Transcript for E101 – Georg Petschnigg – Not a Real Nowhere Man – part 1 of 6
It’s funny because my childhood rebellion then actually ended up… you know, leaving that sort of entrepreneurial spirit of the household home and then joining a major American corporation. So I ended up joining Microsoft out of college then and starting my career there. And that was more like, yeah, that’s …. my rebellion was working for the man!
Stephen Cummins: Welcome to 14 minutes of SaaS! The show where you can listen to the stories and opinions of founders of the world’s most remarkable SaaS scale-ups!
I’m very excited to finally announce the first of a 6 episode series recorded with Georg Petschnigg at the Web Summit in Lisbon. We’d already recorded an interview in Tech Open Berlin, but the sound quality of the rooftop of a hotel where we were .. just didn’t cut it. So I had to wait and do this again in Lisbon. And this was a longer conversation. In this series Georg will regale us with colourful stories of his life … this really is an exceptional founder’s tale, taking us from a childhood experienced in many European languages entrepreneurial adventures in a castle, all the way through to his current position of WeTransfer Chief Innovation Officer and General manager for the Americas. A musician, dancer, designer, engineer, inventor and entrepreneur, his life is defined by movement, by analytical observation, by self-reflection, creative leaps, and ultimately by the enablement of creativity itself. He founded, and was CEO of, mobile creation tools company Fifty Three in New York, and that company was acquired by his current company, Amsterdam’s WeTransfer. From New Amsterdam to Old Amsterdam. Multipotentialite, polyglottal, and multi-hyphenate, Georg is the man from everywhere, with an interest in everything … but …. he is truly the antithesis of an everyman
In episode 1 we learn how influential Georg’s grandfather, architect Hubert Petschnigg, was in his life. And why, for designers, it’s very important to master as quickly as possible the process of creativity – once one has achieved that mastery, the mind if free’d up to focus on Why something should be brought into our world, and from that What that something should be.
Stephen Cummins: We have Georg Petschnigg, Chief Innovation Officer at WeTransfer BV, and he was in the past Co-Founder and CEO of 53. It’s wonderful to meet you again, Georg, and to have you on the show.
Georg Petschnigg: It’s great to be here. It’s great to be here.
Stephen Cummins: So, I always ask people to tell me a little bit about where they came from and tell me a bit about their lives. Let’s say before they entered into university … just growing up.
Georg Petschnigg: Oh yeah, before university so now we’re going back into like, so
Stephen Cummins: Childhood
Childhood, right. Right. Yeah. So, I, you know, growing up I always was sort of the… the kid from somewhere else, right? So my parents are Austrian. I was born in the United States, and then grew up in Belgium and in Germany. And when I arrived in Belgium, I was the American. When I arrived in Germany, right, I was the Belgian, right? And when I then ended up moving later on for my studies in the United States, I was the German. So in many ways, I always was like from somewhere else but, you know, I, it was, you know, I had to actually quite a really fortunate, very… very fortunate child in the sense that, you know my mother really taught me how to focus and concentrate really well. And, you know, I had also …. like was exposed to many… many different from arts to sports, many different cultures to that.
So that’s sort of the one thing you could do move around a lot, you learn how to quickly make friends and… and integrate yourself. And you have to learn many languages. So it’s also one of those things like something must have been broken in my mind as, but I didn’t really speak a language coherently until I was seven. So you need to really understand a mixture of German, English and French in order to speak with me because there was no, and they are really tapes me talking … like it’s language gibberish.
Stephen Cummins: You should publish one of those.
Georg Petschnigg: Well, yeah, you know, so, but it is one of those things. So, but then when I went to start sorting out the language, I think, you know, I ended up then soon getting into like, you know, into different sports, swimming, music and that actually being quite the undercurrent then from my life just being interested in many… many different disciplines and, you know, bring them altogether.
