When I look back at the things that I have done in the last decade, I think that they have always involved some form of venture building. It took me a while to realize that there was actually a term for that what I love to do most; coaching, teaching, supporting others on their digital endeavours that is.
Venture building as a term, was not used very often in the mid 2000s. Merely a handful of companies used the term venture building to describe their corporate startup efforts. But, in the last few years it became clear to me that “they” had been using the term venturing all wrong.
A venture is a quest, a risky undertaking, or a journey for that matter. As a matter of fact, the term “venture” refers to a long term endeavor and not just one startup or company. “It is the journey that excites me most.”
The rules of hierarchies and company structures are ever changing and I believe that we will start to see entirely new ways of cooperative working in the next couple of decades.
My personal venture has been in the making for quite a long time. I have the feeling it has just started, though. Let me recap what has happened so far, so that we are on the same page.Venture number one
I started my career in digital advertizing out in a dating startup. The company grew fast and within four years we had grown the team from a mere three employees to over two hundred.
It is hard to describe the type of roles I took on within the company in the first four years. I guess one could sum it all up in the vague term business development or performance marketing. But anything I did, involved IT project management and partner management in one way or another.
The journey was a wicked one though, at some point I spend more time in hotels and on airplanes to meet up with our partners and international colleagues, than at home. The company grew rapidly and it was fantastic that I had the opportunity to see it develop as it did, from day one.
The team was experienced, yet still relatively young and agile. I was the youngest member on the team though, at just 21 years old. I was fortunate to work together with a few outstanding digital experts, who had been in the game for over a decade. The team had a great combination, full of passion for that what they do.
The versatility in my job description, made it difficult to grasp the quintessence of what it is I did. But in essence, I worked between the lines; I was the glue between departments; and to a certain extent the face to the customer and our partners.
After a few years we hit our natural boundaries of growth and decided to focus on profitability instead. An internal consolidation phase meant changing our team setup and the roles of each and everyone in the organization. An exciting time once more.
As the consolidation phase passed and life turned into “an ordinary day at the office”, I knew that I needed a personal change. This run had been too good to be true and I wanted to see if I could reproduce the success story by working in another team. Thus, I decided to move on and learn from some of the best venture builders in the business at Rocket Internet in Berlin.
Venture number two
The second venture was a lot different from the first in many ways. The tools were the same, but the surrounding team and setup was entirely different. I loved the intensity and perseverance that the Rocket Internet Team put on display every single day. It was invigorating and brought me to greater heights.
Yet, my role was entirely different. As I joined the team, the company had already kickstarted its operations and was in full flight. Okay, I think it was fair to say that the flight itself was still a little bumpy, but the direction was clear; the only way is up.
I was hired to set up the international digital marketing infrastructure. A job I knew like the back of my pocket. However, this time it didn’t require me to tackle the channels hands-on, but to rely on specialist to do their jobs. This was a whole new ball game for me. It required me to manage; “observe, challenge, motivate and let go.” Nothing more, nothing less.
There was no one on the team when I signed on. I had to hire each and every specialist for the job. At the same time, manage a tremendous year on year growth of multiple millions in ad spend; basically find new ways to force the brand onto the market.
The biggest difference between the first and the second venture was not the work itself, but the time pressure that was behind the growth. The first company focused on profitability from day one; we grew the company from the excess cash that was available. Whereas, in the latter it was all about creating an impact – gain marketshare, fast.
Both challenges were really exciting. For the second time, on a large scale, I had created a market from scratch. But this time in a very different role; and it occurred to me, “I really love the building part of starting a company.”
I felt too young and creative to take on a managing role within the team though. It might sound somewhat silly, but I was only 25 years old at this point and had lead teams of up to 50 digital marketeers; managed annual marketing budgets in the double digit millions of euros. I didn’t feel as though I had the experience to lead a team into the future; focus on setting up personal growth paths for employees; manage their agendas instead of my own.
So I sought out to find my next venture to focus on my personal development. And I found it, at a company builder in Munich.
Venture number three
To be honest, I didn’t really know what a venture builder did exactly, until I had worked at one for a few years. The team I joined, had successfully exited a startup two years before I joined. They used a good part of that money to invest their time in creating new businesses; the classic way of venture building.
What they did, was use their internal resources to create a proof of concept and then seek out for an investor to fund the growth phase. When I joined, one in-house startup had just recently received its first significant funding. Furthermore, another three were in the making.
