S8E13: Inspiring the team as you scale into 30 markets, with Timo Buetefisch (CEO, Cooltra)

An episode of The Impact Multiplier CEO Podcast

S8E13: Inspiring the team as you scale into 30 markets, with Timo Buetefisch (CEO, Cooltra)

Timo Buetefisch (CEO of Cooltra, the largest provider of sustainable mobility solutions on two wheels in Europe) speaks with Xquadrant's Founder Richard Medcalf.

Born in Germany, Timo is a former consultant and MBA student at IESE who has been based in Barcelona for 20 years. His entrepreneurial nature always made him want to start his own company. Today, he leads Cooltra, a pioneer in the rental of two-wheeled vehicles by the minute, day or month, with a presence in 8 countries, a fleet of more than 18,000 vehicles and a workforce of 400 employees.

We are continuing our season "The CEO Learning Curve". Interesting and inspiring CEOs reflect on what got them the top job, what they've learned over the first few quarters in the role, and what lies ahead.

In this conversation, you’ll discover:

  • How Timo motivates his employees - it might not be how you imagine!
  • The "20-30 person" rule that Timo uses to scale his influence
  • The hard lessons learned from scaling a business into over 30 cities across Europe
  • The importance of a CEO peer community to sustain you as a leader

“We multiplied too fast, and multiplied losses."

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Transcript

Richard Medcalf
How do you inspire your team as you scale a business that's part technology and part bricks and mortar into 30 different markets? Now today, I speak with Timo Buetefisch, who is the CEO of Cooltra. Cooltra is the largest provider of sustainable mobility solutions on two wheels, so motorbikes and scooters and so forth, in Europe, and he has a fantastic story of how he's grown his business to something which now has a presence in eight countries has got over 18,000 vehicles and a workforce of over 400 employees. We talk about how he motivates his employees, and it's not quite what you will think he's got a rule, the 20 to 30% rule, which I think you'll find is a fantastic mental model to understand how to scale your influence. He talks about the realities the hard lessons learned as he scaled a business out from his garage, across 30 cities in Europe and we also get into talking about CEO pay community. Subject close to my heart, I run a group of CEOs who come together and share experiences and here he talks about how that kind of community has made an impact in his life as a leader. So enjoy this conversation with Timo, the CEO of Cooltra on inspiring the team, as you scale.

Timo Hi, and welcome to the show.

Timo Buetefisch
Hey, Richard, good to see you.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, it's great to see you today and I'm really looking forward to understanding this story because you know you're the founder, and you're the CEO of Cooltra, which is a cool company. So I'll let you tell us what it is and I it's been really fascinating as I've examined this business to see how you set it up 15 years ago, and you've now scaled it into eight different markets, 30 different cities and you've got big plans to multiply that by, by another big number, right? Probably getting 200 cities or so. So, before we go any further money, just give us give us a quick intro, you know, kind of who are you? What's your background? And what's Cooltra?

Timo Buetefisch
Sure. Hi everybody, I'm Timo. I'm German from a region 48 years old and living the dream living in Barcelona. For me, Europe's best city. I used to be a business consultant and decided to do my MBA here in Barcelona and I totally fell in love with the city. I founded a business in a flower industry. We were early we we did flower ecommerce, but didn't really kick it off. I did a lot of learnings lost a lot of money two years and had to close the business and but half a year later, I was lucky and I had such a Yeah, such a great moment and we were founding Qudra Quadra is the European leader in sustainable mobility solutions on two wheels. So we offer sharing and rental of E bikes and E mopeds in eight countries. We have around 20,000 vehicles, almost all of them are electric, sustainable and we offer them to around 2 million private customers but also to more than 1000 business customers. So this is the business We are headquartered in Barcelona. Here we around 100 people and then in the eight markets that we operate the other 800 and working in different business lines. So this is a little bit about Qudra in our focus.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, so it's a it's a fantastic story, right? Yes, there's a huge numbers, right. millions of customers 900 people, you know, in all these markets, so it's obviously been a great it's been a great journey. Yeah, and that's great and but also a lot of lessons learned. Yeah, yeah, exactly. There's a there's a new store inside track, right. It's not it's not easy, right? You have to do the hard yards. I know that. It's easy to look at it from the outside, right and all the shiny, shiny successes. What cause you just set up the company like why? There's a big decision. Why did you do that?

