From Selling Used Golf Balls on Ebay to Advising Startups on their Way to International Expansion

An Interview with Dr. Thomas Mack, Head of Scouting at German Accelerator

“As a startup founder myself I went through the ups and downs that founding entails and this strongly influences my work today, for sure.” We at German Accelerator are very happy that Dr. Thomas Mack joined German Accelerator as our Head of Scouting in October last year. Over the past months, he built up our scouting team to be the first point of contact and sparring partner for startups interested in international expansion. In our interview, he shares more about his background and experience as a startup founder himself, his view on the German startup scene, and how startup scouting works in the digital world.

 

Please tell us about your role at German Accelerator.

I joined German Accelerator as Head of Scouting in October last year. Over the past months, we have built up a scouting team which is based in Germany but scouts for all our global programs. On top of that, we developed a new approach to scouting that is more focused on being an advisor to startups, as it is our primary goal to enable high-potential German startups to scale internationally. What I really like about our approach at German Accelerator is that we target our programs and workshops to the individual needs of startups. We don’t have large cohorts or offer one-size-fits-all programs to our participants, but we really try to get to know each startup and create an individual workstream for their internationalization journey. The Company scouts are the first point of contact and it is our goal to be honest sparring partners for them.

How does your background influence this role?

As a startup founder myself I went through the ups and downs that founding entails and this strongly influences my work today, for sure. Unfortunately, my startup did not succeed, and, among others, one of the reasons for this failure was the attempt to internationalize. We made methodical mistakes but we also lacked a network abroad, so I wish I would have had the help of something like German Accelerator. That’s how I know firsthand about the added value of the German Accelerator programs. Besides founding my own company, I also had the opportunity to work within the entrepreneurship ecosystem in various different positions. For example, I did research on international venture capital markets and worked at a strategy consulting firm where I helped create a corporate company building program. Based on this experience, I think I can transfer my knowledge to my current role to become a trusted advisor for startups to help them with their internationalization plans.

How did the pandemic change the way you scout with in-person events and networking gatherings having been cancelled?

I came to really appreciate virtual networking and co-working, sometimes they are even more effective compared to in-person events. It’s great how easy and efficient it can be to connect and work with people across the globe in a virtual setting. The openness towards remote work grew thanks to the pandemic and I would say that our task as startup scouts has become almost easier because we now don’t have to travel from place to place losing precious time.

What do you enjoy most about your role at German Accelerator?

I really enjoy the diversity of tasks and interactions with a wide variety of actors in the startup ecosystem. Every day I talk to founders about different business models at various stages from a variety of industry sectors. In the next moment, I have a conversation with a VC, someone working for another accelerator, or people from a more corporate environment. All these discussions share this inspiring drive because everyone wants to positively impact the startup ecosystem. It offers great opportunities to build something collectively.

What role do you think German Accelerator plays in the German startup ecosystem?

One of the reasons why I joined German Accelerator was that, in my view, the topic of internationalization tends to be missing or taking a backseat in discussions around startups in Germany. When you look at what happened since the Dot-com boom in terms of methodology, such as lean startup etc., everything is focused on how to be successful as a startup in a given market, but very little can be found around international expansion into, and there are very few, if any, organizations and institutions focusing on that. So in my opinion, German Accelerator is in a unique position to fill this gap that can be so important in a startup’s journey. It starts with having a certain mindset to see what opportunities and chances internationalization can offer, but also being aware of the risks and how to tackle this endeavor has to be learned. In particular, I always find it impressive that, no matter how successful you might be in your “home market”, you will need to take a big step back and work on product-market-fit before you can scale elsewhere.

In your opinion, what could be improved in the German startup ecosystem overall?

In general, I think we tend to trivialize and underestimate our startup ecosystem in Germany. This often starts with the quality of startups. I think we have excellent startups with outstanding potential to make it in international markets. You can see that with some of our alumni, such as Celonis, N26, ProGlove, or Kaia Health – but there is still room to grow. Our founders are well educated which creates a great foundation and the overall support system for startups is fully equipped, well resourced, and well provided. I see the problem rather for later-stage companies, when it comes to funding or building the next unicorns. There is a gap that forces some of “our” IP to leave Germany because of this funding gap.

Switching gears, what motivates you?

What has always fascinated me is challenging the status quo as well as disruptive innovation. Just because we’ve done something a certain way doesn’t mean we have to continue doing it in the same way. It’s a special type of strength and virtue that entrepreneurs develop through taking entrepreneurial ownership. Interactions with these kinds of people really motivate me in my day-to-day work and I really enjoy having the opportunity to help them succeed.

What is your favorite app for productivity?

Currently, I really benefit from Calendly. I have many appointments in different combinations both internally with our international team but also externally with founders and other ecosystem players. Without it, I would probably work an extra hour every day just scheduling meetings.

Do you have a book recommendation?

I listened to an audiobook recently called “QualityLand 2.0” by Marc-Uwe King. He is a Kabarett and poetry slam artist, among his works is the “Kangaroo Chronicles”. In QualityLand, he took a look at modern day technologies through a comedy lens and tells stories about what could go wrong in the future. He has a lot of inside knowledge and it made me think about my use of certain technologies. I honestly think his book(s) could also inspire some good startup ideas to overcome these potential challenges in the future…

How do you like to spend your spare time?

Normally, I spend a lot of time traveling. I really love visiting my friends around the globe, but I also enjoy doing a lot of sports and these days I’m spending a lot of time using the various streaming services watching movies and series.

What is an odd job you’ve held in the past?

As a student, I worked at a golf course and had access to used golf balls. This was during the early time of Ebay, so I ended up boosting my student income by selling used golf balls over the internet.

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