Sep 23

The fear that keeps you from being happy.

All successful entrepreneurs are driven.
We have our own compass. 
We operate at our own speed. 
We aim for Mars instead of the Moon. 

Many of us know exactly the inner driver, which keeps us pushing on. 
It comes in many guises:
A lack of a sense of security.
A need for recognition. 
A sense of obligation.

Our inner driver is always deeply emotional. 
It is a longing. 

And that longing will never be fulfilled by whatever success we achieve.
Deep inside, many of us know this. So we keep pushing on.
It makes us successful but never satisfied.

The downside:
Constantly not being happy.
For many of us, this is the price of success.

Digging deeper into our emotional setup will reveal the hidden mechanisms. 
Working on our emotional side is working at the root causes of our not being satisfied.
We in fact become more content.
We become more healthy.
We have better relationships.
We become well-rounded people.
We grow.

All humans resist the process of going into their emotions. 
We fear being vulnerable. There may be pain.
Some people overcome this resistance and grow. 
Many stay where we are.

We, entrepreneurs, have another fear: 
If I fix myself, will I become ‘normal”’, will I lose it?

Will I lose my secret sauce to success?
Will I lose my drive?

In my personal experience: 
I haven’t lost anything.
I still want to maximise my impact.
I am not content with being average.

But my ambition has extended from being ‘successful’ to something bigger.
To fulfil my potential as a human. In many more dimensions as ‘success’.

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Aug 23

How to find ‘What’s Next”?

As a serial entrepreneur, I went through seven “What’s Next” phases. I guided countless founders through phases of searching for their next thing.
Here are some points that I learned.

1) We tend to overemphasise avoiding a painful experience. People who leave their jobs tell me how they want to prevent the harmful elements in their search for the next thing—my advice: Don’t move away from something. Move towards something new.

2) We perceive a lot of pressure to find our new role. We often try to keep our CV intact, and we think others might observe that we still haven’t found anything new. We might be slacking. Better: Give yourself ample time. It often takes ten years to be successful at something new. It is ok to spend a year to find the right thing. 

3) In our new opportunity, you will bring your personality, with all the positive and negative. You can’t run away from yourself, But you can work on yourself.

4) Aim high. This super valuable piece of advice was given to me by a family friend when I did not know what to do after school, and some studies were considered very hard. In the end, I took the more challenging option and succeeded. You can safely say the same for your new venture: Try to do the hard stuff. You can correct to the easier path along the way.

5) Follow the money. In sectors like climate and health, folks want to do what is right. But time and again, it shows that you must build a profitable business to have something sustainable. Bill Gates did not start in saving the planet. He started making a lot of money first, which enabled him to do good stuff.

May 23

Founders have three jobs.

When I coach entrepreneurs, a part of the conversations centres around the organisations they build. Most of them have never learned that founders don’t need to do everything themselves. As a founder and CEO, you really have only three jobs:
1) Maintaining the product vision,
2) Building a great team that can execute,
3) Manage your stakeholders.
As we often come into entrepreneurial life as ‘self-starters’, by definition, most of us err on the side of continuing to do too much ourselves.

Doing too much may come in different shapes and forms:
– Some founders take on too many roles, often in perceived emergencies, maybe because someone important has left. 
– Some folks exercise a crazy level of control because they don’t trust their team to function well without them. 
– Some entrepreneurs have a hidden feeling that they must work hard to deserve the spoils. The startup grind etc.

The reality is: running and growing a business is hard, and you need to execute the three core jobs well. You need to be able to do this for decades, not weeks. Constantly pushing yourself to the limit actually harms the most valuable asset of the company: The founder. 

The picture below was taken during one of the hikes in Mallorca. I found it a great symbol of the narrow pathway that leads to success, often garnished with massive boulders in the way. #entrepreneurs#ceo#founders

Jan 23

Connect to your feelings…

In my own coaching sessions, my coach kept repeating: 
„I want you to connect to your feelings.“

I had no idea what she was talking about…
I’ve always been emotional, even impulsive sometimes. 
Yet, after a while, I truly started to change. 

