Finn Haensel just spent two years building up The Iconic, Rocket Internet’s online fashion retailer in Australia. Now, he’s left to return to Germany and head up the marketing team at ProSiebenSat.1’s new company builder Epic Companies.
Epic – headquartered in an old industrial building in Kreuzberg, Berlin – is led by Mato Peric, a former colleague at Rocket Internet. It’s home to 60 people and four online commerce ventures (fashion accessories shop Valmano, pet supplies store Petobel, ticket platform TodayTickets and online fitness studio Gymondo).
Here, Haensel talks about the opportunities and challenges faced by The Iconic – including mixed media coverage at some points – and explains why he left. And how did it start? Conversations with Alexander Samwer and Patrick Schmidt about different job opportunities with Zalando, Rocket and Groupon. Then – while Haensel was working in Australia – a call from Rocket Internet’s Oliver Samwer…
Do you remember when you agreed to start up The Iconic?
One night an unknown telephone number called me and the voice said “Finn, I understand from Patrick and Alex that you couldn’t find an agreement. So what is going on?” It was Oli Samwer. He, in very short language, said “It’s not Zalando but we do something similar to Zalando in Australia. You already know how great the market is … Do you want to join?”
I think I said “no” several times because I really wanted to go back to Germany. And every time he came back and said “I’ve got work for you, I’ve got work for you.” In the end, I agreed to do it for one year. He said, “I’m pretty sure that after one year you will love it so much that you won’t leave.” He was right.
So you got to Australia and started with four employees?
Adam Jacobs, Andreas Otto and Cameron Votan, who are actually the cofounders with me. Adam and Cameron are both Australians, Andreas and I are both German.
It was probably September 2011 – that was when everything started. We started a small business in North Sydney. In the beginning a lot of young talent and then – we took the Rocket way, actually – we trained them in online marketing and in multiple things, and the company grew very fast. However, the real breakthrough, similar to other big eCommerce ventures such as Zalando, came when the TV advertising started. That comes to why I’ve come to Epic. I really believe that TV is a kickstarter for every startup, because I saw it with my own eyes in my own business.
How is building a Rocket Internet fashion company in Australia different to doing it in Southeast Asia, Brazil, Russia, Africa?
Basket sizes, disposable income… It’s very similar to European markets in which for example Zalando plays. All the KPIs are very similar to Europe and very different from the rest, for example Southeast Asia, Brazil or Russia.
The hallmarks of the Australian market are that you have a high disposable income and people who are able to spend a lot on fashion but you have a very small eCommerce market. The reason for that: Australia is traditionally very tied to the UK market so people would just shop at UK fashion sites. So because ASOS was already a strong player in the market… no-one was shopping fashion online at a local company.
We already knew from other Rocket experience that the online market was big. So we decided that this combination – no local player and the percentage of people who shop fashion online is one of the lowest in the Western world – there’s huge potential for a Rocket company to jump in and become the number one company. That was a view that I shared. We did a lot of analysis back in the early days before The Iconic started.
What about transport and labour costs?
Almost everything is air mail, which is more expensive… Also labour costs are more expensive. So in Australia, even more than in other countries in which you have lower fixed costs, you need to scale – if you just have ten orders per day, you’ll never get to profitability.
Were you treated as an Australian success story or as part of Rocket Internet? Did that change over time?
Rocket Internet was relatively unknown in Australia back in the days so we were fully treated as an Australian company (which The Iconic is). We have really good coverage and were on the front page of great newspapers like The Australian and the Australian Financial Review.
However, as it sometimes is with the press, it can be good and bad and at some point someone pulled out the “blitzkrieg” email. So we also had challenging coverage where several stories were mixed up. Over the course of two years, it happened – not to a major extent, but if you are in the spotlight you have to live with the good and the bad stories.
I read that you delayed leaving The Iconic. Why?
We targeted a date actually earlier in the year. We had to find a successor, do training, hand it over, so I did that – but when we had a phase of bad press where some stories were mixed up by the journalists, there was some challenging press coverage, partially from competitors, which I thought was questionable.
Of course that led to questions from the team, because everyone cares so much for the company. But of course everything was fine. And everything is still fine. We had the new funding round, growing revenues… But if one of the founding managing directors would have left at that point in time with the press giving us a tough time, it would have given a strange flavour, also to our own people.
So I decided to do what was best for the company – that I still love – and decided not to leave in a challenging time just because I’m selfish and I want to go back to Europe. So I agreed with Marc and Oli that I would stay as long as they wanted me to, to make the handover smoother.
Did you enjoy working with the Samwer brothers?
Many people make comments like “Oh, how terrible is it?” but it’s not terrible at all. I had a really good relationship with Oli. I know that they are tough on people. They have been tough on me. But I never thought they were unfair. They are sometimes probably a bit specific in the language they use but if you work for them, you need to accept that.
I would say that I’m a person that can deal with it. I know them a bit by now. But I think that many people just hear about them and that leads to the fact that some people criticise them.
But at the end of the day, they are all very smart and I loved working with them, I can imagine working with them again at some point in the future… The reason I decided to work for Epic is that I’d always liked working with Mato, back in the days at Rocket. I also strongly believe in the TV model. I strongly believe that TV can push it to the next level online.
And secondly, compared to Rocket, Epic was something new with this startup vibe around it. The Epic office is here, in the middle of Kreuzberg, people sitting on big tables together and having crazy ideas. That was one of the reasons why I decided to change and go to Epic.
You started at Epic at the start of September. What projects are coming up and what are you focusing on?
My projects here are definitely to build up a more central marketing team and knowledge base to support the ventures. At the moment, every single venture has their own marketing team, which is good, but I strongly believe – and it’s probably a Rocket mindset – that everyone can learn from best practises… What I want to do is build up a central marketing team – subject experts in every channel and then coach younger talents in the ventures to actually learn best practises and learn how to use them and coach them along the way…
Also creating a knowledge base and an experience base around TV that others don’t have. For example, one of the channels that probably other venture backers might not have – build up a speciality on TV. Someone who’s really focusing on understanding the impact of TV on online ventures, on eCommerce. I think it’s something, because of our nature, backed up by ProSiebenSat.1, that is very interesting and important.
What is the focus at Epic? Online commerce but within that?
Because we’re backed by ProSiebenSat.1, TV will always remain one of our biggest channels. With TV, what works well – anything that focuses on a broad market. So we’ll probably never build up a super niche luxury cosmetics brand that only talks to one per cent of the population. And the reason is because then, we would not leverage TV as we want. TV is mainstream, everyone watches TV.
What’s the best part about being back in Germany?
I love Berlin. The funny thing is – 10 or 11 years ago, my first internship after high school was in Kreuzberg – in a (back in the days) small advertising agency called Heimat. My first day here at Epic, I came to work and the guy who was selling bread rolls for breakfast looked at me and said “I know you”. Ten years ago, he was the same guy who sold breakfast rolls. In that moment, I just thought about all the crazy things I experienced in Berlin 10 years ago. Berlin is probably not as crazy as it was but I’m probably not as crazy as I was either. So – this brought back all the good memories of Berlin and how vibrant the city is and how much of a startup hub the city is compared to Sydney, which is not really a startup hub.
Here, my first week, everyone I talk to in the evening has a startup. It’s very exciting. I’ll miss the sea though.
Finn Haensel: Alex Hofmann
Sydney: Flickr user MickiTakesPictures