SAP Co-Founder Hasso Plattner 'Germany Is a Nation of Grumblers'

Hasso Plattner is one of the co-founders of German business software giant SAP, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary. In a SPIEGEL interview, he explains what German entrepreneurs could learn from Americans and shares his memories of Apple's Steve Jobs.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Plattner, it was exactly 40 years ago that you and four partners founded SAP. Today the market leader for business software is worth some $85 billion (€64 billion) on the stock market. Why is SAP the only German IT company that's a major global player?

Plattner: We take too little pleasure in success. In the US, people have a totally different attitude. German entrepreneurs simply don't start thinking globally early enough -- which admittedly is not always that easy, because of the language apart from anything else.

SPIEGEL: A lot of small and medium-sized companies that are global market leaders in their specialized fields -- Germany's famous "hidden champions" -- would disagree with you. They have already been making their mark around the world for decades.

Plattner: That's certainly true for the mechanical engineering sector, but not in the software industry, where it's becoming increasingly difficult for us to compete. Particularly in our sector, you have to grow very rapidly and very strongly, or you don't stand a chance. I'm personally involved in a number of young companies that develop social networks and are smaller and better (than the competition). But it's not enough. They aren't growing fast enough. Over the past 10 years, our business has revolved around only three things: users, users, users. The more users I have, the more money I can earn from them at some point in time. It's not just Google that has revolutionized the world this way.

SPIEGEL: Facebook is only eight years old, has annual revenues of $3.7 billion and, following its stock market debut, could be worth $100 billion. Is that normal?

Plattner: Oh God, normal!? That's just what America is like. They're unbeatable when it comes to advertising. Don't ask me if I think it's a good thing ...

SPIEGEL: Well, do you think it's a good thing?

Plattner: You're bombarded with advertising all day long there. But that's just how it works. You really have to take your hat off to the Americans -- the way they reinvent themselves again and again, especially in the high-tech sector.

SPIEGEL: But that could also be possible in Germany.

Plattner: A lot of the framework conditions are not right here. For instance, it's much more difficult to obtain venture capital. But you need that so your company can quickly achieve a critical size. And anyone who follows all the daily debates in Germany that are critical of capitalism and growth could come to the conclusion that we Germans don't want to be successful anymore.

SPIEGEL: The media are to blame, once again?

Plattner: No, no, they only reflect the general mood. But it's really only in Germany that I'm asked time and again such strange things like: Why growth? Or: Why does the database have to be so much faster? That just creates stress ... And that, even though for the past 40 years IT has been almost exclusively about the question of speed. Americans are much more open and bolder in this respect. Their attitude has also long since been adopted by the Indians and the Chinese, which makes the competition even more difficult for us.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying that the Germans don't have enough vision?

Plattner: Many of them think too small. Over the past few years, it has felt like I spent roughly half my working hours as the chairman of the SAP supervisory board dealing with issues like the size and appropriateness of people's salaries. These are all mock battles. The Germans can't take pleasure in successes -- except when Sebastian Vettel wins a Formula One race.

SPIEGEL: Now, you're painting a picture of the German nature that's darker than it actually is. The country is in outstanding economic shape, exports are booming and it looks like full employment is just around the corner.

Plattner: That's true, there are a lot of good things about Germany -- American industry, for instance, is really in a pickle. We're the land of engineers. But we're also a nation of grumblers -- and I'm not excluding myself here either. There are also plenty of photos of me with a frown on my face.

SPIEGEL: German businessman Michael Otto, who heads the world's largest mail-order company, the Otto Group, recently told SPIEGEL that this grumbling is productive because it leads to further improvements in products.

Plattner: There might be something to that. But we Germans often don't think early enough about making our products so appealing to customers that they practically sell themselves.

SPIEGEL: Compared to a sexy company like Apple, SAP was often seen as too boring, too complex and too technical.

