After years spent creating a dozen companies in the e-commerce sector, Oliver Samwer decided to give promising young firms a boost through his tech incubator Rocket Internet. Get in early, goes the saying, and this strategy has paid off spectacularly for Samwer, allowing the Cologne native to dispose of assets for top dollar in double quick time. Today valued at 3.5 billion dollars, Rocket Internet has designs on becoming the Amazon of Europe.
Taking a family business forward has often proved challenging. This has not been the case for Oliver Samwer who, after several solo attempts, decided to go into business with his two brothers Marc and Alexander. During a trip to the United States in the 90s, Oliver was seduced by eBay’s business model. In 1999, the Samwer boys launched a German version, Alando. Unlike some entrepreneurs who dream of developing their company, all three were looking to hit the jackpot, which they duly did six months after launching when they sold Alando to none other than eBay for $50 million.
A production line of finds
Flushed from this overnight success, they decided to industrialize their business method by creating, in 2007, Rocket Internet. The company's model is based on investing to help successful, often American, concepts take root in other countries. Ironically, sites launched by Rocket Internet are often bought by the very companies which inpired them.
Samwer struck gold again in 2010, selling Citydeal to Groupon for $126 million. Now convinced it was possible to launch a startup in just 100 days, the three brothers put to use their highly efficient method of turbo charging their chosen targets. Once a business is identified, Oliver Samwer hand picks the management team, often from investment banks or consultancies.
A coronation of sorts came when their company joined the Frankfurt Stock Exchange at the end of 2014. Rocket Internet then reached a valuation of around 8 billion dollars at its IPO. With 37% of the capital, the Samwers were now billionaires. Zalando's stock market listing remains their biggest single success. With a capitalization of 6 billion dollars, the German company is still among the largest European operations. Today, Rocket has 182 companies in its portfolio and employs nearly 36,000 people in more than 110 countries.
The secret of the Samwers’ success lies in their complimentary personalities and skills. Marc, the eldest, is a sort of ‘Minister of Foreign Affairs’ at the company. Being a diplomat, he is in charge of the official negotiations. Alex, the youngest, is the strategist: he identifies companies with high potential. Oliver, the middle child, brings grit and determination. When negotiations are deadlocked, it is he who intervenes. The self-styled "most aggressive man on the internet" travels the globe raising funds and inspecting startups his company holds a stake in. A veritable startup sensei, he has helped hundreds of entrepreneurs make their fortunes.
However his teachings are not infalible. In 2015, the group suffered a loss of 225 million dollars, almost twice its turnover. In early 2016, as a result of asset write-downs, the valuation of Rocket collapsed to under 2.5 billion dollars. Since then, the brothers have rebounded by signing new successes to seduce investors. In April 2016, the German group sold its interests in Lazada to Alibaba Group for 137 million dollars. In September 2017, Naspers acquired half of the brothers’ capital in Delivery Hero for 750 million dollars. After steering his Rocket back on course, Samwer has designs on making the company the world’s third biggest e-commerce site behind Amazon and Alibaba. Few would back against him succeeding.