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“Be a little bit Tom Cruise” – 7 tips for founders from Rocket Internet’s Oliver Samwer

Oliver Samwer

Oliver Samwer

A "Tom Cruise", an Indian MIT guy, an F1 driver – it sounds like the start of a joke, but Rocket Internet's Oliver Samwer's keynote address at IdeaLab! 2012 was dead serious.

"I don't want to talk about building a bakery, I want to talk about a bakery chain… not building a small online shoe company, but building Zalando," he started, going on to share his particular take on what founders need and the value of ideas.

The two-day IdeaLab! conference, held in the small town of Vallendar, is organised independently each year by ten students from the WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management. It's a mixed crowd, kept to 300 – students and staff from WHU, others from top universities, founders, investors and corporates, all looking reasonably similar.

"Oli" Samwer appeared to rank as top draw for many in the audience. An alumni of WHU himself, he leads Rocket Internet, the enormously successful but much-maligned Berlin-based incubator known for rolling out huge eCommerce companies (such as Zalando, Home24) as well as clones of promising US companies (such as CityDeal, sold to Groupon, and Pinspire).

Today, Samwer pitched his talk to the young would-be founders in the crowd, and delivered it using delightfully mixed and flamboyant metaphors – pirate ships, triple AAA batteries, F1 cars, cakes... Here's our pick from his points:

I want to talk about the Formula 1 of startups


Samwer's not into starting internet companies for the sake of it – "not so you can be at a party and say you have your own company, and you employ two people".

You need a pretty thick skin

"I need people that get up every day and 95 per cent of all days they feel very happy, they want to succeed," he said. Even if there's a theft in the warehouse, the email newsletters are hitting spam filters and the company's plagued with IT bugs, having the self-motivation to be able to get up. "This is something you'll need on day one, also year five."

width="240"Run a startup like a bakery store. Bake in the morning, sell during the day and count at night

"The people who email fastest back are the worst performers," Samwer said. "Why can they email back so fast?"

This is what he thinks founders should be doing during the day:"You talk to suppliers, you talk to new employees, you call up customers, you sit with the team... Too many people run a business only by numbers, or, as I call it, only by laptops," he added. "During the day, create the numbers, create the business, at night analyse it."

You're the "Tom Cruise", you're the Indian, you're the Formula 1 driver

In other words, everyone should only be a founder if – if everything doesn't work – he or she can lead the company alone. That means a bit of salesmanship (Tom Cruise), a bit of analytics and "IT crack" (the "Indian MIT guy"), and drive to succeed (F1), with most of the weight on those last two. But...

You need a little bit of Tom Cruise


Being good with people, good at a pitch, is important for hiring new employees and raising money, in particular.

Idea is more important than team

If asked to choose between an "A-team with a B-idea" and a "B-team with an A-idea", Samwer would go for the latter. "If something is a mega trend, it's like one of those Hawaii waves – the waves are better in Hawaii. You can go ten times to Silicon Valley and be the better surfer, probably the number ten surfer in Hawaii will still be better than you."

Don't waste too much time at McKinsey

"Don't waste it at McKinsey, don't waste it at Goldman, don't waste it at Morgan Stanley," Samwer said. Extra systematic thinking skills gained by years in consulting will be offset by a tendency to over-analyse, and never actually "jump" on an idea.

"What are all the corporates for? They are one big safety net. That's how you have to look at it. If it doesn't work, I go there," Samwer said. "I promise you the CEO will look at you more because you look different."

Image credit: Flickr user StuSeeger
Image credit: Flickr user prayitno
Image credit: Flickr user Alan Light 


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