Jürgen Furian


Interview: Andreas Rottenschlager
Photography: Kurt Prinz

Jürgen Furian has been a pioneer from the outset. Once he gets talking about startups, it’s hard to stop him. His advice to young entrepreneurs: be resilient and passionate

THE RED BULLETIN: A total of 1,600 startups from 96 countries applied for the 2015 Pioneers Festival. How do you choose who gets to present themselves?

Jürgen Furian: They have to deal with ideas that will define our futures within the next five years. At the Pioneers Festival, all we talk about is the future. We’ve given ourselves a broad range of topics: aerospace, biotechnology, energy, robots. That’s what the industry appreciates about us.

What qualities does a good speaker need to have?

They can’t be all talk. That’s the first point. We want people who go after something, achieve something, fail and then start again. Then they can talk about it. We look at what young startups need and which experts they can learn from. It’s like in a classroom; you learn most from teachers who are committed.

Which startup teacher impresses you most?

Steli Efti, the founder of ElasticSales. He is a master of live presentations. We normally never invite anyone twice, but Steli will be appearing for the third time this year because we constantly get emails asking him to present. Steli’s specialist area is bone dry: turnover. Yet people love his talks. Look at our YouTube channel if you want proof. Steli is bursting with energy. And he always gives precise feedback. 

What’s his core message?

“Sell first. Build second,” which refers to the fear within the industry that you have to develop a product to perfection before you can sell it. Steli thinks that is a huge mistake. He says sell first, even if it isn’t perfect. And see if there’s any demand for it. Give the customer 20 per cent off the incomplete product. At least they’ll be the first person to have got their hands on it. 

Which industry currently has the most exciting startups?

Biotechnology. It’s small startups achieving incredible things with not much money. Processors and servers were prohibitively expensive for the computer industry in the past – no one could afford them. Now everyone has a laptop and a smartphone; the technology has been democratised. The same thing is happening right now in the biotech industry. The huge pharmaceutical giants used to invest billions in research to produce a pill 10 years down the line. Now small startups are bringing good ideas to fruition themselves. 

For example?

Hampton Creek from San Francisco – they make eggs out of bean proteins. No chickens, no factory farming. I had breakfast with them recently and their fried eggs are great. 

“We want people who go after something, achieve something, fail and then start again”

Let’s say I’ve got an idea for an app. How do I make sure it’s a success?

You should answer a couple of questions first, the most important one is: do I really, really care? Not everyone has to become an entrepreneur, after all, because it’s a brutal rollercoaster ride. And if you’re not really passionate about it, you’ll give up when the going gets really tough.

How do I come through the rollercoaster ride unscathed?

By believing in yourself. It’s the single most important quality if you want to make an idea happen. Tim Westergren is my favourite example. In the late 1990s, he came up with the idea of internet radio that adapted to the user’s taste. He submitted the concept to 300 investors and got 300 rejections. But he didn’t give up. Now his internet radio has 80 million listeners.

Not many people would have that much stamina.

Because people are afraid of failure. But on the startup scene, failure is a positive, provided you learn something from it. There are separate conferences where company founders talk exclusively about failure. 

What’s good about my project going pear-shaped?

The fact that you’re taken out of your comfort zone and learn something new. Every innovation comes with risk. The racing driver Mario Andretti once said, “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.” There’s an attitude you can learn from.

Risk is a great buzzword. You held one of your very first startup conferences in 2009 in Prishtina, Kosovo. A war zone.

Exactly. My business partner had travelled around Kosovo and noticed that there were an awful lot of young people who had little faith in the state and wanted to do things for themselves, which made it a great place for startups.

Startup founders are professional idea-sellers. You know hundreds of them. Can you give us a tip? Like for the idea of how to ask our boss for more money.

If you have a minute, then prepare for that minute. Argue from your boss’s point of view. And most important of all: be passionate!

Not everyone can be.

Watch presentation coach Nancy Duarte’s videos. Nancy has worked on Al Gore and Steve Jobs’ presentations and she spoke here last year. Her core message is to sell everything with a story. Think of mentoring along the lines of Luke Skywalker and Yoda.

Let’s say I’m well-prepared but terribly nervous.

Doesn’t matter. I used to be an introvert myself. I gave one presentation at university and successfully avoided any others.

How did you conquer your fear?

I said to myself, “It’s not so bad. People have come to listen to you.”

That makes it sound too easy.

But it’s true. Even the biggest stars in the music world get stage fright, it comes with the job. We’ve already spoken about the positive aspects of failure; even if you screw up your presentation, at least there are more people who know about you now than did before.

Jürgen Furian is the co-founder of Pioneers, the company behind the annual Pioneers Festival. His main responsibility is in corporate development and product development. Before Pioneers, Jürgen was the co-founder of STARTeurope, organizing weekend events for local startup communities throughout Europe


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