Thorsten, at what age did you build your first own computer?
In the 70s, when I was 10 years old. At that time, you just couldn't buy computers on every corner. I then started programming with this computer and also hacking a bit.
So you were interested in computers at an early age. What happened next for you?
After my apprenticeship as an electronics technician in the coal and steel industry, I did my A-levels at night school and then studied computer science and philosophy. At the same time, I started my own business as a consultant at the age of 22 to finance my studies and family. Those were exciting times. My first client was Hamburg-Mannheimer, where I managed a project in which the employees were twice my age.
My company grew organically over time and we specialised in IT disaster management. You can think of it as an insolvency administrator for IT projects. Our focus was on the then new technology Smalltalk, the world's first object-oriented programming language. At that time, we were one of the few companies already working with it.
During this time, I worked with many luminaries such as Kent Beck, David Unger and Dan Ingalls, who developed exciting things - that today we take for granted - such as virtual machines, wikis and graphical user interfaces, who were also the first to use agile project management. At that time, I was right in the middle of the action, so to speak, and I learned a lot.
At the age of 35, I sold the group of companies, which at that time had over 100 employees across the globe, and shifted my focus to charity work and social impact investment. The latter mainly in the Middle East and Africa. It was simply important for me to give something back, because in addition to a lot of work, I have also had a lot of luck. I specifically invested in projects in sustainable tourism, in the tech sector and also in handicraft businesses. In parallel, I was still working as a consultant for digitisation strategies.
From social impact investment to the founding of polypoly. How did it come about?
Back in 2014, I saw the first signs of a major problem coming towards our society in terms of data and data protection. At that time, I intensively discussed and exchanged ideas with data monopolists and experts from a wide variety of fields from my network and looked for companies that offered a solution in which I could have invested. Unfortunately, there were none that were really addressing the problem and not just trying to alleviate the symptoms. And then came the Cambridge Analytica scandal. So I decided to start polypoly.
On 4 May 2019, the Star Wars holiday, under the motto "May the force be with you"? A Saturday on which no notary actually works? Why?
Well, science fiction has a great influence on our society. Many things that were once science fiction have now found their way into all our lives. And let's face it, what we do is not child's play, we mess with the big boys. We can use every ounce of power we can get. For us it was simply important to start under a good star. For the insiders: I am sure that Mark Zuckerberg is not my father!
Was it always clear then that the polyVerse would consist of a triumvirate?
No, at the beginning we had only planned to found the German GmbH and the Coop, so to speak to represent the interests of the citizens (Coop) and the economy (GmbH). But in order to be able to internationalise the cooperative and offer a kind of kit, it was then necessary to set up the foundation. So we became a triumvirate.
polypoly cannot necessarily be described as a typical start-up. We only have experts with years of experience at C-level (management level). Was that a conscious decision?
It was a conscious decision. polypoly has three decisive advantages over most start-ups: many experienced experts in the team, a lot of time before the start-up in which to think about how to solve problems, and access to a large network of specialists and top managers who could give input. Most start-ups don't have access to such resources.
These resources are extremely important for us, because we're confronted with a multidimensional problem. There are various aspects that have to be taken into account, from economics and business administration to legal issues and the psychology of our future users. We have to convince the latter of the polyPod's utility and inspire them to join our mission. Because only together are we strong and can make a difference.
What do you enjoy most about your work for polypoly?
Interacting with people who haven't really dealt with data protection yet and who approach the topic without thinking about it.
We programmers are in a very privileged situation. In this virtual world, we are god and devil rolled into one, because we determine whether the apple goes up or down.
Sometimes this results in techniques that are unfamiliar to other people and therefore impractical. Interaction with people is a good corrective and shows you where you are going wrong.
Since we are working on a multidimensional problem with the most diverse elements, this means for me permanent familiarisation with new areas and constant learning: that I find superb, but also extremely exciting.
Where do you see the challenges for polypoly in the near future?
We have to achieve the necessary market penetration – that means a certain number of polyPod users, because that's the only way we can make a difference.
Furthermore, it will be important to design the usability of the polyPod in such a way that it is also suitable for heterogeneous user groups – i.e. from young to old; tech-savvy to tech-shy; educated to uneducated; poor and rich.
Other challenges will be to remain true to our own principles – keyword: market neutrality – and to manage the necessary company growth.
What challenges do you see for yourself personally with polypoly?
I have a 5-year head start in knowledge, because I researched the topic long before the foundation. All this knowledge has to be passed on to my colleagues so that I can make myself superfluous in the long run. This knowledge transfer must be well organised. At the same time, I have to be open to constant questioning by new colleagues.
We also need the ideal team for polypoly and suitable, trustworthy partners so that polypoly can grow and flourish. This is a real challenge, but one that I am happy to take on, because I believe in polypoly, the team and our mission. We are under a good star because, after all, the Force is with us.