Dr. Johannes Loxen, alumnus of the Physics Department, is the founder and managing director of SerNet GmbH. The company specializes in IT and communication security. For years he has been involved as a mentor for doctoral students and student startups. As an entrepreneur, he is the main sponsor of the "Lift-off" competition for startups. He is currently committed to initiating an alumni startup network. We talked to him about his commitment and how he founded his own company as a student.
KK: As a student, you founded your own company, SerNet GmbH - what brought you there?
JL: I've never come up with any ideas myself, but I've always been inspired. As students we had founded an internet club in 1996. Its name was Internet Competence Group (Kompetenzkreis Internet - KKI e.V) and it was intended to bring together all those at the University who were familiar with the Internet. The city, which needed consultants for its technology center at that time, learned about it. As an association we could not offer any commercial activity. At that time, I was just about to complete my dissertation and knew that I would soon need money. So I agreed to get involved. Two friends said they would be there, too. That was great, because I myself had no idea at all about the technology at all. I was more into marketing and sales. And so we founded ourselves. The official date by the notary is April, 8 1997. We started with training courses, but what we actually wanted was IT security for corporate customers – preferably larger than small. That of course had to be developed first. So during the day we trained, and in the evening we devoted ourselves to the further development of the company. With Spindler & Hoyer we had our first good customer, and from there everything developed further. Our fellow student Stephan Ferneding had already been with his company for 8 years (today Accurion GmbH) and was very well-networked. This has helped us enormously to attract customers.
KK: What was the biggest challenge in the over-20-years of company history?
JL: In 2001 we ran out of money, in 2005 we ran out of money, and in 2016 we ran out of money. Then one had to deal with it. I had to learn a lot – in the first case about liquidity planning. I had bought a lot of equipment, it was stored there, and there was no money for anything else. I am a physicist, not a business administrator. In 2004, we had such a successful year that we hired a lot of new people. However, the orders did not continue at the same level immediately into 2005. Luckily, we were able to persuade all of our colleagues to postpone the 13th salary until January. This made it possible for our annual financial statements not to slip into the red. Then, in 2016, because we had invested so much in our new compliance software, we ran out of money, again. That was a real crisis and it wasn't that long ago. Even then, we were able to recoup the money thanks to a very good order situation, and everything has developed well since then. It is important to me to remain independent of the banks!
But even today, there is something new every month to learn, which obliges me to grow..
KK: You just spoke briefly about the learning curves you've gone through: Did you ever further your education in management skills, or was that all "learning-by-doing"?
JL: Today we have 61 people with good, international turnover - I have had 23 years to grow into this. But there was and still is something new every month to learn which obliges me to grow. Right from the start, we outsourced tasks that were not our core business. Taxes, law, payroll accounting, all this is outsourced to partners with whom we have great trust and have been working closely together for years. . So we take a close look: where do we need the skills ourselves? - And then acquire them. And where, on the other hand, a skill is not necessary, and can be outsourced more sensibly. By the way, this is always a big issue in startup consulting. First of all, they always want to do everything themselves to save money. Then you have so much on your hands, that greatly inhibiting, and also difficult to get rid of later.
KK: The digital industry is the most dynamic of all, what does that mean for your employees?
JL: Who knows what we'll be doing in 5 years. The innovation cycle in the industry is every five years - we have to remain very vigilant. This is a constant challenge, especially for technicians – the structures and working methods are often well-established. We have to set up mechanisms to break that down. For example, we like to exaggerate the necessary internal moves every few years, so that as many people as possible sit together in new rooms with other colleagues.
KK: Where does SerNet stand today?
JL: We are very comfortable with where we are at. We are independent, a small medium-sized company with 61 employees, organically grown. I think every one of our employees would immediately find somewhere else if we were no longer around because our types of service are so much in demand.
I then got such clever doubters as my mentees.
KK: And how did you come to become a mentor for our students?
JL: Since 2011 we have sponsored an annual German scholarship at the HAWK (Hochschule für angewandte Wissenschaft und Kunst) - that was the first contact with a university in Göttingen since I completed my doctorate. Then came the mentoring program KaWirMento, which was about convincing doctoral students that they are fit for business and don't need to be afraid of the big world. The interesting thing is, dumb people don't hesitate. I then got such clever doubters as my mentees. It was a lot of fun to support them, to find out which competences they have and to encourage them in these. Next came mentoring for student startups. Here, too, you usually have to deal with very clever people who want to make a difference. It becomes a give and take. I tell the startups something, but I also learn a lot myself. I can deal with other perspectives and worldviews and that is incredibly stimulating.
KK: Is that your motivation?
JL: I am in Göttingen and have to or can think about how I want to get involved with my time for the next 10 years. My children are out of the house, my company is well-established. I would like to create the conditions for a good transition for my company at an early stage. This means that I am already gradually creating more freedom for myself. Everything I do outside the company, I can choose for myself, I am totally free - and much freer than in my company, even if it is my own. I only choose what is fun.
Potential is of no use if nobody pushes it
KK: What about the startup potential at the University - do we have potential?
JL: Potential is such a thing. A lot of potential is useless if nobody pushes it or if it doesn't have its own drive. So what's more exciting at the University is the question of how many people want to make a difference and have the necessary self-propulsion. The important thing then is that they can also act on it, that no unnecessary limits are set on them. And on the other hand, you also have to see how and where you can push someone to get something going. Both are tasks of startup support. In Göttingen this support hasn't existed that long - less than ten years. As a result, there are no role models yet. The fact that Sartorius was once founded through the University is not applicable here, as it was founded over 100 years ago and is now a global player. The tightrope in startup promotion is to be sure not prevent the founders from running it themselves, due to too much support. If you do everything for them, they won't advance themselves, and can get stuck in the habit of being supported by some kind of grant instead of becoming entrepreneurs. Conclusion: The startup potential at the university is there - simply because there are so many people there. The exciting question is whether this is recognized and whether the right kick is given so that something from it can get going.
KK: And this is how the idea for an alumni startup network comes about...
JL: Yes. That's why it's a good idea to invite people who can be role models, or who are willing to come and contribute a service so that together we can establish here at our University in Göttingen a good ecosystem for startups. It is obvious to address people who feel connected to the university. So my idea is simply the network concept: we want to activate the people who studied here to help advance a cool thing: the start-up culture. Since we have so many departments, the network would probably enable us to serve all conceivable subject areas with the experience and knowledge of our Alumni. That's fantastic!
Interview: Katharina Kastendieck, Head of Cooperation and Innovation
Alumni Startup Network: If you have start-up experience and would like to join us in strengthening the startup culture at the University of Göttingen, we invite you to select the interest "Startup Support" from your Alumni Portal profile settings. Information on startup support at the University of Göttingen.