Investor and "TV lion" Frank Thelen has it all in private. Why he would still like to earn a lot more money and what he advises politics and business.
To the person: Frank Thelen (42) has become known through the TV show "Die Hohle der Lowen". Previously, he built several software companies and invested in startups like Wunderlist and MyTaxi. He is the founder of venture capital firm Freigeist, which also invested in air cab startup Lilium Aviation.
About the show: The fifth season of "Die Hohle der Lowen" will be broadcast for the fifth time on Vox starting Tuesday at 8:15 p.m. Here, six jurors invest in business ideas from founders. Alongside Thelen, Carsten Maschmeyer, Ralf Dummel, Dagmar Wohrl, Judith Williams and media entrepreneur Georg Kofler will sit on the jury.
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Mr. Thelen, the fifth season of your start-up show "Die Hohle der Lowen" starts today. What are the chances that this time the next Amazon, Tesla or Facebook is there?
Very small, you have to be realistic.
Isn’t that rather pessimistic?
No, "Die Hohle der Lowen" is a format that brings entertainment and reasons together in a way that works for the masses. And we’ve done that, we’re among the most successful TV shows in Germany, at the same time reasonably sensible companies come out of it. But the next Elon Musk will probably not come through our door.
Does it bother you that an intimate cleansing lotion for men has a better chance on the show than a company like Tesla??
I really regret that, but it’s part of the magic of the show that they don’t spend hours picking apart algorithms, but rather products that are understandable to a wider audience. And the founders are getting better, the deals are getting more suitable, and the products are getting higher quality.
Really? In the past season, individual products were warned or their sale even banned. The show has been called a "butter ride of the digital age" by consumer watchdogs, who say that viewers are being overpriced and often useless products with a lot of fanfare.
Well, I stand behind every single product that I have built up from the show. With me there are no useless or overpriced products. Quite the opposite: we are building up high-quality companies in the long term, such as Little Lunch, Ankerkraut or 3Bears.
There is criticism from the start-up scene that the show is moving more and more in the direction of entertainment. That’s why you’ve already been called the "Micaela Schafer of the startup scene".
I didn’t know this woman at all, at first I thought she was a programmer. Then I researched and saw that she is a nude model.
Such a comparison is really far-fetched, isn’t it?? Others from the startup scene like to show their six-pack on Instagram, I focus on technology.
How long do you plan to keep doing the show??
My heart beats for technology, here I would like to help build a global market leader from Germany in the next few years. This is very ambitious and therefore I have to ask myself every year if I can still find the time for the show.
Less TV also means more time for your startups, such as the Lilium air cab project, which you also want to launch internationally. Since SAP, however, no major IT group has succeeded in becoming big worldwide. What’s the problem?
It starts in school, Americans learn storytelling, we do frontal teaching and are afraid to go to the blackboard. As Germans, we are not brought up to think big at all. You can see that in my case, as soon as I run forward a little, people declare me crazy. Financing for business ideas is also crucial. Try raising money in Germany for a flying car.
Now that it’s quite successful, very many want to invest. But in the risky start-up phase, German VCs thought it was cool, but cancelled.
Maybe risk and capital are simply mutually exclusive for Germans?
Yes, unfortunately, Germans are not venture capitalists. Here, everything tends to run along the lines of business administration, where the possible margin is calculated and then a business model is drawn up.
Works well for many entrepreneurs.
Yes, Oliver Samwer brought this DNA to Germany, and that’s why he’s successful with start-ups like Zalando and Rocket Internet. Even Ralph Dommermuth with United Internet works like this. These are very intelligent and highly efficient entrepreneurs, but not great technological strategists. We lack a Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk who combine technology and outstanding strategy.
However, Musk has big problems right now, you yourself also drive a Tesla. What has to happen for you to switch to a German car?
Hallelujah, that’s a long way to go for German carmakers. Unfortunately, they still do not understand this. They need to build a charging infrastructure, a battery factory, they need to develop their own chip for self-driving automatics, phew, all I can say is that’s still a very long way to go.
What could the government do to make investing in startups more attractive??
A lot. For example, investments in venture capital can be written off immediately. But before that can happen, five ministers have to agree and then agree with the federal states. Our system has become so complex that it is no longer manageable.
You won’t be able to abolish federalism.
What we need here in Germany is a chancellor who dares to reform deeply and consistently.. Like an Emmanuel Macron in France or a Sebastian Kurz in Austria…
…who is considered a populist and who governs with the right-wing populist FPo.
But the grand coalition in our country is a stalemate, and I wanted to prevent that, which is why I supported both the CDU/CSU and the FDP in the election campaign. I’m also fighting to keep both the AfD and the left small, we need more democracy less radical protest voters.
Nevertheless, you advise the government, sitting for example in the so-called Innovation Council of Digital State Minister and CSU politician Dorothee Bar. How does that fit in with your criticism?
I left the CDU years ago, precisely because I want to position myself independently. I want to work with individual, strong politicians and not be tied to a party program.
Whom, for example?
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In addition to Dorothee Bar, these include Christian Lindner and Thomas Jarzombek These are people with whom I know I can get along in terms of content. I couldn”t talk to one of the Greens right now because they just don”t understand what I”m saying. And then I waste my time and go mad.