Not always overthinking. 
Trusting my instincts. 
I started to make decisions not based on what makes the most sense but based on what feels right. 

My life has 100% changed for the better. 
Being good at achieving objectives didn’t mean I was going for the right objectives.

Jan 23

Learning to learn from others.

I’ve always been a ‘self-starter’. As a kid, I learned to code by myself. I prefer reading versus listening to podcasts as it allows me to accelerate to my own speed. When I wasn’t great at certain sports, I just assumed I was not talented. This limited me to endurance sports, where I didn’t need a lot of coaching. At University, I skipped boring lectures and went to the library to study on my own. In the end, I got a great degree and in my career, I am often able to innovate instead of mimic. 

In 2022 all this changed: Several friends nudged me to learn new things with the help of others.

I started with a boxing trainer, thanks to Torsten
Mark introduced me to Jan Ebert who helps me to change my eating habits to finally lose weight over an extended period. 
Johanna and her team are helping me to improve my coaching skill set. 
Roland encouraged me to take on a new hobby…

This is a fundamental shift which has led me to appreciate our ‘human system for knowledge exchange’. We can help each other to be better than on our own.

Dec 22

Planning your life for the new year.

Most entrepreneurs can name the #objectives in their business plan. But what are your objectives in your #life#plan? Here are 15 questions that I use to plan my new year.
1. What were your best experiences in 2022 ?
2. Who was part of these experiences?
3. What do these experiences have in common?
4. Which people drained most of your energy in 2022?
5. What needs to change so there is less energy drain?
6. How does your business impact your ability to experience the positive moments from question 1?
7. Where do you want your business to be in 5 years?.
8. What will your role in your business be in 5 years?
9. What decision needs to be made now to ensure your objectives in the two questions above will be achieved?
10. What has changed in your view of the world in 2022?
11. For each of your assets: What is your investment thesis why you own them?
12. Has this changed by how you view the world now?
13. How would a neutral person describe your health? Your physical appearance? Your weight? Your food habits? Your sleep patterns?
14. Are you happy with that assessment? If not, what keeps you from changing?
15. Do you have enough money? If not, what needs to change?

With the answers to this list, you should be in a good place to distill your three most important objectives for 2023.

How do you go about planning your year?

Nov 22

Meine Life Story (Deutsch) im Podcast

Kein Studium bereitet einen auf Unternehmertum vor. “Experience Sharing” hilft. Darum erzähle ich hier im Podcast, wie sich die Stationen in meinem Leben bisher aneinandergereiht haben. Warum ich als Schüler schon Unternehmer war, aber dennoch bei einem Konzern gelernt habe. Wie ich relativ spät mit VC in Berührung kam und überhaupt den ganzen Roller Coaster aus lastminute.comBILD.de (not proud), DocMorrisQype9flats.comWimduCreative Destruction Lab und Sustainable Aero Lab
Wie das kam?
Peer-Arne Böttcher ist das Urgestein des Business Networkings. Er baut jetzt #Turnbull und #TheTuranlist als Podcast. Dass er als gelernter Journalist absoluter Profi ist, kann man hören.

Warum ich das jetzt erzähle? 
Weil ich in den letzten Jahren mehr und mehr erwachsene Unternehmer coache und dabei in der Selbstreflektion merke, wie häufig ich in den verschiedenen Phasen von den Leuten profitiert habe, die mehr Erfahrung hatten als ich und sich für mich Zeit genommen haben.  

Wir haben das tatsächlich alles in 59 Minuten geschafft. Atemtechnik könnte ich noch dabei üben. 

