In October 2007, my story begins: studiVZ was the star of the start-up scene, Brands4Friends demonstrated what could be done with new-generation e-commerce models, and Rocket Internet had just been founded. Berlin was definitely the place to be at that time if you were a young, ambitious founder fresh out of university with little money but big dreams. Office space in Berlin-Mitte cost between 5 and 8 EUR per square meter, and good developers earned no more than 3,500 EUR gross per month.
I met Jan Beckers at WHU Idealab. In Oliver Samwer’s workshop, his idea of “bringing the traditional university course books online” didn’t make it to the second round. Nevertheless, Jan called me shortly after and asked if I wanted to co-found the company with him as the CEO. He had a strong CTO in Henning Peters, and the first league of business angels, including Lukasz Gadowski and Oliver Jung, backing him. Pascal Tilgner joined as CMO, completing the founding team perfectly. I was enthusiastic and accepted the offer.
The line between co-founders and the first employees blurred after that. What they all had in common was that they were incredibly talented and motivated individuals in their twenties who we could recruit for the ABSOLVENTA vision. Sascha Kubak, now CEO of the Trendence Institute, took charge of sales along with Ann-Carolin Helmreich, who is now a sought-after performance coach and social entrepreneur. Tim Keding, later the founder of Shoepassion.com and Monteurzimmer.de, took on marketing. Henning Peters, after ABSOLVENTA, co-founded “skoobe,” often referred to as the “Spotify for e-books,” with Holtzbrinck and Bertelsmann, and he also sold another startup, RiseML, to Nvidia. Pascal Tilgner has since become very successful as a private investor, following the sale of the German Auftragsagentur (DAA), which he founded, to Bosch Thermotechnik. ABSOLVENTA initiator Jan Beckers has become a founder of companies like IONIQ (finleap and heartbeat labs), was named Entrepreneur of the Year by EY, and is one of the world’s most successful technology stock investors with BIT Capital.
Over time, additional top managers joined, including Daniel Schoppmann, the current CTO of Absolventa, Victoria Tschirch, who is now the CEO of FUNKE subsidiary Passion 4 Gästezimmer, Ben Fischer, the current CMO of Absolventa, Adrian Hensen, who later founded On Purpose, and Lorenz Hartmann, the founder and CEO of Pickmotion.
Soon, it becomes apparent that the original idea behind Absolventa had been tested multiple times and had always failed. With a pivot towards a more traditional job board model, we managed to build the German market leader for entry-level jobs with a lot of hard work and dedication. It became a well-growing and profitable German internet medium-sized company. In early 2015, we sold it to the FUNKE Mediengruppe.
The collaboration within the management team was something truly special for me. I had the privilege of working with individuals who, based on their skills, could have each founded and been CEOs of their own companies but had chosen at that time to spend a portion of their careers with me at Absolventa.
From my point of view, it only worked because we took into account a number of principles for working with top talent.
#1 Leadership without ego
It actually goes without saying in today’s world: top managers who have the freedom to choose where they want to unleash their magic cannot be squeezed into a hierarchical organization with little room for autonomy. The phrase “I’m in charge here, so we’re doing it my way” has never been uttered at our company in all these years. It didn’t need to be: We developed a shared vision, operationalized it, and assigned different areas of responsibility. In their respective areas of responsibility, managers had freedom. The unspoken agreement was always: I trust you, you’re the expert, do it the way you think is right. I only intervene when our common goals are at risk due to lacking results. Yes, in some matters where you believe you truly know better, it can be difficult to accept a completely different approach. However, in the end, I am convinced that top managers can only unleash their full potential and remain loyal to a company in the long term by giving them freedom and demanding responsibility for the results.
