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

What to look for in an Angel

Angel investors have the most sexy name in the industry. They provide startups with money when nobody else does.
Some aren’t actually angels,
but that is another story…

Many people ask me if I would like to invest in their startup.
Time for some reflections on what to look for in angel investors.

 1. The most important thing you want from angels.

When people talk about angels, they often talk about subjects like
value ad, network, perspective, input and so on.
But in reality, you could get that from mentors as well.
When you pitch angels, of course you tell them how
much you value having them on board,
but in the end, don‘t kid me and don‘t kid yourself:
You want the money to start building your business.
And you don’t want to court them forever, because
your time is better spent in building your business.

So you need money. 

2. The second most important thing.


Every business that I have been involved in has been a roller coaster.
Fantastic ups, threatening downs.
Key people leaving, competitors walking in,
numbers not growing as quickly as you want them to.

You want an Angel to be relaxed.
Someone who has given you their 30k from
their savings account is not relaxed.

The third thing you want

You don’t want much of their time.
Some of the best angels I have are really hard to reach,
will listen only for a limited period of time but help tremendously.
The worst angels are people with time on their hands.
Giving lots of unsolicited suggestions.
At worst: looking for a job in your company.

You want their experience.
You want them to be experienced either as angels or as entrepreneurs.
So they know when not to bother.
More importantly, they should know when and how
to give you the essential messages you would otherwise not listen to.
So they can look at the business with the outside view and give you the two or three hints that you need to go into the right direction.
So they pull some weight with you when they see something coming that you don‘t.
That they do have something to say in the rare cases when you need advice. I have received some great input from the experienced guys.

A word of caution.

Not all angels are angels. Some people are actually sharks.
You will see that in their business terms.

The people who blog or twitter constantly about themselves in the world:
For me, they have not done much. The really good angels I met are often
very restrictive with what they say in public.

The people who boast beforehand about how much they would do for us?
never heard again from them afterwards.

Give back

I like to keep all my angels for the long term:
I have always found that it pays well to keep them informed,
albeit I still don‘t do this enough.

Try not to surprise them; if there is some rough terrain ahead,
I shout early as they are along for the ride.
It is also a good idea to help them make money.

As you may have gathered,
I don‘t consider myself a great angel investor.
In fact I invest very rarely and cautiously.
I do have to earn a living and hence
I‘m not relaxed enough to trust other people with my money.

 

The Fab Four

There are four excellent companies who dominate how we search, how we shop, how we communicate, and which gadgets we use: Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook.

The first three of these companies also are among the top 5 of the Fortune Magazine’s 50 most admired companies in 2010 . (Facebook is not in this list and this fact does not so much discredit Facebook as discredit the Fortune list).

But why write about this obvious fact of the Fab Four?

All these companies are product driven. This of course applies to Apple. The product is the hero, not the service around it, or the pricing. At Google, an engineer is much more important than a sales person. Just look at the amazing Zurich facility of Google and compare this to any sales office. If you listen to Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, he will mostly talk about the product and new features that help Facebooks users to use the site in yet another way. Amazon has lead in meticulous A/B testing of it’s website, to make sure it stays ahead.

The other point I want to talk about is the sheer share of mind of these companies.

“Which startup is hot at the moment?” this question by a friend made me think recently. No offence to my fellow startup entrepreneurs, but it seems to me that at the moment where even a small redesign by Facebook will automatically be more talked about than the most exciting new business idea.

Even the slightest new announcement from Apple, Facebook or Google, – the aptly worded “buzz” as latest example – commands more press interest than a new car model or even the most fantastic new startup. Bloomenergy.com is at least here in Europe virtually unheard of. This share of mind is even more scary than the user numbers, as it makes life harder for new entrants.

The good news: Five years from now, the Fab Four will not be the same companies. Someone will get it wrong, someone else will get it right.

Five years ago, I would have included Ebay in that list, today no more. There is a nice account of how companies historically fail to stay at the top in the Black Swan by Nicholas Taleb. At writing of that book in 2006 , only 74 of the S&P 500 companies of earlier times had survived. But I am willing to bet that even in 5 years from now, at least three out of the four dominating companies will be from the West Coast. Probably the fourth as well, you never know with these Black Swans…

Loving what you do.

I spend quite some time these days coaching friends, former colleagues or fellow entrepreneurs about “what should I do next“. There are some interesting parallels in these discussions. Strikingly, the self-imposed limitations of what people feel they can do constrain people’s choices in an amazing way. And this is true for any income group. Despite the fact that single mom with a low wage job has fewer choices than the millionaire several times over.

I found over time that many people can not simply tell you what they love best. But when you ask people why they are unhappy in their job, it is rarely because they don’t love what they do, but  more often because they feel they can not do things the way they want, or because the someone as a boss who does not value them and their achievements.

In this context, stumbling upon this very inspirational blog post from Cal Newport, author of a study guide, (thanks, Dave Ambrose for the link) has structured my thinking on career achievement amazingly.

Newport quotes work from Edward Deci who found that

“To be happy, your work must fulfill three universal psychological needs: autonomy,competence, and relatedness.

  • Autonomy refers to control over how you fill your time. As Deci puts it, if you have a high degree of autonomy, then “you endorse [your] actions at the highest level of reflection.”
  • Competence refers to mastering unambiguously useful things. As the psychologist Robert White opines, in the wonderfully formal speak of the 1950s academic, humans have a “propensity to have an effect on the environment as well as to attain valued outcomes within it.”
  • Relatedness refers to a feeling of connection to others. As Deci pithily summarizes: “to love and care, and to be loved and cared for.”

