5 Questions with Martin Schilling, Managing Director of Techstars Berlin Accelerator

Nov 16, 2021

Martin Schilling is the Managing Director of the Techstars Berlin Accelerator. As an angel investor, startup builder and scale-up executive, Martin co-founded and scaled up five companies over the past 15 years. These companies include Orphoz (a subsidiary for McKinsey & Company), a public company in Saudi Arabia, the MARA foundation in Argentina, and the fintech N26. Martin is a co-author of the book, “The Builder’s Guide to the Tech Galaxy – 99 Practices to Scale Startups into Unicorn Companies” and is passionate about seeking out and enabling the next generation of European Entrepreneurs building high-growth businesses.

01. What are you looking for in startups for the Techstars Berlin Accelerator?

I believe entrepreneurs are the inventors of the 21st century. They can change the world for the better. They work on the most pressing global issues of our time: combating climate change, securing low-carbon food and energy supplies, providing better access to financial products – you name it. I am especially interested in working with ambitious founders aiming to build high-growth companies that serve both humanity and the planet.

When seeking out founding teams, I focus on three things:

First, the North Star. The team should paint a vision for a compelling future they want to create with their company. This usually includes a clear problem statement, a solution with a unique value proposition for customers, and a reason as to why this company needs to be built right now. Of course, this will change over time, but being able to communicate this transparently is essential as it attracts talents, customers and investors.

Second, the market dynamics. The team should be able to prove that they are not operating in an overcrowded market with very strong competitors. Is there a company with a similar value proposition and ample venture capital operating in the same geographic region? This is usually not a very good sign.

And most importantly, the team. Do they have a defensible advantage that leverages insights, networks or IP that prevents outside teams from copying the idea? Ideally, they complement each other in terms of skills, are diverse in background, and have worked together already. Have they shown traction within a short timeframe, proving they can execute quickly? Is there an MVP or do they have initial customers? No team has the full package, which is why I am on hand to help them flesh it out.

02. Does the Techstars Berlin Accelerator focus on a specific type of startup? 

We are open to all startups from all industries and verticals. However, we are placing an emphasis on three types of startups:

First, low-carbon economy startups that help consumers and businesses to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis. These companies might focus on carbon accounting, carbon-friendly food production, net-zero construction, sustainable mobility and/or green energy. 

Second, the next level of fintechs. Decentralized finance, NFTs, blockchain, ML-powered fraud & security are prime examples here. 

And third, deep tech startups working on breakthrough science and engineering innovations, often as spin-offs from universities. Possible areas of focus here include machine learning, cybersecurity, quantum computing and the industrial Internet of things. 

These are all areas with amazing potential to build companies. I love to have conversations with ambitious founders working on these topics, and others, if founders are really passionate about them. 

03. What are some of the biggest lessons learned in your career and entrepreneurial journey that you are bringing to Techstars? 

The one thing I am still surprised by to this day is how far a team of fearless builders can go if they believe in their entrepreneurial dreams. When we scaled N26, for example, not many of us had years of experience in the banking industry. Half of the executive team had never even held a full-time job. But we worked hard and believed in aspirations. Today, N26 is one of the most successful fintech in Europe. 

I have seen this many times in my career: You can build great companies straight out of university or with only a few years of industry experience. Why? Because this enables first-principles thinking: You can reimagine groundbreaking products without being hamstrung by conventional industry assumptions. 

04. Describe a situation with a startup founder or team where you felt like you made a difference. 

I recently worked with an amazing team that set out to build a B2B2C food delivery app, but pivoted to building a carbon accounting tool. I helped them reshape their idea, and supported them with finding early-adoption customers and institutional investors. I believe they are now on track to being a category leader in their space. 

When working with founding teams, I see myself as a temporary co-founder in the second row. The key decisions are always with the founders – they have full control. I advise and challenge them on critical decisions in the early company phase, when the startup is still as fragile as a raw egg. I usually help founders to set an attractive North Star, recruit and retain a AAA leadership team, acquire initial customers, and ensure there is always enough money in the bank by finding the right institutional investors. 

05. If you could have coffee with any entrepreneur, who would it be and why?

If I could go back in time, I would have coffee with Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, the father of OKRs, an amazing entrepreneur and an accomplished author. These days Arnold Schwarzenegger is a great choice, I think. He grew up in a small village in Austria, not far from the town in Bavaria where I was raised. Arnold embodies several of the strengths an entrepreneur needs to have, not least ambitious goals. He wanted to become Mr. Olympia, a Hollywood star and a successful politician, and he succeeded in all three while also building a business in real estate on the side. This called for grit and discipline, and he had to reinvent himself several times. These are abilities all entrepreneurs need to develop. I think, if we had coffee together, we would also discuss the responsibility of us entrepreneurs to be a force for good in the world, for example, when it comes to climate action and empowerment of minorities.