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An inside look at Rocket Internet – This is how their HR machine works Written by Charmaine Li on 8. November 2012

Rocket Internet continues to polarise people. But how does the Berlin incubator manage to build teams so quickly and successfully, teams that then go on to roll-out businesses worldwide? We talked to Rocket Internet’s HR representative about the myths and stereotypes on the firm.

Rocket Internet – Oliver Samwer’s religion

Rocket Internet is a bit like a religion for Oliver Samwer – worldwide success, some think, while others doubt the Berlin-based cloning machine. Undoubtedly, Rocket Internet belongs to the most successful incubators in Germany and the world. Equally as dividing are the myths surrounding the successful incubator – from stories of infamous Oliver Samwer temper tantrums to avante-garde marketing techniques to the nice and not-so-nice incidences in this worldwide cloning factory, it seems like anything is possible.
But what is working at Rocket like for the staff? Is there really a hire-and-fire technique or is that just a rumour? Do only McKinsey and WHU (the famous German business university) graduates gain access or is there still a startup feeling at Rocket? To celebrate the new university activities of Rocket Internet, we asked the head of HR, Vera Termühlen, about the ins and outs of HR at Rocket. The result: it looks like there is a certain change towards more openness and a desire to improve the Rocket image coming out of the Samwer cloning machine.

Hello Vera, tell us a bit about yourself and the HR section of Rocket in general.

VT: I started in HR almost six years ago at KPMG WPG AG, where I was the HR business partner. I wanted more challenges and flatter hierarchies, in which you could change things. That’s what I found at Rocket Internet.
Our HR team in Berlin is focused on three key areas: The a-to-z of staff for Rocket Internet Germany, the support of our ventures along with international recruiting for founders, and our global venture development program.

What does Rocket Internet focus on when choosing their staff? How does your application process usually work?

VT: The application process is not very different from other firms, though we’re faster. It can happen that an applicant will receive a contract on the same day as their interview.

What does Rocket Internet offer that others don’t?

VT: In comparison to traditional businesses, it’s that staff take over responsibilities on the first day. Every staff member, regardless of their level, has their own area of responsibility, with considerable room. That relates to many jobs in the startup area, though Rocket Internet differs in that it has a unique business model: we don’t just start promising ventures nationally, but rather internationally – at a high speed. This only functions if you have the best experts on board. Our staff profit from this: they work and learn with the best on an international level.

What chances do graduates have at Rocket? From an outside perspective, it seems like you only take McKinsey and WHU business graduates. Do students, that don’t come from an elite uni, have an equal chance of being considered?

VT: Our teams don’t all look for the same profile, so IT candidates have different skills than applicants from global venture development. All in all, it doesn’t matter if an applicant is from an elite university. For the area of global venture development, we look for applicants that are hands-on, first-class, have analytical skills, describe themselves as entrepreneurs, have a passion for the online startup scene along and a willingness to work internationally, often in exotic locations like the Philippines or Nigeria.
Along with great marks, it’s important for us that applicants have already shown, through internships, that they want to achieve something. There are more and more unis that, through their compulsory internships and teaching options, encourage students to develop these skills. These universities are the ones we focus on. That’s why we’re in cooperation with TU Munich this year. Regardless of that, everyone is connected to their university in some way, like Oliver Samwer with WHU and Alexander Kudlich with HSG. That isn’t just a Rocket Internet phenomenon.

What kind of people do you look for to work at Rocket?

VT: Because of our huge portfolio of international companies we are always looking for good people for the areas of global venture development, online marketing, tech, CRM, product, operations, finance and HR. For us, it’s important that the applicant has, next to their strong expertise in the area, a close cultural connection to Rocket Internet and that their personality fits into the team. They need to be fast, flexible, independent and willing to help. Our current job offers can be found here.

There has been a lot of gossip about the angry outbursts from Oliver Samwer and even if this isn’t something that happens everyday and not everyone would describe him as “the most aggressive guy on the internet”…what is your working environment like? What do you do to improve it?

