“Building the place for founders to meet and connect in Cologne”
by Dr. Lorenz Gräf, STARTPLATZ
Give us a little bit of insight into who you are and your history with startups.
At the age of 20, I left my hometown Würzburg and went to Düsseldorf to do civil service. Later on, after a few years of studying in Düsseldorf, Würzburg and Padova (Italy) I finally came to Cologne as a student of Sociology. During that time, around 1980, some of Germany’s best professors in Sociology teached in Cologne and I was lucky to work with Prof. Mayntz and Scheuch.
In the late 80s, my research topics were social network analysis, sociology of organisations and social science research. As empirical sociologists, we were privileged and had access to the fastest supercomputer at the local “Rechenzentrum”. So, I learned to handle big data and did some programming with “Fortran” and later on with dbase and clipper.
So basically you were already working with computers well before the consumer internet as we know it started…
…yes, indeed. And when the WWW started in 1993, I worked as an assistant professor at the “Seminar for Sociology” at University of Cologne. We soon created one of the first web presences for Sociology in Germany and I started to work with a few enthusiastic student on some kind of a sociological exploration group and called it “AG Information Society”. For a few semesters, we gave lectures about all the new topics that we now call “digital transformation” and in 1996 we edited a reader “Soziologie des Internet”.
Parallel to working on the general topic, we started to do work on how to use the internet as means of research and explored the possibilities for doing surveys and experiments over the internet. With a few German colleagues, we edited in 1997 a very influential first reader about this topic “Online Research”, founded the “Deutsche Gesellschaft für Online Forschung” and started the conference series “German Online Research (GOR)”.
In 1998, I was part of the team that invented the blended learning environment “ILIAS” which is still used at many universities and schools. This was one of the first implementation of the LAMP stack – since PHP and MySQL were still in its early days.
And that was also when you had the idea to found a company around this?
Indeed. Based on that experience and the knowledge on doing surveys, I started the software company “Globalpark” in 1999. Globalpark developed software for market research and soon became market leader in Germany and later on expanded to UK and US. With this company, we grew from two people in 1999 up to 150 employers in 2011, when I finally merged this company with “Questback”. Under this name, the company is still doing business in Cologne today.
You have been a successful founder before, why did you decide to found STARTPLATZ?
In 2006 I was invited by PHP to give a speech at their yearly conference in San Jose. I spent a few weeks in Silicon Valley and was very impressed by the openness of the people and the density and the speed of the network. Back in Cologne, I tried to find similar mindsets but there was nothing.
Around the same time, we tried to find expertise about how to build agile companies like Google. It was hard to find any expertise in those days at universities or consulting companies. My conclusion was that the only way to learn how to run startups is to learn from your peers who are running successful startups. And after leaving Globalpark, I couldn’t find any institution in Cologne that cared about startups, so I decided to found STARTPLATZ and created this platform for exchanging knowledge and supporting founders.
What is the idea and vision behind STARTPLATZ?
The idea behind STARTPLATZ is simple: I learned from my studies with social network analysis that spin-offs of MIT in Boston that were located within half a mile distance around the campus of MIT were significantly more successful than businesses that started farther away. Similarly, my idea was to create a central hub in the middle of Cologne which makes it easier for ambitious people to meet each other just by grabbing a cup of coffee or by going to a nearby restaurant for having lunch.
Our mission is that we provide the best environment for the best startups in Rheinland and therefore maximize the likelihood for them to become the next unicorn. And our vision is that Cologne and the Rheinland will be among the top three startup ecosystems in Germany.
Why did you choose the MediaPark as the location for STARTPLATZ?
We wanted to make it easy for people to connect and meet each other. The MediaPark is centrally located, can be easily reached by public transportation and provides many parking lots. The autobahn running from Düsseldorf to Cologne is literally ending in the parking garage beneath the MediaPark.
The building we are in has a human friendly architecture: big windows that can be opened, a beautiful balcony for BBQs and other events, coworking space with noise reduction and air condition in every room.
And last but not the least, MediaPark has one of the best public places in Cologne.
If you could start over what would you have done differently?
I would definitely do more marketing and advertising. We started as a typical German startup and believed that others sooner or later would find us and start to make use of the platform we provided. In doing so, we ended up as somewhat hidden champion, well known to the insiders but not famous enough for the press or big companies.
Co-working is a hard business. What is the business model of STARTPLATZ and are you profitable?
Wework shows that coworking can be a very attractive business. The business model of STARTPLATZ is dependent on the maturity of the startup ecosystem in Rheinland. Right now, our business model is based on renting space, selling education and providing startup experience for corporates. Up to now we have invested a significant 7-digit number in STARTPLATZ. This year we will reach profitability. Once the startup ecosystem is more mature, we will start investing in startups and this should be our target business model in future.
How will coworking look like in five years from now?
For STARTPLATZ, coworking is a means to have startups talk to each other. In five years from now, you will find coworking like settings in every company.
STARTPLATZ also has an accelerator program. How does the STARTPLATZ Accelerator work?
With the STARTPLATZ Accelerator we try to mimic Y-combinator in Silicon Valley. We are looking for the most ambitious startups in Rheinland. Those companies are typically bootstrapped, ar usually business to business (b2b) oriented and have a scalable business model. Our accelerator is a two stage accelerator. In the first stage, it is all about finding the product-solution fit. This stage normally takes three to nine months, based on the amount of time the team is fully working on its startup and dependent on the focus that the startup gives to real MVPs. Once the startups have sharpened their business model, it is all about gaining traction in order to finally reach a substantially good market-fit. Only after that the startups are investor ready.
The overall goal of the STARTPLATZ accelerator is to help startups become fundable startups. STARTPLATZ is exploring right now different possibilities based on blockchain technology to help the accelerator startups get financing and STARTPLATZ will eventually set up a fund to invest in those startups.
Obviously you meet a lot of founders. What advice would you give young founders?
The number one advice is to work hard to create as much product you love as possible. You need to have fantastic customers who love your product or service very much. And in order to get there, you need to build and ask and build and ask… German startups often forget to ask their customers or potential customers.
STARTPLATZ has a strong regional focus. Why are incubators like STARTPLATZ important for a city?
Startups need a very good ecosystem and in order to achieve that, you need to have many startups. For them, information and know-how must be available and accessible within the local community. And that requires a critical mass of startups. For a city like Cologne, we estimate that number to be more than 1,000.
And founders need to meet each other in informal settings. Of course, you can meet only locally. Therefore it is number one priority that there is a strong local community. Central hubs like STARTPLATZ and big events where people can meet each other are central for good startup ecosystems. It is the reason why the Digital Hubs of the state of NRW are
modelled after STARTPLATZ.
If you would meet the minister of economics for NRW, what would you say to him to help grow the startup ecosystem in the Cologne region?
Stop creating new government financed agencies like the Digital Hubs. Instead, support the local stakeholders and help them grow bigger. Organize startup to support the new “NRW Gründerstipendium”.