Speaking Founderish with New VCs Fastlane

By David Knight |

“FROM entrepreneurs, FOR entrepreneurs” – there is no doubt where the ethos lies behind the newest VC dog in town. Fastlane Ventures sees the trio behind handy.de and blau.de cross the floor to follow their latest passion, helping others build successful businesses.

Their focus is on providing startups in the Internet, mobile, social media and gaming areas with early – but not seed – funding of between €500,000 and €2 million. And they want to make their experience of building up two highly successful companies from scratch really count.

First impressions, always so important, are good. In the swanky offices of E-Plus on Berlin’s famous boulevard Unter den Linden, Dirk Freise, Martin Ostermayer and Thorsten Rehling faced the gathered tech press. They seemed relaxed, confident of success and highly knowledgable. Over coffee and doughnuts they talked about their past, their present and their future. In doing so, they revealed an insight into exactly how they intend to do business in their new roles.

Silicon Valley Roots

The three Germans met in California whilst studying in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s. They were impressed by what they saw, and by 1999 had set up handy.de before developing it into Europe’s largest supplier of mobile entertainment services. They stayed on after selling it to the Bertelsmann Group in 2002, but by 2005 they had founded blau.de. The independent wireless service discounter was another hit. The trio sold it to Dutch mobile phone concern KPN – parent company of E-Plus – in 2008, but once again stayed on to oversee its development. At the same time, however, they began to act as business angels to a variety of firms.

This then has led them to set up their own VC company – with the Fastlane website being launched today. The company, according to the accompanying blurb, has a portfolio strategy that is internationally oriented and “is underpinned by an American corporate philosophy advocating simple, direct communication, a relationship based on partnership and performance-based work.”

All well and good. But what has their experience and success in business actually given them?

Learning to Speak Founderish

“We have learnt a language over the past 12 years, and it’s called Gründerisch (‘founderish’),” said Thorsten. That is, they will be on the same page as the startups they fund – their experience of working both sides of the coin will help them understand where founders are coming from.

With no companies in the portfolio as yet, what exactly are they looking for in a startup? Martin revealed the Fight Club-esque three main reasons why they invest in a company: “The first one ‘team’, the second one ‘team’, the third one ‘team’. This is what we have learnt from our own companies. We were successful because we were able to attract really talented people, and we had together a great team and a good culture and we were able to overcome huge obstacles.

“It’s just like in a soccer game. Sometimes the guys who do not have the highest market value are winning against the teams with the highest market value.” Probably not a Bayern fan, then.

While Ostermayer, Freise and Rehling have all put in their own money, KPN is the largest single investor in the fund, which is described as “in the mid double digit millions of euros.” And despite all their experience, the venture will, as the trio admit, see them cover some new ground. “For the first time in our lives,” said Thorsten, “we don’t have a pure split. Working as entrepreneurs, each of us had his area of expertise, although if one was on vacation another could replace him. The way we have set it up now is that at the end of the day, we all do the same thing, albeit bringing in some deeper expertise into the area we’ve been working in before.”

Avoiding the Bad Gut Feeling

The trio will sit down once a week, on a Monday morning, and discuss each potential investment before making their decision based on a number of factors, most notably personal enthusiasm: “If we don’t burn internally, if we don’t have that fire, then we would have to think about it. That can be different from person to person.”

All investments will need to be a unanimous decision – something they seemed to have learned the hard way during their time as business angels. Dirk said: “If ever only one person had a bad gut feeling, but didn’t say so because the other guys were so enthusiastic about it, it didn’t really work out. We said this time, only if three enthusiastic founders say this is a good investment will we invest.”

And when it comes to giving startups the thumbs up or the thumbs down, intangibles are the key, as Thorsten emphasised: “What is the one thing which we would never be able to work on with founders? It’s your own intuition, your passion. If a founder can really inflame and live his passion, then he will be extremely successful. We have made so many decisions on a rational basis, but the most successful decisions have always been made on intuition and there is nothing that you can learn at university or from college that is more than looking at what is inside of you.”

They certainly talk a good game. Now let’s hope these newbie VCs from Hamburg can really help startups, not only in Berlin but across Germany and, yes, the world, in the ways they have promised.