Nov 22

7 Destructive Core Beliefs of Entrepreneurs

Core beliefs determine our understanding of who we are and how we go about life or work.Entrepreneurs are no different from other people: We can have core beliefs that help us or destructive ones. Examples for helpful core beliefs could sound like: “I know I can do this.“, “I am in control of my life.“,”I am excellent at selling.

Equally, core beliefs can also be very destructive. Here is a list of some negative core beliefs that I found in my coaching work with entrepreneurs. There are many more.

(1) “I need to prove that I can do this.” This immediately leads to the question: “Who do you need to prove this to?” – Digging deeper often gives way to powerful insights. There might have been a father figure who did not give a young child enough sense of self worth. This core belief could fill a books for entrepreneurs as it can be a driving force but at the same time make you feel empty and unaccomplished.

(2) “If I don’t do it myself, it won’t be done right”. We all know someone like who behaves like this. Yet it is sometimes hard to spot it in ourselves. I recently encountered a gifted entrepreneur whose analytical skills were far superior to anyone else in his company. This led him to a style of micromanagement and abrasiveness with his team with a high churn of staff and a very high personal workload. Accepting that others don’t need to have the same traits as he does is an ongoing process. 

(3) “I have an obligation to my team.” (… to continue, to not take a long holiday…, ). You may indeed have obligations to your team, like being honest about certain things, or paying them fairly. I recently worked with an entrepreneur who built his entire organizational structure into a comfort zone for everyone. That is: everyone but himself. His organisation was supportive for everyone but himself. We worked for quite a while to get the company also giving equal support for him. Performance of the entire organisation improved dramatically.

(4) “I need to utilise my unique talent in the best way for humanity.” Often I see this with entrepreneurs who try to tackle important issues such as global warming. If I don’t do it, nobody will. Some thoughts that might be helpful with this feeling: Humanity got to where we are in a collaborative process. In many ways we stand on the shoulders of giants. You did not invent your toilet, neither did you invent the jet airplane. We all can contribute in positive or negative ways, yet the the world will also continue without us. If this is an insult to your ego, then it is worth digging deeper.

(5) “In then end, I am alone in this.” This core belief can be direct road to a burnout. Underlying, there might be an inability to get help from others. Maybe you did not get help when you needed it as a young child. Maybe you don’t feel you have a right to ask. Learning to get help from others is a super important skill which is surprisingly often missing in the super successful. I once asked an entrepreneur to start asking for directions on the street. He used this to learn that people are generally very helpful.

(6) “I don’t deserve to be where I am.”. Often also imposter syndrome. An example: At my Unconference, where every participant gets to speak, a friend said: “I don’t have anything to say in such an accomplished group”. By any standards this was a very successful individual. He had both financial freedom and fantastic values. But he did not feel he had anything to say to our group of likeminded people.

(7) “I should not celebrate too much, it might end soon.” I had this in phases of my life when things where going very well. I was reluctant to celebrate. Behind it, there wasa a superstition that I would provoke an end of things going well. I now believe that this had to do with what my grandfather said to me when I was a child, along the lines of “don’t get cocky”. We can understand why a grandfather gives some guidelines like these to a child, but for me it meant a serious restriction in savouring and celebrating what deserves celebrating.

As always, happy for thoughts, comments. What core beliefs have you recently encountered?

Oct 22

Coach for Entrepreneurs

While working on Qype, the most extensive local reviews website in Europe, I was under immense pressure: VCs were demanding, we had just our second child, and I was functioning above my limits. The chairman we brought in was fantastic, but he also could not help me to fend off the various demands from shareholders, employees, and family. In the end, I suffered a real burnout. The pressure I felt constantly was so high that I could not write anymore with a pen on paper.

That was more than a decade ago. Since then, I have evolved as a business person and human being. I learned to have better boards. I learned to look after myself. I had help from coaches and many mentors. But I also learned whom to avoid.

For nearly a decade now, I have consistently coached a few successful entrepreneurs. By the Summer of 2022, the feedback for my coaching sessions changed. From “super helpful” to “life-changing”.

