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Monday, 09. October 2017

“Your Neighbor Can Be the Next Great Founder”

IdeaLab! 2017 drew young entrepreneurs from across Europe to WHU

On October 6 and 7, Idealab! 2017 brought young entrepreneurs from all over Europe together at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management in Vallendar. The conference, independently organized each year by students at WHU, drew attendees again this year with a number of well-known speakers and workshops by attractive employers and investors, such as Amazon and Axel Springer. One of the best-known graduates of WHU, Rocket Internet founder Oliver Samwer, opened the event with a plea for more entrepreneurial courage. Samwer motivated attendees by observing, “The person sitting next to you could be the founder of one of tomorrow’s great startups!” Creating a new company is hard work, the Internet pioneer admitted, but with the right motivation and discipline, it’s something everyone can do. The Internet is the key advantage to creators of today’s startups. “No matter how big or how established a company is: All of them can fail,” Samwer explained with an eye to what is known as the “disruption” of long-established enterprises by companies acting mainly through the Internet, such as Google or Zalando. Amazon and Alibaba, he pointed out, are already well on their way to superseding the banking business. Another WHU alumnus speaker, Roman Kirsch, had brought along a few solid tips for young entrepreneurs. “Don’t wait until everything is perfect,” he advised them, “and never rest on your laurels.” Kirsch knows how it’s done. In 2016, the American magazine Forbes named him one of its “30 under 30,” its listing of the world’s 30 most successful entrepreneurs under 30 years of age. Particularly crucial, Kirsch added, is to have a good network. “It’s worth the effort to invest time in relationships with investors and other entrepreneurs early on – and not only once you need their help. No one’s going to give you money for having seen you once at a party.”

In addition to Oliver Samwer, another star of the startup scene helped ensure that the largest lecture hall at WHU was bursting at the seams. Frank Thelen, co-founder and CEO at Freigeist Capital, is known to an audience of millions through the television series “Die Höhle der Löwen” [A German version of “Shark Tank”]. “With this show, I want to bolster Germans’ faith in startups,” Thelen explained. Germany has already spawned lots of very successful or promising startups on the international stage. And yet the scene is still viewed with skepticism – in contrast to the US and Israel. When I founded my first startup at the age of 16, most people in Germany viewed it as little more than an alternative to Hartz IV [a program offering support to the unemployed],” Thelen revealed with a wink of the eye. “Die Höhle der Löwen” is helping to improve the image of creators of startups in Germany. Meanwhile, Thelen is not only the founder of the series but a successful investor and business angel as well. Like Samwer, he, too, appealed to the young entrepreneurs to make use of their own potential – and to rely on modern technologies in the process. In the future, Thelen noted, almost nothing will be as important as having a basic grasp of computer programming: “You don’t have to be professionals, but anyone who wants to succeed is going to have to know how ‘coding’ works.” A large share of the jobs that exist today will be taken over by computers in 20 to 30 years. “Lots of jobs will be eliminated as a result; that’s something we have to be clear about,” Thelen explained, “and that’s why it’s important how we deal with this development as a society. We urgently have to learn that a person’s value is not defined by whether or not he or she has a job!” This might be a future, for instance, in which those who have lost jobs to modern technologies would perform a task for the community, or in the cultural sector. He firmly believes that an unconditional basic income forms part of a successful future. What is important is for policymakers to wake up from their shock and set their sights on the developments that lie ahead.