Fresh-faced CEO Alexander Kudlich has a stellar resume and an incisive mind. A graduate of St Gallen University, Kudlich turned down the likes of McKinsey to work as the right-hand man for the chairman of German media giant Axel Springer. In the fast-accelerating internet era, Kudlich spent six years learning how to buy, invest and launch digital media businesses, including leading the roll-out of the Zanox ad network across Eastern Europe.
Last year Kudlich was asked to become the CEO of Rocket-Internet, launched in 2007 by the European Founders, a funding team of three brothers Alexander, Marc and Oliver Samwer, infamous early investors in Facebook, LinkedIn, Oanda and other household internet names.
So what is Rocket-Internet? It looks a bit like a VC from the outside. But they claim to do a lot more than a typical investment firm. Kudlich describes ‘four pillars’: the idea; the money; the people and the execution – three more pillars than a VC, which would typically only be involved in the money.
Rocket describes itself as a ‘shipyard’, building companies intensively for three to six months before equipping them to sail alone with their own legal structure and founding team. They specialize in ‘B-to-C’ internet businesses – think Groupon, eDarling, GlossyBox – and they use a very analytical approach for matching business models to markets. In just five years Rocket has been involved in more than 80 such company launches – that’s a lot of online shopping sites.
How do they find the business models and the markets? "A lot of research, a lot of reading," says Kudlich. It's rare for a budding entrepreneur to surprise him with a business idea. "We've usually thought of it already," he says.
So how does one join this high-flying club? Being extremely intelligent is a good start. We got the impression that Kudlich and his crew don’t suffer fools gladly. “Intelligence is more important than experience”, says Kudlich, who sits on a management team surrounded by alumni of HBS, MIT Sloan, Columbia and other elite US schools.
Rocket provides three different entry routes for new joiners. Firstly, the Global Venture track exposing people to four different three-month projects at Rocket companies around the world. Secondly, the ‘Entrepreneur in Residence’ program for people who have the potential to run a company but need some initial training. Thirdly, the ‘founders’ - special individuals with the right skills to run a new Rocket venture.
Rocket hires “analytical entrepreneurs” and people who can “value the beauty of a business model AND execute AND be fast AND be flexible”. Most of the team at Rocket are ‘MBA types’, with either a b-school or strategy background – it’s important to be “smart and operationally strong”.
Kudlich has an Executive MBA, from the nearby European School of Management and Technology (ESMT), where he was the youngest in his class. He also has a Masters in Philosophy, which he did ‘just for fun’.
“We tend to find a lot of new staff through our extended personal networks”, says Pia von Nell, who has been filling in as an interim HR director for the last few months. “The connections of our management team help to attract people with the right academic background and cultural fit”. Nell’s official job title is ‘Global Venture Development Manager’ – apposite for a business that launches new ventures around the clock.
A Berliner who studied at WHU–Otto Beisheim School of Management, Nell interned at Rocket before deciding to join them full-time. The fast-paced, hard-working, hands-on environment was a big attraction compared to more traditional consulting or industry careers. We asked Nell what she’ll be working on next “I have no idea, maybe I’ll be sent to Asia” she said.
For MBAs who want to be entrepreneurs but with less risk and a salary from the start, a role at Rocket could be a dream opportunity. But don’t be fooled by the youthful team, relaxed sneaker-clad dress code or the informal hot-desking – all these ‘Rocketeers’ are working very hard. In Kudlich’s words, sometimes the team members need to be like “ants that can carry the workload on their backs”.