Entrepreneurs would come to me to discuss a business pivot or scaling up. But as we engage on a journey to the deeply personal, to the emotional, to core beliefs, we create change. This journey is never easy, but the results are outstanding. Founders have improved their lives, their happiness level, and their organisations for the better.

This is where I currently see more impact than funding early-stage startups.
I want to be the person to turn to that I did not have when things were tough at Qype.

Mar 22

My Business Insider Interview in 2022

I recently got a call out of the blue from Gruenderszene, a subsidiary of Business Insider. They asked me rather personal questions. In the end, this turned out to be a nice story.

Please read the original version in German here.

Jul 20

An update.

What is Stephan up to?
– Mentoring startups through Creative Destruction Lab
– Product strategy and organisational structure for larger startups.
– Researching sustainable aviation.

Spending more time in Europe these days, my Q1 2020 was dedicated to help Gunnar Froh, the founder of Wunder Mobility to refine the organisational stucture of his startup. Wunder has recently closed a $ 60 million round. I worked first as a coach and then in a very hands on to streamline the organisation. We were able to streamline the business. The Wunder leadership team bolted on a new acquisition and could focus their growth on the most promising areas.

COVID obviously disrupted my life along with everyone elses. I feel we were lucky to have a relatively mild lock down in Germany. Most of my mentoring is remote anyway so that continues unchanged.

In my own venture portfolio, COVID has not slowed things down. At least two of the 15 founders I have currently the pleasure of working with completed funding rounds in Q2, and several companies, including Wunder mentionend above, seem stronger now than before.

Going forward:

I am a mentor at the Creative Destruction Lab in Toronto since 2016. At the CDL, I will focus on Oxford, where I am a mentor in the AI and health stream. Recently, I joined CDL in Paris in the climate stream.

I realised how much I enjoy the operator role and high pressure situations. Organisational change, restructurings and particularly pivots have been my life blood over the past 20 years. I intend to do more of this.

If you take this blog as an account over the past couple of years, you see a strong interest in the environment (I cofounded Avocadostore.de, Germany’s eco marketplace), technology (I started out as a mechanical engineer with a thesis on fuel cells), and also in aviation.
If you add all these things up, you won’t be surprised to learn that I am currently putting a lot of research into sustainable aviation.
I hope to be able to shift this research project into something real soon.

Jul 19

Departed. An update on FLIO.

(I am writing this from a cottage in Quebec with 5% battery left, so no perfect formatting…)

FLIO is in process to be sold to SOS Travel SPA in Italy.
If you are a user of FLIO, this means that you get to continue to use FLIO, the most used airport app in the world. FLIO has now more users than ever before and nobody else in the space comes even close.

For me as founder, this is the first business in my career where I have lost money, as have our investors. As I spend most of my time these days mentoring startup founders and investing in early stage deep tech and AI startups, I would like to share a couple of learnings.

The opportunity. “The golden hour on the sixth continent” 

This was an article in The Economist which prompted me to to move into the airport space. Passengers are confused and stressed at airport, at the same time, the “trinity” of airports, retailers and travel brands make a lot of money with them. And they are all very far from being digital. And the industry is huge, global and seems forever growing.The business logic was to build something that is useful enough for passengers to find mass adoption, then charge the industry for advertising on it.

Most of my VC friends passed on FLIO. The ones who I respect most now gave me one reason: A oligopoly in supply is not a good bases for a marketplace.

I was not held back. There are more than 300 commercially relevant airport in the world. So we got started at the very end of 2014.

Here is a rough chronology how we evolved FLIO:

In its first incarnation in 2015 we built a hack to log people into the varying free wifi without having to fill the often stupid questions airports asked before they let you in. This worked often. But we could not get past the Boingo portals, which are most used in the US. Worse: whenever we successfully logged a user into the Wifi, passengers complained that the Wifi was slow and buggy. we could never fix poor airport Wifi, and they were very poor in 2014.
So while our customer acquisition was flying, we did not have a great product then. Many people are surprised when we tell them today that Flio is not about airports wifi anymore.

