Personalities

The Clone Collector: Meet New York Superangel Fabrice Grinda, Master of Digital Knockoffs

An eBay for France, a PayPal for Brazil...
fabrice grinda The Clone Collector: Meet New York Superangel Fabrice Grinda, Master of Digital Knockoffs

Mr. Grinda speaking at LeWeb 2011. (flickr.com/leweb)

Fabrice Grinda, the French-born Internet mogul best known for duplicating American companies across the globe, is taller—6’3″—and handsomer than he looks in his hundreds of pictures online, with thick eyebrows a few shades darker than his hair. He speaks rapidly and pronounces almost every word, including “entrepreneur,” in a near perfect American accent. “Ultimately, I was not a super creative guy,” he said, resting his arms behind his head and propping one smooth leather loafer on the edge of the coffee table in his sparse Chelsea office.

In 1996, Mr. Grinda was a 21-year-old analyst at McKinsey & Company, where he watched the Internet bubble inflate from his small, windowless office and worried that he might miss his chance to strike it rich. Problem was, he didn’t have any ideas. That’s when he decided innovation was overrated.

“Screw creativity and originality,” he recalled telling himself. “I’m going to take a U.S. idea and bring it to Europe.”

As an entrepreneur, Mr. Grinda copied eBay for France. Then he copied a European business selling cellphone ringtones for the U.S. He now runs OLX, a Craigslist knockoff he founded that is now bigger than Craigslist itself. By night—and in sporadic meetings throughout the week—he’s a so-called superangel, with 96 investments.

The majority of his portfolio? Clones. “Copies of established ideas,” he clarified. “‘Established,’ meaning $100 million in sales for the original model, and profitable or on a clear path to profitability.” Among his investments are a Diapers.com for Russia, a Grubhub for China, a Diapers.com for Germany, a Jetsetter for Turkey, a Stubhub and Eventbrite for Spain and Latin America, a Warby Parker for France, and an Airbnb, an Expedia, a Gilt and a PayPal for Brazil.

Mr. Grinda invests in 25 start-ups a year, and an introduction from him guarantees a full round. About a third of his portfolio comprises original ideas based in the U.S. But for the rest of the world, it’s clones only.

Bryan Ellis, a close friend who met Mr. Grinda at McKinsey, recalled his friend’s ambitions as a 20-something: drive a fast car, meet a nice girl, save Africa, and have $100 million by the time he was 30.

“My nickname for him is ‘the Great Grinda,’” Mr. Ellis said. “It’s not the Great Gatsby, it’s the Great Grinda. Gatsby had a great house and a lot of money and a lot of friends, but at the end he kind of lost track and faltered. With the Great Grinda, he also has a great house and has wonderful parties and a lot of friends, but he’s the real deal.”

In 2008, Mr. Grinda was essentially kicked out of his Long Island home for hosting paintball games in the garden. In 2010, he gave up an apartment at 19th and Park that he’d rented in order to host parties, with dozens of friends coming over for poker or wine-fueled political discussions. Mr. Grinda’s get-togethers inspired the building to pass several new regulations, including a prohibition against asking the doorman to enforce a guest list. One fete attracted more than 400 attendees. But apparently it was the wiring of the apartment with speakers for a salon that included a private talk by Matthew Bishop, the New York bureau chief of The Economist, that really irked building management. “I got kicked out of my apartment in the city for the hosting of these more-or-less intellectual parties,” Mr. Grinda said. As a result, he lived out of the Mercer Hotel for 18 months, before renting a manse in Bedford with a padel court and 20 acres of land, as well as an apartment at 1 Madison Park.

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