“Little sparks of innovation”: tech-ing over as the head of hubraum was a challenge and a reward

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What you will learn after reading this:  

  • How Deutsche Telekom came to form hubraum  
  • Why the Berlin ecosystem was so difficult for startups back in 2015  
  • How adopting a “sharing is caring” mindset leads to excellence 
Peter and Axel starting an adventure

This May marked ten years of hubraum! To celebrate the occasion, we’re compiling a potted history: the milestones that defined hubraum, year by year. Our fourth chapter centres on 2015, when our current head of hubraum Axel Menneking joined the company, taking over from hubraum’s original founder, Peter Borchers. We wanted to know: what was exciting and frustrating about taking over?  

 

In the beginning, there was Peter Borchers and then there was Axel Menneking and a dream: that Deutsche Telekom should find a way of working more closely with startups. It was an idea that seemed strange, back then. As Peter points out, the sheer difference in size played a role. “There was Deutsche Telekom, who, back then, had a revenue of around 75-85 billion euros, and then there were these tiny startups, who were maybe making a few hundred thousand.” He points out that for this reason, people were unsure, thinking initially “that working with startups wouldn’t really move Deutsche Telekom’s needle.”  

Mind-blown Peter

When Peter presented his slide decks, his colleagues were resistant. “Remember Helmut Schmidt, the famous chancellor?” Axel breaks in. “He said, ‘Anyone with visions should go to a doctor.’ And maybe with the German mindset, it takes time to switch to thinking about level three when you’re still carrying out level one.” Peter wasn’t bothered: he simply told people he would continue to spearhead hubraum until they fired him: “Luckily, they never did!”  

But soon they saw a way to make “these little sparks of innovation” really work — bringing tangible value not just for Deutsche Telekom but for the startups involved, since it was important for Peter that it be a two-way transaction: they didn’t want to simply benefit from startups, they wanted to launch them and act as a springboard for their careers. “We had and have a mindset of “sharing is caring” — if everyone shares, eventually at some point it comes back to you. With this mindset, hubraum has distinguished itself in the ecosystem.” 

Axel

The beginning was exciting, Axel stresses. At the time they started, there were very few such organizations in the ecosystem that helped startups — Betahaus and a few others, but hubraum was the first incubator. Similarly, initially there were very few programs for startups, something Axel readily admits has changed: “Now there’s thousands.”  

He continues: “In a way, it felt like we were a bit like a lighthouse for the German industry: we were signalling that something important was going on and that Deutsche Telekom was going for it.”  

What made hubraum work? According to Axel, their team was key. He describes the “type of people” who were drawn working at the startup incubator as “special people: outwardly-orientated, forward-looking, blessed with a growth mindset, humble, connected to the ecosystem and full of passion.”  Plus, according to Peter, hubraum was able to create the sensation of being one big happy family. He explains that together with the startups, they were a tightly-knit family network, and that helped them get things done. 

Axel and Peter on an adventure

Axel argues that this culture of hubraum acting as a magnet for wonderful people has persisted until today — and that’s something which has been key to hubraum’s success. But that isn’t to say that everything is exactly the same as in our first years. “The set up at hubraum has changed from being a pirate ship to what I’d call an ambidextrous set up — working on strategic priorities and being more closely attached to Deutsche Telekom’s operations, since at the end of the day, what we’re judged by now is business impact — making innovation tangible and usable for Deutsche Telekom.” He states that while, at the beginning, they were a magnet for “pirates”, now they attract people who are both more connected to the ecosystem and Deutsche Telekom itself.  

Ultimately, hubraum’s always been about passion. It’s easy to see that, Axel suggests. After all, if you weren’t passionate about hubraum’s mission, you could never stay there for years at a time — without passion, it would be too exhausting. But symbiosis was crucial, too. As Axel puts it, “It was very much about giving back to the ecosystem as much as we took.” 

The Story of hubraum - what it’s like to build and lead the future of telecommunications

Want more great insights about hubraum’s earliest years? Watch the full conversation this article was based on by clicking play on the video above.  

Prefer to read rather than watch? Check out an older installment of our potted history, about how hubraum Krakow came to be established. 

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