In a pivot, we worked with some of the largest food & beverage companies to provide discounts, maps and directories. The logic was that very often you don’t find what you want, and both airports and retailers have no way to personalise and experience. We we were thrilled to have very positive feedback from some of the largest duty free retailers (did you know that the largest airport retailer has more than 40% market share globally?).
We had lots of discussions, and also sold some advertising campaigns to top brands. Yes, airports are the most expensive environment to advertise in, so why not extend this into our app.

There were several problems in this phase:

We were not that exciting for passengers (discounts?), and while we had a good liquidity in our market place in some pockets like the UK, we were far from having a global footprint.

While our cost to acquire customers was super low, they just did not stay. Our user numbers did not develop as fast as we need them to grow in order to justify continued interest from advertisers.

Most importantly, even though some of the very largest retailers scheduled meeting after meeting with us, it took us too long to realise: Retailers were not prepared to pay us any money. They did like to work with us to show to the airports how digital they were. But retailers did not need us in 2017. The way the industry works is: Retailers bid long term contracts with airports. Nearly all of the profits go to the airport, hence the profit margin of a well run airport is very high. The profit margin of even the best run retailers is extremely small. While we were always able to generate some extra margin, we did not move the needle for them, at least not in 2017.

If you are a founder of a startup depending on industry buy in, always ask yourself if they take a meeting to look good internally or if they genuinely need you.

Phase 3: 2018: The best flight tracker
In order to overcome FLIOs problem with not enough repeat users, we built a very very good flight tracker. You connect your calendar to FLIO and FLIO updates you on late departures, gate changes etc. We worked with generally available data sources, large airports and airlines directly, and were able to build a really good flight tracker which fixed the problem of repeat usage. That increased our usage dramatically, but pushed us away from our original USP.

Phase 4: 2019: Predicting what happens at the airport.
Based on my work as a mentor in the Creative Destruction Lab in Toronto, I finally had the realisation that we had to offer true innovation for passengers to be truly useful. To put it bluntly, we realised that the industry would never pay us and we had to make passengers love us.
We built two, I believe amazing products:

  • FLOW measures how passengers progress through airports and predict security waiting times. This went live for Hamburg airport in June and can be scaled out to any airport. 
  • DEPART predicts when your flight will actually leave depending on when your plane comes in.

Both are super useful, and nobody else offers these tools to passengers. Also both were technically not possible even 12 months earlier as phone accuracy was not enough and the databases were not available to use for the second problem.

In Phase 4, this year, I was truly excited in the potential of FLIO again. We  finally had discussions with VCs again despite being on the market for so long. We spoke to strategic investors which looked promising.

As you can guess by now, these four iterations meant that we lost too much time. We were never able to raise a lot of money for FLIO, our investor from Phase 2 lost patience with us through Phase 3 and had no interest in Phase 4. 
In June, it became clear that we would not get fresh money quickly. We had taken too long and were stuck with a capable that did not look great for new money coming in.

So now, FLIO GmbH, the German subsidiary which actually runs operations, as well as the assets from FLIO Ltd, a UK company have been sold on to SOS Travel who already have a model to make consumers pay. The parent company, FLIO Ltd UK has been put into administration as the lead investor, who gave the latest investor as a loan, did elect not to convert this investment loan into equity.

Most staff of FLIO have long found other opportunities. If you read through the above you can guess that we’ve found and kept excellent developers who were able to excel at any new challenge once we finally gave them to them. As for the sales people: Anyone who has worked selling something successful that was always „too early“ must have been stellar. Our content team and business analysts are amazing. So I am hugely grateful too anyone who had devoted their energy to making airports less confusing and less stressful.

