29
May 12

How to take a startup across borders

This text is a slightly longer version of my contribution to the May 2012 edition of WIRED UK 

Taking companies across borders is incredibly rewarding and also sometimes very challenging. Here a brief summary of some lessons learned. There is no right or wrong for all businesses. For some models you need to build a local salesforce, sometimes you can get away with just having a great central Search Engine Marketing team. Sometimes you need to do both.

Most companies chose to have product central at HQ and sales regionalized in other markets.This is tried and tested and works well if your product is „one size fits all“ like a facebook or Google. The limits to this system of a stong HQ and relatively weak satellites start to show if local tastes and preferences differ too much, or if the sales process has to be adapted massively.

I have seen many satellite offices where people did feel marginalized and unhappy because they had no influence on product direction or felt that top management did not understand their regional needs.
Some recipes to reduce international friction:

 

  1. Get local the local staff to work from the central office.
    If you are in an attractive location like London or Berlin, you can get the people from other countries into your HQ. We have done this for 9flats in Berlin. Currently we have 14 different nationalities working at 9flats. We have French, Italian and Spanish people who moved to Berlin to do local marketing in their home markets. Hence if something is not right for Italy, people will go up to the development guys and tell them until they fix it.
  2.  Hire key people from other countries.
    At Qype we had an English  CTO, French COO, and today we have even a British CEO for Qype, a company headquartered in Hamburg. At 9flats, our CTO is Mexican and our head of sales is from Russia. I like the culture this creates and it has worked very well for us.
  3.  Check you assumptions.
    People might say similar things but their different cultural context will associate totally different meanings. „Consider it done“ means something totally different in different cultures. I was often surprised, that our spanish colleagues often had a more germanic approach to work than the Germans. And language is more stressful than most people admit: I found that people do get tired more quickly if they have to run meetings in English.

23
May 12

Painting your own painting

This is a very short post but it contains an essential guiding principle for investors in dealing with CEOs.

At this years Annual Meeting at Berkshire Hathaway, someone asked Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger how they intend to keep their managers of Berkshire‘s subsidiaries. This and another question triggered Warren to explain that he does not do micromanagement of his firms. He said he speaks only maybe twice a year to several of the CEOs of companies Berkshire owns. „If we thought that they needed us to be successful, we would get out“ . He then went further to explain: „Charlie and I like to paint our own painting without someone else telling us to use more red or more blue. And we think that the Berkshire CEOs feel the same and want to paint their own painting“.

This attitude contradicts massively with what I sometimes observe in the behaviour of investors in startups. There is a difference, the argument goes: In startups, we often have inexperienced founders, and sometimes more experienced VCs.

Nevertheless: I strongly believe that most VCs would do well to remember the basic truth in “Painting your own picture”.  Nobody becomes a startup CEO because they want to do what Investors tell them to do.


21
May 12

My three favourite Buffett & Munger quotes.

I am a regular visitor to the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholder Meeting in Omaha, Nebraska. I don‘t go there because I hope that something  magic rubs off, but because it is a lesson in sanity and clarity in thinking.  I have now more than my fair share of Buffett or Munger quotes that I can instantly pull out of my memory and I wanted to share three of the less known ones that have helped me with my own thinking.

  1. If it ain‘t worth doing, it ain‘t worth doing well“ 
    is Charlie Mungers way of saying that it is not worth going after too small opportunities.
  2.  „I am a better businessman because I‘m an investor, and I am a better investor because I‘m also a business man“ 
    has become a confirmation of my choice of profession.
  3. „I‘d rather pass on a fantastic opportunity, than lose one night‘s sleep over it“
    – this one has helped me save more money than any book on investing.

28
Feb 12

Hiring: The Spark in the Eye

Arguably the most important task of an entrepreneur is to assemble a truly outstanding team. I am proud that I was able to bring many great teams together in the past. And I am grateful to work with so many outstanding people at Qype, at 9flats, and at avocadostore. I made many mistakes on the way. It is worth sharing some of my principles in hiring.

Hunt for potential, not for experience

Many people make the mistake of just looking at people‘s CV or likedin profile and look for the ones who‘ve done exactly what you need. I like people with experience. They can save you a lot of money because they don‘t need to experiment. But more important than where people have been is where they can go.

