From Apple to Ciao.com to Hypeed.com, Nicolas Metzke has certainly seen his fair share of the startup world. Having recently sold his startup, I wanted to take the chance to talk about his experiences, his lessons learned, and to catch a quick preview of what we can expect in the future. While most startupers think in exits, Nicolas’ story is not one of a glorious exit, but more a settling exit. He had to let go of the startup when he realized that he was not best suited to tackle the problem and put in the time that the startup required – this is certainly one of the greatest weaknesses young entrepreneurs face. Nicolas’ background is diverse, and his story is one worth hearing:
What led you to become an entrepreneur?
I started my first company in January 2000. Entrepreneurship wasn’t my initial plan – you could say that I wasn’t “born” an entrepreneur. After business school, I did what many students did back in the early ’90s – I became a consultant. There was some social status attached to the consultant job and most importantly, it allows you to get involved in different projects without having to commit to one job for the rest of your career. Younger people today don’t seem to think that way anymore, but I was part of the “old school thinking” that a professional career is built by progressing within a specific vertical, whether in an industry or in an area of expertise.
During my time as a consultant, I never worked for a company that I would have considered joining, so I ultimately went on to work for Apple. This was a pivot point for me professionally.
Talking about taking risk, joining Apple in 1996 was risky! But I liked the brand and their products, so I followed my gut, instead of going a safer way and work for a FMCG company as a category manager. In 1998 I spent 3 months at Apple’s headquarter in Cupertino.I was lucky to be there, right on the campus when the very first
iMac was introduced. This was a magical moment and has forced me to re-think what I wanted to do. I was renting a small flat in the center of Palo Alto and was amazed by all those people who claimed to have their own ideas and business plans. It was the time of the first Internet wave (that bubbled and crashed soon afterwards), and there were unbelievable vibes.
What was your first entrepreneurial endeavor?
When I came back from California I decided that I also wanted to start my own company. I did not have a project, nor a team, so I started networking and was lucky to get in touch with the two guys who founded Ciao.com in Munich. In January 2000 I started Ciao France as the first operation outside of the headquarter, in 2002 I became part of the core management team. When we sold Ciao in 2005 we were about 300 people in 8 offices and highly profitable.
What about your most recent startup, Hypeed.com – what’s the story there?
I first met one co-founder, Romain Moyne, to whom I was introduced by a friend. We didn’t start a company right away; we spent almost a year trying to make another idea work. We were focused on a music streaming service. We had a pretty good product ready to go and we had big ambitions, but we were facing two major obstacles: negotiations with the rights-owners and the already pretty competitive market with music startups who were massively funded and backed by international VCs. We decided to not go ahead with that project and went back to the drawing board.
We enjoyed the “music-experience” and wanted to find another idea that we could launch as a team. We had different ideas, but the fashion community was the one we felt most attracted to for various reasons. First, the market itself, then the fact that we thought that our idea was disrupting the traditional behavior and finally the fact that with this project we could best leverage our past experiences and knowledge. Romain was the product guy who, all by himself was able to create from scratch everything we needed, I was the business guy and we had a third co-founder who was also part of our previous decision to not pursue the music-startup. He was very experienced and well connected within the Internet startup community and joined our project as equal partner, but without having an operational role.
We started to develop the product and incorporated end of 2009. After a few months we hired a fashion blogger to join our team as content and community manager and to help us gain insight into this market, and as the only girl in the team. We self-funded this business and did not want to raise money until we had a very good story to tell. We wanted the global play. The first months were dedicated to building the community and establishing our fashion magazine in the blogoshpere. I think we did well, and we learnt a lot about this market. Fashion being one of the “french specialities” we had a good reason to believe that we could run a global startup from Paris. Actually, TechCrunch France invited me last May to speak about exactly this topic at the TC Recipe event that they organized. Right before this I was part of a panel discussion at New York’s #Fashion140 conference.
Why’d you ultimately sell?
A few months after we started the UGC magazine Hypeed.comwe realized that it would take longer and require more resources than expected to reach the level of awareness and market penetration we needed to have this “very good story” to tell. At the same time, as we progressed in this market, we saw another opportunity with a slightly different approach. We decided to keep Hypeed.com going, but shifted our focus to the fashion shopping idea that we called “where to get it?” Thus after working for over one year on Hypeed.com we pivoted and started all over again.
We successfully tested wheretoget.it for a few months and then launched it in May last year. We were hoping that we could leverage the synergies between our first community on Hypeed.com and the new community on wheretoget.it We quickly realized that in reality there weren’t so many synergies and that both websites, despite being fashion oriented, were attracting different audiences. At the same time we were revisiting our long-term strategy and personal goals. We decided that we had to re-focus and as consequence had to exit Hypeed.com which had interesting assets, but was not sustainable as a stand-alone business short-term. I contacted potential acquirers with complementary businesses and we finally sold to Ykone who has a vision for this community and strategic interest. I wouldn’t consider Hypeed.com a good exit in the sense that we have not been able to build the next-generation fashion magazine as it wanted and had to exit before it became a real story; however, I still get some satisfaction out of it, not financially, but personally and a lot of new learnings … and maybe some interesting ideas for the next business.
What do you think is in store for you for the future? Another startup? In the fashion space?
Yes, I am definitely planning another startup. I have a few business ideas I did not have time to pursue at the same time as I was running Mosaic Lab and doing Hypeed. I am exploring these opportunities at the moment and one possible project is in fashion indeed, and the others are in different segments. None of these ideas compare to the startups I have done in the past, but of course I try to leverage my specific experience and contacts. Some are in consumer Internet (and fashion) and others more B2B.
Unlike investors who most of the time have hard selection criteria for their investments and look at things such as disruption and market size, I don’t have strict rules to make my decision. I consider things like my personal connection to the product or market, the complexity of execution and the dependency on capital and raising funds. In fact my next startup might not be disruptive at all or might just address a niche market, as long as I feel convinced about the project potential.
As an entrepreneur you know that it is going to be a long journey during which you’ll face unforeseen obstacles and have to adapt to changing environments. Thus it is most important to me who I team up with, if there is good complementarity and if we share the same passion and objectives. I am lucky to have friends interested in engaging with me on this journey. In the next few weeks we will decide, and then go ahead and get serious about it.
Right now, I also spend parts of my time on my other company. We have had a great year 2011 with my consulting and software development company Mosaic Lab. We have an amazing team of software engineers with whom I really enjoy working and we have ambitions to grow by minimum 50% again in 2012. I want to continue with the same dynamics with Mosaic Lab while creating a new web startup. This is this year’s challenge.