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season 2 episode 15 – thinking beyond startup boundaries | Uli Schmitz

In this episode, we talk to Uli Schmitz, the founding manager of FreeTech, the managing director of Axel Springer Digital Ventures, and the Axel Springer Plug and Play Accelerator co-founder. Uli discusses how to create an artist in residence program at your company, how to make up for the fact that outcomes are hard to measure, and the importance of diversity of thought for innovation.

Nico Daswani The Artian Podcast

Transcripts

The transcript was produced by an AI, mistakes might appear. 

[00:00:00] Nir Hindi: Hey, Uli, welcome to The Artian podcast.

Uli Schmitz: Hey, welcome Nir. I am happy to be with you today.

Nir Hindi: Great.

It has been long time since I visited you in Berlin and we had such a nice experience later. I will talk maybe about the journalist club that I was fortunate thanks to you to visit, but before we kind of start to speak about technology and science and art, can you introduce yourself briefly?

Uli Schmitz: Yeah, I am working at Axel Springer, which is, uh, a huge publishing group media company. Um, and I am in charge for the venture business. So, we have been investing in two startup companies since 2012, and I have another hat. on, today. So, we are ramping up a new academy, which is called the FreeTech Academy for Journalism and Technology.

Maybe we also have time to talk about this. Yeah.

Nir Hindi: So, you have kind of a lot of leading roles in Axel Springer the managing director of the digital ventures and the [00:01:00] founding director of the FreeTech. But the reason I wanted to speak with you. is another project that you started, which is the Axel Springer Plug and Play Accelerator.

Now we are already familiar with the concept of startup accelerators around the world, but you decided also to bring art into this program can you, maybe briefly describe how the program look from a startup point of view, and then I am very much interested to understand why art in a startup accelerator.

Uli Schmitz: Yeah. When we started it in 2013, it was like inviting young companies or founders about, or to start a company 10 at a time in our premises and worked with them the next three months on the future of the business. So, we were investors, and I would say mentors to them. So today the program has slightly changed.

So, it is not. this 10 at a [00:02:00] time. So, it is a more continuous rolling business, but at the end, it is the same. So, you have first time founders quite often. And first-time founders, they are facing the first time, the same problems we think, uh, we can make them faster, so, and, and all professional and, um, and ready for the next stage of investment.

So, in the venture business, you start. Getting capital from outside in this case from us. But until the company is successful, you might need millions or hundreds of millions. And then at the end it might be a successful huge. Company and a unicorn and one of the companies is N26 and it is clearly you know unicorns.

So, and they started as the two of them. They started, um, on premises.

Nir Hindi: Congratulations.

What is the role of the [00:03:00] artists in this program? How does it look?

Uli Schmitz: We did it in a way that we invited them as artists in residence. So that is how we call them. And they got a desk like the startups in the middle, right in the middle of the startup, so, and nothing special about it.

And they will part at that time part of the batch and worked on what they wanted to work and that is important. And we might go deeper into that. And it, for me, um, I have ruined on several occasions. How useful it can be to look at the arts at the artists when it comes to creating something new, thinking beyond the boundaries.

And I think the artists can also learn a lot from businesspeople doing something similar.

Yeah.

Nir Hindi: So, I am very much interested. Uli, you have a scientific background. How did you find yourself in the world of art?

Uli Schmitz: Oh, that is, that is an [00:04:00] interesting question. I started electrical engineering, and it starts quite abstract.

So, it is a lot of theory. Um, I was lucky. I found my place at an Institute, which was very much into the methodology of development on. Mechanics or micromechanics electronics and software. And when it came to creativity, creativity methods, it is not so far to our arts and art gives you a lot of inspiration. And it was one thing, another thing was, so I thought, well, I also need. To buy arts. And I had a job and wrote for a trade magazine so earn some money with it. And I put it aside and decided to buy a piece of art. And so, when I saw it and I wanted to have it, but at the end I found out I am not a collector.

So, I am, I am way more interested in the process rather than [00:05:00] really possessing it. And honestly, I think you cannot own a piece of art, so it is impossible to own it.

Nir Hindi: I love it. You know um, because I always interested in the artists, not necessarily the artwork, I must have the conversation with the artists if I were to get piece of art, because I am much more interested in the ways of thinking.

Rather than just the result, which is the object.

Uli Schmitz: Yeah. Which is also okay. Is that, that there are an object and people pay for it. So, but, but I thought, well, it is not about collecting it. It is about interaction, and I learned a lot in one job. That was kind of a think tank.  Again, for a technology company.

