Our goal was to take over the world!
A start-up is a row of making mistakes and learning from them.
11.3.2019, Marek Mrázik
My goal in this interview was to learn about spontacts.com from the best source I could, from one of of its three founders- Florian Specker.
Spontacts.com is a web community where you can plan your free time and find people to do stuff with. You can go skiing, watch a movie at the cinema or just meet in a restaurant. It helps you to get to know new people with the same interests. I used it mainly when I came to Munich in 2014 and knew barely anybody. This website/app made it easy for me to find new friends.
I have to admit I was really excited that a person that developed a website now with more than 600 thousand users is giving me an interview. You can read a story about a successful start-up from one of its founders in person. Among other you will find here which roles were the founders in charge, which business models came to their minds at the beginning, about the exit to Scout24 and later to current owner Jochen Schweizer and why Spotacts.com did not become a worldwide platform as Facebook did.
Here we go…
Hi Florian! Is it ok for you to speak in English?
Sure, no problem.
How are you doing?
I’m a bit exhausted from the weekend but apart from that very good. How about yourself?
Exhausted from the weekend- from the parties? 😀
No, I was in the mountains ski touring, I built an igloo and I did some ice fishing.
Yeah, in the lakes in the mountains you drill a hole into the ice and you fish from there.
Wow, and did you catch something?
Yeah, I got four “Saibling”- subspecies of a trout.
Ah, I know Saiblings, we eat them in Germany as well.
Yeah, they are delicious.
You are doing inspiring things in your free time, nice to hear.
Did you invite some people from Spontacts.com to come with you?
No, it was organized by a company transa.ch, outdoor equipment dealer.
I have actually put it on Spontacts because I had an extra ticket but it was already on short notice and I didn’t find anybody who would join in.
It’s a pity I know about it only now, maybe I will join you next time, who knows… 🙂
How about you?
I am thinking about my website, but I am not sure if I will ever do it, because I have near zero experience with programming. One specialist told me, you need to have a team of 30 people full time just to program it. I do not know it is ever going to happen and it is not my priority at the moment, so let’s see.
Besides it, I used to work in controlling for long years, I have been one year in the US, nine years in Italy and for 5 years in Germany. I am thinking about changing my job. Instead of working in controlling, I think about working in something more adventurous, like experimental learning. Through games and role-playing in a group of people, you can get to know yourself better and you have a unique possibility to receive feedback about your strengths and potential to improve in a safe environment. I am a certified trainer, now I need to practice it more. I have no job at the moment, so I have free time to practice it and decide, whether this is what I want to do in the future.
I would like to know more about Spontacts. I have read some articles in German you ‘ve sent to me. Back in 2008, there were not too many websites of this kind. How did it come to your mind to create it?
We had an idea about it, which would be useful or cool. Daniel Kästli had an idea of a camping site, my ideas were related to what to do in leisure time. Christoph Seitz brought us together. He was my classmate in Gymnasium and he was with Daniel in the boys’ scouts. After a few brainstorming sessions, we had a pretty clear Idea about future Spontacts. We also had a lot of other ideas, but somehow, we always came back to this one. In 2008 we decided to try it. We felt it being necessary to quit our jobs, which we managed only in 2009. First, it was just me and Christoph. Daniel joined later on. We really started working on the idea, expanding our network, letting our potential partners and investors challenge our idea.
As far as I know, you did a lot of trials and errors and learned from your mistakes. The idea behind Spontacts was to use technology to meet people outside and leave the screen at home and undertake something together.
Yes, exactly. We wanted people to interact in real life.
In the beginning, you wanted to earn some money or you were just doing it for fun?
We wanted to take over the world! We all quit our jobs. Which was maybe a bit naive at the beginning, but the idea was to do something big, we had many ideas on how to implement our business models. The truth is, it has never reached the necessary momentum or the size that was required for the more interesting business models to work.
What business models you had in your mind?
