Monthly Archives: February 2015

A hero if you fail

There are fundamental differences between Germany and Silicon Valley. One of them is “the next big thing”: The Americans always turn the seemingly impossible in visions and targets. Another difference unfolds the logical consequence of it: Failure is always an option and no shame at all.

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard … “. John F. Kennedy said this in September 1962––weeks after Yuri Gagarin had completed the word’s first space flight and demonstrated the dangerous and seemingly insurmountable lead of the Soviet Union in the space race against America. And ironically, it was a German who had had that moon-vision since he was young and realized it for the NASA seven years later: Wernher von Braun.

However, to dare try the seemingly impossible seems to be more an American than a German virtue. Would otherwise a company like Google have been able to shoot up like a rocket to world-monopolist in the internet business? At Google they practice what they call “Moon Shoot Thinking”. The issue is not: How do I get ten percent better, but ten times better than today. In the research laboratory “Google X” they work on ultra visionary projects such as the Internet of Things with networks of electronically intelligent physical objects instead of computers. The Google founder Larry Page once stated: “There is hardly any competition while exploring technological limits, because no one is crazy enough to try it.”

Dominik Terruhn is the Managing Director of the Munich based marketing company Plan.Net. Recently he had the opportunity to look behind the scenes of Google and the other Silicon Valley giants Facebook and Youtube for several days. In a lecture in Munich he then explained the mentality differences between Germany and California’s high-tech region. Many of the Google employees work in a kind of trial-error mode, as Dominik Terruhn pointed out. There the staff researches and tests new issues with a very high enthusiasm. And if something does not work, the one who failed receives motivation backslappings instead of scorn, ridicule or pity. “Failing is more heroic there than not trying at all”, as the Plan.Net CEO told the audience.

Dominik Terruhm could see how Google’s founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page occur on a stage in front of their approximately 5,000 headquarter’s employees every thursday evening and answer any kind of questions––from business decisions to personal trivialities. The next day all employees worldwide receive the video. At Google’s subsidiary company Youtube the German saw offices looking like giant playgrounds e.g. with laptop workstations and treadmills. In the open-plan office at Facebook the staff were sitting so close together that the individuals may not have one problem––fear of contact.

In such an environment, one must be able to shift one’s old German thinking perspective, as Dominik Terruhns concludes. He closed his speech by saying: “In Silicon Valley they think in really big steps. In Germany they waddle”.

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Given notice because of children

Skills shortages? Family friendliness? The following two stories sound so unbelievable that one could think they would no longer happen in our society.

Everyone talks about the demographic change and the aging society. For years we have been discussing about what could be done against the consequences of declining birth rates and the impending shortage of skilled workers of tomorrow––except to promote the immigration of skilled professionals. After all: The German state has long been active. Recently, a law was enacted giving all parents a fundamental right to kindergarten places and day-care centers for their children. In addition, families enjoy several tax benefits. And finally, there are parental leave schemes for workers. But it is precisely here that there is a striking legal loophole. And unfortunately it’s once again the media agencies who hit the headlines by shamelessly using this gap …

In the last few weeks, hardly any article had attracted as much attention in the industry as the interview with a Stuttgart graphic designer in the journal w&v online. After he had gone on parental leave, his agency proudly presented him as a “full-time dad” on their website. And when he came back? On his very first working day after returning he was given the notice.

As reason for this, his employer stated that he was no longer satisfied with his performance (strange that someone gets to hear this at his first “new” day at work). In the interview, the designer specifies that the agency had gained costumers and prices also thanks to his work, creativity and ideas and that the boss had always been satisfied. For nearly five years he had worked happily in the agency. But the day when he first expressed his desire for parental leave, the boss was suddenly “flabbergasted” and from then on the atmosphere got colder every day. A maximum of two months of parental time – that’s what the angry boss would approve. Not a single day more.

Well, the graphic designer extended his parental leave unauthorized as the young couple initially could not find a day care place for their child. This may have upset the boss severely. Moreover, the designer suspects that his boss feared that more children might follow.

Anyway, firing him was only possible through that legal loophole mentioned before. Worker’s employment protection only applies to companies which regularly employ more than ten permanent workers. The agency that quit the designer had … nine. Just this one missing workplace and the boss’ misdeeds like the “full-time dad” website presentation make the company “worthy” of being awarded a prize: It deserves something like the golden truncheon for the most perverse termination of the year!

Unfortunately this is not an isolated case. After the interview in late January, there was another article in the same magazine about a female art director from Munich. She had suffered from a quite similar case about three years ago. During her maternity leave, she received an e-mail with the simple subject line “employment relationship”. This e-mail informed her that she would be quit right after her return. Legally, that procedure was indeed possible. Thus the art director deeply regretted the step that she had done a few years before when she changed from a large well-known company to a small one. Yet, the small agency’s focus was on fashion and part of its target groups were women with children. “I’ve always been a careerist. But children belong to my life, too”, the magazine quoted the 39-year-old woman. She continued: “Not everything that is legal is also morally justifiable”.

