It is our job to keep a close watch on the stories, trends, companies and personalities shaping the marketing and media landscape—or the digital and attention economies if you want to sound hip. This is the focus for the articles we publish all year, the inspiration for new podcast guests and formats and the criteria for the stage lineup at the annual OMR Festival. And every year it spawns the OMR50. 50 people who’s visions and stories have especially impressed us in one way or another. Today’s article is about the vaunted Top-10.
The “OMR 50 – the definitive ranking powered by Gerolsteiner” features mostly German and European digital movers and shakers, many of whom are known throughout industry circles, many of whom are complete newbies to such lists. If you think that we missed it or missed someone who was worthy of a spot in this year’s list, let us know about it! Shoot us a mail at email@example.com. Now, on with the Top-10.
1) Tobias Lütke, Founder and CEO Shopify
Our tickets to Ottawa from Hamburg were practically booked. After weeks of singing our own praises, waiting for feedback and convincing him of “the fit,” Tobias Lütke finally relented and extended an invite to OMR CEO Philipp Westermeyer to Shopify HQ in Canada. The 39-year-old entrepreneur and Fatherland expat is not one to embrace the spotlight—all the more reason we were thrilled at the prospect of speaking to him face-to-face and not just write about him from afar.
Alas, like so many others at the moment, the trip had to be cancelled.
The timing of the trip could hardly have come at a more opportune time for Shopify, who has seen its business soar in times of corona, taking off as the go-to ecommerce tool for those merchants skeptical about offering their products online. And there’s good reason for Shopify’s rise—its software and platform provide a turnkey solution for getting started, including a fully functional payment system and a suite of integrated services such as accounting, order processing and marketing. According to company figures, over 1 million merchants in pretty much every country on the planet employ the service. The bulk of merchants are SMUs, but there is also a special “plus” version for large, high-volume businesses, such as Google and Tesla.
62 percent increase in new shops
For Shopify, the global lockdown was effectively a gigantic marketing campaign. And the Canadians certainly seized the moment by cleverly offering new customers 90 days free of charge. The initial returns are promising: Between March 13 and April 24, there was a 62% increase in new shops compared to the six-week period beforehand.
This is the moment to seize for Shopify, which already employs a workforce of 5000, but has yet to turn a profit. In 2019, the Canadian company posted annual revenue of approximately USD 1.6b; Its market value is roughly USD 75b. To put that in perspective, its value is greater than that of BMW, Daimler and Luftthansa combined, as German trade publication “Manager Magazin” recently published.
Perhaps a more apt comparison than one with companies currently dealing with existential crises is one with the eCommerce gold standard itself and biggest winner of the corona pandemic thus far, Amazon. Since the pandemic hit, Amazon has increased its value by a quarter and has a current market capitalization of USD 1.2t. While that is the equivalent of 16 Shopifys, the Canadians are growing rapidly and company value has doubled during covid. Not bad for a company that has its roots in a wipeout snowboard shop.
The autodidactic nerd
Co-founder Lütke is the brains behind Shopify and his story is that of an autodidactic nerd. In an interview with a Canadian paper published several years ago, he said that he spent as much time as possible in front of a computer, rewriting computer games and soldering various parts of the computer. Instead of staying in school through high school, he began vocational training after 10th grade. Siemens needed Java programmers, but Lütke felt constrained. Not by the curriculum itself, but by Java. The author of the same aforementioned article observed that “Lütke relates to software the way a musician relates to the music he plays. He regards computers and code as being “extremely tactile.” Lütke, the Mozart of programming, if you will.
Besides computers and coding, he has one other major passion: snowboarding. Pursuing it led Lütke to Whistler, British Columbia on Canada’s west coast. Here he met a girl, for whom he moved across the pond permanently. A couple of years later, he met Scott Lake at a party. Lütke, who was going through a type of coding burnout at the time, was looking for a new gig. The party chitchat turned into starting a joint venture together.
With Lütke unable to find any software up to snuff for their online snowboard shop Snowdevil, he picked up the keyboard again. It quickly became clear that Lütke’s eCommerce application was the most promising product the startup had. With 200K in capital from family and friends, the pair founded Shopify in 2006.
