Axel Springer Embraces Digital Future as hy! Berlin 2 is a Big Hit

By David Knight |

As far as keeping your big announcement under wraps until the right moment goes, you would have thought that Mathias Döpfner would know better. But the CEO of Axel Springer let slip to an audience which included a healthy dose of journalists that the media giant had taken a 49 percent hold in the company behind hy! Berlin, where he was being interviewed on stage.

Problem was, that news was technically supposed to be saved till later that evening – but it still seemed a slight odd, startup sort of thing to do. Certainly, Springer has been taking an ever-keener interest in innovative media-based startups for the past few years and senior executives firmly believe that hosting events is key to developing sustainable revenue models for digital content producers.

It was no surprise, therefore, to hear about the investment into a company which has just finished its second cycle of event planning and execution; a cycle that built well on the lessons learnt from the first hy! event last year.

There was some surprise at the size of the stake but the general reaction was positive – here’s hoping Axel Springer resist the temptation to leave too big an imprint on the next episode – and certainly it was curious to hear what Döpfner had to say about the multinational company’s attitude toward the digital world.

A tall and clearly-spoken man, the 50-year-old was editor of De Welt before taking over the top job at Springer in 2002 in challenging economic conditions. He successfully revived the company and now, it seems, has his eyes set firmly on an online future.

Core Competencies

During a cosy Q&A during the morning session at hy! on Saturday, Döpfner was making all the right noises – Berlin is the “hottest place for startups and entrepreneurial initiatives” where the exchange of ideas is crucial, for example – and emphasized how important the online world was to his business.

Indeed, Springer has long been willing to put more focus on its digital business than other media companies, and it now accounts for 35 percent of the group’s revenue and 36 percent of its operating profit.

Döpfner spoke of the three “core competencies” which the company has used to run its print business which, he said, were also relevant for online – producing the best journalistic content for different target groups and using that to create strong brands; using those brands and their readership to monetise to advertising clients; and doing the same with classified ads, namely in real estate, jobs and cars.

Thus Springer has been open to collaborating with tech companies operating in those areas, be it KaufDA, Immonet or, now, hy! Berlin. In addition, Döpfner sent three of his top executives, including Bild editor Kai Diekmann, to Silicon Valley to explore the possibilities of building better bridges between San Francisco and Germany. He also revealed that the next annual top-level meeting of Springer executives would take place in the Valley.

And, praising the “tremendous potential” of hy! Berlin, Döpfner also insisted that Axel Springer would be more than a source of financing for the project; it wanted to be a “sparring partner for intellectual exchange.”

**********************************, winners of the alpha contest, celebrate on stage

The second hy! Berlin event was undoubtedly a success. The first day and a half saw a group of 150 tech people gather and network at various locations around Berlin. With a wide range of attendees invited, including many from the US, it provided wonderful opportunities for the kind of discourse and debate which is key if Berlin is to continue to grow on the international stage. The big names present included Jawed Karim (YouTube), Om Malik (GigaOM), Alexis Ohanian (Reddit) and noted angel investor Esther Dyson.

Flamingo to Soho House to the Hamburger Bahnhof to the Fernsehturm to Betahaus to Kater Holzig to Radialsystem – it was a fun weekend, and it especially enjoyable for Infogram, Solarbrush and, the winners of the pitch contests in the launch, hardware and alpha categories respectively.

All three were noticeably appreciated more by the crowd than their competition, and the judges agreed – as ever, though, the overall standard both of concept and pitch was very high.

The attention of Aydo Ali Schosswald and Hans Raffauf, the team behind hy! Berlin, can now turn to the next event on June 3 and 4.