"If I could live my life over again, I would make the same mistakes again."
Markus Dobbelfeld is one of the founders of Search & Co, Digital Talent Advisory, an executive search firm for digital skills. As a digital veteran, he has had to fight resistance and learn from failures throughout his career.
Markus Dobbelfeld, is founder and partner of Search & Co. Group, which he founded in 2019 together with Frederik Thomas. He is considered a pioneer and trailblazer in digital transformation. Dobbelfeld has been a long-time board member and CMO / CDO in large international companies. He has implemented numerous digital change initiatives in complex omni-channel companies over the past two decades.
25 years ago, in his mid-20s, Markus built up the e-commerce business of the Liechtenstein tool manufacturer Hilti in the USA and was later responsible for it globally. This was followed by positions at Credit Suisse, Adobe, the Dätwyler Group/Distrelec, and Thermomix/Vorwerk, always as a driver of digital change. In addition to his entrepreneurial activities, Dobbelfeld is a course director and lecturer in digital leadership and digital transformation at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland FHNW. Dobbelfeld has four children and lives in Zurich.
Search & Co. is an HR consulting firm that supports organizations in building digital competencies. Depending on the level of digital maturity, this is done by recruiting digital executives or by empowering internal talent through mentoring and tailored training programs. See www.searchandco.com
"I've already made all the mistakes and therefore know what works and what doesn't."
"But the most important thing you have to bring along: To be able to fight against resistance and to be - and remain - persuasive"
"Rather ask for excuse than for permission."
"The CFI approach you've developed is a guarantee for a black hit."
"With you guys, you know which horse to bet on."
Markus Dobbelfeld, today we're talking about you and your successes as a growth architect. But
first the question: Who are you?
I'm an energetic source of inspiration, a digital veteran, a restless generalist, always under power, turned 50 and recently an entrepreneur – and up every day to create something new with a zest for action.
What has influenced your career?
1998 was a key year. I took over the first digital function at Hilti and built up the e-commerce business there. That was still at the very beginning of the Internet. It was very brave of Hilti to invest in the new sales channel back then. No one was familiar with the topic yet. We didn't yet know whether the internet would have potential. Hilti had already provided solid budgets, and I was the e-commerce project manager from the very beginning. We were right at the front on the wave of innovation and did pioneering work – that was exciting.
I was only 26 years old when we recruited a team of internal talents in the US, who first had to build up a database of marketing-relevant data for the web and develop product descriptions and images for around 250,000 products in line with the internet. The idea worked, the offer was accepted in the market and e-commerce already led to a significant channel shift in the first year, with orders being transferred from telephone and fax to the Internet. Today, e-commerce is an indispensable sales channel for Hilti, with over 1 billion in sales. I'm a bit proud to have laid the foundation.
Later, I became globally responsible for the entire e-business and as a 29-year-old rookie already had a lot of responsibility. Meanwhile, I had an international travel activity of 100% and one residence each in Switzerland, the US and Hong Kong.
That sounds like courageous pioneering work. What happened next?
After Hilti, I went to Credit Suisse to help establish e-banking. Again pioneer work at the start of the internet. After a few years, I moved to Adobe as head of marketing. My time at Adobe was extremely educational, exciting, and very innovative. I could help Adobe move to a subscription model and could see the company move completely to the cloud.
Very soon, Adobe had taken a market-leading position in digital marketing – a really exciting time. Not just colorful and creative, as you might think from the outside, but very tough and focused on growth and profitability.
After that, I went to Daetwyler. A Swiss listed company with a real tradition. As CMO, I was responsible for the digital transformation and the complete overhaul of the digital capabilities of the divisional business units. This included the introduction of a state-of-the-art digital marketing and e-commerce practice as well as the fundamental overhaul of the operating model based on changing markets and customer requirements.
That's where we met, right?
Right. The project Sharp at Distrelec. At that time, we were driving the shift from the classic catalog business to the digital world. Distrelec was one of the largest distributors of industrial electronic components in Europe. We renewed everything around: established a new web platform, harmonized ERP systems, built digital competencies and future-proofed the organizations. Vendbridge helped us sharpen the value proposition and develop new solutions from the customer's perspective.
After a few years, I went to Vorwerk Group as Marketing & Digital Director. I am proud to have digitized cooking. With an exceptionally talented team of product innovators, digital lateral thinkers and global marketers, we have given the traditional product Thermomix, established 50 years ago and extremely popular, a digital heart and embedded it in a digital IoT [Internet of Things] ecosystem. We also achieved impressive commercial results through disruptive digital subscription business models and turned the corner in terms of competitiveness and profitability.
That was a huge growth boom. How did you experience that?
We managed to continue the success story of Thermomix with digitization. The subscription model led to predictable and annually recurring revenue. At the time, I was responsible for strategic marketing, product management, the omnichannel business and also Vorwerk's digital portfolio. After the successful launch of the digital masterpiece, I made a conscious decision to switch sides and become self-employed.
What made you decide to start yourself?