Attack on Amazon
Lake exited in 2008 after continued wavering by Lütke on whether or not to acquire venture capital. Lütke, however, was determined to grow Shopify further. That, in turn, led him to becoming CEO, for which he “had to essentially get an MBA in a couple of weeks.”. Considering how Shopify has progressed, it would appear that Lütke, who still retains a minority share in the company, taught himself very well indeed.
It still remains to be seen if the largest strategic investment will turn out to be a success. In 2019, Shopify announced it was investing USD 1b in the creation of its own delivery infrastructure. The bet is that warehouses equipped with robots and smarter software that’s deeply integrated into Shopify systems will help merchants get their goods to customers faster and for less. AI, too, will also be employed, e.g. to optimize storage location and the amount of inventory. The Shopify Fulfillment Network is a direct attack against Amazon. Even before corona hit, experts predicted that the network could help Shopify expand its market share by threefold with five years. No reason for Jeff Bezos to be concerned about Tobias Lütke now—but perhaps reason to start thinking about when he should be.
2) The essential supporters in corona
Whenever the famous children’s TV host “Mr. Rogers” saw something scary on TV as a child, his mother told him to “always look for the helpers.”
When we began working on this list, we were surrounded by uncertainty. Can we really continue to focus on online marketers in this unprecedented situation? It’s quite obvious that what we do is nowhere near essential or important. That fact coupled with our genuine gratitude for those who truly are essential (whose struggle for more pay we wholly support) made us what to do something else.
Now, it also wouldn’t have been right to just list our nurses, medical workers and grocery store clerks next to the other online marketers in this list. It would have been inappropriate, showed a lack of appreciation and simply been a cheap gimmick. Instead, we decided to follow “Mr. Rogers” advice of “look for the helpers:” for all of you, who didn’t hesitate to help others in need. Online marketing experts who took the time to explain the ins and outs of eCommerce and online marketing to our small local shops for free. People who created websites for nearby companies, where, for example, vouchers and coupons could be sold to keep themselves afloat. And those individuals who, out of their own pocket, quickly put together Facebook and Instagram ads for the countless restaurants who scrambled to set up delivery services.
Despite the fact that they aren’t providing essential services, these “random acts of kindness” do have a lasting impact on our neighborhood vibes—and for this we at OMR are truly grateful.
3) Loredana, musician
When heretofore unknown Loredane Zefi (a German-speaking rapper from Switzerland with Kosovo roots) set up a Youtube channel in June 2018 and uploaded her song “Sonnenbrille,” which promptly generated hundreds of thousands of views and clicks. The explosion baffled even the scene experts over at Vice “Out of nowhere, rapper Loredana landed a hit and we’re confused,” wrote the one-time leaders in taste-making.
If you take a closer look, however, at the role strategic and effective marketing measures were responsible for Loredana’s success, it becomes less confusing. Loredana and her team know how to market hiphop in 2020: via social media (Instagram and increasingly by Tiktok) Loredana, her management Two Sides and her label Groove Attack have been teasing tracks from the onset and doing so in a way that makes her tracks hits before they are even officially released. Two number 1 hits in the German singles charts in 2019 and 4 number ones in 2020 are all the evidence you need to know that the 24-year-old is not messing around. Right now, she can also be seen as the face of TikTok’s current TV assault in the DACH region.
4) Valentin Stalf and Maximilian Tayenthal, Founders N26
If you run a Google search for “N26,“ you get 133,000 hits—5000 more than you would searching for “OMR.” Not bad when you consider the fact that N26 is three years OMR’s junior is and isn’t a platform that deals with all the facets of online marketing, but rather is an online bank. And a successful one at that. In fact, another way of interpreting the 133k hits: hardly a day goes by without something from N26 being reported on by someone somewhere. Of course there is some bad news in there, whether it’s the recent departure from the UK, the loss of some senior staff or the cuts caused by corona. But it’s also become a household name for online banking, which is reason enough to put the fintechies from Berlin at number 3 in this year’s ranking.
Another reason: founders Valentin Stalf (pictured) and Maximilian Tayenthal – and many others executives at N26 – are becoming increasingly influential as investors. Not only in fintechs, but in young startups of all stripes having someone from N26 invest in your company is akin to being anointed. For its part, N26 received a valuation of USD 3.5b after a round of funding last summer.”
