Oliver Samwer is the German Internet mogul and multi-millionaire owner of startup incubator Rocket Internet, best known for his agressive cloning tactics and bullish management strategies.
His most famous copies are of successful US sites released into the European or emerging markets and then sold back to the originators. These include alado.de, an auction site that was sold to eBay for $43 million, and CityDeal, a Groupon clone later acquired by the couponing giant for $126 million. Rocket Internet has also released versions of Airbnb (Wimdu), Pinterest (Pinspire), Zappos (Zalando), and even Amazon (Ladaza).
Samwer rose to infamy after his leaked “Blitzkrieg” email of 2011 – a directive that urged his staff to deliver plans “signed with blood” and observing that “the time for the blitzkrieg must be chosen wisely.”
But despite being portrayed as the comedy business villain in Europe, he’s also one of the continent’s most successful players. So what are the tactics that have helped “Olli” Samwer rise to the top?
1) Be hungry, aggressive and fast – number one or nothing
Oliver Samwer’s most obvious trait is his hunger for success and the aggressive tactics he uses to get what he wants. If he decides to get involved in an idea, he does so quickly and without distraction, using the tools and systems he has from earlier startups. His infamous blitzkrieg email makes this abundantly clear: “I am the most aggressive guy on the internet on the planet. I will die to win and I expect the same from you!”
Oli Samwer makes it clear that he won’t be happy with anything but being the market leader. Why? Because: “Only number one can raise unbelievable money at unbelievable valuations. I cannot raise money for number two.” And to be number one he will gladly spend big, which he is able to recoup through high valuations when he sells. His leadership in the market comes from a mixture of good funding, polished procedures, high pace and a die-hard-to-win mentality.
2) Know your numbers and do your deals accordingly
Even the most committed founders usually don’t know their business numbers as precisely as Oliver Samwer. It’s well known that the serial founder demands the micro details of the company figures and developments. Those who start an SEM (search engine marketing) campaign in a Samwer business can expect to be grilled by Samwer about their CPC (cost per click) conversions and reach. Where can money be saved? Which keywords perform the best? Oliver Samwer ensures his companies are proficient and multifaceted by focusing on the numbers.
3) Become a stickler for details
The middle Samwer brother (his brothers Marc and Alexander are both in the startups business too) is apparently a details fanatic. Regardless of whether it’s business models, marketing or recruiting, Samwer knows the particulars of his businesses and makes sure he’s informed to the nth degree. When even small changes can have huge effects, it makes sense that Samwer focuses on the tiniest mechanics.
4) Use trial and error to find the right approach
Samwer is an avid user of trial and error. It would be hard to find someone as keen to experiment as he is. In every department of every Samwer business the same rule applies: Test things fast and adjust them even faster if the precedent doesn’t work. Wrong processes are sorted out quickly and efficiently, while constant experimenting ensures Rocket Internet remains innovative. Samwer has his reasons for saying that innovation lies in its implementation.
5) Enjoy making decisions
In combination with number four, Samwer’s joy at making decisions is a definite plus. Regardless of whether they’re positive or negative, Samwer never shies away from making a decision, a trusted source told Vertical Media. Even painful decisions like firing 400 staff in Turkey don’t alarm him. You can criticize the morality of Samwer’s choices, but his quick decisions undeniably lend him speed and are likely to ultimately save him money.
6) Be remorseless
According to his staff, Samwer remorselessly enforces rational decisions. A marketing campaign didn’t work? The resources are redistributed. A startup isn’t quite going to plan and is taking up resources other businesses need? It’s closed down.
Many examples of this spring to mind, including when Samwer closed the branches of Rocket Internet in Turkey after it failed to make enough profits and closed designer shopping site Bamarang due to the faster growing Westwing. The list could go on.
7) Creativity and ingenuity are a bonus
Samwer’s ingenuity is legendary, especially when it comes to marketing. A high point in Groupon circles is his marketing campaign with Starbucks. Under the aegis of Samwer, Groupon bought hundreds of coupons from the famous coffee chain and sold them for half-price. Groupon gained immediate traffic and visibility and sold countless coupons, while also collecting valuable user data.
Samwer’s methods of marketing may seem brash or absurd, but they ultimately accomplish his goal to be surprising.
8) Know how to persuade people
One of Samwer;s skills is the ability to tell what the person he’s talking to wants. That’s how he’s able to convince high-ranking McKinsey managers to come on board and he closes every deal. Like a human scanner, Samwer can read the different needs and desires of people, whether they want fame, money, or experience.
9) The carrot or the stick (depending on the situation)
Reading people isn’t only useful when hiring new employees or making deals. Samwer also uses this skill in his management. He can tell whether an employee will work better when encouraged or screamed at and adjusts his behavior accordingly. This adaptive behavior is one of the secrets to the serial entrepreneur’s success. But whether this technique is sustainable long-term is debatable.
10) Always be flexible
Samwer can always adapt to the situation. If pressure is needed, he’ll push. If he needs to butter someone up, he’ll answer emails with “your Oli.” From nice to aggressive and demanding, his colleagues claim he plays an entire chord of emotions to get his way in different situations.
11) Prototypes make solutions for you
Rocket Internet is a machine run by templates. Thanks to an established team of business developers and prototypes, sources told Vertical Media that Rocket is able to launch companies in two weeks or less.
