My interview with Andreas Winiarski, Senior Vice President of Global Communications for Rocket Internet, is a game of two halves. In the first half, Andreas gives me the PR spiel he’s very adept at shilling, given that he’s been the public face of a much-criticised company for almost three years now. But in the second half, I start to see the side of Winiarski that seems more comfortable, more himself – a side that reveals his enthusiasm, strong opinions and deep passion for his job.
Rocket Internet is one of the biggest Internet platforms outside of the US, and practices an often controversial method of creating new companies – they copy business models that already work. If you don’t know Rocket itself, you almost certainly know one of its subsidiaries. You might have purchased clothes from Zalando, or ordered takeout from Foodpanda.
Having faced their fair share of criticism because of their methods, the company eventually realised that ignoring the outside world wasn’t the best communications strategy. In 2012 they hired Andreas to answer all the tricky questions.
And there were plenty of tricky questions. The Samwer brothers, founders of Rocket Internet, are notoriously publicity shy, with a reputation for being needlessly aggressive, in both their business approach and their rhetoric. The company is often dismissed by entrepreneurs as a clone factory that is killing real innovation in Europe. But Andreas is quick to assert that companies like Rocket are necessary to drive competition.
“…we are not the Einsteins, we are not the inventors, more Bob the Builder […] a lot of people bash us for doing this but, everyone who wants to protect just the one inventor is saying that we need monopolies, and no-one wants monopolies.
We need competition. That’s why you need companies like Rocket. Of course we are a very strong competitor and I don’t ask for love, but I ask for respect.”
Andreas’ main focus these days is to help the teams in newly founded Rocket companies –which are in over 118 countries– by providing them with all the tools necessary to create their communications and branding packages.
“When I joined Rocket, it wasn’t the main purpose to change the image of Rocket to be very open. It was more to help the companies regarding PR because the mass media channel is one of the best in terms of internal investment”.
When new companies set up in any of a multitude of far-flung destinations, Andreas also advises those new companies on how, as Peter Thiel famously said to AirBnB founder Brian Chesky, not to “fuck up the culture”.
When I ask him about the culture at Rocket, he says “…everything a company should do, of course we do”, but that his focus is always on internal communications, and letting employees know exactly what’s going on in the company. “Internal comms is always in front of external comms. Everyone cares about coverage but the most people don’t think about how important it is to do internal comms because your own employees are your main ambassadors.”
When I posit my suspicion that a lot of the focus on good internal company culture is because employees can now share anything instantly he allows, “yeah, you can see it as a threat but I see it as a challenge. Your employees are humans and they can contribute a lot if you just listen and if you are open-minded.
Rocket is about a lot of freedom… I have the trust of Oliver Samwer and the rest of the fellow board members. In Germany we have the nice saying, that you walk separated, but you hit the enemy together.”
He feels this kind of freedom is reflective of Rocket as a whole, and it’s not just the reserve of upper management. That flexibility and respect then becomes something that replicates itself the whole way down to entry level positions. “You should always as an employer or a founder look for brave people who you allow to disagree.
And if you are brave, you need freedom […]That’s the most important thing in your professional life. I think it’s really about […] doing everything, even if you are now on the top, to protect freedom and to protect minds but ultimately, it’s about the impact you have for the company and not about being a nice guy”, he smiles, “…but I’m also a very nice guy!”
When he’s hiring staff, it’s that spirit he’s looking for but he’s not interested in people who aren’t willing to go over and above the call of duty. “It’s the same when you do a sprint or something like that: if you give 100% you arrive with the middle of the field. But if you strive for everything you want, if you become more advanced, if you do it faster or better then you will succeed, and it’s really about the extra mile in life.”
This approach means that he doesn’t overlook someone inexperienced in favour of those longer in the tooth. Sure, it means that there’s more training involved for management, but an enthusiastic, hard-working, courageous person will always impress.
“We admire more the talent and the intellect someone has and not the experience because you can get any experience if just someone believes in you.” He says it’s all about the feeling that you get from the person, which is an encouraging thought for people just stepping out onto the career ladder.
Being a PR and branding whizz, and not to mention a sharp-dressed man – the sheen of his shoes made me very aware of my own scuffed sneakers – he thinks that people really need to pay attention to their own personal brand. “I really wonder why most people don’t care about their own brands because they really should admire themselves most – every human being should have a fan.”
As we prepare to part ways and I resolve to become my own fan, he imparts this final nugget of advice for those applying for jobs in the current market.
“If you really want to achieve or have success with the right position, I think it’s about the person. We are living in the era of the iconic storm. I’ve no idea why 500 words [on an application] should give you a job. It’s about the stories you tell and admire. That’s something I want to discuss.”