5. Felix Lobrecht und Tommi Schmitt, Comedians und Podcaster „Gemischtes Hack“
For comics making the switch into something “serious,” they are wont nowadays to cite the current climate, where you can’t make jokes about anything without irking the PC crowd. Every Wednesday and Saturday, one comedy duo is bucking that trend by releasing new episodes of “Gemischtes Hack,” a live podcast where Felix Lobrecht and Tommi Schmitt speak freely and speak their mind.
The two millennials enjoy dabbling in cliché humor and haven’t met a joke too blue for school. It’s blend of daily observations, personal anecdotes and a heavy dose of self-deprecation got “Gemischtes Hack” crowned Germany’s top podcast. One catalyst for the show’s popularity is the unlikely, yet perfect pairing of Schmitt, a smart-Alec from the west German countryside, and Lobrecht, a street-smart boaster from Berlin Neukölln. The other factor instrumental to the show’s success is the “Hackies,” a passionate and engaged fan community. While Lobrecht had to cancel a live tour due to corona, he recently launched a new Youtube show “Shutdown Fitness,” the trailer for which joyfully proclaims: “You can find what we’re doing on a thousand other channels and a thousand times better—but you wont find us anywhere else. The channel reached 12K followers just 12 hours after launching.
6.Jaroslaw Kutylowski, Founder and CEO DeepL
If a head of German startup with a workforce of 70 gets bullish about its product and goes as far to stay that it’s ten times better than what Google, aka the competition, offers, either has an out-of-control ego or a damn good product.
For Cologne’s Deep L, the arrow is pointing towards the latter. At the moment his software only makes one to two mistakes when translating a New York Times article from English into German using a self-taught neural network—sometimes none at all. That’s what Deepl co-founder and CEO, Jaroslaw Kutylowski, told German tech publication “Gründerszene” a few weeks ago. And with the Swiss government commissioning an official test its viability for translating documents and technical texts en masse, translators and interpreters should start to get nervous. No wonder that Deep L is repeatedly named as a candidate for a Google takeover—but Kutylowski doesn’t want to hear it. He likes being independent. And with history having shown us that clients and customers profit more from niche challengers when they are not subsumed into a “Big Four” ecosystem, the chances that it remains independent are good. DeepL, says Kutylowski in an interview, has been profitable for 8 years in a row—which hasn’t stopped investors calling “daily.” “We’re happy to stay in touch,” he says, “but we don’t need any cash at the moment.”
7. Sky and Tami, TikTokkers
Number 7 on our list would have been quite the publicity coup. Sky
& Tami—Europe’s biggest TikTokers—appearing at OMR20 right now would have made for some excellent short content. Alas, OMR20 is off this year, but Sky and Tami are in this year’s Top 10—and not only because we had to have a couple of successful TikTokkers, representing the masses of teenies who are just a 15-second video away from international acclaim.
The duo transcends fleeting TikTok fame and is in an entirely different league when it comes to reach. Their international backgrounds (she’s Japanese, he’s originally from Ukraine and grew up in Argentina; today they live in Spain) has helped propel them to 12.9 million followers and more than 3 billion views on their dance and comedy videos. And the pair has already worked with major brands including BMW and NIKE. It’s early days on TikTok but as brands and companies figure out how to reach audiences and monetize, established entities will be in hot demand—and none figure to be hotter than Sky & Tami.
8. Christian Kroll, Founder and CEO Ecosia
Its green search engine has never been in fuller bloom—and that’s created a problem: There are no more trees that Ecosia can plant. The business model for the Berlin-based startup centers around taking ad revenues to support 30 select planting projects around the world. Ecosia generates between EUR 2m and 2.5m in monthly revenue. After subtracting operating expenses, advertising costs and deductions for financial reserves, about half remains and 80 percent of that is diverted into planting projects. Since launching in 2009, users have financed about 90 million newly-planted trees. “That makes us,” says Ecosia founder and CEO Christian Kroll, “one of the largest tree-planting operations in the world.” And Ecosia continues to grow. 40 million of the 90 trees were planted in 2019 alone.
