By Markus Brauck and Martin U. Müller
Oliver Samwer is sitting in his Munich office talking about how much of his life he spends on airplanes, his 18-hour days and the constant trips between Singapore, Moscow and São Paulo. Sometimes, he says, he make several different reservations for the same route, to be sure that he won't lose any time in case of scheduling snags. Just listening to him describe his schedule is enough to make you dizzy. And then his wife calls.
The mobile phone buzzes twice, and he ignores it both times. He answers the third time and murmurs a term of endearment. He gives her 20 seconds, and then he says he'll call her back. The sound of his wife's protestations is so loud that it's even audible on the other side of the table.
Samwer hangs up, smiles and continues where he left off: with his high-speed life.
A fast pace is important for this successful businessman. Anyone who interacts with him is forced to adjust to his velocity -- including his wife.
For Samwer, everything is about speed, and about reaching the finish line before everyone else. In the German Internet business, he and his brothers Marc and Alexander are always the first to show when there is money to be made. And they are often gone shortly before the party is over.
Even their very first coup was a speed record. In 1999, they founded Alando, a German clone of the online auction house Ebay. Only 100 days later, they sold the company to Ebay for about $50 million (38 million), making them legends early in their careers. Later on, they became involved with Jamba, StudiVZ, Citydeal, Groupon, Facebook, Parship, eDarling, MyVideo, Wimdu, HelloFresh, GlossyBox, Zalando and many other Internet up-and-comers.
Conquering One Country after the Next
The brothers usually get out and cash in just as the companies start getting big. Some of these deals produce hundreds of millions of euros in profits, and they have likely made Oliver, 39, Marc, 41 and Alexander, 37, into billionaires today.
The Samwers have grasped the principle of e-commerce better than almost anyone else in the world, and they are just as active in Brazil as they are in Indonesia, systematically conquering one country after the next. Most recently, they have shown a preference for investing in highly populous markets with moderate economic infrastructures and a poorly developed Internet business.
The Samwer brothers ought to be stars in Germany, role models for anyone hoping to make money on the Internet. But outside of management schools, people tend to acknowledge them with reluctance -- and certainly not with the amount of attention normally paid to Internet heroes in Germany and abroad.
In the last few decades, the United States have produced entrepreneurs like Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who even designed a vision for the Internet television of the future from his sickbed, and philosophized about death. Or people who, with their ideas, have changed the Internet and the world, like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the Google duo, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. And whom does Germany have? The Samwers.
Oliver Samwer, the trio's driving force, did very well in school, as did his brothers, and he presumably has an IQ well above average. He could probably come up with a few slogans about how he intends to make the world a better place, to make people happier or, at least, to make everyday life a little easier. But would anyone believe him?
Traveling within the Galaxy
Their vision is to grow and attain "a bigger share of the Internet," says Oliver Samwer. He draws a diagram on a piece of paper showing all of the family's companies in Italy, each represented by a small box -- just under a dozen altogether. Then he connects them all with lines and says: "It's hard to fight against that. It's a fixed entity." And Italy, he points out, is only a part of the whole. The same structure exists in Thailand, Brazil, Russia, France and Chile. All the companies support one another, he says. Each Samwer company is "a star" and "they make up a galaxy worldwide."
He's constantly traveling within this galaxy. He makes a relatively inconspicuous and minimalist impression, dressed in jeans, a shirt and a gray sweater, carrying an Apple laptop and pulling a trolley case. It's hard to grasp Oliver Samwer. He almost never talks to journalists and avoids red carpets, and even people who have worked with him for years say that they have no idea who he is.
Samwer's emails rarely consist of more than a few words. When he travels, he makes sure that he arrives in the morning and is gone by evening. He doesn't like to stay in a country for "more than eight hours," he says. "We love speed -- just like Formula 1." It's something he says a lot.
The brothers allegedly agreed to form a joint company when they were only 12, 14 and 16, respectively, but they didn't have a business idea yet. Later on, they admired the founders of airlines Ryanair and Virgin Atlantic. But buying an aircraft would have been too expensive. And then came the Internet, and it changed everything. The Samwers saw their opportunity, and they developed a business model that could only function in a country in which the digital economy was just emerging.
Beating Everyone Else to the Punch
Germany, like Russia, Brazil and France, is in the shadow of the primarily English-speaking Internet. Normally this would be a drawback. German competitors play only a secondary role to US companies like Amazon, Ebay, Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft. But this also has its advantages. For instance, when a new company establishes itself in the United States, it usually isn't paying much attention to countries like Germany or Russia yet.
This is the point at which the Samwers like to make their move. They launch a German, Brazilian or Italian copy of the original, beating everyone else to the punch, and when the original gets around to expanding globally, the Samwers will have already occupied large parts of the rest of the world.
They turned this basic idea into a sensational coup with their Alando-Ebay deal, and they took a similar approach with the German social networking site StudiVZ. The only difference is that they didn't sell it to the original, Facebook, but to the Stuttgart-based Holtzbrinck publishing house. The network, seldom used today, was valued at 85 million. The Samwers pride themselves on having resold several dozen companies for a profit in the last 12 years, in many cases by selling the clones to the originals.
Samwer doesn't like the word clone. "It's a mistake to think that the idea is the decisive factor," he says. "Ideas are nothing special. There are thousands of ideas. But of thousands of ideas, only one succeeds. And that's the real point." The most important thing, he says, is to bring this idea "onto the street," as he calls it. And it's with this approach that the Samwers are, in a sense, global market leaders.
In Germany, the Samwers have been involved in the founding of many important Internet companies by way of their Berlin-based incubator Rocket Internet. The Russian-born US billionaire Leonard Blawatnik reportedly just invested $200 million in the company.
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