.
"It is too late to have an auction startup business. There are already 50 competitors per country. But if someone has a brilliant idea, the opportunity is there," Grinda said. "Right now, the opportunity lies in the wireless world. In the future, it will lie in the biotech world. It is not as though there aren't any opportunities."
"Innovation is an ongoing thing," he said. "It is not like after three years, it is all over."
Grinda, however, would not recommend the route that he took to students interested in forming their own dot-com companies. "Don't create an Internet company from scratch. Join one, and then learn the ropes," Grinda said. "But definitely join a startup before going into investment banking or consulting. You learn so much more, and it is so much more fun."
"Startups are good for this age," he said. "There is so much work to be done, and when you are 21 or 22 years old, you have the will to do that much work and to get it done."
And Grinda, who has no plans to buy an apartment or add more sleep to his schedule, has work ethic — and carefree optimism — to spare.
"If worse comes to worse — if we lose everything and go bankrupt — then what did I get out of it?" he asked. "Two years of lots of fun and many valuable lessons about business. I will just find another job."