Exclusive interview – the “Bill Gates of Germany” Marco Boerries on how to realise your startup success

Marco Boerries
Marco Boerries

With news just in of Marco Boerries most recent venture, NumberFour, landing $38m in Series A funding, we get an exclusive interview with the man dubbed “the German Bill Gates” to find out what it takes to keep motivated and innovating in an ever-changing industry…

Marco Boerries

Marco Boerries is one of Germany’s leading digital pioneers. After developing the company that became OpenOffice from the age of 16 – rivalling Microsoft head-on – Boerries went on to sell his software company in 1999 for an undisclosed figure in high double-digit US millions. Since then, the 45-year-old founded and sold-on home banking software StarMoney as well as mobile optimisation company VerdiSoft to Yahoo! Go – where he became Executive Vice President at the empire’s Connected Life mobile division.

Boerries has long been dubbed by Germans as their “Bill Gates” – a tagline he shies away from, calling it “outdated” and born from a “societal need to label. Regardless, it’s fair to say he’s done pretty well for himself…

Splitting time between California, Berlin and Hamburg (where his family reside), Boerries leads a hectic life to say the least. Work-life balance? “I always have a bit of a chuckle when I hear that term. It’s a very simple balance – work all the time,” he laughs. 

While there’s no magic, one-size-fits-all solution to achieving parallel success, here are Boerries’ nuggets of advice to young and aspiring founders…

A work-life balance isn’t possible as a founder

“A startup is pretty much a lot of hard work, a lot of hours, no guarantees and a lot of trying, failing, asking “why did I fail?” and trying again. And then repeating that process until you feel you have it. So you need a certain appreciation of that, and if you’re not OK with it then I don’t think you’d be right to start up.

“You wake up, eat, do a bit of exercise, work until you fall asleep, and then repeat the process until it’s over… and yes, I still do it.

“But of course – you need a day off to refresh your mind and for creativity’s sake. You can’t do everything constantly. But if you’re a startup and the company’s not your number one priority, the chances of succeeding are slim. You want to optimise all the potential for things you can control – you need to work hard to make sure events fall in your favour. People think differently, some think you can do a startup in a 40-hour week… but I can only speak for what I know works for me.

“I just don’t think it’s possible to have a work-life balance as a founder. At different stages that balance shifts, but when you’re starting-up – you should ask yourself every wakeful second of taking a break – ‘could I be using this time on my startup?’.

“In making your idea work – it’s the grind. Up to 90 per cent of the stuff is not glamorous, not always fun. Work until it’s ready… and if you don’t get satisfaction out of that, then in my opinion – you shouldn’t do it.”

There are no guarantees in the startup world

“My number one rule: There are no guarantees. If you need guarantees for anything – don’t do a startup, become an employee.

“I’m on my fourth company, and each time I start up I have the same chance as everybody else. The only thing I’ve got on my side is experience and a brand for certain successes I’ve had from my first. But just because it worked the first and second time, doesn’t mean it’ll work the rest of the time. No guarantees. If you’re not OK with that – you really shouldn’t start.”

If you’re trying to do something someone’s done before, why do it?

“Making an idea work is incredibly hard and challenging. If you’re doing something that someone’s done before, then why do it? If you’re doing something and you’re trying to do it the same way where other people have tried and failed then why would you succeed? These aren’t stupid people who have tried before. You really have to find your own unique way of making your idea work.”

90 per cent of current startups will be gone in a few years. Be realistic

“The whole startup scene is great right now, we need that positive energy. But stay real. Of all the companies right now – up to 90 per cent will be gone in a few years. That’s what happens. People talk about a “Series A crunch” which is wrong, because there’s more Series A funding than ever. The fact that a lot of startups won’t make it is not such a bad thing – when a company goes down, a few more will come up.”

Ask questions that you don’t want to hear the answers to

“How many times have you heard: ‘You know what? I would do it right if I had the time but I don’t have the time’. ‘If I didn’t have that deadline it’d be better’ or ‘if I had more resources – it’d be better’, but it doesn’t make any sense…  Either you find the time to make it right so it does make sense or you don’t.

“The other thing which is really simple but hard to practise is ask the question to which you don’t want to hear the answer. Meaning: there are tons of times where we feel there’s information that we don’t like so we don’t ask the question because – we don’t want to hear it. A lot of the times we know the answer but we don’t want to hear it because it’s painful. Deal with it. If you don’t, no one will. It’s not rocket science but putting these things into practice can be hard.”

Want to win the world? Go to the US

“If you want to win over the world you have to be in the world and think about the world. Some think – I’ll just start with Germany and then I’ll move onto there and there or think about monetisation later. Europe right now is a great place to start up, but if you’re thinking globally, you have to go to market with a focus on the US. You have to have a presence there, spend time there and be someone in Silicon Valley.

“A lot of people go to the US and think there’s already a lot of competition, so if that’s the case you might want to rethink your idea. Because if you think you’ve got an idea and you don’t take it to the US because there’s too much competition there and people have done the idea already but not yet in Europe – so you focus on that, you better be extremely quick and be the one selling it to the big US guy coming over to Europe, and not one of the Rocket companies.

“There’s a market [for copying] and it can go extremely well… but if you want to build a long, sustainable product, then there should be no reason why you shouldn’t launch your product in the US first. It’s the single biggest market in the world.”

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