My role was to provide the marketing teams with the necessary insights and infrastructure that would allow them to grow as a whole. I had a free role within the team once again and it felt good speaking to many different marketing professionals. The thing was, as I was not focused on merely one company, I learned a lot about different business models and approaches.
However, one of the startups needed (near) full time support. And I joined one of the ecommerce teams as their chief marketing officer. Startup life once again, but this time it was not about profitability nor scaling – the game was all about getting funded.
Funding is a fundamental part of every startup. If you want to grow, you’ll need to invest. Not every startup is as lucky and financially sound as the first venture I was part of. Thus, bootstrapping it was. The first year went fairly well and we got off to a good start.
But the business model had a few growth limitations that would be hard to tackle in the short run.The sales cycles were too long and we needed more time. Next to that, we managed to fund our growth through a regional fund. This was possibly the biggest limitation for our growth, though. We were unable to go abroad with our business model and were in fierce competition in our own local German market.
“We were stuck, seriously stuck.” Sales weren’t moving in any direction and we could only gain more marketshare by funding our growth with rebates. Rebates that hurt our margins so significantly, that we continued to need more money, all the time.
After a good year of struggling to pay our team salaries, I decided that it would be best for the team if I would leave. My personal strength and desire to develop and grow, did not go well with the phase our company was in for too long. I felt stuck and the worst part was, I felt helpless. Me and my fellow co-founders had not been able to persuade our investors to give us more time. Nor the possibility (funding or time) to grow in a different direction.
I kept my shares, stayed on as an advisor and two years later we sold the company to one of the German market leaders in our industry. In the meantime, I focused my full attention on building a team of my own in Zurich, Switzerland. A team of venture builders, with a full time focus on combining growth and technology. GANDT Ventures was born in 2015.
Venture number four
I guess there is nothing I would much rather do than build. The last decade has shown me that building companies and projects is something that is in my blood. I never really considered taking up a job at a large corporate, although that would give me some well needed “stability” in life. Plus the fact that I think my skill set would be very beneficial to a large number of bigger organizations.
Yet, as much as I hate the uncertainty that comes with founding new companies, I also love creating something out of thin air.
The fourth venture is very different indeed though. This time, I am on the other side of the table. I decided to take on the role of service provider. It’s a funny feeling really, I had never thought that I would “switch sides” to be honest. The great thing is though, I can support others with the knowledge that I have gained.
I aim to give others the strength and tools they need to succeed. The idea is to fill the knowledge and resource gaps in young organizations, and corporate projects alike.
And it’s gone really well so far. I asked a few old colleagues of mine to join me – not as freelancers, but together as a venture building team. There are other venture building teams out there who focus on having a strong network of freelancers. However, I want to focus on stability, long term sustainable growth, education and development. That means that I need to keep a strong knowledge-base within the team.
Working out loud is my new favorite term to describe how we work. We share our insights and work results openly within the group at all times. It has worked wonders for the team moral and personal development of our venture builders and specialists.
We work on a variety of projects, mostly omni-channel retail topics. Especially with fashion retailers, brands, wholesalers and producers. It is an exciting market I knew very little about three years ago, but there is a lot of digital movement going on in this market. Furthermore, it involves the full supply chain as well as B2B- and B2C business models.
I don’t know what will be coming our way in the next few years, but I think that I have found the setup that I feel most comfortable working in. I am back to working together with a young, but experienced team of dedicated digital experts, who love to grow businesses from scratch.
In essence, that is what I love about venture building. It is not about creating one perfect startup, but learning how you can create a systematic approach to growth. We do this by testing our hypotheses, with new business models and MVPs. But we don’t just create disruptive startups, as I personally believe that: “growth must always be sustainable at heart.”
I feel that, although I have been in digital venture building for over a decade, my personal venture has just begun. It is so exciting to see the traction that we have created in such a wide variety of industries in the last few years. And feel very grateful and fortunate for the opportunities that I have been given so far.
Venture building is more than just building one startups after the other. It is the only way forward; it allows us to stay creative, pivot and grow. Venture building bridges the gap between projects and businesses. It allows for mistakes and provides us with a stronger decision basis for future endeavors.
That is why I love venture building and I would not want to do anything else.
Have a great day everyone,
The ventures that were mentioned in this article:
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