Work and lifestyle on the cutting edge. In discussions with contemporary figures we review the assertions, clichés and ideals which circulate around work environments. This time we spoke with Johannes Knoll about his work as Head of Marketing at the extremely successful Austrian start-up Runtastic. He told Angelika Molk what’s important in the start-up business – and what it’s like to work with really good friends.
Runtastic was founded in 2009 and, with over 60 million downloads and more than 25 million users on Runtastic.com, is considered today to be the world leader in mobile fitness apps. The company headquarters is in Pasching, in Upper Austria, as well as in the US, where they opened an office in San Francisco.
With the help of Runtastic, you can track athletic activities like your morning run, a hike or a classic workout, then analyse them and share the information with friends on social media platforms. Also available: mobile nutritional advice, an app to exercise your abdominals and "Story Running" audio books that tell stories specifically tuned to jogging. Johannes Knoll was part of Runtastic’s rise to the top from the beginning. In the meantime, the economist coordinates the international marketing for the successful start-up.
Mr Knoll, Runtastic was founded in 2009 as a small start-up and has since become an internationally recognised and successful company. Can you tell us how Runtastic was started? Where did the idea come from?
Runtastic originated from a student project at the Hagenberg University of Applied Sciences. At the time, the task was to track rally cars and sailboats. After the project was completed, René Giretzlehner decided the idea had potential for an independent company. With Christian Kaar, Alfred Luger and Florian Gschwandtner he soon had three co-founders. That was back when the first iPhone with a built-in GPS module had just hit the market – and this is exactly where the four young entrepreneurs saw their chance. As you can see today, barely four years later, we really jumped on the right train.
What was the first Runtastic office like? Did Runtastic even have an office?
After working day and night in the founders own homes, there was finally a very comfortable Runtastic office for a team of 6-8 people. That first office definitely fit the typical "start-up style": we were coding and programming for all we were worth.
Since Runtastic started growing really quickly, that first office was soon bursting at the seams. About a year and a half ago, Runtastic moved into the Business Center at Plus City in Pasching, where we now take up about three-quarters of the total space on the fifth floor.
And what does that office look like?
There are 75 employees working on various projects spread out over about 1,000 m². We try to make the office feel as "homelike" as possible. That’s because we are betting that our employees perform at their best when they enjoy coming to work and feel comfortable there. So we have designed the office to be very colourful, with lots of plants, a big recreation room/cafeteria, a chill-out area. And, for example, we also provide free memberships so our staff can go to the fitness club located right below the Runtastic office.
Do employees have defined workstations or do they work at different places?
No, everybody definitely has a main workstation and that is a good thing. Every one of our employees can set up their environment so they feel most comfortable.
What are the challenges in a start-up business? What do you personally feel is an advantage and what is a disadvantage?
One major advantage of a start-up business is that things are very flexible. There aren’t any rigid processes in place yet, and I think that individuals can be encouraged to a much greater degree. It feels like you are meeting your friends every day at work, and not as if you already want to go home at 3 p.m.
When the start-up is successful and grows as fast as Runtastic, however, you need to keep your eyes open and can’t overlook the fact that you now are really maturing into a company in which clear processes and certain guidelines become really important. But that doesn’t mean that the company has to become rigid and lose the flexibility of a start-up. You just have to begin working on those processes and organigrams and formulating the "big picture" of the company early on.
It’s not that easy to found a start-up. What would your advice be to someone who plans to start their own business? What should they pay particular attention to when founding their company?
First of all, don’t ever let yourself lose focus on your dream. Runtastic also had to deal with a number of sceptics in the beginning – if our founders would have listened to them, we would not exist today. You have to stand behind your idea 200 per cent and you can’t give up. But that doesn’t mean that you just plough on without taking note of anything else. No, it means you should pitch your idea and find mentors that stand behind you to the full.
Particularly in Austria, there are plenty of opportunities for subsidies that every new entrepreneur should look into before they launch their business. After the company is founded, it is important to learn from your mentors, to drive your project forward with commitment, and not to let small setbacks stop you. Everyone makes mistakes and Runtastic couldn’t implement every idea successfully right away either. But we did develop a few "guidelines". One of them is: "It’s ok to make a mistake, but making the same mistake twice is just plain stupid."
What do you think makes a good workplace?
A good workplace is an environment where you feel comfortable, where you find friends and can have fun. Especially today you should feel secure and be able to grow and develop (whether creatively or in a different way).
Do you have any special rituals or maybe team activities that you do again and again?
Definitely. We have several "rituals" that are really important for our team. One of them is that we organise a DONI once a month. DONI stands for the Day Of New Ideas. On this day, staff come together from across all departments to take time away from the daily grind to work on new ideas that are then presented at the end of the day. The best projects can even win a prize. Many of these ideas have already been the basis of new functions and even completely new Runtastic products, such as the recently launched "Runtastic Story Running".
Another ritual is our Company Breakfast. Every fortnight Runtastic organises a big breakfast with all the trimmings to bring together our employees. After the breakfast there is a company update presentation entitled: We are awesome, how can we help you. It is intended to show all of the employees what is going on throughout Runtastic and what the entire team is actually working on. That is very important, especially for those employees that have little to do with the public but who work instead on programming our apps and services. These activities are great for our team spirit. Everyone also always looks forward to the big Runtastic getaway that takes place once every quarter.
What is the most important tool for your work?
Definitely my laptop, I can’t do anything without it.
What do you like about your office?
That every day is a new and positive challenge and that every one of us can learn something new every day. I can work with the best of the best and it is incredibly fun making the world healthier and more athletic step by step with innovative ideas and products. Every employee can present their ideas – and the most important part is: these ideas are heard and adopted! That motivates people and that is exactly why my colleagues do such a fantastic job. One of the best aspects (at the risk of repeating myself) is that we are working together with people who have become our friends and who are always moving in the same direction.
What would you wish for in your work and your workplace?
To be honest, all I wish for is that things continue as they are now, that we make progress, continue to grow and introduce great products to the market – and in this way make our dreams come true.
Thank you for the interview.
(c) Cover-Photo Daniel Schoenen / Photocase.com