BY ROBERT MUCHA // PHOTOS: ULLA KÜHNLE & KAMI BLUSCH
OLIVER HANISCH moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Heilbronn. Because of work. After 14 years, the native Swabian turns his back on Silicon Valley to open a new chapter of his professional life here as Managing Director of Campus Founders and inoculate the city and region with a new entrepreneurial spirit.
We talked to the “Californian in spirit” about the look of Californian billionaires, the differences between Californian and German (entrepreneurial) thinking, the important roles of individual stakeholders in startup ecosystems, the difference between a “New Work” philosophy and “New Work” toolkits, and what the Campus Founders are up to.
Oliver, you’re a newcomer to the city and you have a new job as a manager at Campus Founders. What did you do before you came to Heilbronn? Recently you were in California where you lived and worked.
I have always been an entrepreneur. In 2005, I had a small company in Munich that did project consulting, especially in a phase of economic upheaval. And one of my biggest clients – and also one of the reasons why I was in Munich – was Siemens. I was offered that my company would merge into Siemens. At the same time, I had a customer in Silicon Valley, Red Herring, a media company that had already called me before and wanted to bring me to Silicon Valley.
Your entry into the world of startups and venture capital funds?
My first contact with startups, VCs and corporate VCs was before California together with Siemens, who had invested in various technology startups. At the same time there was the Silicon Valley customer, who was also involved in startups and VCs. I did some projects for them in Germany before I went to Silicon Valley.
Was there a “cultural clash” for you when you were able to experience the American startup world on location?
Before, I was the typical German founder who was brave enough to start and also managed to build a profitable business and a team, but far away from the Americans’ idea is to develop globally scalable business models.
The motto is: Think Big?
This Think Big, that’s right. When I moved to Silicon Valley, it was the first time I really experienced what it meant; how you think there, how you work there. Also how you make mistakes there. So for me as a native Swabian many things didn’t make any sense at all. For example, how venture capital was spent by the startups.
Were the Americans too risky for you?
Yes. The speed at which the capital was invested was completely new to me. Their mindset was: You don’t put the money aside for worse times, but invest it in the future – and that often means investing in people. It was also impressive how quickly decisions are made, how quickly strategies are adopted, how quickly they are implemented, how quickly employees are recruited. But also how quickly people are laid off and everything goes downhill again.
You’re talking about the economic crisis?
I experienced then what it really means to be in an economic crisis. In Germany, life went on almost as usual, except, of course, for the individuals who were directly affected. But for the rest of society: business as usual. That was quite different there. Suddenly there was no more traffic jam on the motorway, in the shopping malls every second shop was closed and barricaded with boards. That has a completely different impact. And as a result, people also tick quite differently, they simply value things differently because they don’t have this feeling of security. And that always makes them a little more hungry and a little more willing to take a risk.
Are Californians more optimistic than us Germans?
From my point of view, they are. They tend to see the new opportunities, not necessarily the dangers. Optimism is widespread there.
In recent years you have mainly been involved in building bridges between Germany and Silicon Valley in California with the German Silicon Valley Innovators Inc. and the German Accelerator Inc. two companies you co-founded and built?
Originally I came over to be the only German to join Red Herring. When we founded and launched the German Accelerator in 2011, this bridge between Germany and Silicon Valley was really active for me. But before that I was already active in the German-American Business Association, which I joined from the very beginning and also played a role in. Among the different industry groups I was responsible for the industry group Venture Capital and Entrepreneurship. In this respect, I have always been involved in exchanges between Germany and the USA. But I have been really professional since the German Accelerator 2011 until today.
At what intervals did business tourists from Germany come to make a Silicon Valley tour? I’m sure you also organized such tours …
We have tried to stay away from this tourism. But every week someone was there: someone big, someone important. It’s also a very big environment. One must not forget: About 50,000 Germans live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Of course, they always have visitors from Germany.
Sounds like a vital industry: Silicon Valley business tourism.
