At last month’s International Hotel Investment Forum in Berlin, the event organisers arranged a panel discussion with four entrepreneurs and (co-)founders of new hotel concepts. The question up for debate: “Where is the innovation?”. Jean-Pierre Parra Bandeira, Co-Founder and CEO of Light Human Hotel; Olivia Byrne, Company Director at Eccleston Square Hotel; Hans Meyer, Co-Founder of Zoku and Chris Penn, Founder of SteelBMB talked about how independent and alternative hospitality brands, such as their own, deliver innovative experiences tailored to the changing market conditions of the hospitality industry.
The session proved to be an insightful one; and afterward, I caught up with Dr. Nikolai Jaeger. Nikolai is an entrepreneur and business founder, currently managing MQ Real Estate, a development company that specialises in and builds modular hotels on top of car parks, above parking lots and on top of existing buildings in European cities. His SKYPARK hotel concept reflects the spirit of the times with its ecological, highly standardised, pre-fabricated building modules, promoting a sustainable, future-orientated urban development. To date, the firm has secured more than ten projects and is getting increasingly more direct inquiries from established hotel chains interested in operating its projects. The firm’s motto is “We start to build where others stop.” Its mission is “To revitalize unused city hot-spots by building up with sustainable modular units.” Nikolai and I talked about the challenges of setting up a business, being an entrepreneur and being a leader.
Setting up your own company can be an adventurous ride – “Good to Great” author Jim Collins says that “getting the right people on the bus” is crucial for a firm’s success. How did you go about ensuring this? “I love being an entrepreneur, but at times it can be lonely and you might have people doubting your ability to ‘pull through.’ It takes discipline to carry on despite all this. You need to trust yourself and your business partner that you are on the right track. And your business partner should naturally also believe and pursue the same goals as you are. Getting the right people on the bus is, for me, about alignment – both at a personal and professional level. In my case, assessing the personal ‘fit’ with my business partner Björn Hiss was facilitated by the fact that we were introduced by a mutual friend of ours – we had this common connection and our friend just knew that we would be on the same wavelength. Having brainstormed about ideas and business strategies at length, Björn and I were also able to quickly establish that we would be a good team from a professional point of view. Not only did he bring on board the right skill set, having just been involved in a big renovation project where he had to deal with modular building solutions, but Björn shared the same vision for what we wanted to achieve.”
You mentioned that being an entrepreneur and business leader can be lonely. Besides your business partner, did you rely on a “personal board of advisors” when setting up the firm? “Being an entrepreneur is incredibly rewarding, especially when you see your vision come to fruition. Yet, you are bound to face numerous obstacles on your way. At the moment, for example, we are concentrating first and foremost on the German market, and we want to build more than 1,000 modules on top of parking garages within the next five years. Yet, pushing into the European market is definitely something we are thinking about. Getting the right advice and expertise in regards to international expansion will no doubt be crucial for the success of our business. When I am thinking about advice, I am also thinking about industry disruptors. We are considered as a firm that is ‘shaking up’ the sector, but – especially in our home market of Berlin – the hotel market is challenged by the likes of AirBnB. Whilst we do not feel threatened by such innovators, being ‘ready’ to face future disruptors is crucial. In my view, a (formal or informal) board of advisors can add value in that regard. Looking back to 2014, when SKYPARK was born, I certainly relied on others to guide and challenge me. At the time, I had completed my PhD at the University of Aachen and had already worked on my business plans. I worked at the Centre for Entrepreneurs, which, in the end, helped me to set up my initial network of advisors. After moving to Berlin, I continued to seek out contact with other entrepreneur and business angels. By then, I was joined by Björn and we had numerous meetings and discussions with experienced private investors who not only supported our business financially but who also shared their experience with us as the founders of MQ Real Estate.”
Some people spend a lifetime working in a corporate environment before “taking the plunge” and starting their own business venture. What inspired you to set up your own start-up company? “Having studied business administration, I gained professional experience at PricewaterhouseCoopers, working on the advisory side of the business within the transactions department. It was here where I gained first insights into the hotel and real estate world. At the beginning of 2014, I had a casual lunch with Björn who would soon become my business partner. That day we had our meal at the city’s most famous department store, the KaDeWe. It is located in ‘tourist central’ and we spotted an unoccupied parking garage on the opposite side of the street – where others probably saw an eyesore, we saw opportunity. We agreed that the location would be perfect for a hotel, but where others were most likely discouraged by the significant re-development costs, we just thought: Why not build a hotel on top of the garage? That was it – our idea for SKYPARK was born.”
Nikolai, a final thought on entrepreneurship and being a leader – what is your definition of success? “When employees do not come to work because they have to, but because they want to – because they love what they do and being part of a great team. As an entrepreneur, I also strive to be a successful leader. I want to create a great company. The corporate culture we create is an integral part of that. I want to promote and foster out-of-the-box thinking, innovation and an enriching environment where employees are challenged, constantly learn and can grow with the company.”