#2 Don’t ask for permission, beg for forgiveness
Especially a young team that moves quickly makes a ton of mistakes. That’s okay, as long as the mistakes ideally only happen once and, above all, are not fatal to the company or cause lasting damage to the organization. How does a CEO recognize in time whether a specific management initiative is a potentially fatal mistake? Who is responsible for identifying such errors early? My answer: the CEO, not the manager. The CEO must be closely involved and engage in proactive discussions with managers to jointly identify potential dangers. Assigning the sole responsibility for error prevention to management is fatal. Once managers start seeking approval from the CEO for every little thing out of fear of making mistakes, the entire organization becomes slow and unwieldy. Therefore, our Chief Marketing Officer, Tim Keding, has always reminded us: don’t ask for permission, beg for forgiveness.
#3 Sharing is caring
Every top manager was involved in the company from the beginning. Initially, there were only a few shares available for the equity program. This wasn’t a problem because we were all confident that we were heading for an exit north of EUR 100 million in the next 18-24 months. Therefore, half a percent of the company felt very appropriate.
Over time, I realized that an exit in the range of EUR 10 to EUR 20 million would be more realistic, and we would probably need 5-7 years for that. I shared this realization transparently with all top managers. Everyone immediately understood that half a percent wouldn’t be a particularly exciting incentive in this scenario. The non-operational partners were a great help in this context: They provided a significant number of shares, which I distributed fairly among the top management.
Even after the exit to the FUNKE Mediengruppe, we handled the earn-out payments in a similar way. Only in this way did an exit that was smaller than hoped for at the founding turn into a great financial success for all the managers who made it possible.
My conclusion: Top talents expect absolute transparency and a fair share in the overall success. If the CEO optimizes only for themselves and not for the whole team, the team quickly falls apart.
#4 A marriage for time
It is inherent in the nature of things that top managers always have several career options available. There is no shortage of inquiries regarding other management positions, and the option to start their own project or company is a constant companion.
I understood that we couldn’t provide a long-term perspective to every talent. At the same time, each individual was crucial to the company’s success, and an unexpected departure would have been very problematic.
Two instruments have proven effective in addressing this challenge: At the start of the annual management offsite, everyone first spoke at length about their feelings and perspectives at Absolventa. At the end, there was full commitment from the management for the year ahead. Of course, the respective commitments were not surprising at the meeting itself. It was an unspoken rule that thoughts of leaving should be voiced the moment they arise. This has worked without exception over the years. Certainly, it also has to do with the fact that we didn’t hold it against each other when someone from the team wanted to pursue a different passion.
The second principle was that everyone had to develop their own successor. Only when a capable successor was ready, “could” the management leave.
These two simple principles have given us an incredible amount of stability and continuity over the years.
#5 Side projects
The most controversial topic was probably how to deal with commercial side projects of our top performers. In many successful companies, the principle is to have a hundred percent focus on the job, and commercial side projects are prohibited.
At Absolventa, we handled it differently: Side projects of our top people were allowed with prior agreement. Would Absolventa have grown even faster and bigger if we had banned side projects? I don’t believe so, and here’s why: Side projects, when pursued outside of working hours, contribute significantly to the expertise of the managers. Ultimately, this expertise also benefits the employer. From my experience, this effect outweighs the mental distraction that a side project can naturally bring with it.
It’s important to mention that the issue of side projects was especially relevant in the early days of Absolventa. Our managers were in their mid-twenties, had no families, and worked almost around the clock. From 9 am to 7 pm at Absolventa, and in the evenings and weekends on their side projects. For mothers or fathers with young children who only have 40 hours available for work alongside their family responsibilities, my assessment of side projects in terms of their benefit to the employer is less positive.
These 5 principles have significantly contributed to Absolventa’s success. In addition, companies have emerged from the Absolventa ecosystem that now employ hundreds of employees. These include, among others, Shoepassion.com, Passion 4 Gästezimmer (monteurzimmer.de & pension.de), Deutsche Auftragsagentur (DAA), Clevis Research, Founders Kite Club, and Sellics.
Adhering to these principles was not always easy. One’s own ego tends to pull in a different direction from time to time. However, the experience I want to share as a CEO in this regard is: Following these principles makes one’s work so much more productive and fulfilling.