The tourism actually started at some point. But we didn’t see ourselves as a travel agency, but rather as bridge builders who want to connect the good things on both sides. And the Campus Founders should also convey this idea. We know that there are things in Germany that we can do very well or in which we are very strong. They are much better than in the USA or Silicon Valley. But there are also fields in which Americans are ahead of Germans. Combining these two things has always been the idea. We also organized a lot of things, but we held back from this tourism as far as we could, because we had sustainability in mind. We weren’t interested in visiting the zoo now, according to the motto: Run for a day, take a look at everything and say: “Wow, these are all great animals”. We wanted to try, to get an overview of the zoo and the animals. But that you also look and see behind the scenes: The elephant also gets sick and it makes a lot of crap, and you have to clean it up. Our main concern was to go one step further. And ideally, we worked longer with companies that came over again and again.
Has ex-Bild editor-in-chief Kai Diekmann and his Axel Springer posse also contacted you? In 2012 he was with two colleagues for a year without a contract for the Axel Springer Group in Silicon Valley.
We also got to know the three of them and had contact again and again. But we didn’t organize any programs for them.
On Kai Diekmann the stay made such an impression that he finally gave up his secure position, his position of power, which he held as picture editor-in-chief, in order to be the founder of Storymachine. In Silicon Valley, he obviously absorbed everything for a year that he actually transformed himself from an employee to a founder. How they work there? How is it decided there? How willing people were to network, to help, to connect … that changed him.
What Californian lifestyle and Silicon Valley Mindset do you bring to Heilbronn? Do you come to the office in the morning with a Starbucks cup?
I’m not a coffee drinker, I’m a tea drinker, I stay out of it. I think I bring a lot from California and a lot more than I realize. I am experiencing this awareness of how Californian I am at the moment. That’s what I’m experiencing because I’m here in business now. I have to admit that I wasn’t so aware that there is now a huge difference. I notice that when I talk to potential partners outside. Or even with applicants. I try to bring the good from both worlds together in everyday life. I don’t want to be a lone fighter, I want to build a team. I want to move many things. I don’t want to offend anyone. My motto is also not: What I do is the right thing. I was never someone who sat in Silicon Valley and said: Everything that’s in Germany is crap or everything that’s here is great, and he doesn’t speak German after three years. I am someone who knows that there are strengths and advantages on both sides. And my hope is that we will manage to bring the strengths of both together. To become a little more California without forgetting or neglecting our roots. And that’s what we’ve now achieved in our mission as Campus Founders: regional roots, international thinking and sustainable action. That’s what we want to do. We don’t want to put on anything that doesn’t belong here.
And what did the Campus Founders have to offer you to leave Silicon Valley and move here?
On my first visit to Heilbronn almost exactly one year ago we had a short tour of the educational campus and I was told what had happened in recent years and what was still planned. I find what is happening here unique. I find it totally exciting that Campus Founders can be an important piece in the puzzle of transforming a region from an economically strong industrial region into a science-based region. Really incredibly exciting.
In the past, I have already had other offers or opportunities to come back to Germany to set up a business incubator. I have never been able to decide to do so because the context simply did not exist.
And then Heilbronn …
I had the feeling here: Wow, that’s something special, you want to be a part of it, you can have impact. Which is very important to me. Now here’s the chance to really make a difference. Basically, we did a lot in California, even for people in top positions. But the work we did often didn’t really get it into the company. The executives have understood that, they are inspired. They want to do things. But this transfer into the company is incredibly difficult. And we couldn’t take care of it in Silicon Valley. We were too far away.
Frustrating! Did the companies lack the right corporate culture and a “New Work” mindset?
For me, New Work means two things: on the one hand it’s a toolkit, and on the other it’s a philosophy. It’s like marketing. Yes, of course there are marketing tools and there are also “new work” tools that you can use somehow.
And it’s also good to do that – I don’t want to deny it at all. But in the end it’s all about bringing the new idea deep into the organizations and changing the corporate culture. And in Silicon Valley we were completely out of the picture. My hope, being here now, is that I can do more, have more impact.
Can you sketch an example of what you mean by that?
When a company wants to be more innovative, not incrementally more innovative, to say, “We’re building a product now that’s 10% better.” But when the company has decided to further develop and increase the potential of its employees and to develop a product that is ten times better, it needs a different approach, a different culture.
Does a company create such a leap in quality from a standing start for a product from its core business?