And in that think tank, we started working with artists and not in a way of getting a nice decoration for the walls, but in a way of understanding how the other party worked. So, we invited them to do something. So, they did [00:06:00] something and it was always useful to put another point.

So, there is not this single trigger. I have a lot of friends who are artists. My brother-in-law Philipp Geist. He is a light artist, international light artists. So, I know more about the way and the hard work, the artist does.

Nir Hindi: Yeah.

Uli Schmitz: What an engineer, my things are worse, so I would love to work like them. So, I make a nice drawing.

So, and then I sell it, then it is the opposite. You know.

Nir Hindi: Uli

when I listening to you it is like I know why we got connected. It is like, it is so funny. The consensus that people have when they think about artists, you know, these lazy, the one that have siesta that they work whenever they want, without understanding that majority of the artists that I met are such a hard worker, are so focused.

I mean, they workday in, day out for years. about projects. And there is a beautiful quote by an artist that [00:07:00] said that being an artist is not 10 years career. It is the long-term career.

Uli Schmitz: Yeah, absolutely. And that is coming back to my, to my engineering backgrounds. Um, and when I started at the engineer, and it speaks.

I thought is not it a mistake, what I do. So, is not it to limit it? And I also learned a lot. You are not limited you limit yourself. So even if you, you do construction of a bridge, so I never did it. So, um, or a piece of technology. So, there is a lot of freedom in terms of what solution you pick, what technology you take, what materials, and so first you can broaden it up to the product and to the use case.

And typically, you have a lot more freedom than you think and at the end. So, when you really want. to bring an idea into implementation. You must be absolutely focused and that is the same an artist does. But I [00:08:00] think most people could do everything, but they do not.

So, for some reason they picked something. Yes. You want to earn money, but many people do also for purpose. So, the difference between the work and the possibility of an artist and of people in another business are not so huge. So. when it comes to freedom and at the end to focus to resilience and to maybe selling it.

Yeah. It is a

business

Nir Hindi: Uli you are touching. Very interesting point because I want to ask you something. I am positive there are listeners, now that listening to us and say, you know, I am working in a huge corporation, they are out the rules, et cetera. I do not have freedom. So, what would you tell them?

Uli Schmitz: Don’t limit yourself. You have a couple of choices in many larger corporations or smaller environments.

You have a lot more freedom than you think it is about to explore it. You can just adapt, but maybe you are not happy with it. [00:09:00] You can leave that. The other choice. But normally you can change your environment, maybe not from one day to the other. And you can even do that as an intern. So, we had interns at the end presenting in their first weeks to the board and bringing up an idea   so that is too easy to tell. I have no choice. You have a lot of choice.

Nir Hindi: I think that that is also something that defines artists experimentation. You know, trying different things. So, I want to go back to the think tank. You mentioned then and you invited artists and you obviously, from listening to you, you had more internal passion to the arts.

I wonder how artist influence or not your colleague in the think tank. How did they respond to the fact that artists are there?

Uli Schmitz: for

me, the most surprising aspect was as one colleague at a time was very much in technology and you could literally only talk about technology with him.

[00:10:00] So, and he connected so close with the artists, and he became kind of a promoter of the idea and what I have learned is. That people and I am including myself need maybe more ways to get in touch with arts. And once you get in touch, be touched by the arts. You might not understand everything, but you feel it and you feel something.

So, and you get an inspiration or. It gives you food for thought or for discussion. And for me it was something I wanted to bring more people to it. And when it comes to the results, they are hard to measure. It is hard to measure. So, it is the product.  Which was created at that time, really the better product, but in the process, I saw a lot of new inspiration and it is, I think it was worth it.

Nir Hindi: That’s a great, great point. [00:11:00] You just said you cannot measure it. Now both of us working in the world of business KPIs. OKRs metrics, unit, economics, everything toward the number. And when you want to tell people and managers and leaders, you should have artist in your organization. The question that they ask you, what is the impact?

What is the answer from your perspective? What is the impact?

Uli Schmitz: For me, It is the same when it comes to a couple of measures towards innovation management.  So, if you have a lab or a group of people thinking about new things, so that is something which is accountable, and you can measure the output. So even there, so you cannot.

. Often directly say so well. So that is the success of this group. Because this, this will mean this group brings us to an end. And, um, I think it is quite normal when it [00:12:00] comes to innovation. And we can call it sometimes R and D. So, there is a form of, R and D which you can really, um, really measure. So, by several patterns or several projects and so forth, but there is a lot more, also a lot more in culture, which is hard to measure.