So for students, Newport argues that they should find something the really like and then become excellent at it. This will nearly always enable people to find a work environment where they can achieve a great sense of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Newport:

Your love of a subject will grow with your level of competence and autonomy

This also explains why many CEOs are unhappy in their jobs. Even if they are competent, the often suffer from a lack of autonomy. And if you encounter an entrepreneur who is unhappy, you can check with him whether his level of autonomy is where it should be.

Next Steps…

I deliberately took a while while to decide how I want to work and where to get involved. I pondered to join a VC (too far away from the business) and looked at direct investments in other people’s ideas (sometimes felt I could come up with better ones myself). I enjoyed the last couple of months with discussions with fellow entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and would be founders and now it is time for the next steps.

I said that I would only be interested in businesses which make life easier for everyone, make markets more efficient and disrupt the status quo; or help reduce emissions.

So here is the news:

We have identified several business concepts that fit the abovementioned criteria. True to what I said earlier, neither of them will involve dating or gambling. None of the concepts is a clone of something that works somewhere else, so there is considerable risk involved, but also ample opportunity.

For all businesses, we will be looking for entrepreneurs to launch and manage them. They will be able to count on input and advice, and will get enough freedom to run their businesses. And they will get reasonable shares to make them real entrepreneurs. Upspring will provide ideas, know how, infrastructure and seed funding.

So from now on, we will be scouting the market for real founders with

  • great business accumen,
  • team spirit,
  • lot’s of potential
  • at least 2, but no more than 5 years of job experience.
  • An excellent business education
  • and demonstrated entrepreneurial skills.

Locations will be Hamburg and Berlin. Do contact me via xing if you know of someone. If you want to apply, send a CV via Xing.

Success of persistent entrepreneurs…

Cem Basman brought this interesting article from Harvard Busines School to my attention: There is a new study out that measures the success of first time entrepreneurs versus repeat entrepreneurs.

Quote:

Successful entrepreneurs in the study had a 34 percent chance of succeeding in their next venture-backed firm, compared with 23 percent for those who previously failed and 22 percent for first-timers.

This is not to say that I am about to start a new venture, but it does make me think 😉

What does your company do better?

Whenever I work with web entrepreneurs, the discussion quickly goes onto one point:


What is it that your company does better than anybody else?

In an era with unprecedented low barriers to entry, and where competition is absolutely global, answering this question correctly and then executing on it becomes more important than ever. And it is surprising how easily we are all being drawn away from that.

Take Qype for example: Qype is successful because it only focuses on local reviews. We had to develop a local search for each market, just to make reviewing simple. Qype reviews are easy to find via Google, on your mobile phone. That is what Qype does really well. Whenever we ventured out of this area, for example with local Groups, we found that we just could not focus the same amount of energy into this.

Nearly every great company stands for one thing they do exceptionally well.

  • Doodle.ch is a fantastic example of this. It does one thing extremely well and is being used for just this: Agree on something, mostly a convenient time for a meeting.
  • Facebook is (and will be) successful in essence, because it will continuosly strive to deliver the best product to connect with your friends. Whatever form this may take. And they have the resources to do so.
  • While a BMW is a car like any other, BMW make the experience for people who like driving just better.
  • Ryanair is fantastic at lowering their costs for flights. Even to the point that they seem to only buy new planes in an economic downturn.
  • Many German Mittelstand companies simply turn out the one product and do that better than everyone else, legions of books have been written about this phenomenon.

You know if a company stands for something if it does one thing really well. And here I find too many startups trying to do too many things at the same time, becoming mediocre in each one.

In the old marketing days, this was called a USP, a unique selling proposition. But today you have to live up to it. And that means focusing all your efforts on this one thing.

Business ideas that excite me.

Finally getting to talk to people again. Discussing ideas, market developments, the underlying trends, barriers to entry, business areas worth disrupting and all these things just plain fun for me.

I will get bored eventually as I prefer to do things instead of talking about doing things, but for the moment I enjoy the conversation. Most of it, at least. People have been trying to drag me into their ventures and ideas and a surprising number of people, even good friends, have pitched business ideas and concepts that are just not for me.

So, here is what I find interesting:

(1) Businesses that make life easier for everyone

When I started working on  TravelChannel in 1998, I wanted to make it easier to book flights. We build the first engine that could compare flights in two totally different pricing mechanisms – the official IATA tarrifs and the so called grey market in one go, enabling people to find the cheapest flight.
Qype was started from  a similar starting point: If everyone starts telling everyone about their experience in restaurants, butcher shops or dentists, then there will be less bad experiences.

Bigger examples that fit this category. Google, Flickr, Facebook, you name it.

(2) Business that make markets more efficient and disrupt the status quo
The fun being involved in DocMorris, Europe’s largest mail oder pharmacy that delivers prescription drugs and allowes people to save was that it worked against the existing distribution structure with it’s extremely high cost to the public.
Qype also is ideally positioned to challenge existing near-monopolies like the yellow pages in each market to give local businesses more efficient advertising.
Other examples that make markets more efficient: Ebay, of course. But also craigslist, hitflip , nestoria and many others.

(3) Businesses that help us to reduce emissions
Together most other people on this planet, I am convinced that we are in a massive climate crises ,  and that mainly our carbon emissions are at a suicidal level.
I am therefore  – like many other entrepreneurs I know – particularly interested in businesses that help us reduce our carbon emissions. This is where I do most my research at the moment.
So I will try to combine my background – a degree as mechanical engineer –  with my experience in business-to-consumer internet and starting up companies.
Here I am not alone. Look at people like John Doerr, Shai Agassi, the Google guys with google.org – lot’s of inspiring examples.

In summary: Useful, disruptive, saving the environment. These are the discussions I enjoy and the businesses I will get involved in.