Timo Buetefisch
Yeah, it was actually out of a personal need. I was had I was owner of an own scooter on moto to drive around in Barcelona. By the way, it's the best way to move around Barcelona on a moto comm make sure you go on a coup try and try it out and what happened, I brought it to the, to the workshop because it broke down and the guy told me I'm sorry, for the next three weeks, you don't have a vehicle. So I thought, well, this is impossible. We cannot, I cannot wait three weeks without a vehicle. So I thought it would be it would be important that there is a service of renting out the scooter for a few weeks and this is how we started. Bought 25 Scooters in a container, rented a small garage, and and started renting out really, really Bootstrap. We started with 30,000 euros and hired a mechanic guy for the shop and that's how we built up the business. Well, what is this now?

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, yeah, that's fine. Yeah, fantastic. So so the original model were you just had a few scooters. So I guess it's very different from the model you have now which I guess is very distributed. So people had to come and rent a scooter for the day?

Timo Buetefisch
Nation based it was a station based business. I mean, 15 years ago, there weren't they didn't exist electric motors, everything was combustion and we were also very focused on the residential segment of tourists and people renting on a daily basis like hertz, Europcar. Later on we then pivoted in other segments, like the b2b, the renting by minutes free flowed but this is written is from there from the station base.

Richard Medcalf
Right. Yeah, I've got it. So we're gonna get into the story in a minute of how you went from that one station, you know, a couple of vehicles right and a mechanic to where you currently are, we'll get into that but I'm curious as to kind of, as you step back and look at the impact that you've created, and being able to do this right, go on this journey or understand a bit about you. What's your secret sauce? Right? What are the couple of factors that have driven your impact? You know, because everyone has a different way of creating impact and making a difference and creating results. What is it for you? What would you say? Is your kind of secret sauce that is allowed you to do this?

Timo Buetefisch
Yeah and to put about naming the positive elements? No, because yeah, those are two things of I think I have a very high energy level. So I, I'm very active, I'm very action oriented. I make things happen and I'm constantly a good communicator and I'm a good motivator. I, all my life has been doing a lot of sports and I was, for example, a tennis coach and a skiing coach and I like to get people to enjoy activities and I'm, I would consider myself a very active and motivational person. Yeah, this definitely helps and then I think I'm being very persistent. 15 years working on the same project requires a lot of persistency and I think I've shown that.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, well, yeah, definitely. Yeah, exactly. Yeah, it's been really interesting. I think he got...

Timo Buetefisch
A little bit boring. I mean, 15 years on the same project. Others, I like serial entrepreneurs, and they keep inventing every two, three years, a new one. So my tracker has been being very constant.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, well, it's interesting to see I always think about, like, yeah, my daughter is 15 years old. Right? So she's the same old as your company. Yeah and so, you know, you say, you know, you could have like, been a foster parent or something, you know, or you could have been a midwife or something but being a parent is a different thing. It's a longer game and you see, yes, you know, your child at 15 is different from the child at three and so...

Timo Buetefisch
Exactly. Going through the different phases. The early days, when you're, when you're doing doing everything by yourself, you know, renting every scooter cleaning, every scooter, organizing insurance, everything by yourself and now really like more. Yeah, being a leader and getting things done through others. Yes, you know, so it's very different now my day to day.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So, so let's talk about the dark side of those things. Right? Every drink has a dark side and you kind of hinted at that before. What what are the dark sides of being a high energy active, action orientated, motivated, persistent leader, you know, how does that show up that perhaps can hold you back sometimes?

Timo Buetefisch
Maybe I'm not reflective. Enough. So I'm not a guy that spends a lot of time analyzing and so I'm quite impulsive and intuitive in certain decisions leading. I mean, it's good because things are getting done and decisions are definitely taken but sometimes I think it's better to be more analytical and I'm looking at it maybe also from the risk perspective, and I tend to take more risks, maybe then I should.

Richard Medcalf
Right. Well, they seem to have played out perhaps, overall, but yeah, it's interesting,

Timo Buetefisch
Now that we closed down cities, made mistakes with models, models of scooters that we decided for, etc, etc.

