The kopy kat kids

Three German brothers struck gold by bringing Silicon Valley's best ideas - and its maverick spirit - to their risk-averse country.

By Robert Levine, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- The Samwer brothers never been shy about borrowing ideas. The first company the Cologne-born trio founded was a German-language version of eBay. Later, as venture capitalists, they invested in European startups that were direct knockoffs of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

The brothers Samwer (Alexander, 36; Oliver, 34; and Mark, 32) are unapologetic about their fast-follower tactics - mostly because they work. Alando. de, the eBay clone they launched in January 1999, was snapped up five months later by eBay itself - for a cool $50 million. And they had early money in StudiVZ, a two-year-old European Facebook clone that reportedly fetched more than $100 million when it sold to publishing company Holtzbrinck earlier this year.

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The Samwers sold their eBay knockoff to eBay for $50 million, five months after it launched.

In the process of picking Silicon Valley's brains, however, they picked up something more important than a fistful of Web 2.0 business models. They brought back a bit of the Valley's entrepreneurial spirit and injected it into a business culture dominated by staid, family-owned enterprises.

Through savvy investments, well-timed sales, and, yes, a few wholly original ideas, they've cleared hundreds of millions of dollars since 1999 and expanded their portfolio beyond Europe to Asia and the United States. They've also become pillars of the fast-growing European high-tech investment community and role models for a new breed of homegrown continental entrepreneurs.

The Samwers started their romance with Silicon Valley in the spring of 1998, when Oliver was working on his MBA dissertation at the Otto Beisheim School of Management near Cologne. He told his professor that he wanted to get a feel for what it took to start a company: how to get the idea, find the money, manage the growth.

So he and a friend went to the source - Silicon Valley - and spent four weeks interviewing entrepreneurs and investment bankers, some 100 in all, pumping them for anecdotes, sources, and ideas.

A few months later, Oliver returned to California, this time with his two brothers and a detailed plan of attack. Before they left Germany, the Samwers had written scores of letters to companies they admired, offering to work for next to nothing, just for the experience.

Once in the United States, they methodically found jobs at companies in different stages of growth: Oliver at the well-established content-delivery company Inktomi, Marc at midsize mobile-software company Visto, and Alexander at Sentient Networks, later acquired by Cisco (Charts, Fortune 500).

"Our idea was, let's go and learn how to grow a company," Alexander says. They found a small apartment in Mountain View, introduced themselves to prominent guest speakers at Stanford University, and squeezed in face time with company founders and Valley bigwigs whenever they could - sometimes jumping into their airport-bound taxis and returning home by bus.

By December 1998 they were back in Germany with invaluable work experience and a marketable idea that wasn't entirely their own. Picking up where eBay (Charts, Fortune 500) left off, they started Alando in January 1999, using some toy trains from their own attic to stock the site with its first auction items and networking at flea markets to build supply.

When eBay announced plans to buy Alando five months later -a no-brainer for an American company that lacked expertise in European markets - the lesson was not lost on the Samwers: Adapting an idea to your culture can be as lucrative as coming up with a new one.

The Samwers are now experts at that. Alando, for example, couldn't rely on credit cards like eBay, so they built their auction site around the debit cards that Germans prefer. Similarly, StudiVZ, Europe's answer to Facebook, played down university affiliations in favor of straight social connections; because German students often live at home well into their 20s, their closest links are more likely to be to family and friends than to fellow students.

Sometimes the European sites are eerily similar to the American ones. The homepage of Frazr, a German version of Twitter, for example, is a virtual photocopy of its U.S. counterpart. But the Samwers wave off the copycat charge. Alexander's only answer to a direct question about it is a cryptic "I think you will find that all investors are engaged with some leaders and some followers."

And it is unfair to paint the Samwers as mere plagiarists, as if all they did was crank out German versions of U.S. ideas. The second company they founded, the mobile-phone entertainment company Jamba, was ahead of its time. VeriSign (Charts) bought it for $273 million in 2004.

And they now head up the $300 million European Founders Fund, which has a portfolio of companies in Europe, Asia, and the United States. Earlier this year they partnered with Amazon.com's (Charts, Fortune 500) Jeff Bezos to invest in the online manufacturing-parts market MFG.com.

But more than companies, the important thing the Samwer brothers brought to Europe is the entrepreneurial model they discovered - and made a study of - in Silicon Valley. "The words 'venture' and 'Europe' have not gone together for decades," says Mark Heesen, president of the National Venture Capital Association. "You have to have entrepreneurs before you have venture capital, and that entrepreneurial culture does not yet exist in Europe the way it does here."

The Samwers even imported the Silicon Valley way of putting job candidates on the spot. "Most of the big companies here are very focused on your grades at university," says Christian Vollman, who met the Samwers while interning for Alando. "When Oliver interviews you, he doesn't care about your grades. He'll ask you about your goals in life or how you'd tackle a certain problem."

The Samwers are not the only tech VCs in Europe, of course. U.S.-based Benchmark Capital and the homegrown Index Ventures are also prowling the continent for hot startups. But the Samwers are holding their own.

Entrepreneurs appreciate them because they share their expertise without taking over - they rarely, for example, demand a board seat. "We talked to investors all over the world, but we settled on the Samwer brothers," says Vito Lomele, CEO and founder of Jobrapido.com, a help-wanted search engine that started in Italy and spread through Europe with help from the Samwers. "They bring in entrepreneurial expertise as well as money." They also help U.S. companies expand in Europe, finding staff, setting up offices, and negotiating cultural differences.

Such intercontinental investing is the future for the European Founders Fund, according to Alexander. There are more and more business models coming from Europe, some of which he thinks are perfect candidates for U.S.-based clones. Asia, too, is beginning to generate exportable ideas.

If the Samwers were starting out today, Alexander says, they might not have to leave Germany at all. "It was different in the mid-'90s because the U.S. was the hub of entrepreneurial activity," he says. "But now you see more and more of that developing around the world. You see the flow of ideas in all directions."  Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.