What’s the feasibility of a disruptive project such as the high-speed supertrain Hyperloop in countries like Germany that tend to be critical of technical innovations?
Here in Germany we have a cultural problem with failure. If you’ve tried something and it didn’t work, what do you do after that? Who will work with you? We have to abolish this fear of failure in Germany. But I think the young generation is already changing that.
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is not only developing an innovative mobility project, the company concept itself is also innovative. Can you explain your crowdstorming business model to us in more detail?
We work with our community. These are people who are generally helping us out, whether via Facebook or other channels, who are somehow connected and react whenever we have an idea. That means we are open to external inspiration, comments, technologies. As well as that, we have our core of super-professional people such as specialists in levitation technology. A lot of them aren’t working for us fulltime, but investing at least ten hours per week into the project. You can’t demand anymore of them and you wouldn’t get any more than that either. The best people are already working for someone else, as they say. Our business model means that you can work with these top people and they’re also passionate about what they do. I think we’ll be seeing that more often in the future.
A lot of your employees and partners are working on the Hyperloop project in addition to their normal job. What’s the magic formula for getting people on board?
I actually think it’s very simple. Everyone has certain interests, so if someone were to approach you right now and say: “Hey, we have this fantastic idea,” and you say: “Wow, that sounds amazing,” then you would get involved as soon as they ask you. That means it’s really about passion and about sparking a flame in people. They should have the feeling that they’re part of something bigger.
What role does marketing play in your business model?
Marketing is key. We want to create a movement and not just a company. You have to reach out to the people. And not only in the form of a campaign, but you have to say: “Hey, we are your brand, you make us what we are, tell us what we could do better”. And then you have to show them that you are putting this input to use. Establishing this culture among your own customers is important, and it makes you pretty much unbeatable.
Do you see the CMO as the one who should be driving this movement forward?
In our case, the marketing is down to the bosses, the CEOs, and they work very closely with the CMO. That’s essential. You can’t work in a bubble with your marketing team and community with no interest being shown from the management.
Were you passionate about the Hyperloop from the outset?
To be honest, it was the business model that attracted me at the beginning. I wanted to see if it would work. But of course the passion is there.
How is the business model organised? Something between a top-down and self-regulating approach?
We are organised into teams and the teams have their leaders, who have grown into that position naturally. These teams are managed by our CEO and have to achieve their targets. And of course we also have certain development schedules, it’s all organised properly. But the motivation is a different one.
Would you say that innovation isn’t just about the next new technology, but more about a kind of attitude, a mindset? That as changemakers and pioneers we always have to further question and disrupt our own mental framework if we want to successfully lead our teams in the long term and move forward?
I think that if you already have companies, you’re always going to have the problem with the willingness to take risks. You have something, it works, but innovation or even disruption are something that scare people off. The mindset is important, and I think that a lot of people want innovation and have ideas, but then when it really comes to the crunch, they’re afraid.
You mean when it comes to the implementation?
Yes. That’s the reason why the big industries often have problems. The executive boards and managers are measured by today’s results. They are paid for making money today and tomorrow. It doesn’t matter what happens the day after tomorrow because they probably won’t be there by then anyway. So if, for example, they have to invest in what happens the day after tomorrow, that is deducted from the profits of today’s results, so you end up with a minus. No one is going to be happy about that. As a founder you see it very differently. I don’t think about today, nor tomorrow, but about the day after tomorrow and about what comes after that. That is my vision and where I want to be. That’s the big difference.
What three pieces of advice would you give managers when it comes to the future viability of their organisation?
It’s not that simple. I believe that we often restrict people, and if you keep on just being paid your wages, then you don’t necessarily have to make any changes. Fortunately, there is a new generation emerging. Young people don’t necessarily want to work at Siemens or Mercedes, they are preferring to establish start-ups, and that’s a good thing. It’s really important to work together and to be open. Today I was sitting down with a big German industrial company and laid out pretty much our entire plan in front of them. I wasn’t worried that they could copy our idea. I know that they’d never manage to do it the way we plan to. I have nothing to be afraid of because they profit from working with us and vice versa. Large corporations have to work with the newer ones and also with start-ups. Only then will change start to happen. A lot of the big companies of recent years are still going strong because they’ve invested in the right start-up. It’s very important to have the right intuition for people and to invest in them. After all, it’s not about technologies or ideas, the only thing that counts are people when you want to start a company, despite all of the difficulties involved. Especially when you’re doing it without capital. You don’t have to support them with money either, but with resources, with advice, perhaps even with human capital.
Mr Ahlborn, thank you very much for talking to us.