For me, this means finally freeing up valuable time and being able to focus on working with deep tech which does excite me massively. One of the startups I work with can help people get the best treatment for cancer. One can help aircraft engines save fuel. One will help monitor global methane emissions. Lots to do.

As a mentor to startups after 6 successful startups and now one partial failure, I am more sensitive to the following topics:

  1. If it is a marketplace: Make sure the key players need you.
  2. If all your VC friends say no. Could they have another reason than “not getting it”.?
  3. Is your investor flexible enough to go the next pivot?
  4. Convertible loans sound nice, but what happens if the next round doesn’t happen?
  5. Always decide who your customer is. And love them.
  6. Make sure your USP is crystal clear. A new USP sometimes justifies a new brand. It is hard to sell a „Swiss army knife“ for x.

May 18

What entrepreneurs can learn from Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger

As Warren Buffett has become mainstream, it is now easy to confuse the forest and the trees of the headlines. I made my first trip to the annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway in 2008 and have been to the event seven times in total. Going back to Omaha is not so much about learning something new, but to be reminded of the important bits that I forget in between. Buffett and Munger consider themselves business pickers not stock pickers. They offer wonderful food for thought for entrepreneurs.

The best Interviews and speeches:

The essence of Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett  in writing:

Many of the books about Buffett and Munger obscure more than they reveal: As both are very good communicators, it is always a good idea to read the source:

  • The essence of Berkshire Hathaway:
    Special Letters to the Shareholders, the present, the past and the future As they’ve written both their versions, you get two very different approaches.
  • The essence of Charlie Munger. Charlie has been quoted and quoted again, and I think his unique approach to critical thinking is the consistent theme. This is best visible in his 1995 speech The psychology of human misjudgement, which is also the centrepiece of his own book “Poor Charlie’s Almanack”.
  • The essence of Warren Buffett is more difficult to pin down into one core piece. But in his original writing: The Superinvestors of Graham and Doddsville from 1984. Buffett essentially proves that value investing works. This was before value investing became super hyped. Since then Buffett has evolved many times over.

Some of the blogs that I enjoy most:

  • Farnam Street Shane Parrish fs.blog
  • 25iq by Tren Griffin: 25iq.com

Aug 17

Entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint.

One of my favorite bits of experience sharing with entrepreneurs is: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint”.And when I coach other founders, I keep telling them that it takes a long time to build a great business. Gareth Williams, the CEO of Skyscanner just reminded me of this in his interview, when he said that Skyscanner’s first month’s revenue was GBP 46 after 2 years. The fact that you have to focus for a very long time to become successful, is much harder to accept for my own companies.

Flio has now been live for more than two years, and we’ve been working on Flio for three years. I’m glad to say that our monthly revenues are very healthy, but nevertheless, it feels like there is still so much work to do until Flio becomes as relevant as I think it deserves. So when Flio becomes visible like here in Amsterdam Schiphol airport, we’re obiously very proud as a team. As a passenger, you can find official Schiphol content on Flio and tons of great deals. 

Jul 15

Systems versus Goals – Scott Adams, Warren Buffet and some Zen.

Should you take advice from a guy who draws cartoons for a living? Generally not. Scott Adams, who does the Dilbert comics, is the exception to this rule. His book ‘How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big’ is one of the best books about life and happiness that I’ve read recently. It has triggered this piece. (EDIT 2017: Since I posted this, Scott Adams has correctly predicted Trump winning the elections, however, he then turned into an unabashed self-righteous Trump-supporter and continues to explain the worst US president in history. I keep this post as a document, nothing is wrong with the book recommendation)

As entrepreneurs, most of us are goal achieving machines. At least those entrepreneurs who are successful. A lot of my close entrepreneurial friends are fantastic in achieving their goals. In our organizations, it  is much easier for people to work together if there is a common goal.

