Martin Fischer, Steffen Brehme, Mario Oswald and Lothar Kimmeringer founded Lobster in 2002. The next twenty years were dedicated to establishing the company as a lucrative mid-size software company. This called for the necessary technical know-how, a favourable economic environment and a sprinkling of good luck. To reflect on this journey, our CEO Martin Fischer sat down with us to share his experience as a founder.
Martin, tell us – what did the early days at Lobster look like? Was there a proper business plan with funding secured or did you just put your faith in your vision and the booming tech industry?
Well as it happens, Lobster was actually our second start-up. In 1997, Steffen, Mario and I launched our first brainchild, a shopping software leasing company. At the time, we weren’t thinking about organic growth, but focussed on revenue potential in the distant future. We wanted to be listed on the Neuer Markt, a separate segment of the German stock market that was modelled on the US’s NASDAQ. The plan was to use this to generate additional capital for more growth. We had already set a date to go public for 15 January 2001, but in the end, we didn’t get that far. In October 2000, the Neuer Markt started to disintegrate and our key investors went bankrupt, taking us along with them.
Saying that, our experience in e-commerce showed us that application integration tools were the way forward. So, it wasn’t long before we got back in the saddle and decided to start another business. This time, we chose to develop an integration tool for the e-fulfilment industry. And Lobster was born.
How easy was it to source funding for your new business model after your first company was unsuccessful?
When the dotcom bubble burst in the early 2000s, it was basically impossible for start-ups to receive funding. Market sentiments ranged from cautious to deeply sceptical. This meant the only way to get Lobster off the ground was to go down the self-funding route. So, the three of us scraped together what we could, invested it in the business and split the shares accordingly.
From then on, we were all about organic growth, generating quick returns and adjusting our lifestyle as founders to the – initially modest – financials.
So, you all had to tighten your belts? Is teamwork a big consideration as founders? How did you allocate responsibilities?
We really bonded over the failure of our first project. That was one of the positives we took from that experience. It also helped that the three of us share similar values: none of us are hugely focussed on material things. But we were all dedicated to turning our business idea into a reality and having the freedom to do our own thing. To be independent. That was what really kept us going. We never argued over money – which is possibly another reason why we work so well together.
We each have our own distinct skill sets that complement each other, so the roles and responsibilities were clear from the outset. We discussed our guiding principles, and then went off and got on with our assigned tasks. I think that, too, is integral when starting a company: trusting in your co-founders’ skills while also staying in your lane. If I’m doing my best, then the others can do their best. And vice versa. When launching a start-up, the founders’ input is paramount. It allows you to drive your ideas forward, to ensure your vision is sustainable, to avoid selling too many shares to investors and to maintain a sense of momentum.
So, when in Lobster’s journey did you think: We’ve made it?
Self-funding and having to build a company organically takes time. Lobster didn’t grow exponentially from the word go. It took five years before we knew we had a good thing going.
But as there was an incredible need for integration in logistics, their response to our software products was resoundingly positive right from the start. So, as a young company, we earned our stripes in the logistics industry. It also gave us unique insights into the highly complex needs of logistics processes, allowing us to broaden our focus on ‘data integration’ and add areas such as process automation and no-code. “Growing by doing”, one might say. This example also proves that founders can’t plan everything in minute detail. There is always an element of risk and opportunity involved. It then comes down to your gut and a bit of good luck to hopefully make the right decision.
What piece of advice would you give to young founders out there today?
I believe that a successful start-up, ultimately, comes down to your inner conviction. Building a business depends on so many unforeseeable factors, that you have no control over. For us, it was the dotcom bubble bursting, for others it could be the recent pandemic or current strains on international relations. The shifting of economic power.
What you do have control over, however, is how you approach and deal with these challenges. Falling on your face is the first step to success. Getting up again is the second. You should only stop pursuing your goals if you find the uncertainty or the financial pressures to be unsustainable for you. But if you choose to persevere – there is truth in the saying: when one door closes, then another one opens.