“Do consider all ideas, even if they seem too crazy or too hard to pull off at first”
‘Innovation’ and ‘Creativity’ – considerably two of the most (ab)used buzzwords within the start-up and academic scene. Historically, universities have acted as the key influencer for innovation. It is within these institutions that some of the greatest technology and science ideas have been developed and masterminded well before their impact on the global economy. Stanford University, Berkeley University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are just a few of the names that spring to mind when we think about technology and start-up development. We already know that Europe, in particular Germany, has its own great innovative and financial potential. One of Europe’s best representatives is, without a doubt, the Munich CDTM (Center for Digital Technology and Management).
The CDTM acts as a joint institution for the two universities within Munich – The Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU) and The Technische Universität München (TUM) and is deemed as one of the most prestigious. The centres study programme offers its students the interdisciplinary add-on program “Technology Management” and it is through this programme that Stylight’s four founders met back in 2006. The programme enabled the four to combine their varied academic backgrounds in order to work towards one goal: to make the fashion landscape more accessible for everyone. And since then they’ve come a pretty long way….
So what next? Stylight quickly switched statuses from ‘start-up’ to ‘leading company’ and began to offer its support towards other innovative projects. Infact, last June saw the fash-tech company involve themselves as a partner for one of the Managing Product Development (MDP) courses, which essentially saw six teams work virtually day and night to prepare some outstanding prototypes.
To gain further insight into the partnership (as well as pick up a few tips and tricks about the innovation world), we sat down for a double interview with five current CDTM students; Nathalie Wilk, David Adrian, Benedikt Brandner, Benjamin Borrow and Philipp Dowling, alongside Sebastian (Basti) Schuon – computer scientist, CDTM alumni and, most importantly, one of Stylight’s four founders.
Sebastian Schuon – Stylight co-founder and Managing Director
“3 tips to succeed? Get things done, take your responsibilities, manage yourself”
- Over the past 15 years, former CDTM students have gone on to found more than 90 companies, creating over 500 jobs. Stylight is one of them. How was your experience?
We [The founders] didn’t know each other before joining CDTM but we immediately recognised that we were just four guys with very similar minds who just happened to be studying something different at the time. At CDTM they take good care of this level of heterogeneity and it’s a key trait that they convert it into one of the main added values of a team.
When we pitched our idea to the first set of investors we took a risk and decided that we wanted to show them that despite having different backgrounds, we all had the knowledge and understanding of the whole project. That’s why Anselm and I (the ‘tech’ guys) presented the financial aspects whilst Benni and Max talked about the techy ones. And that’s something that the experience at CTDM taught us: when you’re working on a project you have to take responsibility for the ‘whole package’. It’s a sort of motivational drive. You have to know the other business fields involved if you want your project to be a success!
- What were the biggest hurdles when initially starting Stylight?
Well, truthfully I could list off a lot of hurdles but I think that one of the biggest challenges is always connected to the team. When you start a company you need a team of people who understand each other. That may seem easy but it’s not! CDTM has definitely been strategic for us. During those years we saw a lot of Start-Up teams falling apart because they weren’t able to work side-by-side and fully share the same vision. Nothing has changed at Stylight. We now have over 200 employees and us four founders are still not only business partners but also friends.
- Which are the key characteristics that every ‘innovator’ should have in order to succeed?
There are 3 main things you should keep in mind if you really want your business project to succeed:
- Care more about the end result than actually getting there! ‘Get things done’ – this should be your mantra!
- Take responsibility for your actions. Always.
- Have a decent self-management ability. If you can’t manage yourself, how can you be a good manager for somebody else?
- Stylight is currently involved as partner and, in some way, ‘mentor’ of innovative projects at CDTM. What does it feel like now to be ‘on the other side’?