And that is the same with arts, you can see arts. as a cultural aspect. And again, I am not talking about decorating the walls. So, I am, I am talking about kind of an interaction, um, that you might measure at the end a few, of ideas, um, or satisfaction of employees, but it is a result.

I think you also must believe the net. Um, and in a cultural change, you also must believe it is not completely measurable. And I think if you lead the company, [00:13:00] you can do it by numbers, but you also must do it by, by a vision. And you do it maybe with the calculator, but also with the gut. Um, and you need people having this in a gut feeling and maybe we could do scientific research, and love to read it.

Where you compare companies interacting with artists and not, but I do not need it.

Nir Hindi: Yeah. It is what I call. You know, always we need the execution, but also the imagination, the art mindset with the entrepreneurship capabilities and when you think about measuring, maybe in the results, it is just enough to look at the Braun, the German company and Apple, and Pixar to see how creativity and art that were so integrated in those companies lead to so many successes.

Uli let us take a short break and we will continue to talk about the startup accelerator.

[00:14:00] Great. So Uli we were just discussing how important it is, maybe to leave a site measurement when it comes to art. And I want to go back to the accelerator. Why did you want it to bring an artist to sit next to those entrepreneurs?

Uli Schmitz: We have the feeling; it will make something with the artist and with the entrepreneurs at the end.

We thought of better results for both sides. Um, a better understanding, these visionary syncing, and these performance in implementing each part can learn from each other. in a startup environment, it is also about learning, and it is about confrontation with things which work and, uh, those which does not.

So, we were so convinced that it would do something and yeah, what we just wanted to do it and figure it out. And it was an experiment like the whole accelerator, [00:15:00] which was the first one we built for our company. It was at a time. Not so many were, already in, in Germany. And it was an experiment and we added something else where we were convinced of.

And I told you why because of the former experiences and we had another thing. So, we. Took, um, an office, which was used by an artist as a workshop, and he also left something. I think we would have had another a completely different start without him. And you were there, I think, um, in the accelerator.

So, it looked a bit wild, and it was absolutely no decoration.  And we leave everything, and it did something with the people and then we professionalized it somewhat. And there is another interesting point when we started it, [00:16:00] we did not know how.

I never wanted to come into the situation that we cast artists. So as art interested people, so Becky says a world, so this picture looks nicer than the other. So, let us invite this or that person. So, it was important for us. To professionalize here. So, we were professionals in terms of yeah working with startup companies, having the pitches from them, so judging and decide in whom to invest.

And we wanted to be as professional with the artists. So, we teamed up with the gallery. So, I am at Art-Lab here in Berlin, and they helped us a lot in finding artists. And it was a great dialogue at each batch.

Nir Hindi: Yeah. I remember that when I visited you, you mentioned the an artist Liat Segal that was part of the accelerator. She was also a [00:17:00] guest on the podcast in the second episode. And I asked her specifically about, her experienced at. Axel Springer.

Let us hear what she said about that.

Uli Schmitz: Okay yeah.

Liat Segal: It was first an incredible experience from two directions.

The first one is just as an artist, I think that. Most artists that do this project, do not come from a technological background, and still have this beautiful conversation with people that come from places that are different from them.

I really loved the people that I worked with. It was a really a beautiful mutual war to fight, you know. So that was one thing. But uh, I can say that. This environment that makes people from different disciplines with different motivation work together. At most of the time, you do not have a lot of conversation about the art or about the startups, you know, like people do what they do, but just being there and speaking about life and getting to know each other makes some [00:18:00] difference because.

When startup people talk to startup people, they will speak mostly about tech. And when it is an artist that is suddenly a bit an outsider to this, this is a sign that the environment change. Yeah. It shifts exactly. And it creates something else. And I think that that is one of the most, the greatest powers of having an artist in residence in a very technological environment.

Nir Hindi: Uli I am interested. What surprised you the most about having an artist with the entrepreneurs? Because you already had experiences. And so, but now you see them from the outside in a way.

Uli Schmitz: How normal it is. Yeah. And an artist is also a businessman or businesswoman, so, and, and they sit there and work, um, or do their work like, like the others.

So, it is on one hand, the normality.  On the other hand, it is the observation of the artists regarding the work of the [00:19:00] startups and vice versa. So., They see different aspects, then they must find a language. And as I said before, it is also interesting to whom people connect and there are a lot of surprises in that and I think it is, it is a full mixture.

So, some, it was maybe just another person in the room.