Richard Medcalf
Well, one of my favorite things I have on my desk, I'm not sure you'll see it, I know the camera blows, and I tend to do this but for those of you on video, you can see the video heavily. It's a little snail, it's a pewter snail, I often send them to my clients I have on my own desk, to remind me to slow down to speed up, and you hear it in me as well. I speak fast, I think fast, I want to make things happen fast and I see that my clients and when we, when we go so fast, and things get done, we get this kind of tunnel vision and sometimes, you know, just stopping seeing that bigger picture, we can spot an opportunity, or see a risk that we wouldn't have seen before, right? If we're running through the forest trying to hunt down an animal, you're not going to stop and look at the you know, the flower in the tree. Perhaps that's actually you know, everything you should be looking at right now. All right. So okay, let's just together get that sense of who you are as a person. So let's talk about this journey of scaling. Right? How did you do that? I mean, you've you've run going the business from one garage, and you see mending the scooters yourself to this eight, eight country 30 City model, right and that's a distributed it's not like a tech business where you just build one software program, right, this is there's a tech element to your platform but there is a bricks and mortar. It's a physical implantation with real vehicles in real cities.

Timo Buetefisch
Yes, and real people. Yeah. So city by city, it's basically city by city expansion that has happened, and then adding different business models. So when the beginning we only rented for example, to tourists or residents. Then later on, we also added companies as a potential renter and client of the vehicle. So now we have big business, which is to the just needs to the Domino's Pizza, police departments around Europe that we give service to and then that's done contract by contract and city by city. So yeah, the thing is the moment of, of growing, it's very important, I think, we we went out too early multiply, I think I would always recommend people to really, really, really finish your product and finish the service and, and be very, very good and excellent in one city are one thing and then multiply thing, what we have done is we grew in the first years, too fast, went to too many cities and not being profitable at the beginning. You know, that's a real problem because then what you do is you multiply losses. Yeah, stead of benefit beneficial. So yeah, scaling is great but once you have an absolutely great proof of concept. Yeah. the right moment, and I think some it's especially a little bit also how investment, people think, you know, since the VCs have a different risk profile, and they invest in many, many companies to have one or two perfect outcomes, they indulge on a tell the the message to the intrapreneurs also to maybe take too much too much risk scale really, really rapidly and that can be a problem.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, it's a really, it's a really great point and it's a bit counterintuitive for some people, but I think it's a good one. I one of my phrases actually is you have to incubate before you scale and if you're you're saying really like there is a time for incubation where you're fiddling around, you're trying to figure it out, you're trying to perfect it, you're trying to create something that's that's, that's good and then once you've got that, I think then you can scale and it's really what you're saying there otherwise, you multiply the losses, said Right. Alright, problems and when I'm working with companies on for example, culture or Leadership, Culture in a company, they often say like, let's look at your leadership team. Is that the perfect example of what you Want to multiply across every team in the company? Because otherwise, it's the same thing. Any cracking, the executive team will propagate across the rest of the organization. Right. So that idea of transform first multiply later.

Timo Buetefisch
I second that. So yes, very good.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, but I just love the way you've you've seen that in I'm talking about that in the world, what kind of leadership development but I'm seeing that, you know, in the world of, of actual multiplying, not exactly. franchises, you know, but international expansion and new cities, it's been the same thing for you. What, what were some of the things that like, what would you like to watch? Should you have perhaps spent more time getting right before you before you scaled?

Timo Buetefisch
Probably its basically product, you know, the right motos, the right technology, the right app, the right payment gateway, the right processes. The right providers know you, if you're the company of 15 years, it's exactly that you start working with some providers, you switch them and now at the end, or going, you know, you're improving. The same with the people on the team, you know, you meet people that don't fit, they leave, you hire a new one, you teach them, maybe they leave but you know, it's like a continuous process of refining.

Richard Medcalf
Right. Yeah.

Timo Buetefisch
The team, product and time is really recommend.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah.

Timo Buetefisch
Some things you cannot just do in less time, even if you put the double of resources.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, it's said it's like, you know, you can't have a baby in one month just by getting nine women pregnant. Which like that example?

Timo Buetefisch
Exactly. Yeah, exactly. This.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah. Yeah. It's a lot of other positive stuff. So like, what did you find? What do you do really? Well, because obviously, you've done lots of things really well, what what are you doing really well, to get this result?

