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Interview: Technology and trend researcher Mario Herger lives in Silicon Valley and knows the difference between American and Austrian business strategies. The Vienna Region's start-up scene does have some of the characteristics of Silicon Valley.
Viennese-born Mario Herger has been living in Silicon Valley since 2001. He observes future trends and explains the mindsets of start-ups and big corporations in blog posts, books, lectures and workshops. The 48-year old expert studied Chemical Engineering at the TU Wien and International Business Management at the Vienna University of Economics and Business in the Nineties. However, he never worked as a chemist but as a software developer instead. He started out at SAP at their Walldorf headquarters in Germany, then worked in the United States for 12 years and developed technology strategies. Five years ago, he started his own business as a technology and trend researcher. Through his Enterprise Garage consultancy, among other things, Herger organizes business trips for meetings between managers of different companies and helps European and American decision-makers to network.
San José is your adopted home, so you're living in the heart of Silicon Valley. Do you see yourself as a start-up?
Mario Herger: I don't see myself as a start-up because I know what my business is. Ironically speaking, a start-up is a company which neither knows its customers nor has an idea how to turn an idea into a product and into money. This is how Twitter started, for example. Strictly speaking, as soon as you can answer these questions, a company is no longer a start-up. A hairdresser or a shipping company will therefore never be a start-up because the product, the customers and the business model are established from the get-go.
Does that mean that a start-up is inherently innovative?
Mario Herger: To give you an example from the past, Benz was a start-up with his idea to put a motor on a carriage because it was a product that didn't exist before, and nobody knew whether it would make sense. Innovations are a result of ideas that seem foolish at first. If the idea was evident and logical, you probably wouldn't be the first person to pursue it.
In your German-language book "Das Silicon-Valley-Mindset", you explain what can be learned from the world champions of innovation. What is the formula for success?
Mario Herger: I have identified about 30 mindsets. In Silicon Valley, people are more open to new ideas and quickly support them with good advice during the networking process. Failure isn't seen as defeat in the United States. People who fail are respected for trying, and they even enjoy a certain level of trust when they develop their next project because you can assume that they won't make the same mistake twice. Furthermore, the exchange between companies is stronger in Silicon Valley. Despite the competitiveness, there is a lot of sharing of knowledge. It is common that employees change companies or even create their own start-ups. For example, Google's sister company Wayamo, which develops self-driving cars, has grown into almost two dozen companies.
Doesn't this dynamic speed up the constant process of creative minds leaving their companies?
Herger: Successful founders don't retire to the Caribbean islands or spend their fortune on yachts, real estate and luxury goods after going public or selling their company – they invest in new companies instead. They remain part of the scene. This results in a lot of investors who have established billion dollar companies themselves. For example, Andreas von Bechtolsheim, a German who co-founded Sun Microsystems and gave Google their first $100,000 when the company wasn't even founded yet.
But what about competition clauses and confidentiality agreements?
Herger: The jurisdiction of over 100 years ago has a little omission, which, for example, voids the clause that you may not work for a competitor or work in the industry for the next two years in a labor court. This is good for the economy and for society, because it speeds up developments. The individual companies are forced to stay innovative. This was the initial situation in Silicon Valley, too. In the 1950's, Nobel Prize winner William Shockley established his company Shockley Semiconductors in that region because he wanted to be closer to his mother who was in need of care. Because of his reputation as a brilliant scientist, he attracted excellent specialists. However, he was a bad manager. Soon enough, some of his employees left him and established themselves as developers of semiconductors. Therefore, countless computer chip companies were created within a few years. It is a snowball effect which you can witness again these days with companies specializing on automated driving.
Which leads us to one of your favorite trends: automated driving. You've written a book called "The Last Driver's License Holder Has Already Been Born". Where does the interest in this technology come from?
In Silicon Valley, there are over 60 companies which have a license to test self-driving cars on the streets of California. In San José, I see autonomous cars all the time. I've started photographing them and posting the pictures on my blog – which has grown into the biggest website on self-driving cars. Disruptive innovation results in the disappearance of up to 90 percent of the existing companies. On top of that, in the case of automated driving, it involves not just one business segment and one technology, but an entire combination of new technologies. While big companies carry the risk of disrupting their existing business models, the start-ups cannot shoot themselves in the foot with new ideas.
Do you notice that the Vienna Region has been developing into an excellent environment for start-ups?
Herger: Yes, there is an increasing awareness of the start-up notion in the Vienna Region. This is noticeable, for example, in the establishment of business incubators and accelerator programs. There is a gradual development of role models – successful companies which become involved in the scene as venture capitalists or angels, such as Florian Gschwandtner or Oliver Holle. These are positive developments which are beneficial to young companies. The idea of entrepreneurship is suddenly more appreciated by the population as a whole.
Did the mindset in the Vienna Region change since you left Austria?
Herger: I haven't been living in Vienna for 20 years, but I come here several times a year for lectures. The city has become much more international and cosmopolitan. You get by very well speaking English, compared to other European cities. But Vienna has one problem: the city is too beautiful for innovation. The infrastructure, safety, quality of life – it's all wonderful, but it slows down the necessity for change. It's different in San Francisco – the city has many areas which aren't livable, and this creates the necessity to improve things. This is how innovations are created which result in good products. The ideal mixture for an innovative environment. For example, public transportation in San Francisco cannot be compared to the high standard in Vienna. No wonder that Uber is created there and not in the Vienna Region.
The interview was conducted by medienkomplizen | Christian Scherl
Photo: (c) Mario Herger