My 2021 in Review – on Success, Failure, and the big C.

Last year was a special year for me. In summer 2021, I have started this Blog around topics that inspire myself and fill my days: business, fitness, and fun stuff. Since that time I had 15.000 visitors on my Blog and a lot of personal exchange around “my” topics. Thanks to everyone for this joyful experience.

A few thoughts on each focus topic:

  • I consider myself being successful reinventing myself as an advisor for several companies. I was looking for environments where respect, loyalty, and passion are not only words, but core values for growing a business. I really enjoy each of my assignments and I’m particularly happy having executed an M&A market analysis (I have learned a lot around that and will share some thoughts soon) at the end of the year. It’s great to use my own experience for such projects, it’s really big to share insights, and being part of something bigger.
  • The fitness side of my life was more disappointing. Year on year I set some personal goals, but I failed on all of them in 2021 due to an injury. My key lesson of life here was and is: if you cannot reach your goals anymore, adjust them, make alternative plans, and execute on that. That’s how I found new ways (for example working with fitness ropes and digging into Yoga again) to keep a healthy body (as foundation of a healthy mind).
  • The fun stuff side of life was also very rewarding. For example, I made a lot of new contacts just by driving that nice ’66 Mustang cabriolet. You meet all flavors of society at car meetings and that’s another experience that I really like. Everyone shares the same passion for one thing and color of skin, religion, politics, gender, etc. are not important at all.

The biggest on impact on our life is for sure the global pandemic. It has changed every aspect of living on every scale. While I enjoyed business travel so much, that came to a complete hold. I like to go to public music events, that came to a complete hold. I like to meet friends personally, that was at least much more difficult. And I have talked a lot about that also before/during/after my business sessions – mostly on Video these days. I know that the pandemic can bring individuals down and make them depressive. We don’t hear and read a lot about that. Even more importantly, I’m grateful for everything that I can give and that I receive on my mission of life.

Have a great and peaceful 2022.

The Mandalorian, the 13th Warrior, or: learning SAPanese

I smiled when these thoughts came to my mind again. I have evaluated Disney+ for the kids (could also be that I need to see The Mandalorian) and stumbled over a movie that I really liked when it was released. The movie was broadcasted in 1999 and one of the coolest moments was when the protagonist, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, all of a sudden spoke the language of the northmen. That didn’t come over night but was the result of listening to this strange language and adopting it piece by piece.

When I joined SAP a few years later in 2003, I felt a little bit like that. I couldn’t understand what the guys were talking about. All of those 3 or 4 letter acronyms, all those different concepts, this very special architecture. Just one example: an RFC was not a “Request For Comments”, but a “Remote Function Call”. It took a while digging into this new world but finally, I could join most of the discussions with confidence.

As a security academic that I was by that time, I can say that it’s possible to learn SAP. As an entrepreneur and founder of a company offering SAP Security solutions, however, I found it easier bringing people with SAP background on board. It’s quicker teaching them key security concepts than teaching a security professional all of the alien SAP concepts. Who (dis)agrees?

Bad Products, Good Products

In my new role as advisor I speak a lot with people in charge for the companies’ portfolio. As former managing director responsible for go-to-market (among other things) I went through such discussions many times. What’s a good product? What’s a bad product?

A product is not necessarily good …

  • … just because your CEO and management says so
  • … just because your engineers tell you it’s the best in class
  • … just because your marketing tells great stories about your stuff
  • … just because <add further internal only opinions here>

It’s always the customer and the market that makes the decision whether a product is good or bad. Thus I attend many customer demo sessions these days to understand what they like (and what not). This really helps you to tell a compelling story to the market. Assuming that your product is good, you need to have the right words for the market:

  • Stakeholders with budget often don’t speak a technical language. Thus, you need to translate technical terms to customer value: how does your product help the customer? Are they getting more productive? Or does it help them to avoid bad business outcome? etc.
  • Whenever you get new features from engineering ask yourself the value question again. How can this specific feature help a customer?
  • Write down customer value for your target groups, refine this while you go, and apply this messaging consistently. Over and over again – it’s not done if you use it only once.

