„Courage is the secret of freedom and freedom the secret of happiness“
David Zimmer is a phenomenon. Shortly before graduating from high school, he drops out of school, starts out as an entrepreneur, first the business goes well, then everything collapses, at 20 he has 750,000 DM in debt, three years later the shock diagnosis of cancer. But he keeps going, never gives up, fights, founds a new startup, later another one - and is rewarded. In 2020, he sells his company inexio for over one billion euros! Along the way, he writes an incredibly good book: "Herzblut - Keine Krise ist größer als Deine Chance. In the form.bar interview, one of Germany's most successful founders talks about his convictions, self-doubt, freedom, happiness, courage and the wisdom of his grandmother.
Dear David, the most frequently asked question to you is: How do you do it? People want to find out the secret of your success, they are looking for a simple answer. Is there one?
You can't explain that in one sentence. I am the way I am. Either I've been very lucky or I do a lot of things right. What that is exactly, I can't say. In any case, I have always remained myself and have never allowed myself to be bent.
Heart and soul, tenacity, courage - in your book you describe impressively and very personally what makes a successful entrepreneur.
Why do so many people still ask about the special secret of David Zimmer?
I think because they want a simple explanation: Why am I here and why is the David felt 100 years ahead? For that, you want a simple answer. Because otherwise you would have to start questioning yourself and looking for your own mistakes. But my perception is: I'm just a normal guy.
But you must have something that others don't have.
Perhaps two things are important. Over the years and with increasing success, I've learned to say no. I'm not very good at it. Before, I wasn't very good at it. That saves a tremendous amount of resources. That doesn't mean I'm totally empathy-less. But I tell people clearly: I'll listen to your problem, I'll give you advice, but I won't solve your problem. That's enormously important for peace of mind. I don't work until I drop either. All those guys who tell me they have to work 16 hours a day are doing something wrong. I like to work a lot, too, but not 16 hours. Sure, there have been phases like that. But today I try to work less and offer people around me a positive and appreciative environment and simply let them work.
On the second point, my grandmother had a great influence on me; she gave me a very positive image of humanity, which can't be shattered. Recently, an acquaintance said to me: "David, you've experienced so much shit and met so many people who wanted to pull the wool over your eyes. But you still believe in the good in people. Exactly!
Great grandma! What else did she teach you?
Quite a lot of old wisdom. I like sentences like that. For example, "What goes around comes around. That's how I deal with people, with my employees. Because I believe that people reflect their behavior. If he feels he's just being screwed, he tries to screw back. Or "necessity is the mother of invention. Why don't we have enough founders in Germany? Because we don't have any need, we're doing too well. My grandma also used to say "Treat everyone the way you would like to be treated". If you go through life with these basic principles, you don't need a manager seminar, then a lot of things will go by themselves. At least I have never been to such a seminar.
Life is easier when you believe in the good in people?
Yes, every person is good per se, except for a few individual cases, that's how I experienced it. That is my basic attitude and it makes a big difference. I can trust. People can work with me in an environment where they know that I give them confidence and that mistakes can be made. Often it is quite different, the employee is replaceable and a potential source of error. If I lead with this attitude, the employees are all afraid and fear is never a good advisor. The moment you give people confidence and don't tear their heads off when they make a mistake, but encourage them and solve the problem together, they pay you back double and triple. That's a culture you have to actively promote. It also includes ensuring that there is a clear consequence for employees who abuse trust, even if it is sometimes brutal and hurts.
Motivation through trust?
Absolutely. And that multiplies. If everyone is willing to give 10 percent more, and 50 people do that, then that's plus 500 percent. That makes a lot more sense than if the boss is constantly running around with a whip and trying to get the employees' motivation up from 70 to 80 percent. Unfortunately, that's often how it is. I also experienced it that way in a previous job. There, people never talked about their salary, but about "pain money." Maybe in jest. But if that becomes the mindset, then you're lost.
In your early 20s you had lost everything, debts without end and then also the diagnosis of cancer. Then came a trip to the USA that changed everything.
