21 Mar 2018
1 min read
After spending more than 30 years in Silicon Valley as a tech entrepreneur, and founding and leading five different companies, Axel Schultze could have chosen to spend his retirement doing nothing, in Switzerland, where he now resides. But the entrepreneur—who won the San Francisco Entrepreneur Award in 2008—in Schultze could not call it a day. “I felt an obligation to give something back to the community that had made me so successful,” he says. That is why in 2014, Schultze started Society3, a unique global accelerator programme that is designed to extend to the world the knowledge and opportunities afforded by Silicon Valley.
Schultze then took the project a step further: in 2017, he collaborated with entrepreneurs from around the world to establish the World Innovation Forum. The goal of this forum is to double, by 2035, the global success rate of startups—from the current 10 per cent. To start working on this goal, Schultze recently set out on a tour of eight Asian countries to learn about the startup culture in emerging nations, with Nepal being the first stop on his list. For this interview, Ayush Manandhar and Darshana Singh from NEXT Venture Corp. caught up with Schultze to discuss startups, entrepreneurship, mentorship, investment and emerging markets. Excerpts:
You’ve been with five different companies that have earned billions of dollars. How did it all start?
I was 12 years old when I told my mother that I wanted to start my own business. I started my first venture when I was in the army, but that did not succeed. My father advised me to seek employment in a successful company to first understand how companies worked. I was familiar with corporate terminology—concepts like logistics, bookkeeping, human resources—but I had very little knowledge about what it all actually entailed. So I started working at a large American company, where I experienced and witnessed the inner workings of running a company. It was during this time that the process of distribution caught my attention. I thought I would be able to improve the process, which, at the time, was really fragmented and complicated. I wanted to change this, and so I went up to my boss and told him I wanted to start my own distribution company. My boss was humoured by my idea and also skeptical at first. He laughed and said, “Distribution is a 5,000-year-old business. You cannot change it, Axel!” But I was convinced that I could do a better job, and thus started a company called Computer 2000, in 1983. We started from Germany and later expanded into other European cities. Today, the company also works in Latin America, Africa and even the Middle East.
What is the golden rule of entrepreneurship that every aspiring/working entrepreneur should know?
When it comes to companies that have graduated from the startup phase, most people only see big numbers and rapid growth. They are mostly unaware of what goes on behind the scenes.
There have been numerous instances of entrepreneurs trying, failing and finally finding a solution that works. This was true for my companies as well. We have hit dead ends multiple times, and each time we have managed to overcome those barriers. This is the one thing that all aspiring entrepreneurs must understand: making mistakes is inevitable. Entrepreneurship is about learning from those mistakes. However, you must learn to bounce right back and make sure that your mistakes don’t drag you down. I think that is the golden rule of entrepreneurship.
What is Society3? And how does it support your goal of making knowledge about entrepreneurship more accessible to people?
Society3 is a global entrepreneurship and innovation support programme. Although it is a San Francisco-based accelerator, we are trying to support entrepreneurs from all around the world—through our presence in 50 countries, including Nepal.
There are two things that are very dear to me: one is entrepreneurship, and the other is giving back to the community. Instead of spending time in retirement, I thought it was time I gave back to the community and shared what I had learned so far. When I was just starting out as an entrepreneur, I had shoulders that I could step on. Now that I have years of experience and knowledge under my belt, it’s my turn to be that shoulder for someone else. This the ideology of Society3. Its purpose aligns with my aspiration to make entrepreneurship education more accessible.
How are Society3’s objectives different from other accelerators around the world?
Normally, countries that are aren’t doing very well are supported with aid, with the hopes that they will join the league of countries that are doing well. But at the end of the day, that doesn’t really help. The best way to help such countries out of poverty and into wealth and prosperity is by helping them stimulate their economic activities. When you start a new business, for example, you need people who will help you through the obstacles. Thus, by starting a business, you create employment for yourself and for other people.
Initially, our idea was rather different. We wanted to bring people to the Silicon Valley from different parts of the world, for the accelerator. However, we quickly realised that training them in Silicon Valley’s ways would take them away from their culture and creativity, as they would start soaking the culture of the valley, instead.
I would also like to say here that although it might be difficult operating in the unstable environment of a developing country, starting a business is always difficult, no matter where you are. And that includes at the ground zero of innovation, San Francisco, where competition and barriers to entry are daunting, to say the least.