During my more than 20 years in the corporate world – mostly in large corporations – I have learned an incredible amount, achieved a lot – but also made many mistakes. In the two decades of digital transformation, we have made almost every mistake you could possibly make; in terms of personnel, technology, and budget. We often missed the mark or played the wrong card – and that's what I use today: I've already made all the mistakes and therefore know what works and what doesn't. I wanted to pass on this distinct experience in digital transformation and make it available to other companies as well as students.
With Frederik Thomas we founded the company Search & Co. at the beginning of 2020. On March 13, 2020, we launched with the press release, "We are open for business!". And on March 16, the Federal Council sealed off Switzerland with the lockdown because of Covid. Bad news for a startup in the early stages of building a business. But we survived.
What is Search &Co.?
Search & Co. is what we call Digital Talent Advisory and supports organizations of different maturity levels in building digital competencies. We started to help manage the digital change. Because that's when many organizations are asking themselves, how do I do this now? Our answer is: First you must build digital competencies – and that's where we help. Based on the digital maturity of a company, we usually do this with two different measures; on the one hand, by recruiting digital leaders from the market, i.e. experienced professionals who bring expertise with them and, at best, already have the learning curve behind them in the digital transformation. On the other hand we empower internal talents through digital upskilling programs. This is becoming more and more common as companies need to upskill their workforce in digital topics. There is often a preconception that a digital leader is mainly someone with technical skills or with IT and digital know-how. This is not the case. The successful digital leader must have a majority of analog leadership skills, such as communication, change and innovation skills, but strategic thinking are also sought-after skills. It is not primarily about technology.
You can look back on some growth successes. But what are the challenges of realizing growth initiatives?
Many things play a role. But the most important thing you must bring along: To be able to fight against resistance and to be – and remain – persuasive. In my career, I have always been involved in digital transformation and have always had to be convincing. There was always a need to convince boards or advisory boards to change business or operating models to stay relevant, sustainable and competitive. This is sometimes very exhausting and energy intensive. A permanent fight against windmills. The topic of change management is omnipresent. As a digital transformer, you are first and foremost a persuasive change manager.
So that's what characterizes a growth architect?
Yes, definitely. But there are other points as well. One of my main tools that has led to success – sometimes also to failure and learnings – is the willingness to take risks. My boss in the U.S. at the time inspired me in this regard with the statement, "rather ask for excuse than permission". We launched many digitization initiatives as a "submarine". Here and there not formalized, not officialized. Because we believed in it and often it was the only way to drive innovation. That sometimes went wrong, but it paid off in the end. A digital leader must not only communicate vision and purpose, but also create conditions for experimentation, enable people to think differently, and make decisions in an uncertain context.
What role do visions play?
Being a visionary is important. That comes first. The first thing you have to do is develop a long-term strategic vision. Investments for the use of digital technologies must not be the main focus. It's also important to focus on customer experience, rather than technology. Often, new technologies for operational efficiency are at the center of efforts – instead of the customer. With the vision, you define the target state, but with it you also create resistance. And you have to know your way around power politics, for example. How can you navigate within the group? How do you get the stakeholders on board? You have to be a skilled navigator and at the same time the top change agent, if you will.
You seem totally open to change, you have no resistance right now. But you keep running into it. Where does that come from?
That's a good question. I have a natural drive inside me. An intrinsic motivation to permanently question things, to improve them, I want to constantly renew them. That's a little bit in my DNA. That's what I want, that's what drives me. That is my character and my motivation.
Where was the toughest resistance?
The introduction of the subscription model for Thermomix. Entering the subscription economy is usually very expensive and complex. The expected return is usually not there right away either – it takes time. When moving to a digital subscription model, the focus is on relevant goals, building long-term customer loyalty, recurring revenues, and predictable, plannable growth. It is no longer a question of ownership, but of usage: One provides access to goods and services. During the rollout, many investments become due and usually, as was the case with Adobe back then, revenues first collapse due to the introduction of new pricing models, in order – assuming customer acceptance – for operating costs to fall again and revenues to rise disproportionately. You have to have the will to fight for it and see it through. In the meantime, I stood in line a few times and thought: That's it.
What else is needed to keep growth ideas alive?
Resilience, perseverance, constant fresh energy and the knowledge that the higher you are in an organization, the thinner the air becomes. You have to take care of yourself. You're not getting it from anyone. You have to have a high level of self-drive. Especially as a digital leader among C-level executives. Because that's what drives change. In digital transformation, the steps are often big and often overdue. That's why there is so much fear. About 70% of all digital initiatives fail. Billions are wasted. Many know this and have respect. And they often hold back.
But if you do it right, it pays off, right?
If you do it right, yes. Why is the Thermomix so successful? I'd say mainly because it pays off in the first place in terms of the zeitgeist. At this point, I was a convinced advocate of customer centricity. Not just as an empty phrase, but by asking your customers: What really drives you? If you answer this with an appropriate offer, then you have a very high chance of success.