Stephen Cummins: And, you know, we’re both polyglots and we chatted about this kind have other ties them, you know, I feel it’s a very good thing for the brain in the end, it’s it, I became one later in life as an adult, but, you know, you grew up with that what you were still what the wiring was to lose for there’s still a lot more connections in your brain. I feel that would have been … I think it was beneficial for me but for you … it would have been explosively beneficial, I think. Even though it might have been painful in the earlier years sometimes if someone couldn’t understand you but I think it wouldn’t be very good cerebral cerebrally for you to have gone through that.
Georg Petschnigg: Yeah, I’m just gonna say, yes. It’s not like you have a choice or an alternative.
Stephen Cummins: Well you can disagree. You can tell me you ended up confused or something, whatever you believe.
Georg Petschnigg: Yeah, no, it’s like, you don’t know, but it is like there are certain things were … you know, you end up that it just seems normal. Certain things ended up seeming just very… very normal, right? And there was one more things and later on, like I mean, just to give you an example like my, you know, I grew up in hospitality, working a lot and like in restaurants and entertainment, and, you know, and that’s like one of those things where my parents would just ask me to do everything from like playing the fanfare to like doing the dishes to like organizing champagne towers, right? And always felt just normal. Right. So it is sort of like that flexibility until like, you know, my friends didn’t want to come over because they always felt like my parents would put them to work and… that’s a true story. They’re like we don’t want to hang out at your house because we we will get involved in the business and it’s funny because links that are my… my childhood rebellion then actually ended up… you know, leaving that sort of entrepreneurial spirit of the household home and then joining a major American corporation. So I ended up joining Microsoft out of college then and starting my career there. And that was more like, yeah, that’s …. my rebellion was working for the man!
Stephen Cummins: I love it. I love it. And before we get into kind of your experiences in… in the corporates, I love that reverse rebellion. I know your mum, and your dad, and your grandfather were all influential in your life. Tell me a little bit about, you know, what … you mentioned already your mother gave you the ability to concentrate and focus. How about your dad and your grandad?
Georg Petschnigg: So the father, he’s like the consummate optimist. That like … is the entrepreneurial spirit. You need to have optimism in that certain regard. You know. A lot of this stuff. A lot of things I learned from my grandfather in particular. My grandfather …. I mean my grandfather was an architect and in Germany … was very instrumental in the reconstruction of Germany after World War II. I didn’t know that until many years later, but he gave me the eye of a designer.
Stephen Cummins: Can you name him?
Georg Petschnigg: Yeah, Hubert Petschnigg. Yeah. So it was interesting because there wasn’t you know, you couldn’t sit in a room more where he wouldn’t, like, draw some conclusions. He would, like, look at the shape of a window, the material the window would be made of … or the carpet and related to it, how it makes person feel. Like. One of the things he would always say is like, you know, George, look at this aluminum window. And I was like ‘Okay, what’s the deal with aluminum window?’ And he’s like, ‘Well pay attention. You will sweat soon’. Because aluminum windows at that time, they were so perfectly made that they would seal in a room…
Georg Petschnigg: And, you know, air wouldn’t move anymore. And of course the body starts feeling sticky after a while, right? And, and then he would break it all down like he would say is like, ‘Look, you know, these windows are cheaper. They are much easier to install, like, they actually last much longer than wooden windows, right? But they don’t make the person feel well.’ So he would then essentially really try to relate everything and all those architectural decisions through like …. how does it ultimately make the person feel?
So those types of dialogues and really understanding there is trade-off between business, engineering design, you know … human factors … like he essentially … there wasn’t a walk, there wasn’t a room like we wouldn’t be in where he would sort of try out some of those connections. And then on, and on the other hand, you then have like, you know, my mother critiquing if this was a restaurant … like the presentation. She was in, you know, hotelier school … she would critique, like, the delivery of food and the preparation. How the table is set … like how the experience is. Needless to say dinners and restaurants were these highly analytical exercises where everything from wait-staff to the interior design would be, like critiqued.
Stephen Cummins: Wow.
