Few people know the German start-up scene as well as Frank Schmiechen. We asked the Gründerszene editor-in-chief to share key tips for new entrepreneurs and the smart urban pioneers idea competition criteria.
Mr. Schmiechen, as editor-in-chief of Gründerszene you have an excellent grasp on the German start-up scene. Now, the smart urban pioneers competition focuses on promoting public-spirited projects. Has this socially-minded approach also arrived in the digital realm?
Frank Schmiechen: While there are some projects like that, they are still fairly rare. I would attribute some of this to Germany’s overemphasis on privacy. If, for example, you take a city and try to solve some of its issues like public transport, you will need to record some data. How do people move, where are the headed – and when? That’s still a huge problem here in Germany. We tend to say, “Well, if that means getting stuck in traffic twice a day, that’s just the way it is.” Americans are different. They say, “Let’s tackle that and solve it.”
Is this something you picked up during your stint in Silicon Valley?
Frank Schmiechen: Generally speaking, the overall atmosphere is very different. In a strange way, people seem more optimistic. German culture is more critical and reluctant. In Silicon Valley, people are more open and willing to try something new. Or simply to fail with their ideas – and they don’t lose too much sleep over it. Here, in Germany, people first point out all the issues and challenges.
Most Silicon Valley start-ups are designed to monetize their ideas at some point. While socially-minded projects tend to pursue a different goal, is there something their team could learn from more commercially-driven founders?
Frank Schmiechen: In the end, it doesn’t really matter if your goal is commercial success or solving a public-interest issue. You will always need a very, very good team. The right mix is incredibly important. If I have three excellent marketing specialists, that won’t help me a great deal. The founding team needs to be a perfect match.
“The idea needs to solve a problem“
And whoever is involved – they still need an inspired idea …
Frank Schmiechen: … exactly, their idea needs to tackle an issue that is relevant to all of us. Another deciding factor would be whether the team presents well to investors. When all of this is in place, your start-up has a pretty good chance.
How important are social media?
Frank Schmiechen: I’m occasionally surprised by the sheer number of start-ups that neglect this factor. Social media can give your project a great boost since it allows you to draw on the knowledge and support of all the people out there. I don’t see enough of that happening yet. While some start-ups pursue a very smart social media strategy, selling their story and idea to the community, they are still few and far between.
Competitions like smart urban pioneers also generate welcome attention. What can such calls-for-projects achieve?
Frank Schmiechen: Competitions like these are important. People love lists, people love winners, people love charts. I think it’s a great idea, especially when it’s supported by large companies with the necessary clout to promote the issue and make people take notice. It makes people out there realize that they, too, have ideas and prompts them to get involved.
“Focus on communities“
You’ve whittled down more than 40 submissions to a shortlist of 10 projects. What were your selection criteria?
Frank Schmiechen: It was great to have such a long, exhaustive list. I got to deal with people who are willing to solve problems that I face in my everyday life. People who throw a spotlight on things that could be better in our cities. It was my job to verify whether these ideas tackled real issues worth solving and whether the start-ups behind them offered real solutions to these challenges. If not, they need to be weeded out. Some of my key questions included: How are they planning to tackle their problem? Does their approach seem realistic? Who are the people behind it all? Do they have the necessary team and expertise in place? Are they good at communicating? All of this narrows the selection down to the point where you as a jury can say, “These are our top 10”.
Did you notice a particular trend among the submissions?
Frank Schmiechen: Right now, there seems to be a tendency to create communities and bring people together. Whether that’s for leisure activities, joint projects, or just to improve a sense of neighborhood and encourage closer ties among residents of a city.
Okay, you’ve inspired me to start my own, socially-minded online project: How do I begin and proceed?
Frank Schmiechen: Just get started. And then develop and repeatedly test the smallest viable project that reflects your idea. Keep asking outsiders for feedback to see what they think. Continue to refine it, be quick, and keep an eye on the market to see if there are others developing something similar. If not, get the first product out there and test, test, test. Until it works the way you want.