“We have become Europe’s largest search engine,” says Kroll somewhat in jest. Obviously, all of the truly relevant players come from the states, but Ecosia has nevertheless achieved one-percent of the search volume in Germany—that’s enough for first place in Europe. Technically speaking the displayed search results come from the USA, too, from Microsoft’s search engine Bing. Via Bing’s tool, ads on Ecosia are booked.
Planting trees alone won’t cut it
But it’s a mutually relationship with Ecosia enriching Bing search results: Since August 2019, a leaf symbol flags sustainably operating companies in the search results. Kroll hopes to expand such green features. In addition to expanding company profitability, the goal for Ecosia creating a change of awareness among users. They aren’t supposed to just be content to use Ecosia instead of Google, thinking that that would be enough of a contribution to saving the planet. “Just continuing down the path we’re already on and planting a few more trees, that’s just not going to cut it,” says Kroll.
Kroll is also a bit skeptical of the current hype surrounding reforestation. His team is familiar with every serious tree-planting project on the planet. Which is precisely why he knows what he’s talking about when he says, “There is no where close to the capacity to planet a trillion trees.” When that goal was announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos it was met with resounding applause.
Of course, Kroll is not against additional planting initiatives; He does advocate, however, for a realistic assessment. Simultaneously, he sees the chance to transform the topic, one he’s devoted himself to for the past decade, into something truly massive. “Ecosia is happy to share its insights,” he says. They have already begun recommending certain initiatives on request. Furthermore, the expertise they’ve attained through their self-developed monitoring methods for planting projects has become increasingly in demand.
“At present, they are exploring avenues of making their expertise and insights available to others,” says Kroll. Something he intends to achieve without resorting to a greenwashing tool. “The chance is too great,” he says, “that companies would misuse the hot topic of reforestation to makeover their image. For example, a fastfood chain that recently attempted to position itself as passionate supporter of a tree-plating organization, gave him serious pause. “Wait a minute, you have so many other things to improve on first.”
9. Anna und Ran Yona, Founders Wildling Shoes
Inspired by the prospects of a better education for their children, Anna and Ran Yona decided to leave their native Israel for Germany. But what’s one of the things missing here for their kids? Watching their children explore the world barefoot—something done much more easily in the warm climes of Tel Aviv than in the suburbs of Cologne. And since their kids were unable to really walk in their new shoes, they developed their own barefoot shoes they call “minimal shoes”. Featuring a flexible sole and made with extra light material, the shoes give tiny feet maximum freedom.
Now, the shoes are also available for adults with names like Rewild, Wildlings and Cubs and typically in minimalist colors. Price point: between 70 and 130 euro. The shoes seem to have struck a nerve: via their online shop and only their online shop, they sell approximately 150,000 pairs of Wildling Shoes a year. Each collection released is a hot commodity when dropped and several models are then soldout shortly after dropping. The company counts the days and hours to a new release on its social media channels to effectively create a mini-hype, which is further propelled by a passionate and active community of regular customers. The 21k-person strong Facebook group houses discussions on every Wildling shoe and offers newbies to the club tips, while also reaching out directly to the Wildling team with feedback. There is also exchange group on auf Facebook where 13,000 fans sell their shoes among themselves. The openness to modern working has also netted Anna and Ran Yona plus points among its fans; It’s 120-person staff located across Germany worked primarily remotely even before corona.”
10. Sven Platte, Founder and CEO Digistore24
For people who have never looked into how to make money with online courses and “digital information products” have probably never heard of Digistore24. The company specializes in technical infrastructure for the sale of such digital products. There are anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 providers (the company calls them “vendors,”) active on the platform, the majority of which offer online courses, with a few software companies thrown in there for good measure. Digistore24 gives vendors all the tools to “create, promote and sell courses.” In addition, the company puts course organizers in touch with affiliate marketers who source paying customers for a commission. The entire process is carried out by Digistore24, who also retains a commission of the revenues it generates. Business is booming, due in part to the fact that there is a low initial hurdle for digital products and that they are easy to scale and deliver high commission rates to affiliates. The model has helped Digistore24 grow into a true hidden champion with EUR 300m external and EUR 30m internal revenue.