Nir Hindi: Yeah.

Uli Schmitz: Which was not odd or crazy business. Yeah. But that happened between the start-ups as well. So, and, and for others, they were really interested in it and try to learn a lot of it. And there was this idea I think in terms of. Freedom of thinking that you can learn a lot from, from artists, but you can also look in terms of, um, hard work and dedication to a specific goal.

You can learn a lot about various. And the artists can also learn a lot about [00:20:00] performance, um, from the others. and in many cases about marketing. So that is one thing where I think many of the artists.  Have a problem with it. Uh, so was telling a price or settling it or even talking about it, but I think it is important.

And there is nothing bad about it.

Nir Hindi: Yeah. When I spoke with Liat she mentioned she also needed to present in the demo day, like the startups. And one of the things she did for them is a kind of a workshop on Arduino because she worked with technology. So, it is very interesting this intersection, um, one of the things.

I find odd is that we still think about artists as painters, but artists are people that work with so many materials and normally they are the one that explore new technologies as well as new materials Uli, I want to go back to something you said. When I asked you about what surprised you about the artist and [00:21:00] entrepreneur?

You said it was normal. And my question for you Uli is if it is that normal and you, and I believe it is normal, why the business environment and technology environment still separate?

Uli Schmitz: One thing is still the accountability. So, it is hard to measure so you, you need a certain belief in it.

And another thing is, I think there are still a lot of people who need more access to art and understanding beyond the. piece on the wall or on the screen. And, and that is something it is, you always find people being interested in art, in art, but, but even they sometimes do not dare to bring it to business.

So, there is. Some barrier, which I do not understand it might be it is, it is sometimes the same in music. So, with classical music and [00:22:00] maybe pop rocks or there are maybe also some barriers. So, and for some, the business is classic, and the other is pop, and it could be the other way round. And it is ridiculous.

At the end, but I think it is a step-by-step approach. So, and I am glad that you took on this also this role to bring it to business and see that it is not about being funky or meetings zeitgeist. So, they had to do something or that you must come to outperform another collector.

It is something which must be taken seriously, and, and that is why we, maybe we must bring it to the business schools as well. Yeah. Which we did by the way, once. So that was a funny project. I gave a lesson at that time at, um, Technische Universität which is there. And the [00:23:00] engineering university, um, on development of products or a product innovation.

And we teamed up with another engineer who was also an artist and did a lesson on it. So, we compared to the work of an engineer, And often artists, because he was both, he was a great role model for it. But I think that was just one afternoon, but I think we need more of these afternoons.

Nir Hindi: Yeah. First, I think you will be happy to know that one of the podcast guests is Danica Purg and she is the founder of a business school in Slovenia that integrated art from 1985 already integrated. Yeah, she is a great model. So, I want to continue because I think that if businesspeople or professional or leaders will understand that art, and you said it beautifully, it is about learning about values.

It is about vision. It is about inspiration. It is about [00:24:00] dedication. It is about focus. It is not about putting a paint on a canvas. All those things. So, I am now business professional. I am a manager. I am listening to you. You convinced me now. I want to ask you what are the tips? You will give someone that wants to bring artists into their organization to make it a successful collaboration.

What are the things that you think are important from your experience? Doing it so many years?

Uli Schmitz: Yeah.

Take it as serious as your business. So that is one thing. So do not even think about having a playground or something like that. And on the other hand, is, allow yourself time. Uh, trial and error like in business and an openness and to find your own way.

And I think that is the same when it comes to innovation, disruptive innovation. So, I am not talking about the daily improvement. I am not [00:25:00] talking about the next product generation. So, I am talking about disruption. You can plan it and there is no. A role model, which you copy, and paste find your own way. So, and find somebody supporting you.

That can be in our case, it was a gallery and then we went our first step, but you do the steps, but you do the same when you start. It does disruptive innovation project when you do it. Right.  And do not stop it after the first attempt.

So, continue learn. It is a continuous learning and that is why I would do it. So, I would watch out for somebody supporting me in that case. And we did the same, we had the idea, but it would not have happened. Without the guys from the EIGEN + ART Lab   yeah. So, they helped us. So,

so much

Nir Hindi: Uli you are kind of an example to what I always say for me, there is no such thing, [00:26:00] innovative and creative companies.

They do not exist for me. there are only innovative and creative people. That build, innovative and creative companies. And I always say that every time you will see a creative company, there is a first name and last name behind it. It is not the organization is specific people that set the vision to shape these companies as such and go and get it.