Hire for attitude

People who want to join us often bring rare and much sought after technical or marketing experience to the table. But we often failed with people who had the right skill, but the wrong attitude. I‘d rather have someone less experienced who will really find out how something can be done than an expert who tells me why it can‘t be done. At 9flats, we‘re looking for people with that spark in the eye.

Hire the best for all positions

„Hire the best person you can afford“ has been my mantra for a long time. Whenever I deviated and tried to make a shortcut, I invariably failed. Most people understand the concept of getting great people when hiring really „key“ employees like a CTO. But they fall short of the excellence principle in the „non-key“ areas like office management or accounting. The difference a truly great person makes to a simply average person is striking. In all areas.

Ethics

Recently I have met an increasing number of extremely successful people with poor ethics. Some on the investments side, but also some who applied for a job. The minute I spot this, I just switch off. I have lost some great potential this way, but I like to think that I gained in the long run. I won‘t give away all my tests here, but one: someone who offers to bring his coworkers to join us, will be shown the door immediately. This is purely selfish. Anyone who brings their friends to join us with them, will take them to the next shop afterwards.

The weekend test

The most important question I ask myself about every person that works directly with me is the weekend test: Would I like to spend a weekend with her or him. If that thought becomes just too stressful, boring or otherwise unpleasant, I just pass.

Pass on opportunities

I‘ve passed on many great hiring opportunities. And I will never know for sure if I have missed some great people that way. But I do know that with most of the people where it didn‘t work out in the end  there was some hunch in the beginning. Something was not right. Someone was not exactly thrilled by the person. So my most important rule for hiring is: Don’t hire if something feels not right.

 

By the way, a link to our Entrepreneur Intern Program (unfortunately German only, will be updated)

Open positions with 9flats.com in Berlin or in Hamburg


25
Jan 12

The Power of Single-Tasking

For most of my entrepreneurial life, I was proud of being able to handle a multitude of things at the same time. And I did get a lot done. Over the past years, my multitasking has become more pronounced instead of less. Phone calls, Telcos, Blackberry, Twitter, Facebook, Skype, handling people, investors, press: All at the same time.

However, this came at a cost: During the past  years I realized that friends became increasingly annoyed that I was always 10 minutes late. My kids got used to addressing me three times in order to get my attention. In the rare events when I was winding down, it took me half a day or so to relax.

Today, I‘m making a conscious effort to really focus on the one thing I am doing. As I‘ve spent more than 30 years learning to do several things at the same time, I am now slowly unlearning that behavior.

The initial results of single-tasking are amazing:

People give me positive feedback about my presence.

I am able to concentrate better on the things I love doing.

My written communication has become more powerful.

It still requires effort, but here are a couple of the things I changed:

Working out
The gym used to be the most boring place for me. My time on the cardio equipment was spent thinking about business. I tried music to get me through the time needed. Today, I focus intensely on my movements, my breathing, my pulse. As a result, the intensity of my work outs increased dramatically.

No more push messages
I pull them emails when I need them. And I try to do them in larger chunks. This was probably the hardest thing to change after an 8 year infatuation with blackberry. I find it even harter to reduce twitter and facebook. But the quality of my real life has increased as I decrease my virtual life.

Books and music
I discovered that I can‘t even enjoy music at the same time as  reading. Yes I can do it, but I do neither enjoy the book or not the music. It puzzles me how people can do that. So now when I pick some music I really dive in to it. Close my eyes. Or the other way around with the ears…

No late calls
I have started to refuse taking calls after 7 pm. In the past I had investors who wanted to discuss strategy when they had time, around 11 pm. This resulted in me being preoccupied while spending time with the family. I just don‘t do that any more.

Quiet one on one meetings
Less meetings with people in my team. But longer ones. When I talk to people I try not to cover only the most urgent points, but touch on the overarching goals of their area and their ability to achieve those.

Taking time to think
My train commute between Hamburg and Berlin with its poor connectivity has taught me the beauty of spending uninterrupted time to think. I now am actively creating time to sit down, even if I‘m not on the train.

One thing has not changed though: My attention span is still very short. So if I‘m typing away in a meeting that means I‘m not focusing on that meeting, but on something else. Entirely. In general that is an indication that I feel my input is not required in that meeting and I resolve to be not in that meeting the next time.