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Talk to Pierre Haarfeld – Failure as an opportunity



“My main function is not making top-down decisions about everything”

Speaking at “Talk to THE FUTURE OF WORK”, Pierre Haarfeld, (co-)founder and managing director of the successful B2B platform nuucon.com, also said he prefers analogue meetings to Skype ones. Haarfeld, 31, travels a great deal, so our interview about old and new styles of work, about learning from customers and colleagues, and about failure as an opportunity, takes place – ironically – via the communications app Appear.in, because we are in different places.

Pierre, you travel a great deal and right now you’re in Hamburg, where your companies are also based. Will it be more difficult in future to gather people together in one place for work?
PIERRE HAARFELD: I use Appear.in a lot for work. At the same time I am great fan of getting people together. In our company there are two different mindsets. My colleague and co-founder Phillip, who is responsible for everything to do with technology, says it doesn’t matter to him where someone is sitting, we just need to communicate well. We have some employees who work from Bali for three months at a time. That’s fine with me too, although I also think it’s really fantastic when we all get together here, and have a chance to strengthen the bonds within the team, or just share a barbecue in the evening. That kind of thing helps build commitment.

You talk about commitment, but actually it’s also about developing a kind of company culture, isn’t it?
PIERRE HAARFELD: The main problem is that we know so little about each other, and that means you don’t feel very close. Many of us travel a lot. One thing that has helped us: we’ve created a kind of obligation to communicate. When I go out to lunch, I use Slack, the communication tool, to send a message to my colleagues: “Hey, I’m going out for lunch”.

You work in the design and furnishing sector, so you have to think a long way ahead: companies invest in furniture which is still expected to look attractive and to function well in ten years’ time. Do you have any idea what your company will be doing in ten years’ time?
PIERRE HAARFELD: I started out in very traditional structures, working for big manufacturers. They were planning years ahead. In the environment we operate in now, people also tend to have a long-term vision. But actually we always plan from one year to the next. We are currently in the middle of a planning process. We’ve been in our Hamburg premises for two years. We are now looking for new buildings.

Isn’t it good enough any more?
PIERRE HAARFELD: It’s really nice here. We have three roof terraces – it’s a loft-style atmosphere. But we have grown. You have to sign five-year lease contracts, but actually we don’t plan anything like that far ahead. Traditional companies find this difficult. As an established company, you lock yourself away for two years, think up a fantastic product, a fantastic business concept, a fantastic model. Then you take it out there – and you find: okay, this is not what the customer wants at all.

How does that work in your business?
PIERRE HAARFELD: The new, digital world has a completely different approach. You go out there with something that is not yet perfect. As an entrepreneur, it must almost be a bit embarrassing to take it to the market. But the aim is just to collect some customer feedback, to hear what they want, what’s right and what’s wrong. Then with that feedback you develop your whole concept further in a series of quick developmental cycles. That’s how the digital world functions: launching a business with something that is not yet perfect. The important thing is to find out from customers, based on gathered data, what they use and want. Established companies find this difficult. Quite understandably. They only want to go to the market with something that is 120 per cent perfect. It’s a clash of cultures. I’m not glorifying digital companies, but I’m also not demonising any established structures. It’s more about recognising how established companies can learn from younger ones. They do a lot of things right, they’ve built up years of expertise, and there are many areas where they are better than the young “wild ones”. The question is, how can we bring them together so that they can work cooperatively to set something up: new structures, new business models.

The customers tell you what they want and based on this feedback you develop companies and business models?
PIERRE HAARFELD: In our DNA we are a digital and technology business. It’s not for me to define what the customer wants. The customers determine which channel suits them best.

Do you think that working life, business models, will remain as fluid in the future?
PIERRE HAARFELD: Companies used to last for 125 years. What I’m seeing is that the life cycle of companies is just getting much shorter. Some companies don’t last more than ten years. That’s not because they are bad at what they do, or that they fail in some way. It’s just that we have faster innovation and technology cycles. Many people haven’t understood this yet: if you have a company that has existed for 125 years, there’s no longer a natural assumption that it will go on in the same way for another 125 years.

Traditional factory directors won’t like to be told that. What has changed in the role of the managing director?
PIERRE HAARFELD: I have to ensure that my people can work well, and make good decisions. That’s one of my key responsibilities as a managing director. My main function is not to make top-down decisions about everything.

Your own ego has to stand back?
PIERRE HAARFELD: Indeed. I want to enable other people to grow, to support them, encourage them. Then the whole company grows.

What is the point of the work you do, from your perspective?
PIERRE HAARFELD: I have two principal motivations. One is to drive innovation in the market. I find it enormously inspiring to introduce old, respected companies to the digital world, or to help new digital plants to thrive. The other motivation for me is the culture. I know the traditional old-economy structures well and I wanted to create a different environment. I wanted to work differently. I also believe that many others in the generations before and after me wanted to work differently. I find it enormously enjoyable to help other people. One of our colleagues has just resigned because she wants to set up independently as an interior designer. I think that’s fantastic. Now the question is, how can we help her, what doors can we open for her? As an employee, it is always when you can pursue a personal goal and succeed with it that you really give it everything and work in the most efficient way. And that is good for the company too.

How do you find people like that?
PIERRE HAARFELD: We advertise jobs in the traditional way of course. What I am even more keen on in recruitment is to see what sort of interesting individuals are out there. We look at the strengths someone offers, and how we can make the most of these strengths in our company.

That sounds like the way you approach customers: try something out, without knowing exactly where you are heading. That must go wrong sometimes too. Is that something you worry about? Or is the possibility of failure also part of the concept?
PIERRE HAARFELD: Both. If everything were to fall apart here, that would of course be a worst-case scenario. But failure is deeply embedded in our DNA; I had to learn that, for a start. We fail in small ways quite often. But because failure is almost part of our day-to-day culture, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. But the important thing is: just failing is not enough for me.

Why is that?
PIERRE HAARFELD: Failure is alright as long as you learn something from it. Perfectly alright, as long as it only happens once. With the benefit of hindsight we know that we should do it differently next time. I think the reason we are so good is because we often go in the wrong direction. But then we think about it, have another go, and try to avoid mistakes the next time.

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