You can always do some advertising, partner deals, as a partner place stories and organize branded events. The real potential would have been there if you had millions of users with a very detailed personal profile on their interests. That would make it extremely interesting for targeted advertisement. For example, if you are a specialist and you provide fishing tours, you teach people how to ice fish, you could just advertise to people near to you with interest in this direction. That way you would reduce the loss in advertising to people who are just not interested.
I have also read somewhere, that the original idea was a paid dating website…
We thought a lot about it because it is the first thing that comes to mind to everybody… We have consciously decided against it because it would give a completely different spin to the whole platform. Maybe if we had continued and made it bigger, we maybe had introduced the dating option, but it is a very dangerous idea, because it is changing the whole dynamic of the platform and how users interact, the kind of people you attract to the platform.
So, you have decided not to do it at that moment… If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?
There were a lot of detours we took, we had to learn everything on our own. So, if we would do it again, we would know a lot of things already, so we would avoid a lot of mistakes. But then we would just make other mistakes and there would be new stuff to learn from. There is not one special thing to mention, we did everything we could. In the end, we were very lucky with the exit we had with Scout24. They gave us a lot of support to further advance the idea, they put a lot of resources in it to further develop the platform, to make it visible and increase the reach. The same is true when Jochen Schweizer took over later on. I mean, they are not developing it as active anymore as Scout24 did, but there are still people working on it. There are dedicated people undertaking marketing activities and community support. I think we were very lucky with the partners we teamed up with.
But you guys did not continue to work with Spontacts after Exit, did you?
We had the exit in the middle of 2012 and as is common with exit contracts, you have an earnout period, which means you commit to stay on the project for a certain amount of time. In our case that was one year. This way you can assure a smooth handover and transfer of knowledge- that all the ideas that are still in your head and not yet on the platform, what you foresee for the future, all of what you would still put on the roadmap and also having other people challenge it. Basically, to hand over all the ideas, know-how, documentation and experiences which you had. You also try to hand over an unwritten culture of the idea which was behind creating the start-up and the way of thinking you had when you came up with it. Like the dating aspect in our case mentioned above. We described how we dropped this idea because the platform was supposed to have a certain direction of what it should stand for and the kind of usage that it was intended for. So, to ensure that the future owners and developers of the platform would understand what we tried to achieve with the platform and hopefully take it into a similar direction. A new team is, of course, coming with new ideas, but you try at least to reach some agreement, of what would make sense to us founders too. That way we will always be proud to tell our story and feel associated with the product.
Is the sum you sold the platform for publicly known, or is it a secret?
Sure. And later on, the platform was sold to Jochen Schweizer?
Scout24 itself was taken over by a group of American investors and they stripped the company- so you have these different branches: ImmobilienScout24.de, AutoScout24.de, TruckScout24.de. I do not know exactly, I think after stripping it they sold the parts separately. And along with that process, they stopped all the projects that were not yet profitable. And of course, Spontacts was not profitable yet at that time, so they wanted to get rid of it. Instead of shutting it down they were looking for a new owner. We also facilitated this process by having some talks and making connections. In the end, I think everybody was happy with the solution of handing it over to Jochen Schweizer.
In your opinion, what is the reason for acquiring the platform by Jochen Schweizer? What position has Spontacts in his portfolio?
You would have to ask him personally (and I will try to… 😊). But from my point of view, there are two important aspects. The first aspect is the potential he has seen in the idea. We got to know him personally and I think he’s got a feeling for stuff that can resonate with people. The other aspect is, that his company has a lot of leisure time activities they sell, but they did not have a community yet. So, for them, it is a way to feel the pulse of the community, and it is also a part of marketing. Partly in the traditional sense, informing about offers- some of the activities at Spontacts are based on offers by Jochen Schweizer, but it is also a more direct way to contact the participants, and that is the dimension that Jochen Schweizer was lacking before they took over Spontacts.
