22 business lessons that founders can learn from Oliver Samwer
For the last seven years, Rocket Internet and its German founders, Marc, Oliver and Alexander Samwer, have made a living taking the billion-dollar ideas of successful American technology companies and cloning them abroad. From Zalando, the Zappos of Europe, to Lazada, the Amazon.com of Indonesia, the Berlin-based startup incubator has had helped launch more than 75 different companies and is now exploring an initial public offering, according to sources.
When Rocket Internet does go public, the company will seek a valuation anywhere from 3 billion euros ($4 billion) to 4 billion euros ($5.4 billion) according to those who attended a potential investor presentation earlier this month in Berlin. Even at the low end of that valuation, an IPO would turn all three Samwer brothers into billionaires.
After spending years mimicking billionaire entrepreneurs from the other side of the Atlantic, the Samwers will finally join the 10-figure fortune club, a sign of validation for the brothers’ vision for global e-commerce domination. They currently own 65% of Rocket Internet through their investment company, European Founders Fund. That vehicle also holds a 17% stake in Zalando, the private fashion retailing sensation that is valued currently at $5.3 billion and is also taking steps toward an IPO.
Those investments, plus successful exits on past ventures, will make the brothers worth at least $1 billion each, even when accounting for dilution from the sale of new shares in Rocket’s IPO. The company could raise around $750 million through the sale of new primary shares in the IPO, which will also see the Samwers hold on to all their shares, said sources.
In particular, Oliver Samwer, the leader of the trio, counts as one of the most successful internet businessmen in Germany, if not the world, and is as feared as he is envied. While polarising opinions, the founder of the decade is undeniably successful and brilliant at what he does. But what can founders learn from him?
1) Be hungry, aggressive and fast – number one or nothing
Oliver Samwer’s most obvious trait is his hunger for success and the aggressive tactics he uses to get what he wants. If he decides to get involved in an idea he does so quickly and without distraction, using the tools and systems he has from earlier startups. His infamous blitzkrieg email makes this abundantly clear: ”I am the most aggressive guy on the internet on the planet. I will die to win and I expect the same from you!”
“Oli” Samwer makes it clear that he won’t be happy with anything but being the market leader. Why? Because: “Only number one can raise unbelievable money at unbelievable valuations. I cannot raise money for number two.” And to be number one he will gladly spend big, which he is able to recoup through high valuations when he sells. His leadership in the market comes from a mixture of good funding, polished procedures, high pace and a die-hard-to-win mentality.
2) Know your numbers and do your deals accordingly
Even the most committed founders usually don’t know their business numbers as precisely as Oliver Samwer. It’s well known that the serial founder demands the micro details of the company figures and developments. Those who start an SEM (search engine marketing) campaign in a Samwer business can expect to be grilled by Samwer about their CPC (cost per click) conversions and reach. Where can money be saved through lower conversions? Which keywords perform the best? Oliver Samwer ensures his companies are proficient and multifaceted by focusing on the numbers.
3) Become a stickler for details
The middle Samwer brother is apparently a details fanatic. Regardless of whether it’s business models, marketing or recruiting: Oliver Samwer knows the particulars of his businesses and makes sure he’s informed to the nth degree. When even small changes can have huge effects, it makes sense that Samwer focuses on the tiniest mechanics.
4) Use trial and error to find the right approach
Oliver Samwer is an avid user of trial and error. It would be hard to find someone that is as keen to experiment as him. In every department of every Samwer business the same rule applies: test things fast and adjust them even faster if the precedent doesn’t work. Wrong processes are sorted out quickly and efficiently, while constant experimenting ensuresRocket Internet remains innovative. Samwer has his reasons for saying that innovation lies in its implementation.
5) Enjoy making decisions
In combination with number four, Samwer’s joy at making decisions is a definite plus. Regardless of whether they’re positive or negative, Samwer never shies away from making a decision, a trusted source told Vertical Media (Gründerszene and VentureVillage). Even painful decisions like firing 400 staff in Turkey don’t alarm Oliver Samwer. You can criticise the morality of Samwer’s decisiveness but his quick decisions undeniably lend him speed and are likely to ultimately save him money.
6) Be remorseless
According to his staff, Oliver Samwer remorselessly enforces rational decisions. A marketing campaign didn’t work? The resources are redistributed. A startup isn’t quite going to plan and is taking up resources other businesses need? It’s closed down.
Many examples of this spring to mind, including when Samwer closed the branches of Rocket Internet in Turkey after it failed to make enough profits and closed designer shopping site Bamarang due to the faster growing Westwing. The list could go on…
7) Creativity and ingenuity are a bonus
Oliver Samwer’s ingenuity is legendary, especially when it comes to marketing. A high point in Groupon circles is his marketing campaign with Starbucks. Under the aegis of Samwer, Groupon bought hundreds of coupons from the famous coffee chain and sold them for half-price. Groupon gained immediate traffic and visibility and sold countless coupons, while also collecting valuable user data.
Samwer’s methods of marketing may seem brash or absurd, but they ultimately accomplish his goal to be surprising.
8) Know how to persuade people
One of the skills Oliver Samwer has is always being able to tell what the person he’s talking to wants. That’s how he’s able to convince high-ranking McKinsey managers to come on board and he closes every deal. Like a human scanner, Oliver Samwer can read the different needs and desires of people, whether they want fame, money or experience.
