Movilizer CEO Alberto Zamora on His Path from Aspiring Journalist to Technology Startup Success
Founded in 2006 and based in Mannheim, Germany, Movilizer empowers enterprises to connect and orchestrate their field operations. Movilizer joined the German Accelerator Silicon Valley Class 2015-3 and already supports more than 200 multinational customers across the globe. In March 2016, Movilizer was acquired by American Fortune 100 industrial giant Honeywell.
Originally from Spain, Movilizer’s CEO Alberto Zamora first came to Germany as a university exchange student focused on journalism. After a stint working at an Audi factory in Ingolstadt, Germany, he pivoted his focus to technology, entered an information systems graduate program at the University of Heidelberg, and began a full-time role at SAP. Alberto met his two German co-founders at SAP’s facilities in India.
You have one of the most fascinating founder stories I’ve heard. Tell me about how you got started in the technology industry in Germany.
I’m originally from Spain. I was studying journalism at the University Pontificia in Salamanca and I wanted to study abroad, so I decided to go to Germany.
Were you planning to be a journalist in Germany?
I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet. I thought about journalism, but to be a professional journalist in Germany, I needed to be much better at the language. I would have had to become super fluent. I knew that wasn’t going to happen quickly, but there were no journalism jobs in Spain either. I quickly realized that I needed to search for other career opportunities.
What did you do?
After a brief return to Spain, I came back to Germany and found a job doing shift work on an Audi factory production line in Ingolstadt. I assembled the right doors on A3s and A4s. One week, I worked the 6 am to 2 pm shift. The next week, I worked from 2 pm to 10 pm We got a break every two hours, and everyone smoked and drank beer during the breaks. Factory workers could still drink beer then; this was in 1997 and 1998.
How did you get from the Audi factory into the software industry?
I knew I was going to have to start a new career from scratch, so I started applying to German universities while I was working on the Audi conveyor line. My goal was to get admitted into an informatics graduate program, but I wasn’t really qualified.
How did you get in?
I applied to a bunch of German universities, but they all rejected me—mostly because my German language skills were lacking. The University of Heidelberg was one of those that rejected me, but I was persistent. I called the university, and one of the informatics professors said he would meet with me for five minutes. Five minutes! I drove three hours from Ingolstadt to see him. He told me I didn’t meet the admission criteria, but during our brief chat, I convinced him to give me a shot. He said I could enter on a trial basis only. I bought my first computer to start learning the basics: Microsoft Office, email, the Internet. Eventually, I learned how to code. Two and a half years after that meeting, I finished with my master’s degree in informatics.
Then you landed at SAP?
Yes. One of my informatics professors was working at SAP in Heidelberg. He offered me a three-month internship, and while I was an intern, SAP offered me a developer job. This was in 2000. SAP only had ten thousand employees at the time, and the company was growing super fast. I started working as a developer on their business warehouse product and then moved through a variety of roles and products: CRM, analytics, sales and distribution, mobile, RFID. I did a lot of different things at SAP as I climbed the ranks. Eventually, I became responsible for the global launch of a new product. I had learned German, but in the process, I lost my English. I knew I needed to re-learn English, so I took a job with SAP in London. I was responsible for a mobility product.
How did you get from SAP to your startup?
That’s an interesting story. I actually met my co-founders at SAP Labs in Bangalore, India. Oliver was a consultant, and Joerg was a developer. I was making good money at SAP. I wasn’t married; I had no kids. I was making €120k, which back then was a lot. I had a company car, a company cell phone and a beautiful apartment in London. I had good prospects at SAP, too. It was a great situation, but I decided it was now or never if I wanted to start a company. I left SAP in 2006 with €30-40k in savings. The three of us started a consulting firm focused on logistics, field service, and track and trace.
How did that go?