In 1996 I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, had surgery and no one knew if I would survive. At that time, because I am a big fan of the USA, I said to my wife that I would like to travel through the USA once again by motor home, and if it was to be my last trip. We then went up the East Coast, from Florida to Boston and also went to Harvard University. Because I've always been a bookworm, can spend hours in a library without getting bored. So I went to Harvard - and then I found this book: "How to become your own ISP", that is, your own Internet provider. At that time, hardly anyone knew what to do with that, especially in Germany. I had no idea about the Internet myself, it was all just emerging, there was AOL, Compuserve, but not much else. But I already thought that this was going to be a big thing. That's why I wanted the thin book, it was a master's thesis, I really wanted it. And that's why I yapped at the librarian until she sold me a copy; for $100.
What happened then?
When I got back home, I immediately told my brother about it and we went to the tax advisor, because we roughly needed about 120,000 marks from the bank. When we told him that we had a great idea and wanted to do something with the Internet, he just threw his hands up in horror. He advised us against it and said we were crazy to take the next risk, after all we had worked our butts off for years to pay off debts. But we said: Yes, yes, we'll do it!
You got the money from the bank?
Yes, a young guy who understood the idea approved the loan. Today, something like that would probably no longer be possible. But then we were able to get started as a provider, it was the birth of SaarGate and the core idea for inexio later.
Courageous! From your point of view, which is more difficult: the first step or the second, third, hundredth?
I think it's equally difficult, but it requires different skills. The first step takes a lot of courage, and when you're in the flow, you no longer need so much courage, but frustration tolerance, because something goes wrong here and something goes wrong there and many things don't go as planned. Many people feel that way, you write 50 offers and get 40 rejections, but you still have to believe in yourself for the 51st offer. It is not comparable. But clearly: If you are not ready to make the first step, you don't have to worry about the rest. My experience is: Very few people manage to take the first step. I notice that, for example, when I give talks. It's not unusual for people to come up to me afterwards and want to tell me their ideas. I've gotten out of the habit of listening to that. In the meantime, I say: Why don't you send me an e-mail and I'll be happy to take a look at it. The thing is: You don't hear anything more from these people. Just the small step of putting what's in their brain into an e-mail, sitting down for an hour, that alone is too much for many. People's comfort is limitless.
How do you manage to overcome this comfort? How do you manage it, even with others?
There is so much energy in every person, you just have to direct it in the right direction. Many people don't get it right themselves. That's why good leaders are so important. I always say that there is a "nuclear power plant" with boundless energy in each of us, and as a manager you just have to find the button to turn it on. The problem is: the button is not in the same place for everyone. But most organizations try to make everything the same. They think, this is position X, therefore the button has to be in this place, and they don't even look at the person in this position but only at the position. But it is not. You don't get anywhere with rigid organizational forms, because you don't even notice that you're looking for the button in the wrong place.
How to find the right button?
That is the art and, of course, also a question of experience. Personally, I learned a lot during my time as a volunteer, for example at a triathlon club. You don't get anywhere with threats like a pay cut or a warning if something doesn't go well. You have to motivate people in a completely different way. Volunteering was extremely important for my leadership skills. That's why I would never want to miss this time. I will also never forget a man who took a sick leave at work because of burnout and at the same time proudly told us that he had just signed up for an Ironman. Burnout at work and so much energy in your free time - something's not right. But it's certainly not an isolated case.
Why are many people unwilling or unable to change anything in their lives, why do many prefer to sit on the couch?
Quite simply because it is more convenient. And: Many people are insecure, do not dare.
Where does self-confidence come from?
Little children learn to walk, fall down, get up again, walk, fall down, keep walking, that's how confidence, self-confidence develops. But at some point, and this is where school unfortunately plays a big role, children are supposed to stop this trying out, this doing, they are supposed to just swim uniformly with the current.
You rarely went with the flow, you dropped out of school, you didn't study, but you taught yourself a lot. How?
