Christian Lindner is a leading politician, entrepreneur and YouTube star, all rolled into one. He set up his first company – an advertising agency – when only 18 years old. Entrepreneurs are mostly familiar with Lindner for the speech he gave at the state parliament, in which he criticised Germany for having a culture that is hostile to new businesses. In our interview he talks about our guiding theme "HelloHuman" and the digitalization of business processes in companies.
Mr Lindner, many people probably don‘t know this, but you were something of a pioneer for customer-centred online shopping. The second company you founded aimed to help online shoppers with voice-operated avatars. That was in 2000. Today, chatbots are a common feature of the internet landscape. Were you ahead of your time?
Our vision was to control the internet on mobile devices with actual speech. In the days of WAP and Nokia 7110, this was of course a very ambitious project from a technical point of view. The chatbot with a face would have been an intermediate step.
But when the dotcom bubble burst in January 2002, it played havoc with everything. How did those around you react to this?
Yes, we had been planning a second financing round since the beginning. But that was no longer realistic as of summer 2001. At that time, those around me hardly took any notice. The advertising agency was my only source of livelihood, as I had left the start-up long before the insolvency. Our investor had previously intended to take over control by means of a capital increase, but he wasn‘t able to beat the market either. My startup adventure only became a topic of note later on, when political opponents on the left wanted to turn it into a scandal. That all happened 17 years ago, but jokers still like to post things about it online under every article about my political activities.
Your maxim – „German courage“ – also means having the courage to fail. Spiegel Online once described you as the patron saint of entrepreneurs and ex-entrepreneurs. How do you dispel the fears of a young person wanting to set up a business?
By actively promoting the idea of second chances. Recognition for performance is important, but so is respect for those who at least tried to do something. Envy and malice are really bad character traits. If we take measures against them, Germany will not only be more accommodating for industry and entrepreneurs; it will also become a better place to live.
You set up your own advertising agency when you were only 18. Today you are a politician. Did your marketing experience help you with the reorientation of the FDP in 2013?
Not really. Reorientation doesn‘t really have anything to do with marketing. In essence, we asked ourselves why we became Free Democrats in the first place, rather than joining the CDU or the SPD. We asked ourselves why the FDP actually exists. The answer is an attitude to life, the desire for self-determination, pleasure from the results of your own creative power, generosity to others, and curiosity towards the world and new technologies. We just have the most positive view of human beings. The left believes that human beings ar weak and need to be led – this creates a life with all the support of the welfare state. Conservatives believe that human beings are evil and corruptible – hence the need for law and order. We believe that human beings are the best experts on their own lives and are, first and foremost, naturally sensible.
The boss of a software company once said that digitisation should always serve humanity. When will digitisation stop serving humanity?
I don‘t know what you mean, exactly. For me, digitisation is a wonderful opportunity for more participation, more productivity, more convenience, more efficiency. In Germany we tend to look on change with a predominantly critical eye – we always just see the risks. But how about emphasising the opportunities and seizing them?
Do you have an example from your everyday life? Germany and North Rhine-Westphalia are not exactly model pupils in eGovernment...
Exactly. We take too little advantage of this. In Estonia you can submit your tax return online in three minutes. That‘s even quicker than you would be able to do it after the famous „beermat tax reform“.
To return to the subject of online shopping: What do you personally think is the most important thing when shopping on the internet?
Speed. If I have to click my way through umpteen forms, I head for the hills. And if the returns option is complicated, I won‘t be ordering a second time.
How and where do you think we‘ll be shopping in 10 or 15 years‘ time?
Everyday products will increasingly be bought online. For the retail trade, the experience and entertainment value will be decisive – at least if my personal preferences are anything to go by.
More interviews and information about the Shopware Community Day 2017 will follow shortly.