Cookies Nightclub in Mitte, Berlin. The dancefloor is crammed with the darlings of the city’s startup scene. The free-flowing booze and techno soundtrack ensures that CEOs, founders and assorted beautiful people have melded into one amorphous, if glamorous, mass.
One figure on the dancefloor, head and shoulders taller than most revellers, is throwing shapes as if the Mayans were bang-on about the world’s imminent end. Jan Beckers, founder of Hitfox, is beaming, sweating, having a blast.
And well he might – behind the amiable face and dancefloor gusto is the laser-guided business instincts of one of the most promising serial entrepreneurs on the German internet scene.
We caught up with him on the announcement of expansion of Hitfox to Paris and San Francisco to talk business philosophy, the German incubation system and his past life as a go-go dancer…
Safe bets versus sex appeal?
Some disclosure – VentureVillage counts Team Europe as one if its investors, and Beckers has had a long and fruitful relationship with the incubator, having helped to build the company as a venture partner, and co-founding Madvertise and Sponsorpay.
Hitfox Games Ventures, Beckers’ current and most ambitious project which began life as a user-acquisition platform for game publishers, offering gamers deals on titles and hardware has recently morphed into a fully fledged incubator (and renamed as Hitfox Group) with itself borrowing heavily from its alma mater’s style and launching with their backing.
But I’m writing about Beckers as he’s a perfect example of the new guard of German entrepreneurs, who offers up nuggets of business advice with a Yoda-like calm.
While Gidsy, Readmill, EyeEm et al might gobble up the column inches with startup sex appeal, Beckers has been quietly and swiftly building his empire to include four companies and 75 employees on the Hitfox roster.
“It’s funny”, Beckers chuckles. “I was on a panel recently with the Gidsy and EyeEm guys. All these trendy companies and then me. It felt strange to be up there with them.”
The pragmatic party guy
But then Beckers is more of a poster-boy for German pragmatism. He describes his career in such a linear way, we wonder if he sat down aged 10 and had a strategy meeting with himself.
“I bought my first shares when I was 14. I convinced my parents to use the savings they had for my driver’s license and I invested it in EA (Electronic Arts, the games publishers). It turned out to be a pretty good investment!”
From there, to study in Münster, supplemented by a stint as a go-go dancer: (“It added well to the party experience”); to setting up his first company aged 20, an online nightlife platform, followed by a student event agency.
If you believe Beckers, his life follows a beautiful cause-and-effect path: “I liked to party, so it made sense to get into the party business. It’s one of the few businesses you can start when you’re young and have competitive advantage. But it’s local and personal and doesn’t scale well. I decided I wanted to do bigger things.”
Execution, execution, execution
From there, another strategic move, this time to Berlin, and its then-nascent (in 2007) internet scene: “I met Kolja and Lukasz [Hebenstreit and Gadowski of Team Europe] and decided I wanted to start a scalable internet company. But first I became a blogger for Gruenderszene (our sister publication, which began life as Gadowski’s personal blog) to gain knowledge and insights. I used the opportunity to learn and network and build up a solid reputation.”
Reputation and network established in Berlin, Beckers spent three years closely with Team Europe, successfully co-founding Absolventa.de, Madvertise and Sponsorpay.
It’s clear that Beckers had discovered his talents were for focus and execution: “In the end, the decisions you make in the first three months are those that probably 70 per cent of the success you will have a company are predetermined then – you choose a team, you choose the market and at least your initial idea and also the decisions that influence your culture.
“You need to prepare very well for that, because afterwards you’ll be working for four, five years based on these decisions.”
After a 10-month break (more pragmatism: “as an entrepreneur, the biggest asset you have is yourself. From an operational point of view it makes sense to invest in yourself”) Beckers returned with the seeds of Hitfox sown in his mind.
Is the incubator system the saviour of German business?
Launched in August 2011, with co-founders Tim Koschella and Ruben Haas and later Hanno Fichtner, Hitfox began as a deals distributor and since then Beckers hasn’t stepped off the gas, first acquiring Germany’s biggest game marketing network (Ad2Games) in February before morphing into a fully fledged incubator in summer this year, investing a “seven-figure sum” in AppLift (an affiliate network) and App Discovery (with consumer-focused Game Finder app).
The company has just expanded to Paris and San Francisco having already established a presence in Korea.
So why is the incubator model becoming synonymous with new German businesses?
“In the US you have the Y Combinator/Venture Stars model. It offers a level of support, but doesn’t contribute to key decisions. The new German model – adopted by Rocket, then very shortly afterwards by Team Europe, creates a stable of serial entrepreneurs who are super-active and hands-on.
“Typically, the ideas come from the incubator, the people they have on board become co-founders and managers, so they are much more committed to the success of the startup than US accelerators.
“We have four teams all focused on four separate business models, and taking full ownership. It’s more productive then having one big company, and we have a structure where we can start new businesses – at a conservative estimate – of two per year.”
“I won’t be the guy who discovers the next Google. I just execute well every day”
So, is it fair to label low-risk, execution-based ventures as a German business trait? “Yes, totally. It’s a very German thing. Startups in Silicon Valley are much more innovative, but they also have much more funding.
“Why is Rocket focussed on eCommerce? It’s pure execution. Oliver Samwer isn’t familiar with any of the new startup plans, but he can judge whether Zalando is doing well against Home 24; it’s the same KPIs, it’s the same standard processes again and again and again.
“Copycats are great models for incubators as it’s only about execution, and the most critical thing is speed – and that’s what incubators can provide.
“I won’t be the guy who discovers the next Google. I am a fan of solid, execution-driven models. It’s not a blockbuster business like creating a movie or a game. I mean, we’re not doing some miracle here, we’re just executing well every day…”
“Look, take a business model, let’s say Facebook…”
Beckers makes business-building sound elementary: “Take a business model, let’s say Facebook, and write down all permutations – demographic, monetisation, target group. Find out which of those factors could be different. OK, so if not for students, then what about for business people and then I can start a new business model – it’s a very structured, easy way to innovate.
“Innovation doesn’t need to be so complicated,” he shrugs.
Making problem-solving social
Beckers isn’t 30 yet. But, of course, the next decade of his life has at least a sketched-out plan already: “I will make sure that Hitfox is continuing to accelerate. But at a certain point I’ll move into social enterprise.
“I have an existing connection to Africa – I already have a pilot project supporting talented children that didn’t get an opportunity to get an education in Nigeria, and have two godchildren there.
“I’d want to make sure that it would be solving a big problem using the skills that I have learned as an entrepreneur in an efficient, rational and focused manner.
“As an entrepreneur you don’t increase happiness after a certain level by having more money. In the end, I think with my skillset I could contribute to improving life conditions of millions of people, solving a big problem would make me very happy.
“And, of course, I’ll always take time to party now and again…”