You get this started by speaking with your customers and prospects exactly about this: what does value mean? How can your product help? What do they expect? Open minded customers appreciate such conversations and you should not be shy to not do this. A key challenge can be that your crew is not willing to do this because they might perceive this approach as too offensive. So start this discussion internally and never let go again.

Partnerships in Business – the Win:Win:Win triangle

“Hey, we need partners” is something I have heard throughout my entire career. I haven’t heard a sound answer on why partners would be needed. Consequently, people started to get as many partners as possible – not surprisingly with little to no effect. Have you experienced the same? If so, this is an article for you for sharing thoughts and some insights.

So, why do we want to partner`? My say would be: to provide more value to the customer (win #1), to provide benefits for the partner (win #2), and of course provide a benefit for own company (win #3). Value and benefit and “the win” depends on the type of a partnership. Understanding the envisaged type of a partnership helps you to manage expectations for all stakeholders and also to define goals for what you want to achieve (I’d say: no goals, no success).

Selling software products (that’s what I did in the past 1.5 decades) is typically suited for the following types of partners:

  1. Sales Partnership: in such a partnership, the partner is ideally listed as vendor for the customer which is already a win for all since it reduces time and complexity in the procurement cycle. It’s key that the partner’s sales team gets targets for the product, that the vendor support the partner’s sales team, and that you team up for non-standard sales situations (like a company license).
  2. Hosting Partnership: the partner can sell the solution, but also install and run it for a customer. Since many organisations go away from manual technical work, this is a service adding even more benefit. For the partner it’s an additional offering in his portfolio making him a better choice for customers.
  3. Managed Service Provider (MSS): such partners can do all of the above but also use the product (on behalf of the customer) and feedback the results to the customers organisation. This is particularly valuable in expert domains where experts are not easy to find and hire.

For sure, there are more types of partnerships like technical partners that offer complementary components. But that is a different story told on another day.

I have seen things going wrong in establishing a partner model. 1) it’s about quality, not quantity. As mentioned in the beginning, many partners don’t help you if the partnership is not alive. 2) Consequently, a partnership will silently die if nobody cares. You need partner managers, a mutually agreed go-to-market approach, and regular working together situations (maybe every day!). 3) I have seen partners asking for exclusivity – you don’t want that because it adds too many restrictions on everyone. The customer decides which route to follow, not a partner agreement. Non-competition and non-solicitation clauses can be accepted. 4) In cases where one partner is small and the other is big, discussions are often not at eyes level. I’d say that size doesn’t matter but being fair and polite. If this is not the case: next one, please.

Ultimately, a first, joint win is the driver for success. So setup a team with exactly this goal, win your first deal together and take it from there. Nothing is a better motivation than success.

In a followup article I will write about a “partners only” model which is particularly suited for product companies.

My (new) Life as an Advisor

After selling my company, I had a certain non-competition period that ended this summer. I have used that time to recreate, to have fun, doing some “home”work, but also planning the future. Something I always wanted to do was to share what I have learned as founder and entrepreneur. I believe it’s very beneficial for young(er) leaders to hear what worked and more importantly what failed and consider that for the own decision making. Right now I’m an advisor for 3 companies and it’s a very rewarding mission for me.

The greatest reward is that discussions and brainstorming is without any politics or hidden agendas. The advisor is there to:

  • Point to new technology trends that could be added to products
  • Provide feedback on roadmaps, development processes, and customer requirements
  • Utilize the own network of people to support the company in their growth plans
  • Give insights on markets and new opportunities
  • Sharpen the go-to-market messages and plans
  • Help to improve pricing schemes
  • … and whatever comes up to support the company.