Timo Buetefisch
I think motivating the team communicating the vision. Yeah, and bringing the team together in my case, you know, as a CEO, you are in between you and you have investors, many, so in my case, yes, I do have other shareholders. So I have the shareholders and management team, right. And I have to be I'm like the middle spot between themselves to define the company's strategy and get the financing etc, but the plan also has to be executed and that has to be connected, right? And this is this is as a CEO, one of the big roads not to, to keep to tell people no and tell them this is not the way to go. But also motivate them and getting things done. And also keeping them motivated for the project and the day, every day they wake up and they think this is the right company to work for the other people the more choices they also have going outside right? So you really have to keep giving them a very positive and and attractive project at any moment.

Richard Medcalf
So tell me how you do that. Because I understand that some of your key strengths were motivating people and so a lot of people love to know like what how do you do that? Like what's, what's it what's a webinar? How do you think about that? How do you how do you do it?

Timo Buetefisch
Empathy, listening community It's basically communicating a lot of time with spending time with people, and understanding how individual everybody is, like, everybody has a different agenda and other priorities. You know, for some people, it's so extremely important to be I don't know, for example, a be home at five to spend time with the children, right? And so you have to make that possible for for this person. Right. And in others have other rules, you know, they want Friday afternoon off because they go and, you know, you have to find, yeah, compromise with everybody. And some like to have personal calls, some like to rather do email communication, some want to work remote, you know, some office people, you know, it's not as clear, you know, and it's hard to say, all company has to do remote all company has to do office. I think it's very important to be individualistic.

Richard Medcalf
Well, I think it's really fascinating to hear, because a lot of people when I said, How do you inspire your team? They already thinking, oh, you know, he's gonna tell us how to, like, you know, sell the story, painting the picture, and I'm sure you do that stuff. Right, communicate what the few division is, the future is, but that's not your starting point. Right. Your starting point is not kinda like, the push. No, it is the pool. It's actually what are this person? Or does each person actually need? Right? And yeah, and, and therefore relate what I'm translate the mission that we're on to what's going on inside them? That's what I'm hearing? And that's really powerful. I think. So, yeah. So and how do you do that these days when you have so many employees, right? Because I get that you can do that when you had 15? People? Yeah, 30 people. So how can you do that when you've now got hundreds? Because you can't know everybody?

Timo Buetefisch
No, no, no, obviously, now you have to accept it, you can only work through the direct people you can influence like, if a radius of I don't know, 2030 people that you can really influence and then you have to trust that they give it to the other people, doesn't mean I don't talk to them. But it's not my responsibility to manage these people. So with them, it's more of a small talk or hello or smile. Question on a private level. But actually, this is not my role, you know, to manage everybody. In each city. No, I mean, I, so I have to influence the people. And through that you give be the role model and show, try to, to show how I'm doing it now. So they can replicate. But it's also interesting how different leadership styles work in our leadership team, with so many different leadership styles. And yeah, you have to appreciate them as well as because some people Yeah, it's just very, very different.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, that's, that's definitely right. I just want to I want to get back to that point. Yeah, I think it's really worth underlining for people. You know, she said it like, I can only influence perhaps 2030 people. I think that's exactly it. So, so often, I see leaders, you know, feeling they've got to win everybody's hearts and minds. And that's back to this thing about you got to transform then scale, you know, you get your team influence. Yeah. And then an inspired, shall we say, get your team inspired. And then they could teach them how to inspire their teams. And just said, you know, you can if you focus on that, then you create strong, strong bonds with people rather than weak bonds with everybody. Yeah, I think that's a really, really great point. Hey, I'm aware of time. So let's just move on. And I would like to ask a few quickfire questions. You say that the guest. So first question is, what's your favorite quote of yours? Something that inspired you or that helps guide your your leadership?

Timo Buetefisch
Good question. Perfect quote. Let me get back to that. Sorry. Is it blank now? Sorry.

Richard Medcalf
No problem. What's Is there a book that you've read? That really influenced you as a leader?

Timo Buetefisch
Yeah, no, in terms of that this one. I have it in here show you this one. Hard things about the hard things.

Richard Medcalf
Oh, yeah. Yes. t's got a bit blurred but yeah.