Noteworthy are the words with which the designer from Stuttgart concluded his interview. He would still continue to recommend couples to take parental leave. He says: “The family comes first because in the best of cases it remains forever”. His advice is to take family friendliness as one topic when choosing an employer.

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Just 17 but boss.

Study or start-up? Some young people make their way as entrepreneurs instead of making further education. Those who are determined learn more about life in their business than at any university.

The Mark Zuckerbergs who successfully start companies as teenagers can be found in Germany as well. One of my business partners is now 33 years old and has been self-employed for 15 years. What seems to sound like miraculous requirements in a job ad (as young as possible on the one hand and with many a year of professional experience on the other) can be explained simply in his case. At 18, when he began his studies at the Bavarian Academy of Advertising, he took classical freelance jobs as a graphic and web designer and founded his still existing Agency.

“All the really good people have canceled the university anyway” as Conrad Caine once said. He had established his IT company near Munich at the age of 14 by authority of his father. Today, fifteen years later, he employs hundreds of people all around the world. He became a university lecturer without having any high school diploma himself. Eventually, last week the German marketing industry media reported about an 18-year-old agency boss from Hamburg who had taken the step to independence a year ago when he was 17.

Niklas Hoffmeier is the young founder’s name. Last year he passed the final secondary-school examinations. But he would no longer like to have this “double burden with school and business”, as he revealed in an interview for the online service “Gründerszene” (Startup Scene). It was only when he had finished school that he could devote himself fully to his company. His agency for online marketing and search engine optimization then grew strongly. Launched exclusively with freelancers, Niklas Hoffmeister now employs five full time employees and 50 freelancers. Over one hundred regular customers are on the payroll.

Does this mean that he will never study at all? No, says he, but he’d only go to a university if it wouldn’t jeopardize the continued development of his company. The company is his future. And he adds: “… In the past year I have learned much more than could have learned in any study: From team management and recruiting over to online marketing, but also bureaucratic things”.

The reaction of his peers and friends to him and his success as an entrepreneur has been overwhelmingly positive, Niklas Hoffmeister continues. Only the older generation sees him critical. “Because they think in old processes of school, university and work and I am very open and very determined as a Generation Y person should be.”

There is only one thing that hurts the 18 year old agency boss until today. As a teenager, he feels often little seriously taken by the significantly older clients and business partners. This problem is one that I know from my business partner who I mentioned first: In earlier years he would often take older employees or colleagues like me to accompany him at business appointments. These deficits he could only compensate by a particularly high output and professionalism. But the lack of acceptance and recognition is really not the problem of the young people. It’s us, the elder ones, who cause that. And many of us may also be envious.

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Times they are a-changing for interns?

The issue of dealing with interns again caused some flurry these days in the analog and digital media in Germany. But it made not only a plenty of wind, but apparently also movement.

It was probably not only the desperate accusatory article by Austrian blogger Sinah B. (see article last week) that made the scene of the media and advertising agencies revise their thinking. But certainly her article with its hundreds of comments had triggered the public and media debate again. And lo and behold: The German PR agency Association GPRA popped up and published in a statement in one of the leading national ad trade magazines this week.

“Stop that exploiters image” says the title. The Agency Association have agreed on rules and standards for internships. These rules should be the guiding principles for the internship trainings in each member agency. It is all about minimum standards. How will that look like?

Primarily, the agencies provide learning objectives. They want to ensure that their trainees get to know the business model agency and the profession in detail. In addition, they will gain insight into the basics of communication and public relations as well as individual work areas such as copywriting, online searching or database work. Interns will also have a chance to learn about teamwork and work organization. Finally, they shall be enabled to work independently on own little projects.

In general, the placements in the Association’s agencies will be for three months. At the beginning, the intern will be given a clear schedule of the learning topics and process. In the midterm and at the end of the internship there should always be at least one feedback session. Each agency provides an internship supervisor. And in terms of payment, the agencies agreed to the level of the Bafög (German student loan maximum rate) of 600 to 700 euros. Good news––at least from one of many industries and associations.

Is the PR agency association a lone star in a desert or already in very good company? If you google for “standards for interns” in German, the very first result promises “placement standards” of the Association of Communications Agencies GWA. Well, click it and you land on a “Page not found” (as of 06/02/2015). The lack of standards still seems to be the standard itself.

After all, the European Commission had requested EU-wide guidelines for fairness and quality of internships already by the end of 2013. “Member States shall ensure that the interns get provided with valuable knowledge and experience which helps them to later find a job,” as the magazine Focus Online quoted EU labor commissioner Laszlo Andor. Before starting their work, the young people should be informed about working hours and compensation. In addition, it is regarded as necessary to reconcile the learning objectives in written confirmation.

As the maximum length for an internship, the EU proposes six months. During this period, the trainees should no longer serve as a means of cheap labor replacement as it has often been the case. Rather, under decent working conditions they should learn things that facilitate their access to jobs. The EU sees internships also as a way to reduce the high rate of youth unemployment in many Member States. A so-called youth guarantee was approved. Within four months after high school or job loss, Europeans under 25 years shall be offered a job, an education or further training. Or at very least an internship. Hopefully one according to standards.

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