Georg Petschnigg: Discussed and debated, right! But in the end, like, you think again, this normal … and you realize, like, what it really trained you for is to see sort of … you know, a great eye for experience, a great eye for design. That everything can be really … if it’s coordinated … spectacular.
Stephen Cummins: Yeah.
Georg Petschnigg: Right? And if something is off, like, you know … I would very quickly be irritated. Right.
Stephen Cummins: Yeah.
Georg Petschnigg: But that did then really set the eye for design at quite a young age.
Stephen Cummins: And It gave you a sense of agency. I guess. A sense that you could control a large part of your own destiny and to an extent control…
Georg Petschnigg: Shape it.
Stephen Cummins: Shape what was around you.
Georg Petschnigg: That’s right.
Stephen Cummins: Which would have influenced who you are. And it’s interesting what you say about your grandfather. About his pragmatism. Because I think a lot of people, when they think of design and they think of the pragmatic aspect to it, they think of thinking about the materials. And thinking about the commercial aspects as compromises. But actually, they’re just part of the design, I think. And design is a compromise. How can it not be?
Georg Petschnigg: Yeah,
Stephen Cummins: What do you feel about that?
Georg Petschnigg: I mean, this makes me very much think about, you know … I mean this is actually a fascinating story. Like my, you know … my grandfather was in the military in Germany in world war two. And was of course, intimately familiar with, you know, the materials that military structures, like bunkers, would be made of. Beton, glass and steel. And, so after World War II, when he was building he was, like, deeply unhappy that every building was made of beton, glass and steel … and, you know, his finding around that was that, you know, we can’t build a new society on those materials.
Stephen Cummins: And for the listeners Beton is concrete.
Georg Petschnigg: Oh concrete. Thank you.
Stephen Cummins: That’s okay. No problem.
Georg Petschnigg: Thank you. Thanks for, thanks for translating..
Stephen Cummins: I do the same thing sometimes…
Georg Petschnigg: Yeah, so it was one of those really interesting…. And so for him, his decision at that point was to build buildings and, you know … so that they could be easily disassembled. But it meant you were building very, very light buildings. And because he was like look, we’ll take those buildings apart and once we get the real materials will build the real building. Right? But this was actually … it turned out architecture … if you know a little bit about architecture … like in the fifties and sixties. A lot of the, you know, very brutalist heavy architecture that came from that time is again because those materials..
Stephen Cummins: Yeah,
Georg Petschnigg: Suggested thick, concrete structures.
Stephen Cummins: Absolutely.
Georg Petschnigg: Except my grandfather’s building where these very light payment easy buildings. And, you know, I mean going back to design decisions … right … he had made very, very clear design decisions of those trade-off … it led for a type of construction. What he could not have expected is that then his buildings end up becoming landmarks… so you couldn’t take them apart anymore.
Stephen Cummins: Oh the irony of it. Yeah. Yeah
Georg Petschnigg: But… but, you know, in theory, you can actually disassemble them. And that is, like, one of those things… It’s like, you know, as a designer, you know, once you sort of have mastered or, you know, once you’ve mastered sort of the actual making … and the process and all of this like, you know, the ‘why’ of your choice becomes much more prominent. And it’s actually a really exciting thing that in your career at some point, you can then very much quickly then master the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ it is, the why are you doing this work? And what are you doing? And again, it doesn’t guarantee the right outcome, but it definitely, it sets you up for the right direction.
Stephen Cummins: Absolutely … Absolutely.
Georg Petschnigg: Or at least, you know, what that direction then is. And that’s a really empowering feeling.
Stephen Cummins: And …I’m just wondering because your… your father or your grandfather had the amazing good fortune … well he earned, it for sure listening to the story about him… to live in Pyrmont Castle in Eifel …
Georg Petschnigg: Pyrmont, yes!
Stephen Cummins: … which is in the intersection of Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium. Did you get to spend some time there as a kid?
Georg Petschnigg: That’s where I worked every weekend… pretty much.
Stephen Cummins: Oh my God.