The discussions I have experienced so far are a great team experience and I’m grateful having made this step. A closing thought on the target group – who should have a board of advisors? I’d say: the egoless and empathic leaders only. Well, usually there’s no leader without a certain ego. Otherwise they wouldn’t probably be leaders. I believe, however, that leaders are only good leaders if they are empathic to their team, their customers, and their peers. <sarcasm>All others know everything better and don’t need any help.</sarcasm>

People who think that Business is the “Art of War” are wrong. It’s not.

I’m back in business since a few weeks and have taken a few advisory roles. Part of my new work life is still to talk a lot with company leaders and customers about how to do business the right way. And this is not only thinking about growth and selling a company, but building something that you like to do, where you are passionate about, and that also serves something bigger (see also my article about vision and mission). Today I like to write down a few thoughts on business ethics.

The title of this article is taken from my interview with Gary McGraw and I like to repeat this as a recommendation for leaders (and those you want to be a leader:

Business is “I want to get this done” and “you want to get that done” and together we can walk for a while because we have the same direction.

Taken from: Number #9: Episode 001: Interview with Gary McGraw, PhD, about the state of security and successfully growing a business

I have always tried to be gentle to my team mates, to customers, and to competitors. Sometimes you lose, sometimes you win and you usually meet more than only once in life. One of my colleagues and friends often quotes Michelle Obama in this context. Let me add some quotes here too (taken from this CNBC article):

“Going low is easy, which is why people go to it,” Obama said. “It’s easy to go low. It’s easy to lead by fear. It’s easy to be divisive. It’s easy to make people feel afraid. That’s the easy thing and it’s also the short-term thing.”

“When I want to go low, it’s all about my own ego. It’s not about solving anything…. It’s about seeking revenge on the thing that happened to you.”

Michelle Obama at CNBC

I completely agree on that and that’s why I don’t see business as the “Art of War”. Just as in your private life, being respectful is much more fulfilling than fighting others.

And “going high” doesn’t mean you won’t feel the hurt or have emotions when faced with a challenge, she told The New York Times in 2018. “It means that your response has to reflect the solution. It shouldn’t come from a place of anger or vengefulness. Barack and I had to figure that out. Anger may feel good in the moment, but it’s not going to move the ball forward.”

Michelle Obama in the New York Times

My advice: leave your anger behind and work on solving issues in your way. In the long term, this is a) more successful and b) much more rewarding for your ego and everyone else involved.

Tod den (Corona)Viren: gute und gesunde Luft für alle

Die Corona-Pandemie hat uns gezeigt, wie anfällig die Menschheit für Viren ist. Es gab sicher vorher “schlimmere” Erreger, aber schon lange nicht mehr in solch einem Ausmaß. Und ich bin mir sicher, dass sowohl Corona also auch zukünftige Erreger zu unserem Leben gehören werden. Und ich bin auch der Meinung, dass die Einschnitte in unser aller Leben und weite Teile von Wirtschaft, aber auch Kultur und Gastronomie nicht die einzige Anwort bleiben dürfen. Darum fand ich es äußerst spannend, eine weitere Investition in die SecureAir GmbH zu tätigen.

Die Politik setzt im wesentlichen auf Impfung und AHA Regeln: Abstand, Hygiene, Alltag mit Maske. Dabei sind heute FFP2 Masken der geforderte Standard. Ich finde, dass das zum Einkaufen noch ok ist, aber mir fällt es schon sehr schwer, eine längere Zeit durch die Maske zu atmen. In Situationen, wo Masken länger getragen werden müssen, kann das zu Problemen führen. Hinzu kommt, dass die Umweltbelastung durch die Masken, die ja Wegwerfartikel sind, erheblich sind. Zur Impfung denke ich, dass keiner sagen kann, wie a) der Schutz gegen Virusvarianten ist, b) die Langzeitwirkungen sind und c) was bei zukünftig neuen Krankheitsträgern passiert.

Die Lösung der SecureAir adressiert das alles: durch die Kombination verschiedener Technologien werden die Krankheitsträger nicht gefiltert, sondern zerstört. Die Atemluft wird 100% gereinigt, bevor man sie einatmet. Ein netter Doppeleffekt ist, dass die ausgeatmete Luft ebenfalls gereinigt und somit die Umgebung auch sauber gehalten wird.

