Christian Keller lead for Rocket Internet the transformation of Carmudi Nigeria and Ghana from a start-up venture into Nigeria’s and Ghana´s No. 1 car sites. He will share his valuable experience on business development in emerging markets and his insights on entrepreneurship in Africa and on Rocket Internet at the „Founders Secrets“ this Thursday in Zurich.
This event – coming Thursday (August 20th) – is exclusively for venturelab Startup Talents & Founders Circle members and Swisscom Pirates Hub members. If you want to be part of it, apply now. Penny Schiffer – Head of Startup Initiatives at Swisscom – talked with her former workmate Christian Keller about his success in Africa and shares the interview with us. Credits go out to swisscom.ch/ictblog. And now Penny, take it away.
A colleague of mine from my Swisscom days in strategy about 1.5 years ago decided that what he wanted was to become an entrepreneur, go on an adventure and change the world. After a couple of weeks of traveling to places like Berlin, South America and East Africa, Christian Keller found his calling in building a marketplace for new and used cars. Two aspects make his choice remarkable: He chose Nigeria as his geography and Rocket Internet from Berlin as his entrepreneurial fast track learning environment!
I had the opportunity to talk to Christian about what he learned and what he plans to do next:
Christian, what did you learn in your 18 months as the CEO of carmudi?
I learned a lot and I learned it the hard way. I learned that entrepreneurship is much more hands-on, risky and tightly budgeted than any job at a profitable or large company. And I learned how to be successful in Nigeria where people are much more spontaneous and impulsive, less structured and organized than for example the Swiss corporation I worked with before.
For example, I managed my 80 people without the use of a calendar. I still remember the first time I scheduled a meeting with my managers and even sent a reminder mail right before, and was surprised that no-one showed up.
What was the biggest surprise for you?
That chaos and success can go hand in hand. As a management consultant, I’ve worked for many large Western companies and experienced their approach and corporate culture. The culture at Rocket Internet ventures is amazingly different. I would call it extreme trial and error. Decisions are made in 10 minutes that take a month in most companies. No committees, minimum overhead. Instead: lots of autonomy, rapid execution with clear KPIs, and learning on the fly. Do we make mistakes? Yeah, a whole lot. But we learn fast and adapt and in the end this is more effective than extensive up-front studies and risk
Would you agree that Rocket Internet is the new McKinsey in terms of the people it attracts, work style and open doors for their alumni?
While this is the first time I hear this, I think it is quite accurate. I would definitely agree that entrepreneurship is the new management consulting. While eager students in earlier days dreamed of becoming the CEO of Deutsche Bank, they now dream of becoming the next Steve Jobs. On the one hand, consulting and entrepreneurship is very similar: It is an adventurous job with lots of exposure and learning, also it is a performance-driven high-pressure environment. That might be the reason why many people have moved from McKinsey to Rocket Internet ventures.
In terms of the actual work you do, management consulting and entrepreneurship are completely different however. While in Management Consulting you wear a suit and a tie, have lots of (highly political) meetings, and create and implement advise based on PowerPoint presentations, in entrepreneurship a lot of your daily routine is “in the dirt” talking to Nigerian car dealers, to take my example, and motivating your team to join this journey.
Was it hard for you to gain the trust of the Nigerian car dealers – considering the intercultural gaps?
I remember well my first encounter with the association of Berger Market, West Africa’s largest car marketplace with about 10,000 cars for sale. After a quick introduction, I was told we would be put out of business if we didn’t pay a registration fee which I knew was not realistic given my budget. This happened, how should I say, in a tone that Westerners would consider as very aggressive. What I didn’t know is that this would become the start of what today is an intense partnership with the association and good personal friendship with the market’s president.
If you are an Internet startup, you don’t just act in the Internet industry. You also act in the industry that you want to disrupt – in my case: car sales. You need your network and staff, and you gain your insights from that industry. Our last major initiative was, for example, a community event where all carmudi staff worked together with the dealers on Berger market on a Saturday and refurbished and painted many of their shacks – in carmudi blue.
How did you manage to “survive” so long in this position?
I was lucky enough to perform well on my KPIs, so there was little fear of death.
Would you do it again? Would recommend this to a friend?
I can definitely recommend Rocket Internet to everyone who has a passion for entrepreneurship, adventure and execution. For wannabe-entrepreneurs it is the best way to learn how to run or work at an Internet startup. It is not a safe or easy, but it can be great fun and you will for sure have high autonomy and impact.
You have left carmudi to start a new venture in Nigeria. Why Nigeria again and what do you plan to do?
The Internet is booming in Nigeria. The atmosphere might be a bit comparable to the mid/late 90s in Silicon Valley, I assume. Almost 50% of Nigerians for example are on Facebook and most of them have signed up in the last 1-2 years. Furthermore, Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy, and people are very business-minded and fast in adopting to change. I have a number of ideas that I am strongly convinced about and I will use the next two months to discuss and test them in the market and with potential investors.
Well done, Christian! It looks like you have chosen one of the fastest moving economies in the world to start a business. Some people even foresee emerging markets as the next big thing for startup success. I wish you all the best as entrepreneur and please keep me posted on your activities.