“We thought we were experts”
It’s an unusually warm day in San Francisco as Michael Eisler finds himself in rather unusual setting: working for others at the DEMO conference. Just three years ago, it was him, who took to the stage and presented his newproduct, file sharing service Wappwolf, to investors. So, how did the Austrian fall off stage and switch roles from entrepreneur to employee?
“I’m not sure if there’s anything left to tell,” Michael Eisler initially hesitated when inventures.eu asked him for a chat to learn more about his story. The serial entrepreneur is referring to a blog post that he released a couple of weeks ago, in which he explained the rise and fall of Wappwolf, and his reasons for taking a break as CEO of the startup. But we wanted to know more about his entrepreneurial journey and what initially drove him to start his own business.
The Austrian’s entrepreneurial roots lie in the dotcom boom. Proleten.com was Michael’s first step into internet business in the late 90s. While attending a technical high school in Leonding, Upper Austria, the 18-year-old bought the domain with plans to build a social network for a very clear niche: “Proleten, as in [Austrian slang for] people who love to tune their cars and live for it“. Michael’s plan was to launch a platform, where car lovers of Austria could connect and dealers could advertise. This happened at a time when Austrian platforms like Szene1 and Uboot.com were just about to pop up and Facebook was not even a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye.
Although Michael had taken a loan of 60.000 Austrian shillings (4.360 euros) from his local bank – most of which he used to tune his own car, “to be credible “ – and had a bunch of partners lined up, he decided not to go live with the site eventually. This short-lived trip down the entrepreneur’s road set the tone for the future manager.
Greying hair for credibility
At the age of 20, Michael started his own company, DIG, with some peers from his first job at software company Datenhighway, where he recognised the need for “Electronic Data Interchange”. DIG’s service is a predecessor of Wappwolf of sorts: “What we did was build interfaces to connect otherwise incompatible business software.“ The early days were tough, but also fun, as Michael recalls: “We used to program in the mornings and play World of Warcraft in the afternoons.“ The playful youthfulness of the company owners didn’t always come in handy: “I was glad when my first grey hairs appeared at the early age of 25. That’s when business executives started taking us seriously because they thought I was older.“
Co-founders Harald Weiss and Michael Eisler. Credit: WappwolfIn 2007, however, after six years of running operations, the CEO realised that his service couldn’t scale unless they found a solution that would automatise the process that had been executed by developers until then. He met up with friend Harald Weiß to brainstorm over beer. “Harald can be blamed for us starting our new business“, Michael jokes. Wappwolf was born – a service that helps share files among different tools and devices. The company was incorporated in 2010, with Harald Weiß and fellow DIG manager Dieter Dobersberger as co-founders
Starting up for the wrong reasons
During the early days of Wappwolf, the Liechtensteinische Post AG showed interest in buying DIG. And even though the owners never really planned to sell their company, they agreed. Michael held his CEO position for another year while working on his startup on the side.
“We started Wappwolf for the very wrong reasons“, the entrepreneur reflects. “Our goal was simply to build a product quickly, sell it and make lots of profits.“ To do so, the founders invested 500.000 euros from their own pockets and raised another 800.000 from private Austrian investors. Everything the Wappwolf guys did, they did in a big fashion. “We basically ignored the Austrian startup scene, played with the media and created a lot of buzz.“
Wappwolf’s big break came when Michael presented his product at the DEMO Conference in Silicon Valley in 2010. In late 2011, Wappwolf launched a new product called Dropbox Automator, a service that connects Facebook, Flickr and other Web services automatically with cloud service Dropbox. The Automator received a lot of press in the US “If we had been in Silicon Valley around that time, I’m sure we could have raised lots of money,“ Michael is convinced. “ So in early summer last year, Michael, his wife and two kids relocated to Menlo Park.
Keeping the wolves at bay
Part of the Wappwolf team aka Wolfpack in 2011 – Michael Lipper (top left), Manuel Berger, Harald Weiss, Michael Eisler. Credit: WappwolfSoon, the Wappwolf boss realised they needed to pull the emergency break. “The early lessons I learned here made me aware that our product should be revised.“ Out of this evolved another Wappwolf spin-off service: iBeam.it sends updates to subcribers when files are uploaded on Dropbox or pictures are shared on Facebook. Unlike Dropbox Automator, iBeam.it nearly went unnoticed. The weeks and months after the new release had the founder torn. “When I arrived in Silicon Valley, I knew this was the place I had to be. My entrepreneurial mindset felt at home“, he recalls.
On the other hand, mistakes of the past eventually caught up. Pausing for a moment, he describes what might have been the biggest one: “Looking at all the hard work we had done at DIG, I don’t know why we never thought things through from a user’s perspective. We thought we were experts, that we knew it all. We were the ones, who would tell users what they needed – not the other way around.“ Thus, the users never really seemed to understand their products, Michael assumes.
In early 2013, the CEO found himself in a tricky situation and decided to take a break from working on iBeam.it. “I don’t want to give up, but I need some space and time to reflect.“ Before travelling to Austria for Easter, the father of two decided to write down his reflections in a brutally honest blog post on the Wappwolf story. In the piece, he admits that he and his team didn’t know what they were doing most of the time and didn’t even have a finished product when presenting at DEMO. Most importantly, Michael admits to having failed, which is not an Austrian thing to do, to say the least.
“I wanted everyone at home to be up to date,” he explains his reasons for writing the post. “More importantly, I needed to reflect and gather my thoughts, and getting it to paper definitely helped.“ And according to his coach, there was another big motive for publishing the blog : “He said, ‘Michael, you always need a stage.’“
Asking for attention
Acknowledgement might be his biggest fuel, Michael confesses. “I’ve always wanted the attention. Even in school I thought of myself as a leader.“ Digging a little deeper, it becomes clear that Michael was not just in it for fast success. “Innovation” and “need for change” are expressions that repeatedly come up in our conversation. “At DIG we were constantly faced with companies that were not ready for change. Wappwolf was our opportunity to drive innovation. In this respect, the entrepreneur seems fed up with the Austrian mentality: “I just can’t stand this fear of innovation. If you want to build a successful business in the domain of tech, you have to move to Silicon Valley. You will get so much more ideas and opportunities there.“ Not to mention that the chances for getting venture capital are higher, although Wappwolf never raised additional funding.
During his break from iBeam.it, Michael is not standing still. He is currently working with a social messaging startup called just.me. “It’s actually the first time I feel like an actual employee. And I am not enjoying it“, the 32-year-old says frankly. “My friends say there’s an error in my DNA, I have a disability that keeps me from being an average employee. Sometimes I think, there has got to be a job for me even with said disability. But then again, I know I was born to be an entrepreneur. I need my stage, I need the attention.“
What his next stage is going to look like, is uncertain. There is one thing that Michael knows for sure: “It’s going to be here in Silicon Valley.“