VT: There is a lot written about Rocket and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Those who know Rocket from the inside can confirm that we have a very good work environment that is far better than the usual expectations. Everyone who starts with us is rewarded with a positive experience. And we’re working to make everyday better. For us, it’s important that, despite our growth, we hold onto the startup mentality, so that everyone knows each other and can learn from each other.
Group breakfasts with everyone at the beginning of each month, along with the introduction of new colleagues to the team, are important to us. Besides this, we hold events once a week called Rocket Friday as a get-together, and every second Tuesday we have the Rocket Open University, where you get to know your colleagues better. The working environment depends on the leadership team, which is why we make sure that our leaders have both the business skills and social competencies. And I think you can tell that all this is clear, even from the outside.

Those who want to take two steps forward have to go back a couple here and there – what do you say about letting staff go? What is the best practice?

VT: This is true. As our focus is on speed and internationalisation and we tend to want to profit from the first-mover strategy, we have to deal with the fact that some decisions don’t turn out the way we had hoped. But this happens rarely. And if it does happen, our staff profit from our large portfolio. We are very well linked to one-another, so they can usually work in a different Rocket company.

Rocket’s image isn’t great. How do you deal with this when working with staff?

VT: We’re open about it. We’re aware that Rocket Internet can polarise people. This is often raised in interviews. I think that everyone who knows us personally or has received a better impression from our offices has a well rounded and authentic picture of us. Whether they then like us or not is their decision. Our goal is not to be everyone’s darling, but to show who we are and what we’re doing transparently. If someone decides that he or she doesn’t fit in here, that’s completely legitimate. Most are, however, fascinated by how professional, international and fast Rocket is.
Our new openness is reflected in the current “Rocket You Career” campaign. We are inviting a group of chosen students on the 23 November to get to know our ventures better. Along with an exchange with Johannes Bruder, our Managing Director for Product, our expert teams from business development and online marketing will be doing short workshops. We’ll also invite a round of current founders for the founder talk. Applications are open until the 9 November from the website.

How bad is the often-quoted “war for talent” in the internet scene? Is Berlin an exception?

VT: We’re in a situation in which we can feel how attractive the internet segment is. It’s the young, dynamic people that are seeking jobs in this branch to take on new challenges, from Generation Y. These candidates won’t be drawn in with pension deals, but rather with exciting jobs that let them develop. Berlin is definitely an exception as there are now many startups, and therefore also other exciting options available.
It’s the really good developers and online marketers that we need in the internet scene. Both are rare and therefore sought after. The war of talents is definitely happening. But at Rocket we are lucky, as we continually receive plenty of very good applicants. That is why we started a trainee project at the beginning of the year, for online marketing in which we train staff ourselves and make them more independent. The next trainee project will start in March 2013.

Do you have any tips for people wanting to launch a startup, like how to build an effective HR section? What would, for example, be clever ways to market to universities?

VT: Essentially, the person with the most responsibility for hiring staff should not be brought in too late. With fast growing companies it’s all the more important to have an HR expert in the firm. I usually recommend HR professionals that have one to two years experience in a dynamic branch. The wrong decisions and mis-management in the HR department can be very expensive!
With university marketing, you should first consider it if you have reached the size where you need a critical mass of interns or university graduates. Because there is, in general, only a small budget for personnel marketing and I suggest to target specific groups. That means you have to define the target group, research and analyse which uni these graduates are coming from and concentrate on the best or the geographically closest. In the beginning phase, I would recommend taking part in general careers fairs.
Translated by Michelle Kuepper

For related stories, check out

Summit Partners invests €20 million in Zando, Rocket Internet’s South African Zalando
“Be a little bit Tom Cruise” – 7 tips for founders from Rocket Internet’s Oliver Samwer
“I’m a Bob the Builder” – Oliver Samwer at CEO Berlin