Sixteen Years and Going Strong
In every true love story there comes a moment, where you realise “This is it.” With Katharina Klausberger, Armin Strbac and Stefan Fleig of finderly it took more than a decade. No, I’m not suggesting a polyamorous triad here. I’m referring to Stanford professor Tina Seelig’s assumption that startups function like relationships. And that in the bestcases, these relationships are the basis of a happy family. Meet the finderlys.
It’s hard to imagine now, but when the three founders of Viennese startup finderly first met up, the few mobile phones that existed were basically bricks with antennas, websites were generally referred to as “homepages” and looked like this. Moreover, Austrian teenagers were not dancing to South Korean pop hits but were, in fact, doing a ridiculous choreography to two middle-aged Spaniards’ homage to a sensual lady. Who could have imagined that one day, Katharina, Armin and Stefan would be making a living running a popular crowdsourcing platform for recommending electronic devices – finderly – and a mobile fleamarket app – shpock? Also, try explaining that to your 1996 self.
Looking dapper. A family portrait of finderly founders.Honeymooners
Fast forward 16 years and I’m sitting in a classy meeting room (all-white flokati rug and the like) with the three founders of finderly, who can’t hold back their giggles as I thank them for respecting today’s dress code: Family Portrait Style. With shirts, cardigans and a nice sweater, the three are looking dapper. At 31, they appear to have settled down. Yet, they seem to have kept the magic of a relationship that’s just beginning. As I bombard them with questions, the three keep exchanging glances, politely waiting for one another’s approval before answering. My verdict: the finderlys are still in their honeymoon phase. Good for them.
What is it like to be working with people you have known for such a long time? “Well”, Katharina starts, “it does make it easier to assess one another and you can trust each other more easily.” Armin adds, “And whenever Stefan and I are getting on each other’s nerves – I know his mum and he knows mine… ”.
Talking of mums, I’m curious to find out what kind of role allocation the finderly family has. Katharina believes that the finderly team including two fully employed developers as well as up to six part time helpers are essentially like siblings, “that get along well”. Armin agrees, “We’re like kids in a traditional extended family with us three being the eldest.” He emphasises that they don’t see each other as any better than “the ones sitting out there” pointing to their shared office space, while confessing that, “we’re still the ones allowed to poke fun at the others”, which causes the three of them to burst into laughter. Very insightful, indeed.
As with any serious relationship, I want to know, did the three have time to experiment before committing to finderly? The two young men, it appears, were somewhat premature, while Katharina only started flirting with entrepreneurship at university. Armin and Stefan had launched their first business while still at high school, a technical college in Vienna. Their 3D animation company, which they ran for a few months before graduating in 2001, evolved from a school project. Stefan has also been running a multimedia agency ever since finishing his studies of media arts. Their classmate Katharina, on the other hand, got involved in crowdsourcing focused on developing furniture while writing her doctoral thesis at the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration’s Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
High school reunion
After graduation, Katharina had lost touch with Armin and Stefan. It was not before one fateful day at university almost a decade later that she crossed paths with Armin again. Surprised that as a former engineers they were both doing something completely different now – business administration, that is – they started talking. Eventually, Katharina who was working as a research assistant at university hired Armin as a coach for her students. As former management consultant on dissertation break, he did a good job, apparently. This was the basis of their professional relationship.
When Armin found himself confronted with a difficult purchase decision regarding a netbook (no, not all young entrepreneurs use Macs), he and Katharina came up with a potential solution that evolved into a business idea: offering recommendations on electronic devices through crowdsourcing. Armin got Stefan, who had studied multimedia arts on board to give a face to the idea. The three realised that they could work well together and the finderly founding team was complete.
Did knowing each other since high school help with that? According to Katharina, there are two sides to it, “It probably makes it easier to discuss things but it possibly also makes it harder at times”. Stefan elaborates, “There were ten years between graduation from high school and founding finderly, we have all changed in the meantime. So, I don’t think it has really made things easier, except for the fact that we already knew each other.” “And that we knew what we looked like when we were sixteen”, as Armin adds to the discussion, to which they all grin knowingly. “My hair wasn’t the longest then…”, Katharina cryptically declares as she and Stefan look towards Armin.
Joking aside, Armin explains, “It’s not just about being good friends. It might not even be the best thing to be good friends when you’re working together. It’s about something else. We’re not sitting here to have a party but we’re following an objective, so I believe it’s more about sharing an attitude and a common goal instead of just having been friends for sixteen years.”
‘Wow, we have furniture’
After the idea behind finderly had come up in early 2010, future CEOs Katharina and Armin set up a business plan while creative director Stefan focused on design. As Armin shares the experience of winning the i2b business plan award in the same year, he can barely hide his excitement, “After winning i2b we could finance the furniture for our office and we were just thinking ‘Wow, we have furniture, we have computers’”. Oh the joys of nest-building! “It was clear, that if we’re going to do it, it would be all or nothing. We knew from other people’s experience that if you started a business on the side, it just wouldn’t take off.” This goes to support what Tina Seelig said about startups and relationships: get fully involved, stay faithful or it will fail.
It seemed to have worked out for finderly. After receiving funding from aws and INiTS, they launched their platform in autumn 2011 to later secure six digit investment from serial entrepreneur and investor Johann ‘Hansi’ Hansmann and SpeedInvest as well as partnering up with two major Austrian electronic retailers earlier this year.
In September, shpock was added as a new family member. For shpock, short for shop in your pocket, the three consciously avoided using their family name of finderly as Armin explains: “When you put an app out on the market and you get bad ratings, it’s extremely difficult to get rid of that reputation”. That was not the case for shpock. The app that had been started as a side project to get familiar with the mobile sector, as its founders say, actually achieved first rank in the Austrian app store after just three days.
A higher goal
Despite the success, they seem to have remained grounded. “I still take the trash out, like everybody else”, Armin says. In fact, he will even clean the toilet, if necessary. The finderly household sounds like an equitable one. “I believe that in a young company like ours, you just have to work together, unlike in a big corporation, where there’s one person that dictates what the others have to do. That wouldn’t make any sense for us because you have to be flexible, you have to see to making the best of it together and I believe that only works on a partnership basis”, Katharina adds.
Asked about how the three cope with spending so much time together – the last couple of days have seen them working on an update of shpock until the small hours, as they tell me – Armin explains, “Well, it’s the same as with any relationship, when things don’t work out, you get out of each other’s way for a while, the next moment you find yourself sitting around a campfire singing. There are ups and there are downs but every one of us knows why we’re involved in this and why we’re doing it. There is a higher goal, which makes us go into the same direction in the end.” I couldn’t have put it any better.