The three Samwer brothers (Oliver, Marc and Alexander) founders of the Rocket Internet incubator in Berlin, are a phenomenon. They are far and away the most successful Internet entrepreneurs in Germany. They have launched and exited at least six major startups since the late 1990s, from ebay clone Alando (€48m to eBay), Jamba (€228m), StudiVZ (€85m), MyVideo (€27m), BigPoint (€100m), and the latest, Groupon clone CityDeal to Groupon for an estimated €750m in cash and shares. And yet they remain famously publicity shy. I personally have asked for an interview since at least 2009. So when I was offered the chance to interview Oliver Samwer – considered by many to be the heart of the operation – I jumped at it. Once a year he or one of his brothers journey to the annual business school conference IdeaLab, aimed at budding entrepreneurs. It’s there that Rocket Internet famously recruits its next generation of startup CEOs for their startups – often companies which greatly resemble the business models of US startups, like Wimdu, which mirrors AirBnB.
The young student organisers of IdeaLab faithfully checked and re-checked that Oliver would do an interview. Today I got up at 5am in London to get the flight over to Frankfurt, then drove 100 kilometres to the small but respected business school, WHU where IdeaLab is held.
But when it came to it I had 5 minutes 14 seconds with the Rocket Internet guru, much of it walking after him out the building as he repeatedly refused to conduct an actual interview.
It started promisingly enough. On his arrival (also via limousine) we walked to a quiet location to sit down, chatting amicably enough. But as soon as we were seated he started by saying he didn’t want to give an interview “right now”. This was despite days or confirmations from his office that he would. He has since categorically denied that he conceded to an interview, although we have the emails to prove his office was fully aware that three media outlets, once being TechCrunch, would be there for interviews.
He said there had been a “miscommunication” that an interview had been agreed. He would “maybe” give me an interview in “12 months.”
What I did get was largely a criticism of TechCrunch’s previous coverage of Rocket Internet.
“Don’t get me wrong, I think [TechCrunch is] the best blog.” But he said that TechCrunch’s position on clones/copycats of US businesses was often “not a fair representation of reality.”
What did he mean by this?
He implied that Rocket Internet has been unfairly attacked for its cloning ways when it’s in fact “created thousand of jobs” and “companies which are sustainable.”
I don’t think Techcrunch would argue that Rocket Internet’s strategy has not been successful, far from it. It’s true to say, however, TechCrunch and its readers tend to prefer innovation to outright clones/copycats.
But then it’s tough to get the opposing view of the likes of the Samwers when they won’t put their position… in an interview.
Samwer told me that we should be looking at “who is building the best companies from an operational point of view. TechCrunch should have a little bit more of an objective view.”
This is all well and good – and the reason I was there.
So when I put it to him that I was there to set the record straight and talk to him about his position he said “The problem is, we don’t give interviews. For a lot of reasons. In Europe we don’t want to be mentioned.”
He said he didn’t want to be like flashy, or publicity seeking, like “a Richard Branson.”
“We are Germans, we have kids,” he said. “We are Germans, we like to be humble,” he later added.
At “some point” in the future he would be “happy” to do an interview, but “maybe more a summary of what we are doing.” But, “Now is not the time we want to speak. ”
Questions about the Groupon IPO, or Rocket Internet, or his competitors were rebuffed, as I pursued him out the door.
It’s a shame. I had a number of questions to put to him and his refusal to do an interview at the agreed time stands in marked contrast to the open publicity Rocket Internet courts by being a sponsor of Idealab, with its logo everywhere, and by also his appearance as a speaker. If you want to be private and “humble” why do this at all?
Surely it’s not credible to both totally avoid publicity and seek publicity to recruit people at the same time?
Certainly Samer seemed to want to have his day in the sun in front of MBA students, but at the same time banning journalists from his lecture.
I would liked to have asked what motivates him now he is wealthy enough not to work. And if Rocket Internet’s execution is so good, why an it not be switched towards innovation and created a Facebook killer?
Is there a Talent war in Germany? Is Rocket thinking of an IPO? Who do they consider competition in Europe and why? Wimdu was accused of stealing Airbnb customers – how do they react? Rocket has a reputation for being very hard driving in deals and they behave towards partners and founders – is this reputation deserved or not?
If we ever find these things out it probably won’t be via TechCrunch, since I doubt the Samwers now will now agree to another “interview” – though I would hope they do. But then TechCrunch would never agree to an interview where the questions were pre-agreed and the interview was so managed, and intended to be a mere “summary.”
Having come a long way for an interview, I had started recording, thinking we were going to do an interview. But after 5 minutes he walked out the door and I followed, as you’ll hear on the SoundCloud recording below. It’s ironic, since it must be said that innovative SoundCloud is about as far away from a Rocket Internet clone company as you can get, and very much part of the new wave of pirate inspired startups in Germany and across Europe.
Oliver Samwer left as he’d arrived, in a limousine.