That's an advantage for us, the focus on the customers. How did you perceive Vendbridge?
At Distrelec, we had already tried to find out exactly what the customer really wants. And thanks to you, we got the answers. And started translating those insights into solutions. I've always said it this way: The CFI [Customer-Focused Innovation] approach you've developed is a guarantee for a black hit. I stood behind a glass screen and watched you guys interview customers with focus groups. And was surprised more than once.
At Thermomix, the board had long been convinced that the customer would always ask: How do I prepare a dish? Because as an established cooking mixer, Thermomix had the answer to that question. But our customers asked themselves every day: What am I going to cook today? Who knows what they're cooking tonight? Do you know? The search for answers and inspiration was central; in other words, the what and not the how.
You're addressing our jobs-to-be-done logic. Many companies think from the perspective of their solution, but not from the customer's perspective. What did you do with the knowledge gained from the CFI project?
With those learnings, we started to redesign the whole portfolio. We hired recipe developers. Implemented a subscription model for the recipe universe and many other initiatives along those lines. And then, it was accepted by customers. With your approach, you find out just that. If you follow that consistently and translate it into a product or service in the implementation, then you can only win. With Thermomix, we had done just that.
It's so important to experience the customer for yourself. When was the last time you, as a board member or managing director, spoke with a customer? When you start a job at Hilti, the first thing you do is get rubber boots and a helmet in your hand and go out to the construction sites for a few weeks. My boss in the U.S. at the time had me shadow a sales colleague for a while, and after that I knew what the customer wanted. That's the only way customer centricity isn't just an empty phrase.
When I ask my students – mostly executives in adult continuing education – what the relevant fields of action are in the digital transformation, technology is often the first thing they mention. Well, even the most brilliant technological innovation is irrelevant if we are not skilled enough to use it. Digital transformation revolves almost every time around the same seven fields of action that want to be addressed: Customer Centricity (the constant customer focus), Digital Business Development (new strategies & business models), Digital Leadership & Culture (new approaches in leadership, culture & work and most important success factor and at the same time biggest obstacle in the digital transformation), Technologies (Apps, IoT & Industry 4.0, etc.), Cloud & Data (modern IT infrastructure & new insights), Process Engineering (optimized workflows & automation) and Digital Marketing (promotion of the transformed offer or company via new platforms & channels).
What else did you like about the CFI approach?
That it has quantitative validation steps that give me confidence that what we are building together is correct. I remember those validation steps well. That was enormously valuable. And then also how we implemented the findings with you guys. You guys didn't just go away. We translated the findings into the marketing claim. At the end, everyone said: The value proposition is right, everything is directly related to the findings of your CFI approach. Black hit. Sure, you can do trial & error. There are 60 business models to try. That costs a lot of money. With you guys, you know which horse to bet on.
In the digital transformation, you usually can't work with the same operating model as before. You usually can't. This is not simply about the org chart. An operating model defines performers, service delivery, competencies, processes, capabilities, KPIs, organizational structure and flow, and technology. Companies in digital transformation often need to revise their entire operating model. And right up front are the needs of the customer. Right up front is: What does the customer want from me? From there, you drive that through the organization.
The term growth has come up again and again. What is growth for you?
First of all, for me it means personal growth. Namely, expanding my abilities to be able to perform other activities. Learning, learning from mistakes and being able to succeed, finding satisfaction through that. My career was characterized by the fact that I was able to learn an incredible amount. Even through numerous setbacks and mistakes.
Tell me about your mistakes?
I chose the wrong technologies, hired the wrong people, invested in the wrong things. That's where you grow. Personal growth never stops for me. I have four children, so I have that ambition, too. They don't have to be successful, but they have to grow personally, broaden their horizons, find their place in life.
Then there's entrepreneurial growth. I've also been shaped by that. Hilti, Credit Suisse, Adobe, Vorwerk – these are profit-oriented companies on a growth path. Next year's earnings have to be higher than the year before. That's why EBIT has been my key KPI for 20 years. As an entrepreneur, I also want to grow. We are currently four employees at two locations, and that after two years. We are proud of that. We have built a solid base. We have now developed a product-market fit and sharpened the value proposition. We are like a start-up with a growth mindset. How long do you consider a start-up? Is there a definition?
As far as I know, they say 5 to 7 years? But that doesn't really matter. Vendbridge has been a start-up in terms of mindset for 20 years!
Agreed! Anyway, we want to grow. Grow in terms of our reach and company size, grow in terms of our offering. Currently, we developed a "Digital Skills Assessment" together with Innosuisse and the University of Applied Sciences FHNW, which enables the assessment of digital skills based on the use of scientifically validated tests, instead of self-assessment. The "Digital Skills Assessment" is new and unique and the screening tests provide clarity in terms of upskilling potential for professionals, students, HR managers and education providers. Based on this, we will also conduct research and want to publish the 'Digital Skills Index Switzerland' in the future.
Markus, your perspectives on growth from your personal experience are totally exciting. We thank you for the interview.