On a stopover in Vienna, weXelerate mentor Martin Essl talked to Ruth Reitmeier from wireX Magazine. Martin is Head of Business Development – Mobile at Uber in San Francisco. He held key management positions on three continents with Twitter, Sony Ericsson, and Siemens.
wireX: Martin, so you are the uber-mentor …
Martin Essl smiles.
Did you ever have a mentor in your career?
Martin: Not officially. I did not ask anyone: “Do you want to be my mentor?” But I found certain people in my career very inspirational in their way of doing business and decision-making.
You worked for Siemens, and for Sony Ericsson. In the last couple of years, things have moved very quickly for you. You’ve been with Uber since 2015, and before you worked for Twitter.
Martin: If you take a look at my resume, every 3 to 4 years there is a major change happening in my career. After 1 to 2 years you become really productive in a position and then you move within the company. But after 4 years you are ready for making a major step in changing your direction. That’s what happened to me when, in 2011, I switched from Sony Ericsson to Twitter.
But before that, you had moved to San Francisco in 2009.
Martin: That’s right. Once you get to the San Francisco Bay Area, after four years in a job, people start to ask you “So what are you going to do next? Where are you going next?” It is a different mindset. The reason why people ask you this question is that in the startup world of the Bay Area you are vesting equity – usually over a period of 4 years. This is undoubtedly a big driver in this environment. People get the knowledge of how to grow a startup and then move on to the next one. Many of the people in the field of business development take that approach.
There is, of course, the question when does a startup stop being a startup? Is Uber still a startup business?
Martin Essl: I would call Uber a very mature startup. After receiving substantial investments and notching up 5 billion trips on the Uber platform, it can’t operate like a startup anymore. Uber has seen hyper growth and is now in the course of becoming a much more mature company.
In Europe Uber is recognized for three things: It is considered the classic disruptive business model, it is known for its service system and a punk image. Is this coming to an end?
Martin Essl: Yes, Uber has had rapid growth for quite a while now. The focus of the company has been more on the business than on the way things were operating internally. That has come with serious negative effects which we took very seriously. We knew that Uber had to undergo change and we see that things are actually moving forward. Now Uber is working closely with governments and city councils to even increase our contribution to Urban mobility and to making life in cities better.
So, Uber has grown up.
Martin Essl: Yes, Uber has.
There’s a time for everything. So as a young company, the disruption got you noticed, it created change and now it’s time to develop broader appeal?
Martin Essl: I think our disrupter image doubtlessly played a role in the success story of Uber. There are a lot of global competitors and none of them has managed to get into 75 countries so quickly.
Let’s talk about you, Martin. Do you consider yourself a mobile technology expert? What are you known for in your professional circles?
Martin Essl: I have always considered myself an all-rounder, blending business, product, and technical skills together. It helps me to work with various teams in the organisation and also with external partners and collaborators. I know what is necessary for effective marketing, and I understand how product management works. But Business Development is at the core of what I do.
Your last two big career moves were from Sony Ericsson to Twitter and then to Uber. What did you experience and learn?
Martin Essl: The learning curve going from Sony Ericsson to Twitter was probably the steepest in my career. Sony had in many respects a top-down, departmental approach, prone to more silo-type thinking. All of a sudden, working with Twitter, I knew all the information and how each department was performing, and interacting with each other. At Twitter, and now more so at Uber, people are positively challenging each other. It is an environment where the best idea should win. When with a company like Sony somebody at the top says the next phone has to be purple, nobody will challenge the decision, even though it is probably not the right one.
And moving from Twitter to Uber?
Martin Essl: Uber is a tight-margin business that must deliver on great service. While for Twitter the business was advertising sales, with Uber you really have to focus on making sure the financials add up, without compromising on our business model, because we are running a company that is focusing on profitability in 75 markets.
How do you see your role as a mentor at weXelerate. What will be your contribution?
I have thought a lot about this. I hope to use my experience from different startup environments. First of all working at Twitter, and now at a later-stage startup like Uber, which has gone through tremendous growth in a short time span. Like all good mentors and managers, I’m there to listen. I have worked in various management roles, so I can encourage my mentees to think about examples that I know from my own work or from my network, and how that can be useful for my mentees. Offering different perspectives according to the development stage of the startup is very important.
Earlier we talked about disruption and punk.Do you expect your mentees to follow your advice? Would you be disappointed, if they decide to take a different path?
Martin Essl: Absolutely not. Every company needs to make their own decisions. A mentor is not a decision maker. I steady the game.
As a mentor you are sharing your experiences, but you should also get something back. What are you hoping for?
Martin Essl: My biggest motivation is to find a connection back to Europe. I left Austria in 2001 and a lot has happened since. In a few years time, my wife and I wish to come and live in Europe, preferably in Vienna.
Is your wife from Austria?
Martin Essl: My wife is American. I’m happy to say she started her own business recently. So I have first-hand startup experience right at home. We discuss all sorts of questions: When is the right time to pitch for funding? Shall I pay myself a salary?
It will be very interesting to continue to hear about your observations on the differences between the European and the US startup cultures. We should sit down again sometime.
Martin Essl: I would love to do that.
Martin Essl grew up in Styria, Austria, and studied Telecommunication Engineering in Salzburg. Martin started his career as a telecommunications professional with Siemens in Germany, then moved to China working for Siemens, BenQ, and Sony Ericsson. Since moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2009, he worked for Twitter. Today, Martin is Head of Business Development – Mobile at Uber. Martin met his wife Sarah in the Bay Area. Sarah is an entrepreneur. The couple has two children. Martin loves hiking and the mountains. He has a cabin at 2000 meters in Tahoma, California, where he and his family spend weekends.