Adrien Aumont — I was 14 when I decided never to step foot inside school again. It wasn’t really legal but I got away with it. My family was well off and loving, so I was lucky. But in any case, I didn’t really have the choice, as I never really felt at home in a classroom. So I didn’t gain any qualifications or a degree. Instead, I went from job to job. Lots and lots of them.
I started as an actor in films and on TV, no doubt inspired by my grandfather, Jean-Pierre Aumont, who made his name in Hollywood between the two world wars. By chance, I then became an assistant to a very famous French TV animator, the sort everyone talks about. I definitely could have continued along that path, but I was hungry for more experiences, I constantly wanted to move on and try new things. So I went down other avenues. I directed short films, I was an advertising creative, a manager and publisher in the music industry.
In all these jobs, I often faced the same problem: the difficulty of finding money for projects, whether artistic or otherwise. Having worked in advertising for several years, I created KissKissBankBank with my cousin Ombline Le Lasseur and her husband Vincent Ricordeau. The project was born from our combined experiences and an idea in common that emerged at a café terrace. I spent 13 years of my life on it, and when it was sold to the Banque Postale on June 18 2017, the business became one of Europe’s leading crowdfunding platforms.
After all those years working with artists, social entrepreneurs, sportspeople, journalists, adventurers, farmers and so many others, I started looking for a new idea that could occupy me for the next ten or twenty years. That’s what’s expected of you when you’re an entrepreneur – especially when your last venture worked out well. It’s a real headache. A little like a singer whose first song was a hit, or an author whose first book is acclaimed by critics.
The time, I wanted to create a business which would have a positive environmental impact and that the product was something truly tangible, based on the premise that it’s not possible to reduce the carbon emissions of agriculture or transport with only digital means. I also wanted the project to appeal to the wider public – a B-2-C, as you say in the business world. I’m very much inclined towards businesses that have popular appeal, no doubt stemming from my childhood passion for culture and entertainment. Finally, when it really came down to it, I wanted my new project to have something grandiose and romantic about it, because life is short. Those were my very broad starting points.
I was definitely getting closer, but I needed more than that to land on the right idea. David Lynch once said something great about the way ideas emerge: “Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.”
The next development came, paradoxically, when I was due to take a flight between Paris and Florence my partner and I had never taken before. It was July 2018 and we were going to meet friends in Tuscany, where we were renting a house. The only problem? The day before we left, my partner told me she couldn’t take the plane, as she was too scared. Instead, she’d found us two spots on a sleeper train. I had very fond memories of travelling this way before, but this time, it was getting in the way of our plans a bit. Nonetheless, I ended up accepting, as there seemed to be no alternative. To make the experience that bit more luxurious, she brought along some excellent charcuterie, decent cheese, bread from our local boulangerie and a magnum of Morgon de Jean Foillard. She even downloaded a three-hour film that we’d wanted to watch for a long time, the first Mektoub, My Love. And we were lucky: we were both in a cabin that designed to host three people. It was an incredible journey, but I still hadn’t had the idea for Midnight Trains at this point.
It wasn’t for another year, in May 2019, that it finally came to me on a trip to Greece. I met my friend Hervé Marro, the initial author of Midnight Weekly, to work on a political project. At the time, we wanted to create a school in Athens to train future political leaders from across European civil society. We went to a Japanese restaurant for some sashimi, before eating almost exclusively Greek salad for a week. And at some point during that time, I had a thought: “It’s pretty shameful to take a flight to come and work in Greece for a week. I’m not going to take a plane this summer, and in fact I think I should stop taking them so much generally, to align with my stance on the environment. If only they hadn’t stopped running night trains across Europe!”
That’s when everything slotted into place. All those threads that had emerged in my mind over the previous year or so aligned in my mind. The growing awareness of the climate catastrophe, the hype around Greta Thunberg, the flygskam (or ‘flight shame’) movement, night trains disappearing across Europe, my trip from Paris to Milan… we simply had to launch an international sleeper-train firm that could rival medium-haul flights, to help people do their bit for the planet and also those who are scared of flying. The trains would only offer private cabins, with good bedding and a decent restaurant, and be beautiful, modern and inclusive. And the venture would be called Midnight – the time when we transition from one day to another. It would be my second business, I knew it, I felt it in my bones.
Hervé loved the idea and we decided to put the political-school project behind us and work on this instead. Then I called my partner, still avoiding flying. I told her my idea, I told her I’d be spending the next 20 years of my life on it. She said she’d support me, straight off the bat. And that’s how I ended up creating a railway company without really knowing much about it.