What can a ninth-tier German football club teach us about hiring?
The story of 1899 Hoffenheim is something to behold.
A village team playing in the amateur Kreisliga A, they worked their way up to the Bundesliga I (the German premiership) in just 18 years.
In the season of 2007–08, what happened when they got there?
To quote a piece from the Guardian at the time:
‘Not content to sit back and acclimatise to the Bundesliga, Ragnick’s team flew out of the blocks and ripped into their opponents with direct, attacking football. They had a real swagger about them, a swashbuckling style, often of the mindset that if the opposition scored two, they would score three, four or five… helping the promoted team to a haul of 42 goals from the first 17 matches, confirming them as unofficial winter champions in front of Bayern Munich on goal difference.’
Finishing seventh overall that season, Hoffenheim have since made a nine-year stay at the top of German football, and this year made it to the Champions League playoff round to sample the top flight of European football.
Hailing from a village with a population little over 3,000, how have they achieved this?
Well, the club has a very wealthy owner (and a former youth team player), but, unlike Manchester City (a British club whose billionaire backer has usurped as many of the world’s best players as he can, paying each a fortune’s salary), Dietmar Hopp, Hoffenheim’s owner, decided to spend 15 years developing his youth team. He invested five times as much money in the club’s infrastructure — youth-development centres, playing fields, the stadium and training centre — as in the professional team. He played the long game, focusing on nurturing young talent.
After promotion to league two, with a few key experienced players in place, the then manager Ralf Rangnick said, ‘We only looked for players aged between 17 and 23. The oldest we’ve signed in the last three years was 24. All the others we signed were 19, 20, 21.’ The average age when breaking through to the Bundesliga (the following year) was less than 23.
While most Silicon Valley companies take millions in investment and compete for established VPs and executives, recklessly spending hundreds of thousands in individual salaries, having recently started a company that’s doing rather well, we see Hoffenheim as an inspiration.
My co-founder and I long to offer young people a similar opportunity working with us, and to become something of a hub for young ambitious men and women who want to go somewhere — particularly in the realms of marketing and production.
See we were both the beneficiaries at a young age of older, more experienced people taking us under their wing.
I had the good fortune of landing a serious work opportunity at 17. And my co-founder had similar mentorship opportunities in his late teens, touring Germany with a leading psychologist, often giving speeches in his place.
We benefitted extraordinarily from these experiences and look to pay it forward.
But hiring young people isn’t just feel-good altruism. It’s good business too.
Hopp (Hoffenhein’s owner) notes: ‘Young players have many advantages. They learn faster, listen, can cope with the intensity of training. Young players also know that they need team spirit, and need trust and confidence from us.’
Felix Dennis, the late magazine magnate, wrote about the importance of ‘continuous revolution’ in his book The Narrow Road.
And David Ogilvy went so far as to advise having a ‘Vice-President in charge of Revolution’ in his climactic book on advertising.
Hiring us was a boon for the people who brought my partner and I on when we were young, and if we can be as adept at attracting young talent, and patient in developing them, it will be for us.
We’re not just talking about internships here. At 17, I worked the summer holidays and things went so well I didn’t go back to college. Considering the sorry present state of many university campuses, such a road into business isn’t one I feel ill advising today. A ‘temp to hire’ programme is the obvious way to test the waters.
The pioneer of modern advertising, Claude Hopkins, believed anyone with a college education should be disqualified from creating advertising. We won’t hold it against you like Claude, but we don’t mind if (like me) you don’t have one. We look for those well on their way to having ‘well-furnished minds’, nevermind how they acquire it.
If that’s you (or you know someone who might be interested), go ahead and pitch us. We’re a remote team and are open to anyone the world over working with us.
Hopp states: ‘With those youngsters you have to let them run. If you play defensively with a young team it is a contradiction.’
That’s what we’ll supply, and our promise is to invest in a youth development programme similar to Hoffenheim. From your side, we’ll be waiting.