9) The carrot or the stick (depending on the situation)
Reading people isn’t only useful when hiring new employees or making deals. Oliver Samwer also uses this skill in his management. He can tell whether an employee will work better when encouraged or screamed at and adjusts his behaviour accordingly. This adaptive behaviour is one of the secrets to the serial entrepreneur’s success. But whether this technique is sustainable long-term is debatable.
10) Always be flexible
Samwer can always adapt to the situation. If pressure is needed, he’ll push. If he needs to butter someone up, he’ll answer emails with “your Oli”. From nice to aggressive and demanding, his colleagues claim he plays an entire chord of emotions to get his way in different situations.
11) Prototypes make solutions for you
Rocket Internet is a machine run by templates. Thanks to an established team of business developers and prototypes, sources told Vertical Media (VentureVillage and Gründerszene) that Rocket is able to launch companies in two weeks or less.
No other incubator can keep up with Rocket’s speed and technique. It doesn’t matter if it is recruiting or marketing, development or legal, Rocket Internet works to a worldwide blueprint. Never change a business model, especially not one that works this well.
12) Oliver Samwer – A master of multitasking
In Rocket Internet headquarters, Oliver Samwer is considered a master of multitasking. He knows the workings of the incubator in microscopic detail and makes sure he is close to his founders in every country. And next to the hundreds of emails and phone calls he gets every day, Samwer has gathered millions of frequent flyer miles visiting his businesses around the world. To avoid losing an overview while doing so many things in parallel is an accomplishment in itself.
13) Balls of steel and contempt for social norms
If you believe our sources, fearlessness is one of his main characteristics. This boldness combined with a certain lack of conscience lets him make daring decisions that outsiders shake their heads at. Martin Weber’s screams were apparently heard on all levels of the Rocket Internet office when Samwer told him he was going to copy Holtzbrinck’s dating site Parship and create eDarling. It took half an hour until Weber agreed to invest in the site.
These decisions have contributed to Oliver Samwer’s reputation as a daring yet unscrupulous businessman who is able to get the highest ratings, create the most shameless copies and pull of the most audacious manoeuvres – and all this without grave consequences (at least usually). Oliver is known for abruptly ending conversations, writing emails in broken German and being generally curt. Why abide by social norms when they don’t give any direct rewards? People who don’t fear consequences and knowingly break and bend the rules are likely to leave the field winners.
14) Hard work, hard work, hard work
You couldn’t read an article about Oliver Samwer without there being some criticism of how he treats his staff and how hard he expects them to work. That being said, his associates claim he is a stickler for his own rules and is himself extremely hardworking. Long working days with countless meetings, phone calls and emails belong just as much in Oliver Samwer’s life as making decisions and directing his many operations.
Hard work and intelligence are the key traits for working in business, two traits Samwer definitely has.
15) Oliver Samwer is a person of power
Despite all the directors, managers and heads, there is only one true leader of Rocket Internet: Oliver Samwer. The casually dressed man with the falsetto voice doesn’t let anything get by him. Decisions on the Rocket Internet family remain almost solely the task of the CEO, including those for the incubator’s portfolios. Rocket Internet is an oligarchy, with Oliver Samwer leading the troops. He performs this role well, reacting as the alpha male and having little tolerance of people talking back. You’re with him or you give up.
16) Blood is thicker than water
The core of the Samwer imperium is the unwavering rule that the Samwer brothers Alexander, Marc and Oliver stick together. While Oliver is clearly the leader of the wolf pack, he knows he can rely on the blind trust of his brothers and his inner circle and doesn’t have to worry about information being leaked.
17) Being stubborn can be healthy when it comes to matters of business development
If Oliver Samwer is convinced by an idea, no one can keep him from putting it into action. If the serial entrepreneur believes in a business model, he follows it with persistence and conviction, but he is also willing to learn from his mistakes and to change his behaviour accordingly.
18) If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
Why reinvent the circle if an idea on the other side of the world is already successful? Even if the copycat mentality of the Samwers is sometimes morally questionable, you can’t argue with the fact that Oliver Samwer has an uncanny sense for finding ideas that will be lucrative. So far he’s copied Groupon (Citydeal), Zappos (Zalando), eHarmony (eDarling), Airbnb (Widmu) and Birchbox (Glossybox) – all extremely successfully.
19) Walk the walk, don’t talk the talk – Samwer’s distaste for PR
In contrast to many startups that focus heavily on PR before they have any real turnover, Oliver Samwer does the opposite. Hardly anything escapes to the outside world from his quarters, with interviews and press enquires usually ignored. Instead of talking about his companies, Samwer lets his outcomes speak for his work. This has made Samwer into somewhat of a mythical figure, attracting all the more interest by being so secretive.
20) Don’t let yourself be drawn into irrelevant discussions
Similarly to his stance on PR and press, conversations that have no immediate relevance to his businesses receive no attention from him. While the copycat debate rages in Germany, Oliver Samwer has turned a blind eye, focusing on his work instead.
21) Sales Focus: No sales = no income
The sales and marketing areas are the most impressive in the Rocket Internet companies. With the knowledge that only sales ensure income, Samwer makes sure his businesses are making profits from the beginning and emphasises good sales and marketing techniques. He concentrates on building the brands through aggressive advertising campaigns and SEM.
22) Strategic planning as the foundation of trading
Almost all of Oliver Samwer’s startups stem from bold and strategic plans, whether it’s Zalando – that’s now developing its own brand and is rumoured to preparing for a float on the market after building its brand through an aggressive marketing campaign, or CityDeal and Alando, which Samwer sold to their paragons Groupon and eBay in record time. A strategic worldview and a pronounced tactical instinct count as foundations for Oliver Samwer’s work.