It went great. By 2010, we had 80 consultants. We had twenty of the top thirty pharma companies as clients in the area of track and trace and €7-8M in revenue. But we weren’t satisfied. We wanted to build a product company. We raised €3M seed financing from a family office, and we split the company into two parts: the ongoing consulting business and a new product company. We put a holding company on top of these two firms, but we burned through the €3M in two years.
What did you do then?
We needed more capital, but we were worried about diluting ourselves too much, so we decided to sell our consulting business. We negotiated a deal to sell the consulting business without the founders, and we focused the product company on building the first cloud and mobile platform specialized on field operations. We called it Movilizer.
Movilizer was designed to help large companies more effectively manage their delivery drivers, field service and maintenance technicians, and warehouse operators so they could be more productive. We thought this would be a good market because our target customers were getting squeezed between compliance requirements—for example, strict track and trace regulations—and digitalization, IoT’s impact on service and maintenance processes. We took the money we made from selling the consulting business and invested it all into developing Movilizer.
Was the Movilizer product a hit?
Not at the beginning; 2013 was a horrible year. We invested millions of our own money, and we did something like €400k in revenue. It was terrible. 2014 was better, and then we started to really grow. By 2015, our business had grown to 20 times its original size in just two years.
That’s when you joined German Accelerator in Silicon Valley. Why did you apply for this program?
We discovered the program completely by chance. I found out about German Accelerator while interviewing a candidate for a job. I had a friend in San Francisco: Maex Ament, the co-founder of Taulia. I visited him and had a great time, so I decided this was the place I had to be. I had to move to San Francisco. When the candidate I was interviewing told me about the German Accelerator program, I decided that it would be a good reason to relocate to the Bay Area and it would provide an opportunity to expand Movilizer’s business into the U.S.
How was German Accelerator for you and Movilizer
It was unbelievable. The first week, we had a bootcamp. It was like an MBA in one week. I had been thinking about all of these startup topics for years on my own, and suddenly I had the opportunity to discuss them with a group of startup founders and local experts. It was the best week of my life.
Did the rest of the program match that first week?
The rest of the program was amazing as well. Something that the program helped me realize is that people are lazy. They don’t want to talk to customers; it’s a lot of work. Everyone is busy, and it’s uncomfortable for customers to tell you your product sucks, but the mentors made me do it. What I quickly realized is that we had built a house from the roof, not from the foundation, and fixing it was going to be painful. But we didn’t know the customer problems that we were solving; we didn’t know who we were selling to.
What did you learn from talking to customers?
I talked to people in both business and IT roles. Business people were open to solutions, while IT people tell you they don’t have problems. IT is reactive; business is proactive. We had been selling to IT for years. If we wanted to grow further and faster, I realized that we needed to sell to businesspeople. However, that transition was going to take a lot of time and a big investment. It required a simpler solution than the one we had built. The risks were high. I talked to the German Accelerator mentors, and they helped me figure out how to position the company.
What did the VCs tell you?
We had good VC discussions. Several of them came to visit us in Mannheim, where we were based. They expected us to double and even triple revenues every year, but I knew we weren’t ready to scale at that pace. We thought about corporate investment and exit options. I started to map out companies that might acquire us.
What happened next?
I made contact with my primary targets. Some of them weren’t interested, but I had better luck with others. I used a low-level contact to get into Honeywell, and I eventually reached a VP who helped me navigate all the way up to the CEO. By coincidence, the CEO had a trip scheduled to Germany one week after our meeting, so he decided to come to our office. We prepared day and night for that meeting, and it went very well. Honeywell actually decided to buy us during that meeting. The timing was perfect; we were running out of cash. We had asked our existing investors for money to tide us over until we closed a big deal with Coke, but they low-balled us. Honeywell gave us the offer on Christmas Day, December 25. The deal closed on February 28, 2016.
How have things gone as part of Honeywell?
The business is doing great. Our revenue will be up 2.5 times this year compared to 2015. We’ve had our issues, as acquired startups always do within big companies, but overall, it has worked out wonderfully for both Movilizer and Honeywell. I can’t wait to start my next company.