Nikolaus Förster

  • Dr. Niko­laus Förster is one of the leading busi­ness jour­na­lists and entre­pre­neurs. In 2013, he took over Germany’s leading entre­pre­neur maga­zine “impulse” and founded his own publi­shing house. In 2009, he became “impulse” editor-in-chief.

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Over the last eight years Niko­laus Förster, chief editor and publisher of the economic journal “Impulse” has been gathe­ring accounts from well-known entre­pre­neurs of their worst deci­sions or fail­ures for the cate­gory “My Biggest Mistake”. He was able to line up a number of famous busi­ness people: Hans Riegel, the man behind HARIBO, described an expe­ri­ence from the year 1950 which proved to be an important lesson about dealing with banks; Walter Gunz, founder of the elec­tronic chain Media Markt got to under­stan­ding towards the end of the 80s how unpre­dic­table compa­nies can be and how deva­sta­ting loss of power can feel in your own busi­ness. August Oetker spoke about unsuc­cess­fully trying to conquer the Asian market with the wrong concept and an unsui­table work­force. Words like “deceit”, “blind confi­dence”, or “lessons-learned” are common­place with the texts which them­selves are daring and also blunt. The 91 accounts have now been made into a book.

“My Biggest Mistake“ was already sold out before it hit the shops. What’s behind its success?

I moved from the Finan­cial Times where I was the chief editor to join “Impulse” and intro­duced the new section. It rela­tively quickly became one of the most- read sections. The tran­scripts were published on the last page of the maga­zine, but people read it first. People are not willing to speak so openly about their mistakes but they love to read about them. This only streng­t­hened our posi­tion. Since then we’ve staged a number of confe­rences, large events with 300 members of SMEs, always on failure. I like to call it the “Fuck-up nights for adults”. It’s a topic close to my heart: mistakes inspire people and can be the basis for success – if you’re able to see what lies behind it.

How did you get the busi­ness heads to open up?

Most of the people we’d contact would decline. With others, it was a case of having to convince them over a period of many years. You had to meet the indi­vi­dual in person to build up trust. I travel a lot, attend events, commit­tees, I present, this allows me to build rela­ti­onships. Ever since beco­ming a publisher and busi­ness entre­pre­neur 4 years ago due to the manage­ment buy-out of the maga­zine, I have gained a diffe­rent stan­ding which helped as well. Natu­rally, we’d leave some things out in order to protect people, names etc.

Do you feel that these stories are just waiting to be told?

Some couples have spent weeks if not months deli­be­ra­ting. They took their time reflec­ting and later told me what e ect the question had on them. You end up reflec­ting on your whole life. Others have said, “oh God, when you ask me it gives me goose­bumps”. Entre­pre­neurs have expe­ri­enced things which are so profound that physical changes begin to appear. So much money has been lost, some­times hund­reds of millions, rela­ti­onships have ended, trust has been destroyed, those were events which have had impli­ca­tions for future deci­sions. There where entre­pre­neurs who wanted to be featured badly within the column and would send a PR agent. But we didn’t want that. And it’s not to be forgotten: the entre­pre­neurs in the book have grown as humans and entre­pre­neurs because of their failure. Others who haven’t managed so well are no longer acces­sible. People who fail so terribly and lose ever­ything disap­pears from the public arena. There are mistakes which you simply can’t reverse.

Why is it so diffi­cult to speak about mistakes?

For Germans, I can say: we believe that mistakes are blemishes which need to be concealed. If you start a busi­ness you speak of “Existenzgründung”. It’s not: “Okay, let me just try and see.” It’s about your whole existence! The German economy became strong by what we call Mittel­stand, that is SMEs. If you don’t manage to pass success down to the next genera­tion then that hurts, it’s painful and embarr­as­sing. However, I’m convinced that a company will only be successful if it can speak openly about mistakes and begin rethin­king things. This is what the entre­pre­neurs in the book have been able to do for their compa­nies.

Do you find it to be a posi­tive book?

Defi­ni­tely. In essence, it’s an encou­ra­ging book helping you to deal with mistakes. When I speak about it I gain credi­bi­lity, from employees as well. The lesson is to always get back up, espe­ci­ally when it’s di cult to carry on. And that’s a recur­ring theme throughout all the stories: entre­pre­neurs are marked out by their resi­li­ence.

The 10 lessons you found read almost like words of advice which seem to go beyond entre­pre­neurship.

In the end, it’s always about people. Are there cata­stro­phic deci­sions in marke­ting? No. Of course, mistakes are made, but looking back there are many other events which have done much more damage. A 90 year old reflec­ting back over his life sees that the most important questions are also the basic ones. Who am I working with? Who is my partner? Who can I trust? Where are my actual personal strengths? What are my values? What does my inner voice tell me? And where is it gone? I can’t hear it anymore! How can you create sustainable values? How does a company work, in fact? The answer is simple: it’s all about people, rela­ti­onships. You have to rally up your best workers, you have to keep them enthu­si­astic, and you have to have shared goals, mutual values. These are the funda­mental aspects of a company, irre­spec­tive of whether they’re fashion­able. This is why the book with its lessons is a truly timeless piece.

Nikolaus Förster

  • Dr. Niko­laus Förster is one of the leading busi­ness jour­na­lists and entre­pre­neurs. In 2013, he took over Germany’s leading entre­pre­neur maga­zine “impulse” and founded his own publi­shing house. In 2009, he became “impulse” editor-in-chief.

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