Da die Lösung, derzeit noch etwas sperrig “Securer” genannt, wie eine Art Headset gestaltet ist, wird es zukünftig noch weitere Anwendungen geben (wie etwa Audio- und Sprachinterface, Integration zu Kopfhörern, etc.). Man denkt vielleicht spontan, dass sich das nicht jeder aufsetzen wird, aber es gibt schon heute viele naheliegende Szenarien, in denen der Securer viel Sinn macht und sowohl Sicherheit als auch Komfort bietet. Beispiele sind:

  • Flugreisen und Bahnreisen
  • Arbeiten auf engem Raum, z.B. in der Produktion oder auf Baustellen
  • Krankenhäuser und Arztpraxen
  • Besuch von Konzerten
  • Sportveranstaltungen (sofern es nicht weiterhin so fahrlässig wie bei der aktuellem EM gehandhabt wird)

Sie fragen sich vielleicht, warum ich das so sagen kann? Zum Thema Sicherheit arbeiten wir mit Laboren zusammen, werden aber auch noch für ein globales Testat sorgen. Zum Thema Komfort – nun: ich hatte heute erstmals einen Prototypen auf dem Kopf – man merkt das Gerät überhaupt nicht.

Prototyp Securer
Prototyp Securer. Geht sogar mit (Sonnen)Brille.

Die nächsten Schritte sind nun a) per Crowdfunding größere Stückzahlen bereitzustellen und dann b) Partner für die Großserienproduktion zu finden. Für mich ist und bleibt das ein sehr spannendes Thema – es dreht sich hier nicht nur um ein Investment, sondern um einen Lebensbereich, der uns alle betrifft.

Nicht nur grün reden, sondern machen: Strom aus Wasserkraft.

Eigentlich findet jeder es wichtig, ökologisch zu handeln. Denn wir haben nur die eine Natur und der Mensch setzt ihr ordentlich zu. Während oft nur sehr viel geredet und über Verbote aller Art nachgedacht wird, habe ich hier ein Projekt gefunden, in dem angepackt wird: es geht um Strom, der aus Wasserkraft gewonnen wird.

Wasserkraft hat viele Vorteile. Es entstehen keine Abgase. Wasser ist nahezu unbegrenzt verfügbar. Und die Flüsse fließen stetig (anders als Sonne und Wind). Die Nachteile bisher waren, dass Wasserkraftwerke einen großen Eingriff in die Umwelt erforderlich machten – denken Sie an einen Stausee oder ein Kraftwerk quer über einen Fluss mit Schleusen, etc.

Der Ansatz der Metropolstrom NW ist es, auf nicht-invasive Technologien zu setzen, die sich umweltverträglich in Flüsse einbringen zu lassen. Und dies dann durchaus flächendeckend in der Republik. Hier werden sgt. Flussturbinen oder River Rider (von der Firma Enertainer Energy) eingesetzt, die sich leicht positionieren oder komplett versenken lassen. Zitat: “Der Wasserstrom ist grundlastfähig. Man könnte dadurch in Deutschland ca. 2 Millionen Haushalte über Wasserkraft mit Strom versorgen. Hinzu kommen rund 9.900 Kläranlagen mit zusätzlichem Potential.”

Ich finde das ein tolles Projekt, da es helfen wird, eine Energiewende herbeizuführen mit Technologien, die effektiv sind. Und das nicht morgen, sondern genau in diesem Moment. Aus diesem Grund habe ich mich als stiller Teilhaber an dem Projekt engagiert. Das schöne dabei ist, dass man auch eine ordentliche Rendite (>6%) erzielen kann, wie auf der Webseite des Unternehmens anschaulich dargestellt wird.

