The CEO of a German air taxi startup explains how shifting to English will gear it up to be a leader in the edgy new industry
- Startups with international ambitions eventually face one choice that others might take for granted: What language will they use?
- When Florian Reuter joined the drone taxi startup Volocopter as CEO, one of his key initiatives was to get the entire business to use English instead of its native German.
- The move reflected the company's ambition to be the international leader of a new mode of transportation, rather than operating primarily within Germany.
- Since making the switch in 2017, Volocopter has grown from 15 people to over 150, with plans to build a team of thousands to bring personal air travel to cities around the world.
- This article is part of a series on growing a small business, called "From 1 to 100."
Countless decisions go into scaling a startup. Many of those choices are explicit, but one that is often taken for granted is the language the team uses every day.
While it may feel more natural for a startup's founders and leadership team to stick with their native tongue, that decision could create significant barriers to the future growth of the company.
When Volocopter founders Stephan Wolf and Alexander Zosel hired Florian Reuter to be the CEO of their drone startup in 2015, the business (and all of its technical documentation) was all in German.
"When we first started, we were like, 'okay, let's build an awesome air vehicle,'" Reuter told Business Insider in an interview. "Then we realized maybe it's better if we don't use this air vehicle to fly ourselves, but actually use it to transport people."
But the team quickly saw that Volocopter's future reached well beyond its national and continental borders.
"It doesn't make sense to just sell this into the two or three big cities we have in Germany or even in Europe, so actually, it's the world market that's our potential," he added.
To reach that world market - and to build the team that would get them there - Reuter made the decision in 2017 to get everyone to start using English.
Since making the switch, Volocopter has grown from 15 people to more than 150, with ambitions to build a team of thousands to bring personal air travel to megacities around the world.
Using the language of business and aviation
For the first few years, while Wolf and Zosel were refining the concept and prototypes for their category-defining electric multicopter, the team comprised just five people - all of whom wrote and spoke German.
That worked so long as the Bruchsal-based designers and engineers had to coordinate only with local talent and German regulators, but when Reuter joined, the horizons quickly expanded beyond national and continental borders.
When the team was just 15 people, Reuter transitioned Volocopter to using English, which included translating the company's internal and technical documents so they could be used by future hires.
"If we stay in German, and if we just hire locally, we're never going to get to the level of excellence we need as a company to get anywhere close to achieving our vision," Reuter said.
"We realized for some skill sets, we have to hire internationally and you can't hire them into a company that's German only," he continued. "We knew it's not a matter of if but of when, and we might as well start early and get used to it."
Getting the founders out of their comfort zone
Wolf and Zosel were already seasoned entrepreneurs prior to starting Volocopter, but Reuter said both are far more comfortable using their native tongue than they are with using English.
"It would have been very easy for them to say, 'Oh, no, let's stay German longer,' but they didn't show any of those reactions," Reuter said.
The decision to set aside their preference as founders in the interest of pursuing Reuter's vision for the company jives with their unusual decision to hand over executive control at such an early stage.
"When I first met the founders, they were enthusiastic about the technology," Reuter said. "But there wasn't a clear strategy in place on how to commercialize on it. I didn't come in pretending to have that solution, but I wanted to make sure that they were open to finding the solution along the way with me."
So far, the Wolf and Zosel's bet on Reuter has paid off, as the company now has operations in Munich and Singapore, where Volocopter performed a successful test flight over Marina Bay last October.
And in February Volocopter announced it had extended its Series C to €87 million, bringing its total equity funding up to €122 million, as it continues to add corporate strategic partners to a list that includes Daimler, Intel, and Micron.
"What's become clear over the past five years is that the opportunity in front of us grew as we moved forward, and now it's obvious that this is a multi-trillion-dollar opportunity," Reuter said.
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