This can also happen outside the core business if necessary. If it does not affect the core business at first, the risk is lower and the willingness to try something new is often greater. If successful, a new business unit or even a small spin-off could develop that is staffed with internal team members. In this way, companies can also implement new work, in the sense of intrapreneurship.
Not just a toolkit, but a philosophy and approach on how to do things differently. I have experienced for myself that such models can work. A company I know from the region thus binds employees with a passion for what they do and at the same time thinks and acts entrepreneurially.
To what extent are the companies here open to admitting such protected teams that you don’t have under control, whose thoughts you don’t find exclusively good?
I have very limited data points in this respect. At the moment, I’m not yet fully networked, I haven’t talked to too many established companies. But I have to say that I have seen companies that are very progressive, that have already conducted their own internal experiments and pilot programs.
You started it yourself. Now you are advising founders. What is more fun?
I’m not the consultant type. When I look after founders, I don’t see myself as a consultant. I am a mentor. And, and I always stress this, I learn just as much from my mentees as I do from myself. In this respect, I don’t see myself as someone who tells others what to do, but try to ask the right questions and help. I see myself as a part of the team and then I’m there with my heart.
Is this anti-hierarchical attitude also an issue that we have to work on here at the higher levels in companies? And: What is the status and hierarchy thinking like in California?
That’s a difficult question: On the one hand, you don’t attach much importance to it. You stand at the cash register and think, what kind of person is that in front of me? Completely tousled. On the other hand, the same person then runs out of the supermarket in his flip-flops with a shopping bag and climbs into his Maybach and drives to his million-dollar villa in Atherton. And that with the Maybach, that’s a real example. I’m not exactly inventing that.
By the way, Wilhelm Maybach was born in Heilbronn!
Very nice. So that he comes from the Ländle, I knew that he is Heilbronner, not. Basically, people deal with each other at eye level. No matter where they settle economically. They see themselves as participants in the ecosystem and have a certain role to play. That is again what we are trying to build here, this ecosystem idea.
We’re not talking about nature?
When I talk about the start-up and innovation ecosystem, I refer to all the actors who are responsible for the success of the individual participants and thus of the entire system. Every participant, whether investor, established company or public administration, to name but a few, has a role to play. In Silicon Valley, however, people are more aware of this role than they are here. They live these roles there.
As a founder, you have an appointment with the CTO of a large corporation within a few days – if that’s what you have to tell. If not, you also hear: “Sorry, no interest.” You’re not too good for anyone. Because you never know who you’re dealing with. You never know what they will do next year. Or in five years. You never know if you might miss an opportunity if you don’t meet a founder looking for feedback or investment. Because he might be the next Steve Jobs. And these stories are like sand on the sea. And that’s why this openness and permeability of hierarchies is different from here.
And what’s it like here at Campus Founders?
I’m a team member. Sometimes I have things that I have to decide, that no one else can decide. But in the end I see myself as a team member with whom you can talk about anything. I also ask my colleagues what they think about issues that concern me, how they do it. New employees get a leap of faith and I give them a lot of freedom. This seems to be a kind of leadership that is perhaps not yet so widespread in the region. By that I don’t necessarily mean the superiors, but also the employees who are still stuck in other structures and ways of thinking and perhaps don’t even exercise the freedoms they are given.
What do the Campus Founders want to be and what should the working atmosphere look like?
Our aim is to be a home for people interested in founding a company, start-up teams and innovators. Personally, I work a lot. Here I want to realize myself, implement ideas, try things out. I spend so much time at work that I want to feel comfortable in the environment in which I work. I spend a lot of time with my colleagues, so it’s important to me what relationship I have with them. I’m not the type to sit in an ivory tower.
From which generation do the most enthusiastic members come? X, Y or Z?
With the Campus Founders we want to accompany everyone, regardless of age, on their Entrepreneurial Journey, from brainstorming to successful start-up. We want to start very early with people who are either already interested in the topic of entrepreneurship or not yet. In other words, we want to bring this option of setting up your own business and setting up a start-up into the universities and then provide complete support. But if I now know that the average age of the founders in Silicon Valley, for example, is over 40 years, that is perhaps surprising.
So you’re not just there for students?
