On a greyish morning, Lars and I go and visit Maria Molland, Head of European operations at fab.com. fab’s Berlin headquarters – an old ground floor factory loft in a Kreuzberg backyard – is warm and bright and colourful. Maria, having just returned from a trip to the States, is certainly much more lively than I tend to be when I’m struggling with jet-lag, so we jump right in.
A: You’ve just very recently come to Berlin, so I’d be especially interested in the comparison with other cities you know well. I hear you’ve been travelling between Paris and London a lot, and you spent some time in New York…?
M: Oh yes, and I am originally from San Francisco, the ultimate hotbed of tech entrepreneurship! But I love Berlin for a lot of reasons. I think from a startup perspective and the entrepreneur and tech scene here, it’s definitely becoming bigger and bigger. When I was in London, I was a partner at a VC firm there, looking at a lot of startups. I also advised the UK government on how they could encourage more entrepreneurship and Venture capitalists to invest in London-based entrepreneurs.
I think for Europe in general, it’s been a little like rolling a rock up a big hill for the last twenty years, because it’s hard to get really good entrepreneurs to stay in Europe and not move to the Valley. And that’s primarily because it’s obviously the hotbed of entrepreneurship already, but most importantly the Venture Capitalists in the US are just a lot stronger than VCs in Europe.
I’ll start looking at London and will get to Berlin in a moment: the London-based VCs tend to be much more risk-averse. The UK government is realising that – if they want to encourage more entrepreneurs to stay in Europe – they need to go beyond VC and – for example – get more angel investors to invest. And of course the other reason is that there have been few exits – there have been fewer acquisitions, very few of them public, and I believe that’s another reason why a lot entrepreneurs go to the US.
For Germany, it’s a very similar type of situation, but I do think it has become this new place for entrepreneurs to be. It’s also relatively cheap and very diverse, which makes it similar to London. I see a lot of Nordic-based startups coming here, I’ve noticed a lot of people from Austria and the rest of Europe, which means that you get the talent, and you get it relatively cheap. And similar to the Valley, there are a lot of people here working in a similar line, meaning they can connect and feed off each other and do business along the way.
So I think there is a lot of opportnity in Berlin because of that factor, and I know the UK is a little worried about that… (she laughs) Berlin is becoming a center of Europe from a startup perspective, but I think it still has a long way to go too. I was asked the other day by a journalist what I think Berlin can do better, and I think they just think too small here. Think beyond Germany, at least think Europe! They don’t think about building the beginnings of a global business, they lack a little bit of fire. Partly I think it’s a question of the right mindset, but partly it’s also due to the VC community. There have not been many big exits yet, and we just need to see a little more of that.
It makes me laugh: Maybe the idea of Germans conquering the world doesn’t go down too well with some people for a whole lot of different reasons…
Maria laughs again: Very true, yes!
VCs and Women in Business.
So when you mention the differences within the VC scene – is it also a question of culture and mindset? Has the VC scene just been around a lot longer in the US, or is it a completely different way of thinking?
I think partly it’s been around longer… and also, if you look back at the way the US was founded, there’s always been a lot of risk-taking involved. It’s a sense of ‘You don’t need to swing for the fences, it’s okay to mess up, to go bankrupt, you can build it all again.’
I don’t know the Berlin-based VCs as much, but I know the London-based VCs and most of them come from accounting backgrounds. A bit of banking here and there, obviously… but few of them come from startups, not even from operational roles. And I think that when you’re a former entrepreneur working at a VC, your mind works in a different way: you’re willing to take more risk. Then you will get more VCs who don’t tend to keep their money down so much, looking at it as a portfolio strategy, rather than needing every single company in that portfolio to do well. And that’s how the VC world works: you invest into 50 companies, and only few of them ever do really well, the rest of them are just awful. It’s hard to find that mentality with European VCs.
The VC scene is also very male dominated. How did you feel about that?
Well, I grew up in a household full of men, so I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy. I just really feel I belong very well with men, almost more so than women – so it’s never been a problem for me. I actually feel, even though that’s maybe not an ideal thing to say, that it is very much an advantage. I think it’s being able to be different. This is a big difference between Venture Capitalists and entrepreneurs: people actually like differences! They like having more than one perspective, and I think that it is a realistaion that is starting to come to a lot of people – if you are a VC and you are investing in a company – especially in the commerce space – oftentimes it will be a women doing the buying. So it’s a hell of a lot better to have some woman sitting on the board. Obviously it’s always about having a board that’s very diverse, but if you need to represent your user base, you simply need to have women on board.