No other incubator can keep up with Rocket’s speed and technique. It doesn’t matter if it is recruiting or marketing, development or legal, Rocket Internet works to a worldwide blueprint. Never change a business model, especially not one that works this well.
12) Mastering the art of multitasking
In Rocket Internet headquarters, Samwer is considered a master of multitasking. He knows the workings of the incubator in microscopic detail and makes sure he is close to his founders in every country. And next to the hundreds of emails and phone calls he gets every day, Samwer has gathered millions of frequent flyer miles visiting his businesses around the world. To avoid losing an overview while doing so many things in parallel is an accomplishment in itself.
13) Balls of steel and contempt for social norms
If you believe our sources, fearlessness is one of Samwer’s main characteristics. This boldness combined with a certain lack of conscience lets him make daring decisions that outsiders shake their heads at. Martin Weber’s screams were apparently heard on all levels of the Rocket Internet office when Samwer told him he was going to copy Holtzbrinck’s dating site Parship and create eDarling. It took half an hour until Weber agreed to invest in the site.
These decisions have contributed to Samwer’s reputation as a daring yet unscrupulous businessman who is able to get the highest ratings, create the most shameless copies, and pull of the most audacious maneuvers – and all this without grave consequences (at least usually). Oliver is known for abruptly ending conversations, writing emails in broken German and being generally curt. Why abide by social norms when they don’t generate any direct rewards? People who don’t fear consequences and knowingly break and bend the rules are likely to leave the field winners.
14) Hard work, hard work, hard work
You couldn’t read an article about Oliver Samwer without there being some criticism of how he treats his staff and how hard he expects them to work. That being said, his associates claim he is a stickler for his own rules and is himself extremely hardworking. Long working days with countless meetings, phone calls, and emails belong just as much in Samwer’s life as making decisions and directing his many operations.
15) Oliver Samwer is a person of power
Despite all the directors, managers, and heads, there is only one true leader of Rocket Internet: Oliver Samwer. The casually dressed man with the falsetto voice doesn’t let anything get by him. Decisions on the Rocket Internet family remain almost solely the task of the CEO, including those for the incubator’s portfolios. Rocket Internet is an oligarchy, with Oliver Samwer leading the troops. He performs this role well, reacting as the alpha male and having little tolerance if people talk back. You’re with him or you give up.
16) Blood is thicker than water
The core of the Samwer imperium is the unwavering rule that the Samwer brothers — Alexander, Marc and Oliver — stick together. While Oliver is clearly the leader of the wolf pack, he knows he can rely on the blind trust of his brothers and his inner circle and doesn’t have to worry about information being leaked.
17) Being stubborn can be healthy when it comes to matters of business development
If Samwer is convinced by an idea, no one can keep him from putting it into action. If the serial entrepreneur believes in a business model, he follows it with persistence and conviction, but he is also willing to learn from his mistakes and to change his behaviour accordingly.
18) If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
Why reinvent the circle if an idea on the other side of the world is already successful? Even if Samwer’s copycat mentality is sometimes morally questionable, you can’t argue with the fact that he has an uncanny sense for finding ideas that will be lucrative. So far he’s copied Groupon (Citydeal), Zappos (Zalando), eHarmony (eDarling), Airbnb (Widmu), and Birchbox (Glossybox) – all extremely successfully.
19) Walk the walk, don’t talk the talk – Samwer’s distaste for PR
In contrast to many startups that focus heavily on PR before they have any real turnover, Samwer does the opposite. Hardly anything escapes to the outside world from his quarters, with interviews and press enquires usually ignored. Instead of talking about his companies, Samwer lets his outcomes speak for his work. This has made him into somewhat of a mythical figure, attracting all the more interest by being so secretive.
20) Don’t let yourself be drawn into irrelevant discussions
Similarly to his stance on PR and press, conversations that have no immediate relevance to his businesses receive no attention from him. While the copycat debate rages in Germany, Samwer has turned a blind eye, focusing on his work instead.
21) Sales Focus: No sales = no income
The sales and marketing areas are the most impressive in the Rocket Internet companies. With the knowledge that only sales ensure income, Samwer makes sure his businesses are making profits from the beginning and emphasizes good sales and marketing techniques. He concentrates on building brands through aggressive advertising campaigns and SEM.
22) Strategic planning as the foundation of trading
Almost all of Samwer’s startups stem from bold and strategic plans, whether it’s Zalando – that’s now developing its own brand and is rumored to be preparing for a float on the market after building its brand through an aggressive marketing campaign, or CityDeal and Alando, which Samwer sold to Groupon and eBay in record time. A strategic worldview and a pronounced tactical instinct count as foundations for Samwer’s work.
A warning in conclusion
Before you dash off and start trying to tick off all the points, take heed. Samwer’s methods may well be effective and achieve great results, but there’s a reason why his nickname is the “Dark Lord.” Those who follow the Samwer way may soon find themselves on the dark side.
See other recent coverage of Samwer’s Rocket Internet:
Last week Zalando, this week Dafiti: JP Morgan backs Rocket Internet by additional $45m
Square clone Payleven hits UK, Brazil, confirms double-digit million funding
“Blitzkrieg” story continues: JP Morgan pumps $40M-$80M into Russian fashion company Lamoda