We are here for students and everyone else who is interested in start-up and innovation. The other day there was a founder with us, he was already an older semester. Of course, he has a completely different wealth of experience than someone who has just left university. Age is not so relevant for us. However, I do realize that different generations have different levels of risk awareness. If, of course, I am from Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979; the Red.), I probably have quite different obligations than if I belonged to Generation Z (born between 1996 and 2010; the Red.). For me, the perception of risk, especially among the younger generations, is often incomprehensible, because in my opinion they do not actually carry any risk. But somehow they feel as if they have an incredible amount of responsibility.
Do you miss the chutzpah?
What is the point of investing a year or two in a start-up as a young person? You learn an incredible amount – yourself or just in case of failure. But that’s not the way it’s seen, often the focus is on the perceived financial risk. That’s the half empty glass I referred to earlier. Instead of thinking, “Hey, if I make it, I can make a lot of money. In return, I can work long hours in a normal job.” But they don’t think like that. Even many who try and fail at the first attempt go back to consulting instead of saying: “Now I’ve learned so much, the mistakes I’ve made, I’ll save them and make it next time”. And failure is not necessarily at the founders’ expense. A U.S. investor once said to me that a once failed founder had learned at the expense of someone else and was only then ready for his own investment.
You should be running “optimism” boot camps.
Unfortunately, this basic scepticism is also often brought to the people willing to found the company from the outside. Especially through friends from the same generation. I am always shocked. We have always had interns in Silicon Valley, which I found to be an incredibly exciting opportunity. If you’re still at school or just finished school and go to Silicon Valley for a year in this phase – madness! But we actually get rejections from people who have applied to us and whom we have selected, because they then go to a consulting firm in their city. Why? Because they earn more money there. And that’s a matter of attitude and owes a bit to the education and career system here. The curriculum vitae must be flawless. Experiments don’t quite fit in there. And I think that that has also changed. If you write “a year in Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv or China” into a resume, that’s already a pound. Because you’ve just seen something else.
Back to the Campus Founders here in Heilbronn. What kind of job do the people who will be sitting here find? And who are they sitting with?
We see ourselves as the centre for entrepreneurship and innovation in the region. That is our self-image. Therefore, we are not a co-working space where you go and rent. Accordingly, our aim is not to divide a large area into smaller parcels and rent them out profitably. That is not our business. We rather think in the direction of co-creation. To get back to this ecosystem idea, we want to enrich and develop the ecosystem through our programs and bringing together students, start-up teams, and corporate representatives. Our goal is to create synergies and exciting new products and businesses.
The topics are new work, entrepreneurial thinking and acting, methods and tools, networking, encounter and exchange.
Is the Campus-Founders-Space a meeting place?
In November we will move into our new Space – the Campus Lab – on the Bildungscampus. There will be different areas of encounter and exchange. There will of course be an event area where we will bring everyone together and offer a variety of formats.
There will also be a kind of coffee lounge, where there will be a casual informal exchange, where you can sit together without having an official meeting. Where you can simply run into each other. A friend of mine is responsible for the entrepreneurship program at UC Berkeley. They called it Collider. Collider, where things and people collide: Not always planned, but they meet and new things emerge.
Is Space then “only” a tool for you?
It is a laboratory and thus an experimental environment for the ecosystem. But it is also an office with meeting rooms, think tanks, a project room, etc., and we have three areas there as part of our Academic Lab, our Startup Lab and Corporate Lab. And most of these programs run in our Space.
With the Academic Lab we rather address younger people and students in the context of their education. And sometimes they even get credits at their university if they take part in our courses. On the other hand, there are people who have nothing to do with the university but are interested in entrepreneurship. In the Startup Lab you will find the founders, the founding teams, who may already be startups or about to be. And we want to attract start-ups that come to the region here. Who want to get to know our community and the regional ecosystem and network. And the third part is the Corporate Lab, in which we will also offer programs to companies of all sizes that want to position themselves for the future.
Our aim is to ensure that the region continues to do so well. And everyone belongs in this ecosystem. Everyone has an important place in it. And if one of them falls out, the ecosystem no longer functions properly. You know it from nature: If one type of fish no longer exists, the other type of fish also dies. And the dependencies here in the region are comparable. It is our goal that everyone in our space meets at eye level. And we also try to initiate an exchange between them.
