written by
Sebastian Borek
Sebastian Borek
Global Trends
2020-02-11

Creating the Digital Mittelstand

Creating the Digital Mittelstand

The third Hinterland of Things conference is approaching and with it a fusion of start-ups, family-owned companies and investors. A good time to catch up with Founders Foundation CEO, Co-Founder and conference organiser Sebastian Borek on trends in the start-up universe and why Germany could be home to the digital Mittelstand.

The Hinterland of Things conference is taking place for the third time this week. What are the most important start-up and VC trends this year?

We are seeing a massive trend towards start-ups with a sustainability focus. Our aim is to foster entrepreneurship and we are witnessing 30-50% start-ups concentrating on this topic. Up until recently climate change was a preserve of the environmentalists, now the business guys have caught up! They are showing that you can create economic benefit while still doing good. In our world it started when BlackRock put a sustainability clause in their investment contract but in general the Fridays for Future movement has definitely proven the catalyst.


Your start-up conference wants to be the answer to a "false start into the digital age". To what extent does Hinterland of Things represent a step in the right direction?

In Germany we have both a start-up scene and many traditional incumbent companies - our 16 largest companies turn over €70 billion in revenue each year. In order to get Germany going, we not only need innovation in start-ups but also in traditional companies. We provide this platform. We invite a mix of start-ups, traditional companies, investors and C-level managers to share their experiences and learn from each other.  All too often we see home-grown talent selling to US corporations which is a logical opportunity at present but we want to see home-grown innovations staying in Germany. We want Hinterland to be a first step to shifting the culture here in Germany to one that really values innovation and entrepreneurship.


Traction, Trust and Tradition: Hinterland of Things identifies itself with these three words. What do the words stand for?

Investors and start-ups naturally want to see traction and success in what they do. And of course trust is a very strong concept in our region. We want to promote relationship-building and build links between start-ups and established businesses. Trust could be the glue between the two worlds. We don’t just want quick-wins, but we believe this could be a USP of the German start-up scene: companies that don’t go for the billion valuation but aim for the digital Mittelstand. This steady approach could ensure established companies trust that start-ups won’t go bankrupt straight away. Finally, tradition, because part of our focus is on the family-owned Mittelstand.


The conference provides a stage for influential speakers. What do you think characterises an inspiring opinion leader?

Inspiring is someone who doesn’t just talk but someone who has actually done something. Alex Sixt, for example, who is on stage this year is part of a family-owned company who is transforming the car rental industry. The mobility industry is developing so rapidly at the moment; he has a great story to tell. How are they positioning themselves?  Are these developments opportunities or threats? What are the dynamics like within a family company when the industry is in flux? It is really inspiring to hear from people who have gone through difficult times and find out how they have overcome these problems and what they have learned. Hinterland is about being open and sharing.


The Founders Foundation is an important resource for new founders. What qualities should all founders have? What are the most important success factors?

In terms of personalities, you see certain typical characters. The introverted super nerds and the sales-driven hustlers, for example. Often you see a typical Steve Jobs / Wozniak dynamic where one is the visionary and other the tech nerd. But despite different personalities, there are certain common characteristics you see in all entrepreneurs. Firstly, every entrepreneur I have ever met appreciates their independence. They want to do what they want to do, on their own terms. Secondly, they are self-confident. They have trust in their own abilities and for this reason you see fewer women entrepreneurs than men – even though every female entrepreneur I have met is equal to or better than her male counterparts. Thirdly, they are extremely flexible. When they see a problem they see it as a challenge to overcome. And fourthly, they are people-people. They have magnetic personalities which can win other people over like investors and customers. These aren’t things you can learn.

Hinterland of Things starts on 13th February 2020 in Bielefeld.

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