What has always helped me is creativity. That was already the case at school. My class teacher had once told my mother: "When your son grabs his ear, it's like he's in another world, he's dreaming." That's exactly how it was. I was in another world, my world. I never let this dreaming be taken away from me. Not even in the failures. I think that I also have autistic traits to some extent. When there is a lot of resistance, then I become calm, concentrated, then I don't talk anymore, but do my thing. Against all odds. That was often the case, especially in decisive moments just before the abyss. There were many situations where things could have gone in a different direction with inexio. That's where this calm, these blinkers helped me. Because if you let all the noise get to you, it won't work.
Talk less, do more: Is that one of the big differences between Germany and the U.S.?
In Germany, there is a mania for perfection. This is an enormous hindrance and damages self-confidence. The American simply starts and believes in the process of continuous improvement according to the motto: I can always make version 2 even better. For the German, version 1 must already be perfect. If it is not, people are ashamed. Perfectionists break down when things are no longer perfect in their lives. I, on the other hand, know that my life will never be perfect. But why give up? One thing is clear: if you give up, you've lost. So I just don't give up.
Won't the German inventive spirit prevail in the long run after all?
In the past, it was like that. But today, the car industry and German mechanical and plant engineering are probably the last remnants of the industrial society. We live in a knowledge society in which you can create platforms that function according to the principle of "the winner takes it all," and there's not much left for everyone else. Unfortunately, I make the observation that we are failing to occupy all the technologies of the future. Even the car of the future is primarily defined by software.
Did Google win?
When you see how much wealth has already been generated in America by Google and Facebook and what power they have, you have to wonder where this is going. After all, old laws don't apply because consumers are supposedly not harmed by the free services. At least that's the old thinking. But there is an urgent need to rethink when elections are manipulated, when people are brainwashed by certain search functions such as the auto-complete function on Google. I doubt whether politicians still have the power or the necessary courage to change something in this quasi-legal vacuum.
What does courage mean to you? And why is it worth being more courageous?
Courage is the secret of freedom, and freedom is the secret of happiness. Everyone wants to live in freedom for themselves. One person already feels free when he can turn on Netflix in the evening. I haven't felt truly free since Corona in this country, because my life is extremely restricted. Because I always come to happiness when I believe I have control over what happens to me. And for me, the best way to do that is through personal responsibility. I decide what I do with my life, not Mrs. Merkel, Mr. Drosten or whoever. If I want to have a party with 20 grown-up people during Corona, then that's how it is, it's none of the state's business. Those who are afraid of it, they can stay at home and protect themselves.
You can see it differently, but it is a clear opinion!
I'm annoyed by people who say I can't criticize the Corona measures because I get contracts from the public sector. I have to say: The Third Reich existed because of such idiots. You have to stand up for something in life. Friedrich Merz once said years ago: Without a compass, you're right everywhere. A true sentence. At some point I have to say, I am me, that's what I stand for and that's not negotiable. But I almost don't see that anymore. Everything is relativized and arbitrary.
You are brimming with optimism. Don't you ever have dark times, doubts?
I constantly have self-doubt, constantly question myself. It often helps to talk about it with a friend or acquaintance. I also have stage fright before presentations, for example. But I have learned to accept this feeling, it is there and it is good. It keeps me honest. Stage fright used to block me, but today I just accept it. Doubts are not uncommon in business either, of course. Sometimes the head says yes and the gut says no. Just recently I had an awesome business plan in front of me, the thing could be a success, but the team didn't really convince me. I didn't invest because I'm tired of lazy compromises. Head and gut feeling have to fit together.
So doubt is not a bad thing at all?
Doubts are good, they make you check if everything is in balance. Doubts are normal and important. But you must not let them take away your courage.
What is your strategy?
When I had cancer, it helped me to imagine the worst case scenario and then think of courses of action: What do I do if this happens, what if it happens this way or that way? This is extremely helpful in negotiations, because I have played through practically all the scenarios beforehand and know which compromise I might be prepared to make. I have decided this beforehand and am not surprised in the situation. These courses of action lead to freedom, then you lose the fear. The important thing is always the goal: Whether I go left or right and do a few more flips, it doesn't matter. Most people lose sight of the big goal. Doubts force you to think - about plan A, but also about plan B, C and D.