Which space models will there be in Space?
There are members who probably use Space from time to time. They can sit down here today and there tomorrow. But there are also members who would like to use their workplace daily and have their main place of work with us, where they leave their computer or monitor or want to lock something away. And then there are small teams who want to close the door. We try to provide the right thing for everyone.
But we’ll make sure everyone gets something out of it. Not only should they go in and consume, but their work should also contribute to the community in this Space. Whether this is a small lecture, whether it is a suggestion for a discussion round … there should always be occasions initiated by all who are here. This is a cultural topic. In the Valley it is much more open, one seeks direct exchange. Here I can imagine that some members might have to be pushed a little further to seek this exchange. And that will certainly also be the challenge to develop a sense of community in which one really exchanges ideas at eye level.
Will there be a community manager for the Space?
They already exist. Our claim is that we know all the members. You can imagine the model as a gym, but then again differently. Our Space is just this gym, and there you are a member, you then have infrastructure or offers that are available to all members. You have a changing room, a bike, a treadmill and you can come once a week or every day. You can stay an hour, you can stay around the clock. At the same time we are the ones who offer yoga and the other courses and classes in which the members can and should participate.
You also actively address people about your offers? According to the motto: Next week there will be yoga, come and join us.
Absolutely. And that’s what I mean, and that’s also the difference to the gym: we want to know who is a member of our team. We want to know everyone. We have created a profile sheet. He asks a few basics: “That’s me, that’s how you reach me; that’s my interests, that’s what I’m trying to reach. Here I need help, and here I can help. Here’s my expertise.”
And we try to understand this from the individual members and then actively bring them together. We don’t just want to rely on this “collider” and hope that it will happen automatically. But to moderate this and to be able to say for example: We recently talked about this topic with X from the company Y; I’ll bring you together, you should exchange ideas. So that’s an active role we want to play. We know who it is, who it is, and how to help them. And our personal trainers are then our mentors and experts or our coaches, which we will also make available to our members.
A first competition, the Corporate Campus Challenge, is being launched for the new semester …
To this end, we cooperate with companies that each set a challenge and university partners so that students also have the opportunity to actively participate. But it is not exclusive for students. The Corporate Campus Challenge is open to startups and anyone who wants to take on such a challenge.
And why should one apply?
There are actually two aspects. One is that you can actually work on a real topic. The second is that you get to know methods and tools. That you not only work on the topic, but that you also learn how to approach a problem. How teams come together, how teamwork takes place. How these methods are developed. How to get a prototype. But also how to present this product. Accordingly, pitch training will also be included. And in January, the jury will meet and present the results.
Then in spring there will be the second Corporate Campus Challenge and other formats?
Sustainability is important to us. The Corporate Campus Challenge is a first experiment. We hope it will be successful. We live very much from feedback. If someone says “all bullshit,” then maybe we won’t do it anymore. When people say “that was great”, we go on. And if they say, “that was great, but we still have to work on that,” and that probably will be the case, then we will adapt the format and develop it further. This is a first version of our product Corporate Campus Challenge.
We are pleased that we were able to win three partners for this. We are pleased that the universities are cooperating with us. And we hope that great solutions will be presented in January and that everyone has learned a lot in the process. The second important aspect for us is that those who have completed the format will also be able to connect. It should not be a one-shot. The aim is to offer these participants additional formats that go into the next stages in order to prepare them for the entrepreneurial path or to accompany them.
What’s the end result?
Ideally, if I could make a wish, this would result in a startup in which one of the corporate partners would invest in order to be part of the trip and thus give the whole thing credibility. I don’t know if we’ll make it the first time. But that’s the objective we’re pursuing.
And what would be the best, fastest way for someone like me or photographer Ulla to work with you or benefit from the programs you offer?
We have just launched our website and are represented on the usual social media channels, there are contact possibilities and all events are visible. We have a Meetup once a month. We want to create occasions where you can simply go, meet with like-minded people, exchange ideas and find the first point of contact to the topic and Campus Founders. Ulla and you are always welcome. And who knows, maybe we can support your team to make Hanix even more successful.
Thank you, Robert Mucha, for giving Oliver the opportunity to present his ideas about New Work and how we at Campus Founders can make them happen.