From backpack start-up to platform: The success story of HTGF fund investor FOND OF
To some, FOND OF is simply known as the backpack start-up, but the Cologne company sees itself as a platform for development, unleashing potential and personal growth. So what does that mean exactly? To find out, we asked Dr. Oliver Steinki, founder and Managing Director of the start-up, which is currently one of High-Tech Gründerfonds fund investors. We spoke to him about finding the right work environments, navigating the path to creating the perfect school bag – and why you shouldn’t lock yourself away in a basement to work on innovative ideas.
Oliver, 11 years ago you started out as a young start-up, and created the first ergonomic school bag. And now, you’ve united seven brands under the FOND OF umbrella. You describe yourselves as a platform for development, unleashing potential and growth – can you tell us what that means?
When we started out with FOND OF, our focus was indeed on backpacks. We launched the company 11 years ago with the ‘ergobag’, a successful product for primary school children. Today, like you say, we have seven brands. But there’s so much more to us than backpacks. I’d say that we’ve now become a platform that sparks innovation. Our job is to create a work environment that provides a great deal of inspiration for many people. This then facilitates innovation in other areas.
How did it all start? Had this development been on the cards from day one?
No, it hadn’t. Our company launch was quite normal: Four friends with business degrees who had known each other for years wanted to develop an idea together. We were at a party and one of us came up with the backpack idea. It was an idea that we then rolled with – we worked on sales in the day, product development in the evening, and marketing at night. It was a very intensive time. We did of course make some mistakes, with no consultants or partners at our side. We struggled through and worked tirelessly on the product.
How do you go from making school bags to becoming a platform?
We wanted to create a follow-on product for later school years and thought about calling it Ergomax. But when we presented the name to an 11-year-old girl, it went down like a lead balloon. She said that Ergomax was uncool and told us that she was grown-up and didn’t want a product like that. And at this point it became clear, once again, that our ideas needed to be more target group-specific. At some stage we then started doing more and becoming more diverse. We do things that we find exciting, that we like. And in doing so, we create an environment that fosters individual development. We believe that as soon as you give people free reign, they can develop, and then success in business will follow.
You now run your own logistics centre, you’ve created a modern office environment in the form of The Ship, and you’ve developed xdeck, an accelerator made by entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs. And on top of that, you’re also a HTGF start-up fund investor. Would you say that all these activities also mirror your platform mindset?
I most certainly would. The goal of a platform is always to promote exchange. For me, this constant exchange is an important way to remain innovative. Ideas often come about by chance – be it through chance encounters, for example, or stories you just happen to hear. All of this can give rise to a new idea and innovation. It’s a similar story when it comes to product development: Locking yourself away in the basement and working on some idea like a madman is not the right way to go about it. If you do that, you’re not going to have any exchange. We never said “This is the perfect school bag” – we just asked 100 mums what they needed. It’s not about being smart, but asking lots of people.
So you’re saying get out of the basement and hit the street if you’re on the lookout for innovation?
Spot on! But there’s more to it than that. You need to frequently challenge yourself and your own innovation. To be successful, you need to have focus and always be informed. You need partners who know the market inside out. That’s one of the reasons why we’re a HTGF fund investor. We may be a start-up that’s only 11 years old. But in our business, that’s quite a long time. That’s why having a partner like HTGF – a seed investor that’s constantly active on the market, monitors all new trends and sees the big picture – is a smart and important move.
So you’ve now also taken on the role of investor. What do you focus on when it comes to new financing deals?
Three things: The team, innovation, and flexibility. The latter of the three is also related to swift transitions, which is something I just mentioned. The focus of our first business plan was completely different to what we’re actually doing today. Lots of successful start-ups are no longer doing what they initially set out to do. Being able to adapt gives companies a real competitive edge. And when these shifts come at a faster pace, companies also need to be able to respond more swiftly. The pace of change today is faster than it’s ever been. But moving forward, it will never be as slow as this again. And that’s something that all companies have to be prepared for.