In 2015, engineer and computer scientist Dr. Andreas Bihlmaier went to Google in Silicon Valley for a robotics project. But despite an attractive job offer, he returned to Germany to start his own business: robodev GmbH. It produces flexible modules that companies can use to expand their plants and automate subprocesses. Now in his early thirties, Bihlmaier learned a lot of lessons from the Silicon Valley mentality. He advises German companies to focus on their own strengths.
You know German mid-sized enterprises and Silicon Valley. What do companies there do differently, and what can German manufacturers learn from them?
The most important difference is that people in Silicon Valley get down to business faster. If a German company wants to try something new, they first hold meetings to discuss all the pros and cons at length. And at the end of all of that, the decision is usually postponed. In Silicon Valley, people just try out the new approach. After a certain amount of time, the colleagues sit down together, look at their practical experiences, and decide what the next steps will be.
What lessons did you take back to Germany with you?
In Silicon Valley, companies have a fundamental sense of trust in their employees. Within certain limits, employees can make their own decisions about budgets and don’t need to go get their supervisors‘ approval every time.
At Google, they say to themselves that administrative expenses should not end up costing more than an employee’s potential mistake might.
In Silicon Valley they intensely focus on digital business models and are very successful with this approach. Do companies in Germany have to become digital as well to survive in the future?
German businesses should not make the mistake of trying to directly take on everything that makes its way here from Silicon Valley. We are not going to be able to beat companies like Google or Facebook at their own game. And we shouldn‘t even try.
Our strengths lie elsewhere. Silicon Valley companies have a solid command of IT and B2C business. By contrast, German companies‘ core competences tend to be in the field of physical products, especially in mechanical engineering, and in the B2B sector. And German companies should never lose sight of this. They cannot afford to make the mistake of focusing exclusively on digitization and then leaving hardware development to the Chinese.
My recommendation for businesses: they should work together with start-ups, especially in the field of automation.dr. andreas bihlmaier
From the perspective of someone who knows both worlds, what can you recommend to German companies?
They should leverage their strengths and expand to include new elements. Other countries also have companies that build good motors. But the German industry can hold its own against inexpensive competition from overseas if they offer solutions with a genuine added value. One example could be if an engine manufacturer develops a service that lets customers test their car’s engine remotely. However, the manufacturer should not lose sight of the fact that its main priority is making engines, not the added digital service. Companies should apply digitization to their core business, not try to set up an entirely new business. If they are not at the pole position and try to launch into an unfamiliar field, they will not succeed.
As a start-up that focuses equally on hardware and software, which mistakes do you have to avoid in this transformation?
Many companies create an IT department and encapsulate it from their core business. But interdisciplinary collaboration is one of the major strengths of German companies.
In Silicon Valley you are certainly not going to find a business where mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and production planners join forces the way they do here. Companies have to succeed in integrating their IT experts into these interdisciplinary teams. And for this to happen, the experts have to be together on site.
It might sound unbelievable, but Google is a real role model here. It earns its money with digital services and theoretically could link in all of its employees from their home offices. But there are still over 20,000 people working at their headquarters in Mountain View. Nothing can replace this direct interaction.