And I think everything you mentioned. is like. Straight to the point, take it as a serious, as business trial and error or openness, find your own way. You cannot plan it. That is why it is so funny for me when people tell me, yeah, we are planning this innovation project and we know how, if it is, you are already planning it.

So, it is not innovation. Someone did it. And you just follow the steps. So many great advice. I want to speak with you know about your new initiative the FreeTech Academy. What is this FreeTech Academy and why do you think we even need that?

 

Uli Schmitz: It is a part of our transformation process. Um, Axel Springer, [00:27:00] when I joined it, it was a many prints publisher over the last one, two decades. It transformed into a real digital business and. In the digital business is driven by technology. The problem was, and in many cases still is mass media always was technology. And so that the tech understanding it is everywhere, but it is not that present.

You wanted to, to make it more present and Axel Spring. Yeah, give itself a claim. So being a media and technology company, and we have since long for the media parts, um, for the journalistic part, the very well-known journalists’ academies that the Axel Springer academy and people have the idea so well, so then we need a tech academy site.

We thought about that might be possible, but. If you want to study tech, you can do a lot outside. Um, why building [00:28:00] it and why thinking about it? Um, we thought it is again, bringing people together. So, we talked about bringing artists and, and entrepreneurs together. And here, I think when it comes to the core media part, It is also about to bring journalists and tech people together.

So, they work together, but they often have even difficult to find the right language to talk together and create really. On eye level the media of the future. So, and, and that was the idea to bring it together. Why it is called FreeTech. It is not good technology for free. Um, and, and, um, I think if Axel Springer stands for one thing, then it is standing for freedom and for free press and with people who give their freedom.

[00:29:00] For it give their lives to fight for it. And we thought, well, it is not about another form of education. So, you will find a lot out there. We want to bring people together to work on freedom, to help others, to make. Freely the right decisions. I think journalism stands a lot of for it, but also technology.

So, and, and then we, we did not name it John tech. So, we took for a FreeTech, and it is about to bring these groups together and not in a way. And that might be a similarity to the artists and residents and the entrepreneurs. It is not that. the Entrepreneurs learn painting. So, or the artists write business plans.

Um, and here it is not that all journalists can do coding and the code is right [00:30:00] or two videos. So, it is about getting an understanding. So, seeing that you together can achieve a lot more rather than doing it. In your silo. Yeah. And that is the idea of it. Yep.

Nir Hindi: Great.

Uli I am so much enjoying this conversation.

I think you are a great representation for the business leaders that at least I am looking up to, you know, often when I speak about these topics, People think, okay. It is just something that we leave to other department, but you, as the founding director of the FreeTech and the co-founder of the Axel Springer accelerator, then the managing director of the digital ventures and your role is in science and, r and D is like,

Uli Schmitz: yeah, forget about the titles.

So, they are not important, um, at, at that time. So, it is, and um, I do not want to bind it too much to me as a person. So, It is a true interaction of, of like-minded people and like-minded [00:31:00] people do not mean they are all similar thinkers, so it is there is a lot of controversy going on, but, um, we all have the same goal.

So, and I think modern form for modern is a word which has always been always used. So, I think it is not important that. one single person says, so we do this, we do that. It is important together the group, a critical mass of people and gives them freedom to work and something will happen, and this is fortunately the case here.

And that is something which I really appreciate within the company, but it was not there. People also had to demand. For to ask for it, um, or not even to ask it, just to take it. Yeah. I think you can, um, build similar, uh, ways of action [00:32:00] thinking also in other companies, you just must bear it,

Nir Hindi: I am totally.

with you on the, the title thing.

I think what your titles bring is to show that in any level of the organization, commitment can be found. It is just a matter of decision to say that I take it just, as you said, as a serious business, understanding that it is important to the people, to the environment, to the culture, to the inspiration, to the vision, all those things that we cannot measure, but we are so much want them.

And so, looking for them.

Uli Schmitz: And you

find

  1. You will find a lot more.

Um, and so inspiring. So, to work with great people from different professions, full diversity and the, and the best meaning. Um, and, um, and that is something which gives me.

energy.

Nir Hindi: Great. Uli thank you very, very much for taking the time to speak with me.

I really enjoyed this conversation.

Uli Schmitz: Yes. [00:33:00] Thank you for the discussion. So, it is great. And I learned a lot too by being asked. Thank you very much for that. Yeah.

Nir Hindi: All the links to everything Uli mentioned will be on the show notes. Make sure to check them out Uli once again. Thank you very much.

Uli Schmitz: Thank you.

 

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