Georg Gassauer’s story needs accompaniment by a map. A native of Bad Gastein, a historic spa town near Salzburg and later to be the subject of his first KORA project, he didn’t grow up there. Since age two, he’s been on the move thanks to his father, a hotel director, attending American or English-speaking schools in a dizzying array of exotic locales: Cairo, Damascus, Majorca, Qatar, Dubai. In 1998, en route to Algeria (then lacking an English-speaking school) his parents sent him to boarding school in the United Kingdom. Afterwards, he returned to Austria and completed the army service, later attending Exeter.
In the army, he met his future photographers and partners. At Vienna’s Diplomatic Academy, he studied environmental technology and international affairs, eventually working for an environmental lobbying company in Brussels. Boredom and dissatisfaction with office work followed.
Today, Georg is the founder and director of KORA, a media production company specialising in fine-art photography magazines that focuses on highlighting a destination’s personality, rather than just a syntetic brand.
A life on location
A pivotal moment came in 2010 when Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted. He wondered, “How many lives are going to change because of this one volcano?” Turns out, his was one. He ended up touring two stranded friends around Vienna. One recommended him for a job at her company, an advertising agency in Barcelona. They needed someone adventurous, well-educated, and dynamic and personable enough to establish their own sales contacts abroad.
Photo credit: KORA GroupBarcelona followed two months later, then Istanbul. It was his first advertising job, despite no experience in the field. The work entailed living on location, producing glossy, glamorous destination photos, and selling ad space to powerful figures like CEOs, heads of state and ministers. It was the right direction, particularly since he got to live in the destination being marketed, but the methodology and results didn’t fit. A colleague described it as something between “an international diplomat and a used car salesman.”
Ultimately, the experience led to KORA. The Viennese U-Bahn was a trigger, too – here was a wealth of space plus a captive audience – every day they reach more than 800.000 passengers. And the element missing from his previous work needed to be remedied: no cold, impersonal advertising. Georg is firm, “The only way you can represent a destination is through showing the personality of a place.”
He set about doing this with visual guides. Identifying that he’d been selling bad advertising for “horrendous” prices, and with “thoughtless, unintelligent advertising” as the enemy, a business standard became “actually selling something with a value, so you can go to a customer with your head held high and say, “This is what we’re going to produce, this is how we’re going to produce it, this is the value that you get, and we’re going to do it in our own way.’”
Personality of a place
In Berlin during the ITB travel trade show, the city awash in travel advertising, he’d spotted posters for Portugal and Turkey competing for space along the Alexanderplatz S-Bahn. Without logos and text, despite their obvious differences, both destinations could have been the same. This would become the opposite of KORA Group’s goal: “Bringing out the actual character in each town. We want something that will push you.”
Hence, they’re selling a method, Georg stresses. “Three photographers [Andre Kratzer, Daniel Sostaric, and Thomas Tauer] and one editor [Gassauer] go to a destination. We scope out and curate exactly what we want to do. We take a lot of pictures, which aren’t always exactly the pictures you’d want to show. We show the rougher edges around the city, something new and something different.” There’s intensive research prior, but “the best research is actually done sitting down and talking to people, the locals.” They chat up street artists, bartenders, then follow leads. “It’s very organic. We go as travelers, trying to represent the city as we see it, to a Viennese audience.” The result is a curated guide to a destination through fine art photography, with refreshing authenticity.
How it happens
Collaboration is sometimes as simple as asking – as with Nikon, Lenzing, the Wiener Linien and Bratislava’s tourism board: “I’ve got an idea, have you got 20 minutes?” Nikon saw potential after Gastein and became a partner, granting a wish list from their enviable equipment stock. KORA’s innovative concept and artistic methods have been welcomed. Clients respond that it isn’t the run-of-the-mill photography that they’ve grown “sick of.” “We’re using art to get people to actually go to a place. This is putting in a personalised narrative about a destination.”
“Native advertising” is incorporated, ads created specifically for them and integrated into the design. They’re supplements to the Wiener Linien VOR-Magazin, hanging on underground trains at seat level. The goal is to publish quarterly and to begin distributing as a free magazine in Vienna’s hipper cafes, bars, boutiques and hotels.
Tourism boards are pitched on a regular basis. “I’m not going to sit around and wait for a phone call to come.” Showing examples of past projects elicits responses like: “You can do this for us?” “Yes, we can do this for you.”
Revenue for 2013, their first year, was 70.000 euros, and much work done as barter. Paying customers number around 21, including tourism boards, hotels, restaurants, reflecting the unusual structure, product and method. Unlike many startups aiming to sell a successful product, KORA sells their ability tocreate an entirely new one for each client. Half of revenue comes from tourism boards, half from private companies and featured locations: those hand-picked after the team visits and personally selects. Three hotels are included at different budgets – upper market, smaller boutique hotels and hostels. The same goes for restaurants – appealing to broad audiences.
Photo credit: KORA GroupMountains climbed, lessons learned
In Gastein, they scaled mountains, endured thunderstorms – having “an amazing adventure” but unsure if it would be profitable. The goal was picturing Bad Gastein from a younger, fresher perspective, a departure from its stoic traditionalism. Georg provided the initial seed investment himself. Outside investment came later, from hoteliers and restaurateurs pitching in approximately 8.000 euros. Lenzing Papier sponsored the printing, and they’ve since become a partner. 96 Hours in Bad Gastein came out in May 2013 and was distributed in some 2.000 copies throughout the U1 and U4 underground lines. About four months later, the team produced their Bratislava guide and circulated it in 7.950 copies.
That project was a steep learning curve, demonstrating the importance of trust and fine-tuning team communications. “Communication is the most important thing. If that means we shout at each other, we shout at each other. But afterwards, we go sit down and have a beer and really talk about it.” How much he had learned was obvious. To compare, the production time for one magazine went from eight months down to seven weeks. Georg also stresses trusting one’s team, something his own had to remind him of.
Twin Entrepreneurs coaching and future visions
Encouraged to apply for the Twin Entrepreneurs coaching programme, the prospects for gaining business insight and external feedback were appealing. Without formal education in marketing or business, he’d relied on international politics and price-negotiating work experience. Coach Selma Prodanovic of the Brainswork Group directs him to be bold. “We’re working on a strategy and how to best position my product. She challenges you to go back to the root and see what the initial emphasis was.” A coach observes from an outside perspective, and offer ideas not biased by friendship, like a therapist. “She’s my Freud,” he laughs.
He expects this can help make KORA more structured, providing a clear idea of where they can go. Ideas are in the works for tweaking the business model. “She asks the right questions.”
Georg’s first entrepreneurial endeavor can be “stressy, but fun. I have a great team, and that’s most important.” The team underscore that it’s about more than money, and everyone involved is doing something that they love. “We can’t succumb to selling out.”
This story has been brought to you in partnership with the Vienna Business Agency.
Twin Entrepreneurs is a cross-border initiative aimed at providing practical assistance to startups from the area of Vienna and Bratislava that want to make the second step – sustain their business and expand abroad. The series is organised by the Vienna Business Agency, the European National Agency for Development of Small and Medium Enterprises and the Young Entrepreneurs Association of Slovakia.