How would friends describe your personality?
I guess they would describe me as an energetic and very frank person. In addition, your question reminds me of the company values of Strategy& — bold and unafraid. I love these values and I have tried to foster these traits throughout my entire professional career. I think it is a very fitting description of my personality.
How do you spend your free time?
In my free time I am energetic as well, but I also love to relax and be lazy on a Sunday afternoon. I live in the outskirts of Munich in a place with a tiny garden, which is lovely in the summer. I would never have thought that I would feel comfortable there, because this place is not in line with an energetic lifestyle. I used to live in Berlin part-time, which was of course very different, but which can also be exhausting when you are an energetic person already. Now, I can just enjoy hanging out and chilling in my garden. I also like to spend time with my friends, and twice a year we organize a big party which we call “grill and chill” — people can come and go as they please and everybody brings their own meat. We turn on the grill and hang out together and I love that very much. Additionally, I love to travel. Not long ago I went to the Galapagos Islands, which was awesome!
You started your career at Strategy&. To what extent is your professional life today influenced by these early years as a consultant?
The foundation for everything I know and do in my profession was laid at Strategy&. When I meet young professionals who are still unsure about what they want to do, I tell them, “Go ahead and do work in consulting, it really shapes your way of thinking.” I also tell them that it is, of course, a world of its own. And if you have done the job for a long time, it is important not to lose touch with reality. It’s strange to say this, but the real world is different. In consulting, people are usually highly ambitious, very focused on their jobs, and extremely passionate about what they do. The outside world, however, can be different, and it is important to always remain connected to the real world and its variety of inhabitants. I still highly appreciate everything I learned at Strategy&, from building complex Excel models, to engaging client teams even on rough project topics, to creating our beloved exhaustive PowerPoint decks (and I thought I had finally reached a stage in my life where I don’t have to use that program anymore, but I was wrong). At Strategy& you learn how to structure your work, how to sell a story and convince people, as well as setting targets and reaching them, which are among the most important things in the business world.
Why did you decide to leave Strategy&?
When I joined Strategy&, the financial crisis was about to start. I received the grades of my dissertation thesis on the same day Lehman Brothers collapsed, so I was really happy I had already signed my contract with Strategy&! When I started my job, I often worked in understaffed projects, which, on the one hand, was great, because this gave me the opportunity to learn things that I would not have learned anywhere else. In other projects I would have started at a much slower pace and I wouldn’t have been entrusted with such a huge responsibility. We were in Tanzania, for example, where I was in charge of two project teams, which was a funny and an awesome experience. On the other hand, it was pretty crazy, too. We had to take malaria prophylaxis in Tanzania all the time and the job was extremely stressful. It became kind of normal to work until the early morning hours. We calculated the minimum amount of sleep we needed per night, and this was exactly the maximum time we would spend outside the office. Eventually, some former colleagues offered me the opportunity to join Hubert Burda Media and I decided to leave Strategy&.
In what way did you benefit from the Strategy& alumni network afterward?
As I’m still in touch with a lot of alumni via the network, it is absolutely great to meet these guys on a regular basis. It brings back this feeling of a class trip at school! The main reason I attend alumni gatherings is not the chance to maintain business contacts — that’s more of a side effect of being part of the network — but rather the opportunity to exchange thoughts, which I absolutely love to do. To give you an example: I barely ever get the chance to meet up with Hannes Gmelin, but whenever I do meet him, we exchange ideas and I always feel super inspired afterward. This also applies to all the other people at Strategy&, and I sometimes catch myself thinking that, in a way, my heart has never really left the company.
By now you’re chief purchasing officer and chief operating officer at BodyChange, an online (and also offline) fitness / weight loss brand. What are the biggest challenges of selling a digital product?
We have evolved from offering digital only to offering digital and physical products. The company started with purely digital products and was one of the first to offer online coaching in the German market. It now also offers physical products such as (of course fabulous) shakes or low-carb pasta and lunches. Additionally, we moved from e-commerce to offering our products in pharmacies and physical stores of supermarket chains and drugstores. The challenge right now is to do both. The great advantage of digital is that you can easily try things out and learn what works and what doesn’t. Things are different when it comes to physical products, and our task is to balance and handle both channels now. The challenge of physical products is that you can get in trouble very quickly if your supplier fails to deliver in time. Problems with digital products can be remedied more easily most of the time. The advantage of physical products, however, is that they give consumers confidence. In the fitness / weight loss world, especially, consumers need to trust the brand. When it comes to adapting to the purchasing behavior of future customers, we see a trend toward offline among many companies that used to be pure online players. So, the reason that companies use online as well offline channels is that they can interlink the two channels and use the advantages of both.
