The essence of timing

… and why Vincent van Gogh would have been a terrible entrepreneur

Florian Schweitzer
b2venture (formerly btov Partners)
5 min readJul 8, 2021


In analogy to the real estate industry, where the three most important success factors are “location, location and location”, venture capitalists say the most important success factors for startup investments are: “1) team, 2) team and 3) team”.

Sorry — this is complete nonsense. I will explain why.

“Nothing is as strong as an idea whose time has come”. With this quote by Victor Hugo and others, McKinsey once decorated a book in the late 1990s which became the definitive guide in Switzerland on how to write business plans. After co-founding b2venture in 2000, for well over a decade I read hundreds of business plans in which this saying was prominently featured on the cover page. Statistically, not even 1% of these businesses have actually been successful. In my case, I even perceived this slogan as a “turn-off”, as the business plans adorned with it were more like working through a McKinsey textbook than a document reflecting the entrepreneur’s “feu sacré”. In other words: I could no longer stand this saying.

But: it is actually spot on!

Yes, it is true: a top team can still make something out of a lousy idea by adapting and “pivoting” to something slightly better. But it remains a “bad” or “just not right” idea and depending on whether you have to make a 10, 45, 90 or 180° turn, you have used up some or quite a lot of resources along the way.

There must have been 50 or 100 companies similar to Zalando in Europe in 1999/2000 when McKinsey’s book was published. Hundreds of millions of Euros were burned and teams of motivated top talents may have worked so hard for years that they went overboard and reached or exceeded their health limits. In 2001 and 2002, when the startup world was in “nuclear winter” after the bursting of the Internet bubble, people said: Of course — some things like shoes and nail polish will never be bought on the internet, because there is a need for “touch & feel”. What great wisdom… The Zeitgeist developed differently and Zalando, founded in 2008, turned into an impressive company within just a few years. Kudos to my partner Jochen Gutbrod who extended the VC budget to Martin Weber back then to finance one of the most successful VC investments in Europe.

Victor Hugo was adored by Vincent van Gogh and although they both lived in Paris at the same time for a while, they never met. Perhaps if they had met, the two would have talked about the phenomenon “Zeitgeist”. In his lifetime, Vincent sold a single painting for the equivalent of about EUR 2,000 today. He had unspeakable money problems and was financed by his brother Theo, whom he did not want to burden with financial issues. The two had a very intense correspondence from which one can see Vincent’s soul shimmering through. His money problems were so bad that he struggled to buy the expensive oil paints needed for his work. He once wrote, “I can’t change the fact that my paintings don’t sell. But the time will come when people will recognize that they are worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture.”

How right he was… If van Gogh were alive today and sold all his other paintings, he would probably be a billionaire. A similar dramatic fate befell Schubert, for example, whose music was considered unbearable noise in his day.

So artists can be ahead of their time, but entrepreneurs cannot. And yet — entrepreneurs, VCs and artists have a lot in common. The most important similarity probably is finding the right timing for the idea — that is a true art. Van Gogh on this: «Art demands constant observation». Vincent van Gogh didn’t have a single lesson in painting. In only ten years he completed about 2’000 paintings and sketches. He reinvented a lot of techniques but most importantly he looked at things differently. He went “into the pears” or “into the landscape” or “into his room” while painting. His paintings transport the quintessence and spirit of their objects.

To an investor and entrepreneur “art demands constant observation” means: We have to sense the Zeitgeist. One needs to be open and curious, each and every day. And forget about past “wisdom” of other smart people or ourselves. For Zalando the new realities that enabled it to be successful in contrast to the first, failing attempts probably were factors such as high resolution pictures thanks to higher bandwidths which suddenly permitted a kind of “touch & feel” with mouse-over and zoom options. Moreover, there were factors such as the development of consumer confidence in payment systems, so that using credit cards on the internet was no longer an obstacle. UBER is probably even more illustrative. We developed a business plan similar to UBER’s with friends during a “Quo vadis weekend” at university. That was in 1999 and 100s of teams cut their teeth on similar ideas in the following decade — until the iPhone came along with detailed maps, easily available GPS data and enough computing power to optimize routing. The rest is history and the market capitalisation of UBER is stunning — especially if you consider how young the company is.

Here is one example of a problem I’d like to be solved as soon as possible: In the logistics industry, standardisation through the introduction of the container and the Euro pallet has led to incredible productivity gains. It is likely that standard APIs will emerge in the logistics industry in the coming years to automate cross-company collaboration, just as it started in the banking world more than a decade ago. These APIs will lead to a much better use of existing capacities.

So entrepreneurs and VCs need to go through the world with their eyes wide open. We need to read, try, compare and always question old truths and imagine what could emerge in a whole new way. Famously the “market for SMS” was talked down at the beginning of the mobile telephony era since it did not appear in any conventional market analysis. Over the next two decades, it grew to over EUR 100bn worldwide just to rapidly implode hereafter — again because of the smartphone. What I learned from my dear friend Daniel Gutenberg: Imagine the world in 10–20 years down the road and invest based on this perspective.

All this is an art, based on hard foundational work. And there is also a bit of luck involved.