Working on (not in) your Company

I wrote about a focus on growth of companies. My thoughts are around small and medium sized businesses, because that’s my personal background. Some of the ideas might work there, too, but I don’t know. Also, I don’t like the additional, political dimension in larger companies. I wrote about shaping your Vision and Mission and developing a growth model. Building on that I write about operationalizing this working on your company. Yes, it’s “on” and not “in”. If you still work in your company, your company is either not ready for this phase or you are a poor leader who cannot delegate, focus on strategy, and thinks he is better than the rest of the team.

If you have established your growth model, you should communicate about it at all levels in order to align all forces of the company (see the podcast with Gary McGraw about the importance of communication and transparency). There’s also a certain communication rhythm: annual kick-off, quarterly review, and review in day-to-day operations. Determine meaningful goals to each aspect of the different dimensions and track them. The Objectives and Key Results (OKR) framework can be a good tool for this since it connects your goals (“what do you want”) to success (“when have I reached the goal”). It’s also good to have more abstract OKRs for the company and drill them down to each individuals work.

See this example for more context. On our growth path we have decided to enter new territories for extending our global reach. We have identified the different regions and walked through the dimensions of our growth model clarifying what is needed to be successful. This is an iterative process like this:

  • People: who do we need on the ground to manage the operation? Is it with our own people or with a partner? What are costs for these options?
  • Go-to-market: are there cultural differences that need to be considered in Marketing and Sales? How do we get visible in the new region? What are the first target customers?
  • Delivery: how do we deliver? Onsite? Remotely? Through partners? And how do we establish trust in the delivery approach?
  • Cost: what’s the investment needed to get it done?
  • Revenue: what’s the expected revenue (minimum and maximum)?
  • etc.

Drilling down each dimension leads to goals and results. For example, you can define marketing campaigns (example: 3 per quarter) and say that results should be a certain number of marketing collaterals, scheduled Webinars, and attach the expected number of new leads to this. Additional OKRs should be added when assigned to the team doing the job.

This is for sure over-simplified. The overall process needs focus, focus, focus, and your full attention. Don’t give up when things take time and when you see some sort of resistance. Understand the obstacles, remove them, and communicate again. I have used the model for many years and it became a powerful tool understanding the impact of key decisions. Work with the model, communicate, and adjust it whenever needed. And you will see that success is no longer luck, but the result of working systematically on the company.

Towards a comprehensive Growth Model

After starting a business, things change. You realize that the garage days are over and that you need to make a decision – do we want to grow this leading a market? Or do we let it be as it is. As entrepreneur my DNA is set to growth and I like to share what happened to my company after we have shaped vision and mission more clearly.

Early 2017 we had 80 people working for the company. I was one of the leaders always thinking about strategy (vs. reactive things based on the day-to-day business). I was often asked: where do you and your company (which has been the same for many years) want to be in 5 years. With help of a mentor (I will write about the idea of mentoring later) I have developed a multi-dimensional growth model that helped me to further grow the company, look for growth capital, and finally sell it. I will outline the key ideas in the following:

A natural starting point are the financials. You know your year-on-year growth from the past, you know your costs, and based on that data you can project how the future might look like. You can use conservative data (organic growth – we had an average YoY growth of 25% over several years) and more aggressive curves assuming that you can invest in certain areas.

And this leads directly to follow-up questions like driven by bottleneck thinking: what hinders me to further grow the company and what do I need to do closing the bottleneck? If I do that, what would be the next bottleneck? And so on. A second layer is: what would unleash new revenue streams that you don’t have today (new products, new sales territories, etc.) and how do you get there?

I found that besides financial planning (revenue, cost, margin) the following dimensions should be considered: people, go-to-market approach, portfolio, innovation, and delivery. I will write on those topics later.

Such a comprehensive growth model helps you to better understand your company. You will find out that the different dimensions that are interdependent and that changes on one end have an impact on other ends. Understand that and you get into control of your planning and execution. Such a model is also not static but helps you to move forward strategically and adjust it whenever needed. I will talk about working with the model, too.