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July 11, 2021

No Shame: The Rocket Internet Story

The German company-builder is shameless. That might be a good thing.

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Few emotions are quite so human as shame. 

Simultaneously teacher and tyrant, shame is a corrective personally felt but collectively constructed. More than guilt, which separates person and deed, shame excoriates the individual not for what they’ve done, but for who they are, relative to the norms of their local context. There is a reason we hate to feel ashamed — it is a sign of a most intimate failure and of total isolation. Your culture rejects you; go the way of Brutus; fall upon your sword. 

If this implies the benefit of shame — societal coherence — it comes at a cost. What good ideas have been stifled by the fear of indignity? What progress have we missed out on because we were afraid we might look silly? 

Enough inspirational mugs and throw pillows have asked us: what would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? That construction misleads. We do not fear failure so much as the dishonor that arrives with particular manifestations. Fitted for the modern entrepreneur, the more useful question might be: what would you build if you felt no shame? 

In Rocket Internet, we have the answer. Since its founding in 2007, no company has demonstrated both the risks and riches of operating with no shame. Decried as a soulless copycat and defended as a catalyst for innovation, the Berlin-based startup incubation firm has been frequently covered but rarely understood. That’s perhaps because one’s position on Rocket feels less about the nuances of the company, more about who you are and how you see the world. To have an opinion on the Samwer brothers' creation communicates a certain aesthetics of work, answering questions like: 

Is there such a thing as a novel idea?

Is innovation a singular act, or a process? 

Does business have a code of honor?

Is mimicry simple, sensible pragmatism, or somehow...wrong?

These are the inquests an investigation into Rocket precipitates.  An observer of the company can easily waver one way or another in the course of research, swayed by the anomalousness of it. This is a business simultaneously visionary and uncreative in the extreme, both artistically bankrupt and operationally brilliant.

Though that befuddling concoction proved potent for a decade, Rocket’s future looks uncertain. After delisting in 2020, the Samwers’s brainchild  seems set for a quiet retirement or reinvention. Only time will tell which proves the truer path.

In today’s briefing, we’ll explore: 

  1. The brothers’ origins
  2. Oli’s manifesto
  3. Rocket’s playbook 
  4. Managing like a Replicant
  5. The Rocket Mafia(s)
  6. A checkered legacy

Lasst uns beginnen.

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Origins

The Samwer lineage 

“One ought to go too far, in order to know how far one can go.” 

Anyone that knows him might guess those words came from Rocket’s famously intense chief, Oliver Samwer. In fact, they’re the work of Noble Prize-winning novelist, Henrich Böll, a client of the Samwer brothers’ father. Samwer pater led a distinguished career as an attorney, serving as counsel to Karl Carstens, who later became the President of Germany. That was but the continuation of a dignified family history — Oliver’s great-grandfather was the founder and director of a company that would become The Gothaer Group, an insurance company with revenues surpassing €4.5 billion in 2020. Oliver’s great-great-grandfather was Germany’s foreign minister. 

All to say that in 1970, Marc, the eldest of die Brüder, was born into an affluent, intellectually rigorous environment. Two years later, Oliver arrived, and a year after that, Alexander followed. 

From an early age, the brothers shared an interest in entrepreneurship, but as a harbinger of things to come, they were less concerned with ideation. As Marc once explained, "Our problem was we wanted to be entrepreneurs first, then had to find an idea." For a time, they fantasized about building a low-cost airline, considering Richard Branson and Ryanair founder Michael O’Leary among their idols. That idea wouldn’t stick, but the intense interest in business building was stoked in successive years.

That was particularly true of Oliver. He matriculated to WHU’s Otto Beisheim School of Management in 1994, and visited Silicon Valley the next year. That proved an eye-opening introduction to the world of entrepreneurship. Oliver followed suit with his own experiment, though of a decidedly less technical variety. In 1995, he founded “Ego International Trading,” a maker of shoes based in Bolivia. While that provided a crash course in scrappy operating, Oliver’s true education would come back at WHU in the form of a groundbreaking thesis. 

The Samwer Manifesto

America’s Most Successful Startups” is a remarkable document. Published by Oli and classmate Max Finger in September 1998, it is a distillation of the duo’s concerted study of US innovation, with particular emphasis on the tech sector. It is a terse, hortative text that outlines how companies can and should be built. 

Samwer and Finger’s authoritative tone is mostly earned. The pair interviewed nearly 100 tech and venture luminaries including legends like Dick Kramlich and Mitch Kapor. What’s most exciting about the thesis though, is less the names rounded up or even the perspicacity it shows. Super angels and remote work are discussed. And long before it became accepted wisdom, the authors articulate the importance of customer interviews, the prioritization of execution over ideation, and the need to cut underperformers quickly. This is the Ur-“move fast and break things,” the proto-Lean Startup

This hints at what is really striking about the work: it is an almost perfect playbook for the business Samwer would build close to a decade later. Among other things, the authors extoll the virtues of under-competed markets, emphasize the preference for aggressive execution, note the need to change company management at scale, and express a disregard for ideas. 

The story awaits...

Join today to access the rest of the Rocket Internet story. You'll also unlock everything else The Generalist has to offer, including:

Here's how one Member described us: 

The Generalist is my number one read. Thoughtful, insightful, and ridiculously consistent. It should be in every investor's arsenal.

- Leif Abraham, CEO of Public

Actionable insights, nutritious brain food, and a cultured writing style — all in one package. Join today.

