A Week in Germany
Over the last three months, our team had doubled from fifteen to thirty, we had our annual conference, our strategic goals were being realigned, and our processes were being defined, we had a senior consultant to help us “structure” the company for the next phase of growth. We had people join in leadership positions and we had begun a few conversations for raising funds too. As the CEO of the company, my head was already full of many things, as I headed around midnight to Mumbai Airport, ready to go on a trip to Frankfurt. When you are juggling too many things, there is a good chance you may not be able to catch all the balls, and I had a weird sense of travel anxiety as I stood in the check-in queue along with Faris.
My anxiety quickly converted into panic as we realized that our stay in Germany according to the visa, ended two days earlier than our return ticket. The attendants on the Lufthansa counter would not let us check in. Just two days. We were on a business visit and had a valid return ticket, but apparently the German authorities are very strict about not having us stay for two more days. Having no other choice, we booked another return ticket standing at the checkin counter, this time for two days earlier. Finally it was alright to board the 3am flight, and by the time the aircraft pierced out of the pillow of smoke that enveloped the city, I was already tired and sleepy.
The wall of cold hit us on the other side as we came out of the aircraft into a wintery Frankfurt morning. The peacock patterns in gold and velvet at Mumbai airport had transformed into rectangular, steely and sterile grey of Frankfurt airport. The drive to Wiesbaden was quick and our host Martin Seibert was waiting for us at the house, and we were ready get rolling.
Martin is the CEO of Seibert Media, a fast growing technology company with 150 employees in Wiesbaden, near Frankfurt. Like many founders of technology companies, Martin was a person with a lot of energy, and I could see him as the engine of this fast growing company. The week was packed for us with meetings with the various teams at Seibert Media. The goal was to workout a broad plan of implementation of ERPNext across the company.
From the outside Seibert Media looked like any other technology company with a funky office, and smart and talented people. But as the week progressed, I was in for multiple surprises. During the week, a group of senior CEOs of multi billion dollar South Korean companies visited Seibert Media offices for a few hours to understand how Martin ran the company and I was happy to tag along with in the tour. In the tour, Martin showed us how the company was run and it was very eye-opening!
Seibert Media is run as a truly transparent company with no hierarchy. All the financial details of the company are public to the team, including everyone’s salaries. The company is broken down into small teams, and each team manages its own profitability, hires its own people and decides salaries for everyone in the team. At first I was skeptical. Having read recently about how employees of Valve, another technology company that ran without hierarchy, had complained about the toxic culture, politics and back-slapping within the company, I wondered how Seibert Media really pulled this off. Maybe one week was not enough to find the answer, but it was truly fascinating to see this in action.
All through the week, we sat down with various teams understanding their processes. Teams at Seibert Media used a bunch of tools, maybe as many as 20 different tools to run their business. Best of breed. Tracking offers, invoices, follow-ups, payments were all done in different software tools and people were switching three or four different tools, just to complete one simple process. According to a survey, a company uses 15 software tools on an average. Seeing how painful the process could quickly become was very insightful, multiply this by almost every other company.
In most of my earlier customer visits, the expectation from me was to answer how ERPNext would fix this system. How could we configure and customise the system to ensure that these processes happened within one system. Often, we would directly jump into configuration and implementation as customers are wanting a “quick” solution to their problems. Here the expectation was not really to come up with answers, but just understand what was being done, and sitting through the meetings made us realise that the scale of change management that would have to be done for users to adapt to the new system.
Seibert Media has an internal team of programmers, called “Brogrammers” who were entrusted with the task of configuring and integrating ERPNext into the current system. The most value we added directly was interacting with the Brogrammers and helping them getting started faster. Having Faris along was a great, as he was able to know the programmers and they could interact with him.
“I had to convince myself real hard if this ERP system made by Indian guys was any good.” Martin told us. His primary goal from the visit was whether he could trust us. Indian freelancers and programmers so far had not made a good impression on him. And if you read online forums, they have not left a good impression on most people. Freelancers from India usually do not have an understanding of the quality and finish required by users in the developed world, and are often forced to quote rock bottom prices and required to do low end work. What is passable in India, is usually unacceptable in other places.