Plattner: It's an accusation that has often also been leveled at Microsoft: It's said they want to solve everything 150 percent, losing sight of their customers in the meantime. Microsoft had the tablet PC ready five years before Apple -- but failed to get consumers on board. It took Steve Jobs to win them over with the iPad.

SPIEGEL: Did you know Jobs well?

Plattner: Yes, he once gave me a presentation on object orientation (ed's note: a computer programming paradigm) in the NeXT system that made my head spin. He was a computer scientist without being a computer scientist. Which brings me to another typical German anecdote: When Steve Jobs had already geared everything to large flat monitors, here at SAP they still had instructions to develop everything for a 1,024 by 768-pixel screen size. At the time, you couldn't even buy such monitors any more in Palo Alto.

SPIEGEL: What did you learn from Jobs?

Plattner: Nobody else cultivated and perfected the art of omission like he did. This allowed Apple to revolutionize communication technology. Americans like Jobs have this unlimited optimism and desire to win. I once gave a presentation in Stanford that really didn't interest anyone. In the end, everyone only wanted to know one thing: How do I become a billionaire?

SPIEGEL: So, how do you do it?

Plattner: With a whole lot of luck. You have to be in the right place at the right time with the right friends and the right idea -- and then you have to rigorously execute it.

SPIEGEL: When you started out 40 years ago, computers were still fed punch cards, there were no mobile phones and the Internet wasn't even a vision. Could you have imagined that the world would develop so rapidly?

Plattner: You just don't think like that. All I knew was that we still had a long way to go. Processors and memory chips kept getting faster and smaller, even though today's computers basically still do the same things that they did before. Our job is to continuously adapt them to people's needs. The big change came with global networks.

SPIEGEL: People want to have the feeling that they're in control of technology.

Plattner: If you're talking with someone who speaks haltingly, slowly and never looks you in the eye, you don't feel at ease either. But if you're dealing with somebody who smiles at you, nods and can even complete your half sentences, you feel understood. That's how the computer of the future will be. The more humanlike they become, the more efficient we are. And they've been able to respond to voice commands and speak for quite some time now.

SPIEGEL: You recently railed at SAP's office in Palo Alto that your company still sells certain products that are neither practical nor desirable.

Plattner: That's nothing new and it's already been printed in the newspapers.

SPIEGEL: There's a difference between being harshly criticized like that from outside the company or by your own supervisory board chairman -- and it's even worse when that criticism is primarily directed at the German headquarters in Walldorf.

'Do You Want to Remind Me of All My Mistakes?'

Plattner: This criticism should have remained internal, but I'm not about to retract any of it. SAP always has to look in the mirror and ask itself at every production site: Which of our products are successful, and why? Even accounting software can and must be fun, both for programmers and users. Customers have to want it because it runs smoothly and is easy to use. That's the key to everything.

SPIEGEL: Ever since you resigned as chairman of the board in 2003, you haven't exactly demonstrated that you have the right touch when choosing top executives. The Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi, who you once wanted to be CEO of SAP, failed …

Plattner: ... but only on his own terms. He was a brilliant salesman and idea generator -- everyone stood behind him. But anyone who makes big promises, also eventually has to deliver -- and that wasn't quite so brilliant.

SPIEGEL: Co-CEO Léo Apotheker  had to leave after only a few months.

Plattner: Do you want to remind me of all my mistakes over the past 40 years? I could add quite a few to the list that you don't even know about.

SPIEGEL: Now an American, Bill McDermott, and a Dane, Jim Hagemann Snabe, are managing the company. Profits are booming again after SAP had to make its first big layoffs in 2009. Is having two co-CEOs ideal?

Plattner: That really depends on their personalities. Our two CEOs complement each other brilliantly and get along well, one located in the US and the other here. This also allays any fears that one of the two factions could become too dominant.

SPIEGEL: In early 2011, they both announced the ambitious goal of nearly doubling SAP sales by the year 2015. They are still around €6 billion short of that target. Where is that supposed to come from?