Georg Petschnigg: Yeah.
Stephen Cummins: It’s spectacular.
Georg Petschnigg: Have you been?
Stephen Cummins: No. No.
Georg Petschnigg: You know the area?
Stephen Cummins: No, but I know what the castles in those areas are like. I’ve in some of those, but I haven’t been in that one. I had a look at some pictures of it as well.
Georg Petschnigg: Yeah. So I mean, that’s this… this is interesting. Right we’ll talk some more about my grandfather … but, like, you know, he was on the one side, like, he was a very impatient individual. And, you know, but he loved building and creating and one of the things that the architecture firm HP ended up doing is they were looking for, like … this is like pre fax machines, pre, you know, internet … pre many of the modern conveniences of communication … like pre CAD programs.
Stephen Cummins: Sure.
Georg Petschnigg: Like what he ended up doing essentially is finding this castle and restoring this castle for his firm to bring all of the different parties in a construction project together. Like, so, you know, the financing, the construction leads, the architects, the different trades; they all would come to the castle and just hash out these plans, like. And just try and make as many decisions as possible, right? And that’s sort of where initially, that place started out. Architecturally; also, they had sort of, you know, partnered with, you know, a fellow of Mies van der Rohe, a student of Mies van der Rohe. Actually, I’m not sure if it was like this Professor Hendrick; but… they saw the shape of Pyrmont …
Stephen Cummins: And Mies van der Rohe used to do those buildings that you could kind of re-jig … or reconfigure them as well …
Georg Petschnigg: There is a, you know, I mean, it’s very, you know … the Balhaus movement very much to celebrate the function … and, you know, of …. and a certain more geometric aesthetic.
Stephen Cummins: Absolutely.
Georg Petschnigg: It was part of that, but essentially Pyrmont had that aesthetic, the bones. And then they rebuilt that castle. But that’s essentially then like in the 90s then, you know, as my parents then decided that essentially to run that castle. You know, obviously as an architect, like, you know, running a castle becomes much easier then in my case like, you know … as a business person … like my, you know, my parents, right? So we had to figure out how to turn that into more of a commercial business.
Stephen Cummins: So to pay for the Castle and the massive upkeep on it…
Georg Petschnigg: That’s right.
Stephen Cummins: …They had to find … a bit like some of the landed gentry in Britain and Ireland … they ended up with the same problem. If they want to hold on to it, they have to really turn into entrepreneurs.
Georg Petschnigg: Yeah, that’s right. It’s like … upkeep of castles is… There are boats and there are castles. Like boats are easy compared to castles because they’re just massive, right. So that meant like…just many, many, many weekends of trying to figure out what our business model there could be. And hence playing fanfares, sword fights and… whatever needed.
Stephen Cummins: Whatever needs to get done to… to bring some….
Georg Petschnigg: … And now you understand why joining a company like Microsoft, … my childhood rebellion…
Stephen Cummins: I get it.
Georg Petschnigg: … Joining a major corporation. That structure …
Stephen Cummins: It’s almost like meditating. Now you can almost shut down and still be okay over there. That was like nothing.
Georg Petschnigg: There’s like, you know, there was not rusty chain mail that needed to, like, get oiled . And I mean, like every … there’s so much goes … you know, you’re battling with nature, you’re battling with, like, the elements you’re battling with just the size you’re battling with history like on these properties. So like, you know, a major corporation is so pretty straightforward and compared…
In episode 102 of 14 Minutes of SaaS, the second in our 6 part series with Georg Petschnigg, we hear about the moment he realized he had been a groundbreaking designer for years, and not just a smart engineer.
Stephen Cummins: You’ve been listening to 14 minutes of SaaS. Thanks to Mike Quill for his creativity and problem solving skills, and to Ketsu for the music. Thanks also to Anders Getz for the transcript. This episode was brought to you by me, Stephen Cummins. If you enjoyed the podcast, please don’t forget to share it with your network, subscribe to the series, and give the show a rating.
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