Martin’s other goal was to understand how we do open source. Martin himself had been a part of an open source community before he ventured into becoming an Atlassian partner. He was very concerned that we were burning ourselves by supporting the community. “Stop doing free work for a*****s”, he would exhort us. This was partially true. So many times we had offered free consulting to people with the hope they would sign up for our hosted offering only to go to self-hosting. Many customers, specially in India, where forcing us into unfair pre-sales consulting. Often we did not draw a clear line. These were things we were already working on and Martin made sure it was reinforced.
Spending the week with Martin was extremely insightful and we went back with a lot of ideas and renewed focus. Martin also gave us a bunch of usability feedback, poking some innocent fun on us along the way. It did have the desired effect as Faris later said, “I am very motivated to solve the issues Martin laughed at”. Doing product or services (or both) has been an ongoing conversation at Frappe for many years and this visit showed us clearly that the product needs both.
Seibert Media also hosted the ERPNext Community in Europe for an evening at its offices and people drove long distances to be there. Active members in the forum and foundation, Charles-Henri Decultot was there from Paris, Gunnar Wagner, with whom I had many forum flame wars was there too, and so was Wolfram Schmitt. Dominik Ottenbreit was there along with his wife Carly, who is an ERPNext user too.
Dominik is one of the most active community members in ERPNext and he made an amazing presentation in German on how ERPNext helped him transform his company. Dominik has been dabbling with ERPNext for almost three years now and it was very satisfying to see his persistence pay off and a bunch of high quality extensions he built for himself to top it off.
Charles-Henri, who moved on from SAP, shared his success story of how he helped transform and grow a Translations services company. He has quickly become an active code contributor to the project and it was surprising to learn that he had learned how to code only for a couple of years. This would not be the first time someone learned how to code, in order to customise ERPNext! Its was great to see Wolfram also make strong progress in his ERPNext journey and I could see a lot of maturity since the year and a half that went past from our previous meeting.
Overall, it felt that the European community had grown quite well from our last meet up with a lot of repeat members who could form the core of this community going forward.
Earlier in the day, Gunnar had helped us fix our visa problem. He came with us to the local office and helped us get an extension for two days. So we were back to our original plan (we had to cancel the new ticket at a reasonable cost, and we deserved it too), and this left us with enough time to not only spend time with Seibert Media but also do a bit of sight seeing.
Dominik and Carly were gracious to spend their time with us on the weekend, (they were also our hosts for the last ERPNext Event in March ’17) as we walked around the city of Mainz, on a particularly cold and blustery evening. Other than the cathedral, Mainz is home to Gutenberg Museum, and the city where modern day printing was invented in the western world. Looking at how knowledge was replicated through the ages, first with scores of monks copying each page by hand, to the invention of a mechanised printing process, to the digital age, where we don’t even think for a fraction about how information is captured and replicated, made us think how much knowledge had been democratised in our times, and how little we cared about the process by which we shared it.
On the final day, Dominik joined us as we went museum hopping in Frankfurt. The museums in Frankfurt were very nice and cozy. Germany is blessed with an impeccable taste in design and typography driven by the Bauhaus movement, and being coupled with meticulous perfection and craftsmanship, which makes it particularly delightful.
Germany had come from behind to overtake its more advanced Europoean neighbours. The country is built on the shoulders of the scores of small and medium sized businesses, the Mittlestand, that have powered it to become a global economic superpower. Before unification, Germany was a cluster of small nation states, with each state with its own producers, which later became the backbone of the new economy.
In so many fields, German companies are among the best in the world, from automobiles to electronics, from stationary to industrial goods, and yes also ERP software. In a way, these small and medium business are the ideal market for ERPNext as they go into the next phase of development and integration.
It was an exhausting week, but also a very refining one. Martin and his wife Juliane were amazing hosts and our stay in their restored 1728 house was very memorable. Martin encouraged us to have different cultural experiences, including eating a traditional German breakfast and playing football with the team. It was also good to spend a week away from office and reflect on how we could do things better.
While Martin warned us about not doing free work, I can’t help feeling that this week went off so well because open source brings in good feelings in everyone that it touches. Humans are co-operative animals and while commerce is a form of co-operation, it is too transactional and quantified. Open source has a feeling of connection and identity which is much beyond simple give and take.