Germany’s Crazy Gang: The First Wave Of Entrepreneurs

Foto Lars neu

In 1999, when Lars Hinrichs launched his first company, politik-digital.de, a platform for politics and new media that has since evolved into a political consultancy, he was one of just a handful of German tech entrepreneurs. Others include Marco Boerries, Christophe Maire and the high-profile Samwer brothers.

Today “there are many more great entrepreneurs and the people who have made money in this industry are re-investing it in the next generation,” says Hinrichs.

And how. It is no longer enough to be a serial entrepreneur. The trend in Germany is to split your time investing and starting up your own new ventures.

Lars Hinrichs

Hinrichs is best known for the Open Business Club, later renamed Xing, a site launched in 2003 that allowed business people or job seekers to manage their contacts. He took Xing public in December 2006 and led the company to annual sales of €35 million before resigning as CEO in 2009 and selling his stake to Hubert Burda Media. In 2010 he founded HackFwd, a pre-seed investment company that invested in 16 start-ups.

He now serves on the board of Deutsche Telekom and as the founder of Cinco Capital, a private equity fund, and is behind the Apartimentum, a housing project in Hamburg-Rotherbaum that is aiming to reinvent the apartment rental model by changing the architecture, contracts and in-home technology.

Marco Boerries

Boerries, who served on HackFwd’s board alongside Hinrichs, founded his first company, Star Division, as a 16-year-old in 1985.

The company, which created the popular office suite StarOffice and later OpenOffice.org, was sold to Sun Microsystems.

His second company, Star Finanz, a joint-venture with the Deutsche Sparkassen Organisation, was launched in 1996, to re-invent online banking.

After selling Star Finanz, Boerries founded his third company, Verdisoft, in 2001; it was sold to Yahoo four years later. After a few years heading up Yahoo’s broadband, mobile and TV efforts globally Boerries returned to Germany in 2009 and started his fourth company in Berlin — appropriately named NumberFour — which is focusing on apps that help small businesses with sales and productivity.

In 2013 NumberFour raised a Series A of $38 million from Index Ventures, T-Venture (the venture arm of German telecom company Deutsche Telekom), investment bank Allen & Co., Sun Microsystems’ co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim, Yahoo co-founder and former CEO Jerry Yang, angel investor Klaus Hommels, and Hinrichs, among others.

Christophe Maire

Maire is the founder of gate5, a mobile navigation software company founded in Germany in 1999 which was sold to Nokia in 2006. Today the unit that emerged from gate5, Here.com, employs more than 1,000 people in Berlin. Maire also co-founded Plazes.com, a company that pioneered “checking-in” (bought by Nokia in 2008) and companyB, a digital film pioneer.

As an angel investor Maire backed German start-ups Brands4Friends (which was sold to eBay), StudiVZ (which was sold to Holtzbrinck Ventures), Plista (sold to groupM) and Readmill (sold to Dropbox). He currently serves on the boards of Berlin start-ups EyeEm and SoundCloud and is a venture partner at Atlantic Labs.

The Samwer Brothers, who got their start in 1999 building online auction copycat Alando in Berlin and selling it a few months later to eBay for $43 million, are widely credited with leaving their own indelible mark on the German tech scene.

The Alando sale was quickly followed by the creation of Jamba, a wireless provider of pictures, games and music for mobile phones, which was sold to Verisign in 2004 for $273 million.

Next came the backing of German Facebook clone StudiVZ and the founding in 2007 of Rocket Internet, a combination venture firm and start-up incubator that has churned out a succession of successful e-commerce companies such as CityDeal, which was acquired by Groupon for $170 million five months after the German start-up’s inception and Zalando, Europe’s largest online fashion retailer, which went public in September of 2014 in the largest Germany tech public offering since the 2000 listing of Deutsche Telekom.

Rocket, which had its own initial public offering in 2014, has trained hundreds of young German MBAs to build start-ups, spurring them to create their own companies rather than pursuing careers as investment bankers or consultants.

This talent pool has been supplemented by another wave of entrepreneurs that started companies after the original pioneers.

Lukasz Gadowski

Take the case of Lukasz Gadowski, who after moving to Germany from his native Poland co-founded an online platform for designing and selling t-shirts called spreadshirt in 2002, without any financing.

Gadowski’s track record includes: co-founder and partner at Team Europe, a company-building organization that creates two to three fast-growing Internet companies per year; co-founder and advisor at early-stage venture fund Point Nine Capital and founding investor and/or company builder at StudiVZ, Mister Spex, brands4friends.com, SponsorPay, HitFox Group, Käuferportal, and others.

Gadowski is also co-founder and was founding editor at Gründerszene, a website covering the German tech scene, and currently serves as chairman of the board at Delivery Hero, a global food delivery company founded in May 2011 that was valued in February at $1.9 billion.

Fabian Siegel

It was Gadowski who recruited German serial entrepreneur Fabian Siegel to take on the job as co-CEO of Delivery Hero in 2010.

A co-founder of European payment service ClickandBuy, which was sold to Deutsche Telekom, Siegel later founded personal finance start-up Strateer and ran operations at browser tech company ikin before joining Delivery Hero as co-CEO with Niklas Östberg.

As the company moves toward the possibility of an initial public offering investors thought it would be best to have just one CEO, says Siegel. “Niklas and I both wanted to do it but only one could and he was better at convincing the board,” says Siegel.

So, he joined Global Founders Capital as a partner in 2013 and started investing in consumer-facing start-ups in Southeast Asia, Australia, Latin America and Europe. But that wasn’t enough for Siegel. “Investing, to me, is too lonely,” he says. “It is possible to find amazing teams and entrepreneurs to invest in but as an investor you are on the sidelines.”

So, Siegel launched his own new company, Marley Spoon, a cook-at-home food delivery service. “In our first year we built the business in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Australia and we launched in the U.S a few weeks ago,” says Siegel. “I’m very happy with the initial traction.”

Felix Haas

Like Siegel, Felix Haas, a 2010 World Economic Forum Tech Pioneer and co-founder of Amiando, an online event management company sold to Xing in 2010, is not content to just invest.

In addition to seeding some 30 start-ups in Germany, including Hitfox, Sponsorpay and Kreditech, he is also currently co-founder and executive chairman of IDnow, which bills itself as the first online solution for convenient and secure online identification of government IDs in Europe.

Stephan Uhrenbacher

Stephan Uhrenbacher, another well-known serial entrepreneur, is also splitting his time between angel investing and starting a new company.

Uhrenbacher began his tech career at British travel portal lastminute.com and then worked for Axel Springer’s Bild.de, the news portal of Europe’s largest newspaper, as well as at Dutch online pharmacy DocMorris.

In 2006 he decided to create his first start-up, Qype, a Hamburg-based European online recommendations and listings site that competed with Yelp.

“The interconnectedness that you find in the market today was virtually non-existent back then,” says Schambach. “The amount of capital, talent, innovators and media attention was super limited.”

Even so, Qype managed to raise capital from Advent Venture Partners, Wellington Partners and Partech International. It was sold to Yelp for €18.6 million in 2012.

In the meantime Uhrenbacher launched Avocado Store, a marketplace for eco-friendly goods, and raised venture for 9Flats, an early European competitor to Airbnb and others in the holiday rentals space, which he co-founded in 2011.

Uhrenbacher stepped down as 9Flats’ CEO last year (he now serves as chairman) and is busy making angel investments and working on his fourth start-up, Flio, an app that helps users make better use of their time at airports.

The goal he says, is to go global, and make this start-up bigger and more successful than the ones that came before.

Spoken like a true present-day German tech entrepreneur.

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