Plattner: A very important contribution will come from our latest development, an innovative high-performance database for companies, the High-Performance Analytic Appliance, or HANA …

SPIEGEL: ... something that is barely comprehensible for most laypeople. But it appears to significantly speed up computing processes. And now SAP is also getting involved in cloud computing.

Plattner: We no longer have to provide users with everything at the same time. We only have to be fast enough to be able to deliver in a flash any content, at any time, in any place. That's what HANA and the cloud are all about. It's going to become another world. And do you know when you can tell that you're right on target with a product? When AOK (one of Germany's leading statutory health insurers) buys it. Doesn't test it first, just buys it and installs it. And AOK has opted for HANA. This has given SAP another real boost ...

SPIEGEL: ... which doesn't exactly come cheap. SAP recently acquired cloud-computing specialist SuccessFactors for $3.4 billion. Will its founder and CEO, the Dane Lars Dalgaard, join the SAP board of directors?

Plattner: I'd like to see him there. We need more real movers and shakers with cloud experience in our software development. They also have to be prepared to take risks.

SPIEGEL: After you stepped down as chairman of the board, what led you to get back into development?

Plattner: You see things differently when you're no longer involved in the daily grind. I was never in the right frame of mind there. In my institute at Potsdam University I started out with perfectly normal lectures and realized that most of my students saw this as too complicated. So we began there with the reduction of complexity. We've simply taken it to the next level. And I've been able to use what I learned there myself to keep pace again with the SAP developers.

SPIEGEL: How can creativity be promoted?

Plattner: First, you have to make an honest and possibly painful appraisal of the current situation: Where are we, and where are the others? Don't sugar-coat anything. Afterwards, you have to clearly define where you really want to go. That's much more difficult than it sounds. People would often rather put together a 50-page PowerPoint presentation than simply say: We want this and this! Three sentences is usually all it takes. The Germans need to learn that you sometimes have to play around with ideas. And we always have to ask ourselves what advantages customers have and what their wishes are. Some 25 years ago, I told Porsche that their clutches were far too hard. They've changed them. Today, 30 percent of Porsche drivers are women. We have to constantly ask customers what they want. And, thank God, today's customers like to talk with us again.

SPIEGEL: Today entire sectors blossom and disappear much faster. Fifteen years ago, we still drove around with roadmaps, then came car navigation systems, and now they are being replaced by smartphones. Could even SAP disappear in 20 years?

Plattner: It could happen even faster than that, although I've never been more optimistic about my company than today: Our sales team has the right arrows in the quiver, our developers are in demand and our customers see us as the trusted innovator -- so everyone's happy.

SPIEGEL: When was the most dangerous situation for SAP?

Plattner: In 1981. We were in the process of developing our R/2 software, but didn't have it up and running yet. During this period, we collected advance payments, but then the IG Metall trade union launched one of the largest strikes in postwar German history. For five months, we sold virtually nothing. That was a very difficult year for SAP.

SPIEGEL: You're now the company's largest single shareholder. Are you afraid that your baby will one day end up being swallowed by Microsoft or someone else?

Plattner: There are no guarantees here -- except perhaps for one: As long as we are worth $85 billion on the stock exchange, as is currently the case, we're rather difficult to swallow, even if Apple could buy us tomorrow.

SPIEGEL: Your four cofounders left SAP a long time ago ...

Plattner: (laughs) … I'm the last of the Mohicans, yes.

SPIEGEL: Are you still in contact with each other?

Plattner: Only with Dietmar Hopp. I'm sure they'll all attend the anniversary celebration. We know each other well but we don't have too many romantic, nostalgic feelings. We simply worked too hard for that.

SPIEGEL: Have you set a date for when you want to leave SAP?

Plattner: No. As long as I still have something to contribute, I'll be here.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Plattner, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Thomas Tuma and Michaela Schiessl. Translated from the German by Paul Cohen.
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