Of course in a big company, sometimes you may feel like there is a bit of a boys’ network; that certainly happens at some of my old companies. I think those were the only times that I ever felt there was a difference – not so much between the sexes per se, but to the way in which people interact with each other. I think the women couldn’t quite interact in the same ways.
In the tech world, you wouldn’t have that so much, but in the VC scene you do. I think in the entrepreneurial scene, it’s more the women themselves that discount their ability, and i think it’s also personal situations. If I look at my business school class at Harvard, out of my group of ten really good girlfriends, I am one of two that work. That’s fine, it’s their choice, but at the same time I feel that people need to start accepting it when we choose differently.
I have a small hypothesis. I have the impression that if women work together well – from different companies or teams – they develop a relationship that goes beyond business and becomes more of a friendship. Maybe women put a stronger focus on the question whether they get along, and that tends to foster some very interesting connections and relationships.
I agree with that. Maybe it’s because there have not been that many women at a certain level in the past, but if you are at the same company, you tend to compete with each other. So sometimes within the same company, women may not help each other, but when they are working together across companies in, say, business development, and it works out on a personal level, you can almost be like sisters. There is definitely that. When you get it right, it is much stronger than your average working relationship.
There is a great German word “Stutenbissigkeit” – when women start competing and they start to get a little… well, difficult.
Actually, I think that with women in business, when you’re at the top, it requires a certain mindset. And if there’s someone ot a similar level, it almost becomes a fight for attention.
Here at Fab, you’ve also got quite a diverse team in terms of nationalities, I take it?
Yes, very much so. Especially over here. Obviously, in the US it’s much more Americans, whereas here, gosh, we’re so many different nationalities…. I think in the whole online management team, we only have three Germans. Dutch, English, Americans obviously… It’s never been something that we actively set out to do, but we were naturally very open to it. Our market is all over Europe, so it obviously helps if you have people from those countries on your team. And I think this actually comes back to my earlier comment about Berlin – you can find really talented people from all around the world here. Which I actually didn’t really realise until I moved here – that it is a really cool city from that perspective as well.
Did you have role models, and if you did, were they male or female?
I do, but more so in the last ten years or so, rather than before that. Female role models… probably my mother. She didn’t work, so she wasn’t a working woman – but very much a strong woman, standing up for what she believes in. Both my parents could probably count as my role models – because they told me from the very beginning that I could do anything. I never thought that I couldn’t. That is actally something I’d really like to emphasize if I had kids – there are so many children that grow up really insecure because their parents didn’t give them that feeling. So from that perspective I guess my parents really would be my role models.
And then, since I started working, after business school, that was probably more when my role models really came into being. There are three of them, and actually they all happen to be gay men. It wasn’t because I actively chose not to have female role models, there just weren’t that many of them around… There were just never that many women in senior roles.
Working in the luxury goods segment, at some point I became extremely fed up with selling stuff that people do not need. How do you feel about fab in that sense?
I think about that a lot. Initially I wanted to start my own business, which would have been something a little more altruistic. I don’t like to do things that make the world a worse place instead of a better one. With luxury goods, I can totally see your point – although I must admit that I am definitely a passionate consumer of luxury goods (she laughs). I’d probably struggle with working in that area too. But with fab, the real difference we make is – most importantly to me – within the designers’ world. Sometimes in just one day, a designer who has never really had a platform to reach many people makes the same as in an entire quarter! When I hear those stories I get goosebumps; you feel like you’re really changing people’s lives. Of course it doesn’t work that way for all the designers, but for some of them. A good chunk of the designers we have on our site are very small; we found them at fairs, and they don’t have much of an audience beyond that. They would have never dreamed of reaching the 10 million members we have across the world. Also, some German designers start selling in the US and vice-versa, creating the beginnings of a global distribution; that is beginning to happen more and more.
And then you look at the consumer side of things. We have price points from 10 Euros going up to 5.000 Euros, so yes, we do also sell some of that more expensive stuff. But even that more expensive stuff is… I don’t want to call it discounted, but those are unique things that are really authentic and from unique designers – so it’s still not really that expensive either. Combined with an average value of around 40 Euros, fab is just not super expensive. And the products that we sell – they’re products that make people smile. They’re quirky and fun and colourful, and I think they brighten people’s lives. So if I look at my apartment now in comparison to my apartment a year ago…. it’s not cheap, just inexpensive. It’s fun, it’s colourful, it’s unique and peope talk about it. And I think that that’s what we’re giving the consumer: the quirkyness and the fun. So if you ask me: yes, it is consumption – but it is consumption that makes people smile.