Season 2 - Breaking into the industry

Episode 4 -  Tracking down the best railway consultants

Romain Payet — Now that we were a little clearer on the general economics of the railway sector and our potential revenue, we had to surround ourselves with experts and learn about two main topics: engineering and train design. These were two skills we didn’t have ourselves and didn’t need full time in Midnight Trains. So we turned to specialist consulting businesses, recommended by the various experts who we’d previously been in contact with.

Adrien Aumont — Whether for engineering or design, the same three or four businesses come up again and again. It’s a small market, whose clients are pretty much just SNCF and RATP. So this was our main question: would these people work with a small business launched by people who don’t come from within the sector, with budgets nowhere near that of the State or without a huge number of personnel like the historic rail operators?

Romain Payet — We essentially went on a tour, trying to work out which engineering firm would be best placed to help us. At this point, we didn’t know exactly what we were looking for, we needed people capable of helping us figure out those needs, not simply to respond to an already established order. The disillusions started to pile up. We put in loads of meetings and appointments but quickly realised that the cultural divide was huge. We had a lot of trouble making ourselves understood and vice versa. Worse still, after each meeting, we had more uncertainty than before entering the room. But these services weren’t free and it seemed a little frightening to stump up such huge amounts of money.

Adrien Aumont — It was a little unsettling, because as many people will admit, ‘railway time’ is very slow. Everyone is very comfortable where they are. And it’s a word in which there’s nothing weird about taking two weeks to reply to an email. We’re from sectors which are much more reactive and better connected, so this was a real shock.  So we ended up going for the business that seemed the most dynamic: to put it simply, the one that responded to emails the fastest.

We were in a meeting where the business had to figure out the best consultants for our goals. We were faced with a mix of sector veterans and people who had worked at SNCF, then moved over to consulting. The atmosphere was pretty good, relaxed, everyone with their own unique industry experience. For us, who weren’t from the sector, it was exciting, we learned a lot, but it took more than an hour for the meeting to really get going.

Romain Payet — What got us thinking is that this meeting was supposed to be a launchpad for Midnight Trains and a planning session for the mission that we wanted for our business. Unfortunately, nothing really came out of it. The atmosphere was pretty agreeable, sure. They were people with boots on the ground, men and women who had really made trains run. Despite that, I was jumping up and down on my chair, I wanted things to start, for things to really move forwards. As we left, I agreed with Adrien: it wasn’t what we needed, we were after something else.

Luigi Martinelli, an Italian engineer, came to us pretty much by chance. He was recommended to us because he had audited Spanish rolling stock that we wanted to buy. From the very first call, we understood that he was different from our other interlocutors, that he was a real entrepreneur. He was just as passionate as the other people we had met, but unlike them, he wasn’t just content with raising problems. He also offered solutions. It took us a little while but we ended up realising it was him we needed. He would eventually have a huge role to play within the venture. We’ll touch on it a little later.

Adrien Aumont — At roughly the same time we met Luigi, we also did the rounds of industrial design businesses that had real knowledge of the railway sector. Our initial idea was to link one of them up with a big architectural name, so their creativity and imagination could give us a good head start in the sleeper-train industry. It had happened in the past, with Christian Lacroix, Philippe Starck, Matali Crasset. The concept was appealing. What’s more, all the agencies we spoke to said the same thing: of course, it would be a pleasure to work with such a name. All except one: Yellow Window, and specifically Patricia Bastard.

She told us that it was a false ‘good idea’ that goes back a long way, and that always gave birth to a smile, most often a little uncertain. She wouldn’t work with us if we took that direction. She was the first to tay her expertise out on the table and justify what she said with examples and clear explanations. We were rather taken and our impressions were confirmed when we met Julien d’Hoker, a colleague of Patricia’s, a brilliant industrial designer, whom we got along with well too.

A little like with Luigi Martinelli, they both came with solutions, despite rather limiting constraints. To design a train, you have to comply with all sorts of regulatory and technical restrictions, but they always had ways around these problems. For example, when we wanted to put wood in our carriages, they sent us the written rules on the subject, allowing us to understand that it wouldn’t be possible, along with three fake wood recommendations that would work instead. Once again, they displayed a certain school of thought that involved pointing out a problem and a solution at the same time – something all entrepreneurs needed.

The significance of Yellow Window to us became all the more clear when we went to meet a big architectural firm with them. Right away, we realised that it wouldn’t work, all the characters around the table wouldn’t be able to work on the same project, that they wouldn’t be able to work within all the technical limitations of the train. We didn’t need any more time to make up our minds: we needed Luigi Martinelli for railway engineering and Yellow Window for train design. With them at our sides, we could put our ideas on paper to better understand our costs, and make forecasts for passenger numbers and revenue. And next up, launch our first round of fundraising.

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