I am by all accounts good at achieving goals. Get a great university degree, become an entrepreneur; study abroad, buy first apartment, build a company, get funded, sell company, raise a family, to do only things that have a meaning – whatever I set out to do I’ve achieved-  with the exception of achieving some ideal weight.

If goals are so great, then what is wrong with goals?

After each goal I achieved, I fell into a hole until I would find a new goal that I could go and achieve. Worse: During all that time, few people would have called me content. In order to be good at achieving goals I probably needed to not be happy with the status quo. In my experience that you can generalize this:

Most overachievers pay a high price for their achievements – they are never happy for a long term.

Over time I did improve. In the past couple of years I changed. I started to define a great day as a day when I spend time with my wife, my kids and do some great exercise. A good day is also defined by having meaningful intellectual exchange with people I respect. So a good day really doesn’t have anything to do with achieving more, or having more.

What does this have to do with Scott Adams’ book? Adams provides many more examples and a framework of goals versus systems:

“Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in a sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good at every time they apply their system.”

In personal life, going back to dieting: losing 20 pounds is a goal that is usually always doomed, while focusing to change your habits for a different diet is a system that will last.

As a serial entrepreneur, I have evolved my system of identifying a market niche which fullfils a genuine user need, using an intact reputation to get the best possible people on board, acquire capital without over promising and executing fast. But I don’t have a goal of “x million in y years”. And I am certainly more happy for it.

In investing, I trained for years to identify companies that have evolved a great system. A company an idiot can run, to paraphrase Warren Buffet. Buffet has built one of the best systems himself with building a company that automatically increases earnings over time. Regus plc has built a system to constantly increase their office space without taking on the risk involved. In Germany, Rocket Internet is a system that can churn out companies at a bigger scale than anyone else.

Speaking of Buffet: As I attended Berkshire’s annual shareholder meeting for the 5th time this year, I realised something in the way Warren Buffet spoke about a recent acquisition in Germany and potential future acquisitions.

I had foolishly assumed that there was some kind of big plan for what he does. But: There is no big plan: They made decisions to acquire companies within less than a day. Buffet just happens to have a system of capital allocation and a certain pattern for companies that fit into BRK. And he communicates which companies might fit, wanting to become the preferred buyer for certain sellers. – A system without goals.

Scott Adams:
If you do something every day, it’s a system.
If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.”

To close with one of my favourite Zen quotes:

“Before enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment: Chop Wood, carry water.”

Dec 14

Entrepreneurial Roller Coaster.

I recently did a couple of speeches for founders. One was in front of 1400 people at the Bits and Pretzels event in Munich. I’ve found that one of the keynotes that gets the most attention is my take on the entrepreneurial roller coaster.

With the massive startup advice that is dished out to founders there are two misconceptions.

The first misconception is that you can build startups in days, weekends or weeks. Or that you can fail really fast and do the next thing. And sometimes that next thing is to talk about your failure. In my experience this is not a road to success, but folklore. Good things do need time, although you can sometimes abbreviate with too much money.

The second misconception is the idea that if you have the right company, there is a hockey stick to your growth, if you have just the right concept. Again: If you look behind the scenes and if you have the time to read the accounts of famous companies like twitter or facebook you find that all these people struggled at several points. Success does not look like one big hockey stick. But like many trials and errors, ups and downs. That is the roller coaster.

If you know it’s going to be a roller coaster, you are less likely to give up too early. If you know it takes a long time, you will give yourself more opportunities to iterate.

Jul 13

The Lost Art of Selling

I love growing companies. I love this so much, that I have done nothing else for the past 15 years, with companies like TravelChannel, DocMorris, Qype, 9flats, avocadostore.

Sustainable growth requires a very basic art:  Every business must figure out how to

  1. Acquire customers profitably and
  2. How to sell to them.

People who know how to do this well are few. Customer acquisition via SEM, SEO etc. is a well paid specialty. Still, to this day, I find way more people who do this on a superficial level than people who really know how to do it. Most of the good online marketing experts seem to be consultants.