Timo Buetefisch
it's called the hard things about hard things by Ben Horowitz. And then this one, which I like a lot. It's really practical it essay, just simple title, but it's scaling up. Yeah, I can really recommend that book. It's very practical and it's exactly for these companies. You know, transfer from a small 10 People company into three, four or 500 Company, and it's about practical examples. So I really, really recommend that book.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, yeah. That's that's a great. That's a great one. Thank you. And apart from Cooltra, what's your favorite app? on your on your phone? What is another app that gives you value? That's a little bit you know, that's not might be outside the ordinary or not. I know not everybody's favorite app. Is there anything that comes to mind?

Timo Buetefisch
I'm not and I have to be honest, I'm not a big app free, but it's probably the the app of my tennis club. It's a good one. Give me happiness.

Richard Medcalf
Gives you happiness. Yeah, we read that. What advice would you give your 20 year old self? If you're having to go back in time? What would you say to yourself?

Timo Buetefisch
I do even more crazy. Shit.

Richard Medcalf
It's a great one. Yeah, sometimes we limit ourselves, right? We gotta stay a bit in the tracks. A bit safe. Yeah. Yeah. I love it. I love it. And the last question is, is really around who inspires you? Right? As I know, you're one reason you're on the show is because one of my previous guests, Miguel said, Timo is really inspiring to me, you know, you should you should speaking to him. So, I'm always curious, you know, is this somebody that you know, you know, a CEO, or founder, who's inspired you along the journey, and you know, who you think would be another good guest for this this show?

Timo Buetefisch
No, absolutely. Yeah, I'm very much influenced by the other entrepreneurs here in Barcelona. I'm actually in the group. It's, I don't, I think maybe some of you are. Knowledge about about it. It's called Entrepreneurs Organization. It's an organization of fellow entrepreneurs. Within that we started but now we have our own group. It's called we call it Forum Berlin. So we attend people meeting since 12 years, every month helping each other. And in this group, I amazing other intrapreneurs and I'm really, really close to these people they have gone through to all kinds of experience with me on a professional personal family level. And yeah, I really, really admire them and they have been a very column in my last 12 years.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, thank you for sharing that. That's it's really special, isn't it? I mean...

Timo Buetefisch
It's like apeer group, you know?

Richard Medcalf
Yeah.

Timo Buetefisch
We meet, we we share experiences, we help each other. It's it's very nice and very constant in time. We've been together all these years.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, I love that. It's beautiful and I know exactly what you mean, I run I run one, right, I run a CEO peer group, because because it's so powerful, because you don't always want to be as we mentioned earlier, you know, the smartest person in the room always being the one carrying the weight. You want to be with peers, you want to be with people who have similar experiences. And I think it's, it's so special. So thank you for sharing that. So finally, Timo, no matter how much we've, we've achieved, there's always a next level to get to. So what's the next level for Cooltra? And what's the next level for you as you lead the business? Yes, you'll stretch.

Timo Buetefisch
Well, next level for Cooltrais seeing more cities with sustainable transport solutions for the offer. I would love to see even more cities in Europe, where our electrical, mopeds and bikes driving around here also taking the organization to the next level, getting more professional. We're constantly hiring amazingly great people. So the organizational growth for me it's very, very important to become smart as an organization better if staying with the same culture. So this is for Qudra. I have a clear vision besides the economic and financial KPIs Of course, know that we want close soon. 100 million revenue 30 million in ABTA, whatever this is, this is my financials. No, but on the other hand, developing product giving a good service to the community and yeah, on a personal level, stay stay healthy. Keep doing the sports that I'm doing. I'm passionate beach volleyball player, passionate tennis player, passionate skier, kite surfing, so I really hope I can keep doing my the sports that I love so much. This would be my dream.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah, add some more apps alongside your tennis club app, you know. Yeah, it's great and it must be a real pleasure speaking with you. You know, I love that. You know, I love the energy. You know, you said you had high energy and you know, you definitely do. It's been great to see this business. You've built to share some of that, but his ideas about how you've scaled it and how you know and and what when was hard on that journey as well. And so thank you for just bringing that that that sincerity and and humor to the mix today.

Timo Buetefisch
Fantastic. Thank you very much Richard was very was a pleasure.

Richard Medcalf
Yeah Speak soon take care.

Timo Buetefisch and Richard Medcalf
Bye bye.

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