“It’s a people’s business”: How main incubator digitizes one of the biggest banks in Germany

“A banker from the beginning,” that’s how Matthias Lais described himself as we started our online conversation. Indeed, he spent most of his 18-year professional career working at Commerzbank, but in 2013 something changed. That year, together with his colleague Christian Hoppe (currently a Managing Director at Silicon Valley Bank), they came up with an ambitious idea: to digitize one of the biggest banks in Germany. The idea soon transformed into an independent entity of Commerzbank, the main incubator.

Contrarily to what the name might suggest, main incubator is not a startup incubator. In fact, its ultimate goal is to invest in or build internally innovative solutions that could either optimize Commerzbank’s operations or become a valuable addition to the bank’s product offer. Main incubator plays a vital role in ensuring that Commerzbank stays relevant in the face of looming competition.

“Our mindset is very different from Commerzbank’s — we need to be flexible, fast, and creative,” Matthias explained. He claimed that the bank has made a tremendous change in their innovation culture, but then added, “a banker is mainly driven by the idea of risk, whereas a good entrepreneur has to think first and foremost, about chances and possibilities, not about what can go wrong. Sometimes we have to act as translators between the startup and the banker because even though they speak the same language, they don’t understand each other.”

The relationship between Commerzbank and main incubator is one of significant value for the companies they invest in. “We can use Commerzbank’s network to help our startups sell their products, and to connect them with the bank’s experts,” Matthias said. He is convinced that early-stage companies should require not only money from their investors but also great advice and a broad network, which can exponentially accelerate their growth.

On the other hand, it is often hard for entrepreneurs to strike a balance between accepting advice and being too docile and impressionable. Startups and VCs are constantly finding themselves in the space of subtly shifting boundaries. “Investors should be as close as needed to the entrepreneurs, but they should also be giving them a way to act as they like. They are the startup and we are the investor, ” Matthias said. He then recalled how main incubator’s advice and close cooperation with the founders of Bilendo, their portfolio company, helped the startup broaden their product offer and thus win new clients. Bilendo is an automated credit management platform. The solution that they initially offered was excellent, but it was only applicable to very small enterprises. By following the advice of main incubator and adjusting their offer they were able to scale to a much greater extent.

The whole VC business from an outside view seems to be very data-driven, but in its core, it’s a people’s business. You need to trust the founders. If you have good founders they will be able to adjust the business model,” Matthias commented. In his view, when startups are run by entrepreneurs who are knowledgeable, ambitious, and most importantly, who share similar mindset and culture, their risk as an investment is relatively low. He emphasized, “you can’t do enough due diligence on the team.”

As governments around the world are implementing drastic measures to fight the current pandemic, unsettling projections are being made about its potential effects on the global economy. Venture capital is no exception. While numerous startups are getting their business models painfully tested, some of them will not make it through the crisis. This is why venture capitalists are strongly focusing on their existing portfolios. The uncertainty in the market has already made current and potential clients of many startups postpone or cancel orders. Looking at the situation from a VC’s standpoint, Matthias assured, “most investors that we know are very supportive of their startups and willing to offer them help to ensure that they have enough liquidity to survive.”

Hardships and adversities test our values and give us a chance to prove what kind of people we want to be. In the world of venture capital, it boils down to how investors take care of their employees and startups, and how they expand their portfolios. “Most American VCs closed the books, but in Europe, many investors are still doing new deals,” Matthias said, “they need, however, to get a closer than usual look at the company’s business model.”

Two of main incubator’s companies have already exited and it currently has 19 startups in its portfolio. Two of these portfolio companies were added just a few days before our conversation, and main incubator is soon to close its twentieth investment.

“We gave our commitment last year that we will invest, so we have to stick to it. We also believe in these startups — in their business models and teams. If an investor is convinced about that it’s a good time to invest, as the valuations are lower. If this move was smart we will know in a year or two.”

While many VCs, like main incubator, trust that following their ethical guidelines and integrity is the best way to survive this crisis, there are also those for whom the current situation calls for the jungle law. “I have heard of investors squeezing the startups to ridiculous valuations. There might be companies that will accept that, just to survive, but I believe that in the long term these investors will pay the reputational cost of such practices,” Matthias said. Venture capital business is relatively small and well-connected, so, indeed, there is a chance that for such investors the decision that brings extra profit today might backfire in the future.

Matthias believes that as people start to recognize the benefits of digital solutions, the demand for online products will keep rising, making his cooperation with Commerzbank’s employees significantly easier. The likely fall of a number of startups will consolidate the market and, hopefully, the best business models with strong teams will survive. And as the VC business is a people’s business, both investors and startups might come out of it better prepared for the challenges of the future.