Ok, coming back to the very beginning of Spontacts. What exact role did you have in the team? What strengths did you have?
Officially I had a title of CTO. When you build a new company, everybody is a C-level employee. Daniel and I were the tech-guys. I was responsible for the server part, so backend and infrastructure was my thing. Daniel concentrated on the client, iPhone, and Android apps. But as it happens with every start-up, everyone just does what needs to be done- I did accounting, a lot of legal stuff, of course, marketing, PR… whatever was needed. You learn a lot. A lot of things you would never learn if you just had an office job.
And did you manage to start the platform just the three of you?
No, we had a lot of support. We had Peter Schiratzki who joined the team, we had about five more people who worked full time and ten more part-time, depending on the moment in time- it was quite dynamic. That was before the exit to Scout24. We also worked together with a nearshoring company in Romania for developing the Android and iPhone client, when it got too big for Daniel to handle by himself. So that was his transition to manage a development team in Romania.
Spontacts is a website spread in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. What is the reason it didn’t become a worldwide platform like for example Facebook? Does it have something to do with millions of Euro necessary to be invested in the marketing campaign around the world?
It lies in the nature of the platform. For a platform to be successful you need a critical mass of active users. On Facebook, you have a friends’ network of course, but it works regardless of your physical location. So, if I go traveling to Canada and meet 15 new people there, I connect with them through FB, and even if I would be the only user in Switzerland, it would provide a value for me, because I can keep up with those friends from Canada or from all around the world. Now with Spontacts, that is a bit different, because if you want to meet up in real life, you need to have a critical mass where you actually are. So, it is not enough, if you have just 500 people dispersed around the country or the globe, but you need to have 500-1500 people in the same area active on the platform, so then there are enough users around who have time and share the same interests. Otherwise, you are alone in a desert, you post an activity, nobody ever shows up, and then you stop.
I still do not understand, why this platform in not present for example in Slovakia or other European countries.
You are right. You need to localize the application, translate, maybe add some specials if that is important for the country you want to go to, and then you need the local support. You need somebody there to assist first users and later on act as a contact person- an ambassador, or Spontifex, as they are called on Spontacts. In the beginning, you need to have some sort of advertising, so you need to raise some money to create awareness in order to reach the critical mass on that spot. Continuous advertising makes sense too because it does not make sense if you have a total of 5000 users, with 4500 of them already having left the platform and never come back. It is important to have an initial push, in order to have activities on the platform, with users having a positive first experience so they come back again. This you can only achieve with a coordinated effort: Organising events, advertising, PR works – you call every journalist you can grab again and again, and explain the motivation behind. You try to get the story about it, so you reach some more users. It has to be concentrated on one location and one point in time. That is a lot of work, and it’s expensive.
That is the reason why you were so happy being able to sell it to Scout24 and thus have energy and ideas for next projects?
Yes, exactly. Before Scout24 we did not have many possibilities to go to the market… The initial advertising campaign when we went to Germany was much bigger than what we could have done without Scout. It helped a lot to introduce Spontacts to the German market.
I understand. When I came to Munich back in 2014, I knew barely anybody and Spontacts was a perfect way of getting to know new people with the same interest. I joined some activities and also organized myself some skiing trips into the Alps. I have to admit though as you are saying, after getting to know some people that suit me the same interests as I have, I had no reason to use that much Spontacts anymore.
That was exactly one of the usage patterns that we have observed ourselves.
I see now, the way how it spreads might be a problem. But still, I think it is a great application.
Well, it is fun to see, that it is being used and it creates new connections, it brings together new friends, and we know of a few Spontacts babies by now. Some users meet through Spontacts, fall in love, and have kids. Isn’t that great?
I believe it has to be a great feeling to be able to look back and see you did something good for this world.
Now follows the discussion about my website y2choose.me, which remains private for now.
Florian, thank you for your time, it was nice to talk to you.
Thank you, Marek.