Start-ups are no longer considered just hip, they also serve as a model for many established companies. Particularly when it comes to the innovative capability and speed of the founders, there are many established enterpreneurs who would like to take a leaf out of their book. But how can employers pick up the innovations of new entrepreneurs or anchor their thinking in their own cultures and in the minds of their staff? We spoke to Max von der Ahé, founder of the coworking space, betahaus who has been working around the world for many years at the interface between established businesses on the one hand and start-ups and freelancers on the other.
Mr von der Ahé, betahaus is one of the pioneers among providers of coworking spaces. How does coworking actually work in practice – is it a place where a group of lone warriors come together or do you find them all networking like mad?
There are various interpretations of coworking. At betahaus, we interpret coworking as a place where various market players meet and are together in one place. In Berlin, we have about 550 active members from around 350 different companies. The group is divided into one third freelancers, one third start-ups and one third corporates. A special characteristic is the strong international flavour: over 50 percent of the people that work here are not from Germany.
We offer a wide range of formats allowing these groups to get to know each other well and to meet up frequently. There is the beta-Breakfast for example, that takes place every Thursday and calls on three teams from the house – sometimes corporates, sometimes start-ups, sometimes freelancers – to pitch for the others. Then there’s beta-Bier, which is basically the same thing but in the evening, and the Tupperware Tuesday, where members eat together on Tuesdays. We also offer plenty of meet-ups with other themes. External groups often come to the house for this purpose.
Also large companies such as Daimler, Deutsche Telekom or SAP rent space in the betahaus. What do they get out of this?
That varies a lot. Some of the corporates such as Daimler, Ernst & Young or Deutsche Bahn have a room or a desk here. Some of them appreciate the unconventional business environment and send their innovation departments here who are supposed to work differently than the way we all used to work. Others specifically go to Berlin because they might find people there who don’t want to work in other cities. But it is always about integrating one’s own staff into an innovative community. We have a Community Manager whose sole job is to take the new members by the hand and to put them in contact with people where we think there is a good match.
How do you actually bring start-ups and established companies together?
We design specific accelerator programmes for the corporates through which they invest in the start-ups or work together with them. The companies can be service accelerators or go-to-market accelerators. As early-stage partners, we know the start-up scene very well. At our betapitches, where young teams from every possible area take part, we screen about 500 start-ups per year in various cities such as Berlin, Hamburg, Sofia, Barcelona, Sao Paulo or Seoul in South Korea. We have an incredible throughput here and know plenty of success stories.
We also use these contacts in the community for the so-called Top Talent Programmes of corporate customers. Because companies have now realized that the number of good teams out there is limited and many companies are competing for them. That is why the corporates are now attempting to inject their own staff with a sort of “entrepreneurial thinking”. They need to get to know as many start-ups as possible for the spark to ignite.
What is needed above all to help corporates and start-ups work well together?
Every company should know that it needs to persevere to achieve an innovation transfer. If a company thinks that external sources of innovation are more effective than what you can develop in-house in the same time or would like to attempt it at the same time as internal projects, it needs to understand that these innovations from outside don’t just happen overnight. The classic return-on-investment thinking is out of place here. Every corporate works differently and you need to find out what works for your own company. It is a question of culture. The important thing is to have firm capacities in place and not focus too much on results.
The companies then need to consider whether their own processes are compatible with the experiments of start-ups. Classic case: We give a company a challenge. This may be about a problem that has long existed in an enterprise. Then there is a suggested solution but the collaboration fails because the purchasing conditions, certain rights or data protection regulations do not go with the solution. Or things are delayed far too long. You need a start-up catalogue of rules, a sort of start-up unit that takes care of this otherwise you will sail against the wind in many parts of the company.
So the collaboration between corporates and start-ups often goes wrong?
Yes, if companies don’t take these factors into consideration, then it does. We also often hear that start-ups are annoyed by corporates because they have many long meetings with people who in the end cannot make the decisions. That means that the people pushing the matter forward in companies also need to be authorised to make decisions. There is nothing worse for start-ups – we are talking about speed here – than running from one meeting to the next and still not having a decision at the end of it all. If you want to take the matter seriously, then you need to structure the collaboration so that you have people sitting there with something to say. Particularly when you consider that there are more corporates looking for start-ups than there are start-ups that want to work with corporates.
What do you think makes the innovation strength of start-ups really special?
The most important thing is their agility. With that I mean that they don’t spend too long on the wrong path. That can only happen in a large company and not in a start-up. If a start-up did that, it would soon be out of business. So that’s why it needs to quickly change focus if necessary. In large companies, a great many resources may be lost when the wrong path is taken but it is not discovered as quickly and usually they can afford it. This agile mentality along the lines of “We’ll build a prototype, we’ll test it and if we don’t get positive feedback straightaway, we’ll do something else” is simply missing in many established companies.
To what extent does this agility of start-ups also apply to human resource management?
When you come to human resource management, so far I have mainly seen a strong showing among the corporates – especially in personnel development. In a fast start-up culture that is continuously growing or changing, there is little time for personnel development. With that I mean systematic consideration of each individual’s goals, how they can be reached and how a person can develop in the company. This is also relevant to start-ups if they want to be successful. Start-ups should not overlook this. They can certainly learn something from corporates here.
So let’s think about the other direction now. How could the entrepreneurial thinking of start-ups be integrated into the personnel development of corporates?
We are trying to lay the foundation stone for this with our Top Talent Programmes. However, this is very difficult in classic personnel development. One approach could be an internal rotation for example. I have been managing director of betahaus Berlin for seven years now and fortunately have two partners with whom I do this. I was also the COO in the first few years, sometimes I am the CFO as well – so I have a certain rotation and versatility. You often find that in start-ups that sometimes one colleague will step in for another one. There is a much stronger specialisation in corporates so that many people never leave a certain job. To build an agile team where positions can be rotated, that would be a good idea. That would improve motivation as well.
betahaus has been around for seven years now – almost an established company despite all the turbulence. How capable of change are you still and what are you doing to remain so?
We are a small company, we have about 20 staff in Berlin. That makes it easy to remain capable of change of course. To this end, we mainly encourage self-responsibility amongst our staff. Every member of staff takes ownership of his own project and knows what lies in his area of responsibility. For us, it goes without saying that we work as equals. We also try to be up-to-date with our tools so in project management we work with Slack or Trello for example. We get out of the office with our team once or twice a year and do some strategic work together. Of course we set goals and check regularly to see if we have reached them or not. The coworking business is very dynamic. Many property owners are now realizing that coworking is a wonderful operator concept. So that’s why we go our own way and concentrate on the community of coworkers and try to make the community members better entrepreneurs.
Interview: Stefanie Hornung