Some companies think that working with university partners such as CDTM is a good way to externalize part of their job. Essentially doing it for free. This approach couldn’t be anymore wrong! Being a mentor means that your output should be ‘let’s try something and see if it works’. And whilst you’re trying it, dare and aim high! The goal of any university cooperation should be to create innovation that will involve some risks. Best case? One gets a nice prototype to explore further. Worst case? One has only learned what doesn’t work. As a partner, you need to push the students into doing crazy things and let them know that it’s OK to take risks. There’s no “but, what if?”, only “do it and see”.
- In your opinion is Munich Germany’s own Silicon Valley?
The US ‘Silicon Valley’ is characterized by different zones. The chips manufacturing is mainly in San Josè, while technology lies in Palo Alto and products, such as Instagram, find their place in San Francisco. I think that this is something we’re now starting to see in Germany too. Munich is definitely the place to be if you want to start your tech company, it’s like being in Palo Alto and San José. But if you have a product, well, your ideal habitat should really be in Berlin.
Benedikt Brandner, David Adrian, Nathalie Wilk, Benjamin Borrow and Philipp Dowling – CDTM students
“Communication is the secret ingredient to a collaboration between CDTM and companies. At Stylight we had the freedom to have full control of our project in terms of concept, implementation and presentation.”
- What does CTDM mean to you? Can you give a word to describe each letter?
C = Community D = Dedication T = Teamwork M = Motivation
At CDTM you get all the tools and spirit you need to realize your ideas. The center provides us all with a great community, business partners to learn from and a lot of space to experiment with new concepts. What’s more, you have the chance to exchange with students from various fields of study and as you spend a lot of time on intensive projects together, you get to know each other better and often become friends for life.
- What was the biggest challenge you faced whilst working on the ‘photo rig’ project back in June? How did you overcome it?
Stylight is one of CDTM’s most esteemed Start-Up alumni and that’s why we started our own MPD (Managing Product Development) project with great excitement (and a reasonable dose of expectation apprehension!). The project description given by Stylight was along the lines of ‘Create innovation in the form of a tech-heavy pop-up store.’ The photo rig aka ‘Stylight360’ is an online fashion magazine augmented with interactive 3D content. It allows readers to explore content including images of models, accessories and advertisement from all angles. The road to our Stylight360 destination was certainly not easy. We spent weeks of ideating to come up with ultimately an unsuitable idea of a 3D photobooth for entertainment events. However, once we got our hands the right equipment, the ‘‘hacking’ of our rig began and we were on track to making our vision a reality.
While our first 3D rendering was surprisingly good, most of the subsequent ones were initially extremely messy and resembled modern art, not a veracious 3D model. For weeks, we attempted to calibrate the cameras, fiddled with software and played with many possible camera angle permutations. Finally we realised the photo rig was capturing reflected images, which completely undermined the photo stitching software. Fixing that problem finally allowed us to produce consistent high-quality 3D scans. For readers, our product presents one immense benefit – they finally get the whole picture. Plus, the content is fun and immersive to interact with!
- What has been the greatest piece of advice you’ve ever received from a Stylighter?
The people at Stylight have been a great help to us in many situations. They’ve allowed us the freedom to create a project that we have full control over in terms of concept, implementation and presentation. Apart from some technical advice and lots of other information and support we received from various folks at the office, Basti (Sebastian Schuon) always told us: “Think of the idea you have and then add 10 times more crazy to it.” We tried to follow his advice as often as possible and found it a great way to approach the project, as it essentially forced us to never throw out ideas just because we thought they were too outlandish or too hard to pull off at first.
- What’s the secret ingredient to the perfect collaboration between a University Institution such as CDTM and companies?
Communication. Right at the start it should be clear how both parties imagine the collaboration. The company should point out its wishes and expectations and the students should honestly estimate their capacities to not end up with overestimation and disappointment. If there are problems on the way they should be discussed openly with enough room for changes and iteration. For us, it helped that Stylight’s founders had also gone through the MPD process before and understood our part as well.
|By Ilenia Sarman|