People who master the second step, to be precise: people who know how to sell online, are extremely rare. In a functional way, there are now user experience (UX) specialists and even conversion specialists. People who know how they can make you press that “buy now” button. But this is not enough.Too few founders know how to really sell on the web

If you really know to what offer to pitch to your customers, how to present the offer, how to differentiate the offer and how to price it, then you are truly a master of your business. It is much easer to get investors if you know how to sell to your customers

If you decide to take on capital and can prove your sales mechanics to potential investors, then it will be much easier to get that capital. Investors love it when they see a formula that works. “Just add water” is what this is called. I love it too, in the rare cases where I invest.

Founders are often better selling themselves

There is this strong misconception that you have to be a good in business development to succeed. This is true for some businesses that really thrive on joint marketing deals or are service businesses, mostly business-to-business (b2b). But in my specialty: Business to Consumer (b2c), I much rather run a business with no business development, but a successful online model that acquires customers successfully.

Most founders I meet focus to much on networking with potential partners and investors, and too little on building a product that sells online.

Feb 13

Basics for Organizing a Startup

A couple of days ago I was keynote speaker at an EO Accelerator meeting. I was sharing my experience as an entrepreneur in building fast growing companies. While preparing my talk I realized how the basic principles for building an organization are very similar to those helping a six year old child cleaning up her room two weeks before.

When I helped my daughter to clean up her room, I tried to teach her principles. The principles we worked on are:

1. Less stuff
My daughter and I drove through piles of finished drawings, broken toys and she decided for every single item whether she wants to keep it or not. With this, we reduced the complexity of organizing stuff later.

2. Every thing has its place
We used amazon cardboard boxes and she labelled the, carefully. One for “stickers”, one for “small stuff”, one for “nature things”… you get it. All of a sudden, her chaos started to make sense to her.

3. Small tasks
When I ask my daughter to clean her room, the tasks seems insurmountable to her. But starting with: “let’s do the area under your desk now” is something she can easily achieve and be proud of.

4. Do everything only once
We tried to clean up one drawer first, and only when that was finished move on to the next corner. Arguably, we did not get very far here. Too big was the temptation to just look at an item in one corner of the room and arbitrarily play with something else, and then go back.

Here is how I apply these same principles  to organize a business, whether a small start up or a large organization:

1. Less Stuff Even at the earliest stages, startups do too much. Focus on your core service. You don’t have to maintain a great blog if you provide a terrific ecommerce experience. You don’t need to sponsor that conference, heck you don’t even have to speak at conferences. Stripping away activities that are not core is the best way to help your organization to focus on that core. I find this most fun of restructuring work.

2. Everything has its place Your org chart is perfect when every new task like “talk to a new customer”, “be responsible for the product launch” has one clear and logical owner. If you leave room for interpretation who will do a new task, then your boxes are not well defined. If some areas drown in work while others have time to do side projects then the card board boxes of your organization need resizing. Do that test with all new stuff that you come across. It really is worth fine tuning. Labeling the boxes means to give people good general understanding of everyone’s job with distributing the org chart and keeping it up to date.

3. Small and measurable tasks. This is probably the most obvious rule. Nevertheless we see many IT projects fail because they are invariably too big and complex. Rule of thumb: cut the “six week projects” into “one week sprints”. While the six week project won’t be finished after three months, you will probably find that you only need three “one week projects” in the end.

4. Do everything only once. One of my biggest frustrations in my companies: Projects are being started, discussed, delayed, restarted again and again. My lesson as someone who is often guilty of changing his mind: If something is in process of being done then let people finish it. Try to reach decisions quickly and then end the decision making process. This is hard with constantly changing information, but necessary. Do everything once is a rule which will make your product team smile.

There are tons of books for organising companies. I find that if you stick to these simple principles, you can’t go very wrong.

May 12

in Wired UK: Taking startups cross 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.

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.