Season 1 / The genesis

Episode 2 - EasyJet started with £5 million and two planes

Adrien Aumont — Since I’d already made my decision, I spent my week in Greece with Hervé working on this new project. Except without really knowing it, I was approaching things the wrong way round. All while trying to enjoy my holiday a bit, I was thinking more about revenue than costs. I calculated how many passengers could travel on a night train, how many carriages can be pulled by a locomotive, how much a plane ticket and a night in a hotel cost in target cities like Madrid and Venice, and what price we could aim for to compete with the pair of them. Based on that thought process, I came up with a completely imaginary turnover, which nonetheless allowed me to think about what Midnight might look like.

Alongside my calculations, I digested tons of regulatory documentation to understand the ways in which you can tap into the railway sector as a private business. Finally, having discovered that it was founded by a Greek entrepreneur with £5 million borrowed from his family and two leased planes, I dived into history of the EasyJet business. I told myself that if this man, Stelios Haji-louannou, was able to do it, there was no reason we couldn’t too. After all, I was sure it was possible to find trains that could be leased. As for £5 million, that’s the equivalent of Serie A fundraising for a start-up. In short, none of these issues seems unsurmountable. I would discover later that at that moment, I was convincing myself of a narrative that only really existed in my head and didn’t correspond to the reality of the sector. And that was fine, because I was the only person who needed to be convinced.

So I returned to Paris knowing that I wanted to bring together a team. I wasn’t not a railway expert, but I certainly thought I knew how to find talented people and help them work together. In June 2019, I left KissKissBankBank early – I was still contracted to them despite the sale to the Banque Postale – to focus on this project. And this time, I took inspiration from FlixBus, the German business that revolutionised the coach business by focusing on technology and marketing. So I started by CTO – a chief technology officer – who knew the rail industry well and an excellent head of digital products, a heavyweight who had worked in a major player in the car-sharing industry.

With this team, we started to sketch out a layout of the train, to define what the product would look like, to work through any divergences over what this should be. We advanced slowly but surely. But I noticed that something wasn’t right. Bit by bit, I realised that we couldn’t target such a market with this team, and I included myself in that. I needed something with a solid background in business finance, someone who knew how to finance such a project. I could busy myself thinking, designing, marketing and selling an experience like that which I want to offer future passengers of Midnight Trains. But I needed a person who could manage the complex financial operations and also, more generally, help me organise a business as ambitious as this. In short, I needed someone who would complete my team.

Day after day, I formed a better mental picture of the person I needed, and I decided I needed to speak to Romain Payet. He had overseen the sale of KissKissBankBank to the Banque Postale as secretary general, and above all, he had the expertise I was after.He knew each other well, personally and professionally, and I was sure he’d be able to advise as to the kind of person I should hire and how to go about financing a project as massive as a railway business. I didn’t realise it then, but it was clearly him that I was looking for. He corresponded perfectly to the image I had sketched in my mind.

At the tail end of autumn 2019, after a few texts, we met up at Les Parigots café in the République area in central Paris. And I didn’t beat about the bush, as my first question was at once very simple and incredibly complex: how do you fund a business like this?

Romain Payet — The first time I heard about Midnight Trains was when Adrien pitched the idea at his KissKissBankBank leaving party. Listening to him, I told myself two things: this guy is completely mad, but if anyone can make it work, it’s him. When he texted me, asking about financing such a business, I told myself I was nonetheless going to help. Except that in reality, when he started to speak about the specifics of the project, I realised that I had no idea about the best way to go about it. Which made me want to do what I do best: look, dig, search for answers. One thing that really helped was downloading the annual reports of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and Italo NTV. And the further I looked, I started to realise that perhaps Adrien wasn’t so mad after all.

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