While other German VCs wilt, the Samwer brothers invest and clone like mad


[Germany] The Samwer brothers, Germany’s most prolific startup investors, are on an e-commerce investment spree. While TechCrunch mourns the end of the funding party and 340,000 layoffs in Silicon Valley alone since August 2008, the three brothers with the Midas touch have used the same time to invest in at least 10 new online shops via their vehicle, European Founders Fund: 7trends (fashion), Beautydeal (cosmetics), DealStreet (penny auctions), Enamora (lingerie), Ladenzeile (shopping), Kinderwagen-Experte.de (baby buggies), Kirschkernkissen.de (cherry pit pillows), Lampen-Experte.de (lamps), Netzoptiker (eyeglasses) and Zalando (shoes).

These deals where done via the Samwer’s European Founders Fund. But five more e-commerce investments have been dug up by the German startup website Gründerszene by sniffing through the stakes of the Samwer incubator Rocket Internet: Kolibrishop for streetwear and sneakers, as well as its branches sneakersWorld.de und graffitiStyles.com, are now 50 per cent owned by Rocket. The Samwers also bought 20 per cent of Internetstores AG which runs the successful online shops Fahrrad.de (bicycles) und fitness.de (fitness). Rocket Internet also raised its stakes in Betreut.de, a website to find babysitters, dog walkers or private tutors, in August to 46 per cent.

Since June 2008, Rocket Internet holds 59 per cent of ecards-and-more.de, “Germany’s No. 1 of greeting card portals”. The company is the mothership to websites like grusskartenfreunde.de or grusskartenkoenig.de for ecards and real postcards. Another holding of this business is fotoland.de. That’s especially noteworthy since the Samwers had a former investment in a competing online shop for photo books, myphotobook. Gründerszene therefore questions the moral implications of venture capitalists who transfer their insider knowledge from one startup to the the other.

But that’s the eternal question of the Samwer’s strategy. They invested in the German Facebook rip-off StudiVZ, only to sell their shares a few months later and use the proceeds to invest in Facebook (since January 2008). That’s not to forget their earlier investment in LinkedIn. The Samwer brothers Oliver, Alexander and Marc are mostly responsible for the often-quoted view that Germany is only capable of producing clones of US startups. Like mad scientists they are cloning each and every species of startup, sometimes even their own babies like myphotobook.

They first contacted me in 1999 at my job as reporter of RTL television to pitch the auction of Michael Schumacher’s Formula 1 helmet on their first startup’s website: Alando was a one to one copy of Ebay, just in dark red, and part of a master plan. Since Oliver’s thesis “America’s Most Successful Startups. Lessons for Entrepreneurs” in 1998, where he and a friend evaluated the most successful US Internet companies, the 3 Samwer brothers have been keen to learn from the best. And copy them.

Alando got sold in 100 days to Ebay for $50m and their next company Jamba/Jamster five years later to Verisign for $270m. Since then they have been venture investors.

And does anybody remember Frazr? It was – you guessed it – their Twitter clone. Even the names of the Samwer copycats do sometimes rhyme with the originals.

Rocket Internet’s latest answer to social games giant Zynga is called Plinga.

Then again, at least they have the balls to invest in proven business ideas, while other German VCs just hold onto their money and don’t even bet on copycats – let alone original ideas – during this recession.

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