As a CPO you’re responsible for the development of new products. How do you identify the “cash cow” innovation in this vast sea of ideas?
Let me answer your question by saying that it is not only us who develop new products, but in a way also our customers, because we adapt our products according to their wishes. This is really beautiful, because the company evolves with its customers. This is where the digital world is priceless — a company can freely test its products there. You start promoting your product online and check whether it creates pull in the targeted customer group. If it does, you try to develop your own version of it. I fell in love with this approach when I worked at HelloFresh and it is awesome, because it is not the traditional sales path. You can do these tests even when you don’t have a product yet. A possible approach could be, for example, to offer a special online course, spend some advertising money on it, and build a website to see whether customers get interested and respond to the offer. In terms of developing our products further, we are in constant contact with our customers and want their feedback. We often converse with them face-to-face or in online chats, so our surveys consist of personal discussions rather than impersonal questionnaires.
Many digital startups achieve skyrocketing revenues in the first years. What’s your advice on how to achieve sustainable growth?
Sustainability is an important aspect, because the startup world is all about taking risks and working for return. Especially in the beginning, startups need the necessary funds to be able to make crucial investments before they can offer any return. But to me, the number of businesses out there purely relying on external financiers for a long time to buy them revenue and therefore market share and valuation, as they hope to become profitable in 10 or 15 years’ time, feels erratic. This is why I love the approach that BodyChange takes, as it is a very sustainable one. It really makes sense to develop projects that are worth investing in and where your ROI is within sight. I would advise all companies, not only startups, to set fixed deadlines and define specific targets on the amount of money they want to spend. And if you see the targets not met, even after some iterations, I like to quote our former colleague Marc Wrage: Tote Elefanten schwimmen lassen. (I think I even have a nice sketch of that saying somewhere.)
What is your personal definition of good leadership, and how do you try to implement it?
Good leadership for me is when you are not only good at leading but also good at supporting others. As a leader you need to be a role model for your teammates, but you also need to support them, so that they feel inspired to take the initiative. If you tell people too often what to do, they stop thinking on their own, which is one of the worst things that can happen. I love to work with people who have their own ideas, who want to achieve something, and who want to evolve. I support them with all the time and energy I have, and it’s great to see such people flourish and succeed in the job. When it comes to the kind of people who are right for the job, it depends on the situation in the company and the size of the teams. At BodyChange, we are currently in a fast-changing work environment, and we need people who are ready to assume responsibility early on and think things through on their own. In larger teams it is a good idea to balance things out a bit and incorporate team members of all backgrounds and character traits. Now, we are at a good point and have managed to build a very strong team. Our approach to finding the right team members is ask — ask — ask: not concerning breadth, but depth, focusing on a few areas and digging as deep as possible. Everyone has a reasonable answer to superficial questions, but the truth is often revealed when you keep asking “why.” Try to find out about a person’s character traits. A lack of some skills can be healed, but not a lack of character!
When you reflect on your life, what do you consider your biggest accomplishment so far?
It’s actually very hard to state one big accomplishment. I’m happy that I have been able to do and see so many different things and meet so many people in my life. This is something that has really given me a lot of energy. I love my job at BodyChange and I very much enjoy the freedom I have now. So, rather than stating one accomplishment, I would prefer to say that I highly appreciate the perceived freedom I accomplished for myself and this feeling of satisfaction with my professional and private life. These are things that I had to work for very hard and I now allow myself to pursue a broad variety of things, and this feels just great!
Where do you see yourself in five years?
My favorite answer to this question has always been: “I have no idea,” and it’s still the best answer. Knowing today where I will be and what I will be doing in five years’ time would be an absolute nightmare scenario for me! If there’s one thing I have learned in life, it’s that whatever you picture yourself doing five years from now, it’s not going to be like that. Or to quote John Lennon: “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.”