Few emotions are quite so human as shame. 

Simultaneously teacher and tyrant, shame is a corrective personally felt but collectively constructed. More than guilt, which separates person and deed, shame excoriates the individual not for what they’ve done, but for who they are, relative to the norms of their local context. There is a reason we hate to feel ashamed — it is a sign of a most intimate failure and of total isolation. Your culture rejects you; go the way of Brutus; fall upon your sword. 

If this implies the benefit of shame — societal coherence — it comes at a cost. What good ideas have been stifled by the fear of indignity? What progress have we missed out on because we were afraid we might look silly? 

Enough inspirational mugs and throw pillows have asked us: what would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? That construction misleads. We do not fear failure so much as the dishonor that arrives with particular manifestations. Fitted for the modern entrepreneur, the more useful question might be: what would you build if you felt no shame? 

In Rocket Internet, we have the answer. Since its founding in 2007, no company has demonstrated both the risks and riches of operating with no shame. Decried as a soulless copycat and defended as a catalyst for innovation, the Berlin-based startup incubation firm has been frequently covered but rarely understood. That’s perhaps because one’s position on Rocket feels less about the nuances of the company, more about who you are and how you see the world. To have an opinion on the Samwer brothers' creation communicates a certain aesthetics of work, answering questions like: 

Is there such a thing as a novel idea?

Is innovation a singular act, or a process? 

Does business have a code of honor?

Is mimicry simple, sensible pragmatism, or somehow...wrong?

These are the inquests an investigation into Rocket precipitates.  An observer of the company can easily waver one way or another in the course of research, swayed by the anomalousness of it. This is a business simultaneously visionary and uncreative in the extreme, both artistically bankrupt and operationally brilliant.

Though that befuddling concoction proved potent for a decade, Rocket’s future looks uncertain. After delisting in 2020, the Samwers’s brainchild  seems set for a quiet retirement or reinvention. Only time will tell which proves the truer path.

In today’s briefing, we’ll explore: 

  1. The brothers’ origins
  2. Oli’s manifesto
  3. Rocket’s playbook 
  4. Managing like a Replicant
  5. The Rocket Mafia(s)
  6. A checkered legacy

Lasst uns beginnen.

Origins

The Samwer lineage 

“One ought to go too far, in order to know how far one can go.” 

Anyone that knows him might guess those words came from Rocket’s famously intense chief, Oliver Samwer. In fact, they’re the work of Noble Prize-winning novelist, Henrich Böll, a client of the Samwer brothers’ father. Samwer pater led a distinguished career as an attorney, serving as counsel to Karl Carstens, who later became the President of Germany. That was but the continuation of a dignified family history — Oliver’s great-grandfather was the founder and director of a company that would become The Gothaer Group, an insurance company with revenues surpassing €4.5 billion in 2020. Oliver’s great-great-grandfather was Germany’s foreign minister. 

All to say that in 1970, Marc, the eldest of die Brüder, was born into an affluent, intellectually rigorous environment. Two years later, Oliver arrived, and a year after that, Alexander followed. 

From an early age, the brothers shared an interest in entrepreneurship, but as a harbinger of things to come, they were less concerned with ideation. As Marc once explained, "Our problem was we wanted to be entrepreneurs first, then had to find an idea." For a time, they fantasized about building a low-cost airline, considering Richard Branson and Ryanair founder Michael O’Leary among their idols. That idea wouldn’t stick, but the intense interest in business building was stoked in successive years.

That was particularly true of Oliver. He matriculated to WHU’s Otto Beisheim School of Management in 1994, and visited Silicon Valley the next year. That proved an eye-opening introduction to the world of entrepreneurship. Oliver followed suit with his own experiment, though of a decidedly less technical variety. In 1995, he founded “Ego International Trading,” a maker of shoes based in Bolivia. While that provided a crash course in scrappy operating, Oliver’s true education would come back at WHU in the form of a groundbreaking thesis. 

The Samwer Manifesto

America’s Most Successful Startups” is a remarkable document. Published by Oli and classmate Max Finger in September 1998, it is a distillation of the duo’s concerted study of US innovation, with particular emphasis on the tech sector. It is a terse, hortative text that outlines how companies can and should be built. 

Samwer and Finger’s authoritative tone is mostly earned. The pair interviewed nearly 100 tech and venture luminaries including legends like Dick Kramlich and Mitch Kapor. What’s most exciting about the thesis though, is less the names rounded up or even the perspicacity it shows. Super angels and remote work are discussed. And long before it became accepted wisdom, the authors articulate the importance of customer interviews, the prioritization of execution over ideation, and the need to cut underperformers quickly. This is the Ur-“move fast and break things,” the proto-Lean Startup

This hints at what is really striking about the work: it is an almost perfect playbook for the business Samwer would build close to a decade later. Among other things, the authors extoll the virtues of under-competed markets, emphasize the preference for aggressive execution, note the need to change company management at scale, and express a disregard for ideas. 

The story awaits...

Join today to access the rest of the Rocket Internet story. You'll also unlock everything else The Generalist has to offer, including:

Here's how one Member described us: 

The Generalist is my number one read. Thoughtful, insightful, and ridiculously consistent. It should be in every investor's arsenal.

- Leif Abraham, CEO of Public

Actionable insights, nutritious brain food, and a cultured writing style — all in one package. Join today.

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