Managing Director Turnbull
Carl, my first question to you as well: What has kept you busy over the past years?
Carl Kirchhoff: After completing my studies in business administration in Germany, I was fascinated by media and technology. This got me into an exciting job at the UEFA Champions League, dealing with broadcast rights for over 6 years. Having experienced the seismic shift of distribution platforms from traditional TV, cable, internet to mobile, I decided to get into mobile tech. I joined an interesting start-up funded by amongst others Accel Partners and the Skype founders Niklas Zenstrom and Janus Friis (founders of Atomico) as Vice President Business Development. Their vision was to build Skype for mobile, disrupting the multi-billion dollar mobile roaming business. Soon after joining, I saw the opportunity to build up and grow the US market and decided to relocate to the US. Unfortunately and despite all efforts of our fantastic team, this start-up did not succeed in its efforts to bring down the roaming costs globally. The following 10+ years I worked for and with multiple tech start-ups in the US in various capacities as executive, founder, advisor and investor. End of 2016 amid political changes, I relocated from the US to Southeast Asia and built various start-ups for the Asian and Australian (APAC) market with our current Turnbull tech team.
How did your cooperation with Peer and the founding of Turnbull come to be?
Carl Kirchhoff: The Corona pandemic had and still has a major negative impact on both the economy and humans. When Corona hit, my project in Australia was 30 days prior to launch. All was ready to go after months of R&D and product development and out of the sudden, everything changed – the market, access to funding, resources, priorities. I was not able to get access to my offices in Australia and London any longer. Visiting my family in Hamburg I went through my address book to meet people I hadn’t seen or met for many years. One of the first emails went to Peer-Arne Böttcher. I knew Peer only virtually for 4 years when we had a phone call to explore how I may be able to help him launch his then start-up AIRY in the US. We met on the 29th of May at the Business Club Hamburg, he founded. As always, as preparation for a meeting, I checked amongst other sources his LinkedIn profile to get some social hooks and business opportunities worth exploring. Peer, being an entrepreneur, had multiple positions at multiple companies. After a few minutes into our conversation, we both realized that we may be able to do some joint business putting together the resources required to complete a business transaction successfully. After one week of pulling all relevant resources together, we realized a week was too long to deliver the products in the required quality, with the necessary certificates at the agreed place for the agreed price etc. Meanwhile, Peer shared more about his 15-year practice at the Business Club and how business transactions come together in an analogue environment. One week later, it was clear to both of us, there is a unique market opportunity for a digital b2b network. On July 9, Turnbull was founded.
Your main contribution to the company is your valuable tech know-how and a skilled team of software developers. What is it that fascinated you about AI, blockchain and other technologies?
Carl Kirchhoff: I was always fascinated by technology and business. A key shift towards technology occurred 10 years ago when I joined a start-up which created the first AI-based personalization and recommendation engine – something which we all know now from Netflix and other media streaming companies. I was working closely with data engineers, scientists and developers as we extended our services to Europe. Clients included Deutsche Telekom and the gaming company Bigpoint. It was exciting to leverage various mathematical and statistical models to predict and support user behaviors linked to a desired outcome. Big data became the oil of the digital economy. Since then I am deeply involved with the development of AI.
The second main technology leap I experienced apart from data and AI, is blockchain technology. It’s important to mention that blockchain is not a synonym for crypto. Those two disciplines are being mixed up and used in different contexts regularly. While blockchain – or decentralized ledger technology – forms the underlying technical basis of crypto currencies such as Bitcoin or Ripple, the concept of blockchain itself is, as the word decentralized already indicates, a new form of server infrastructure and how data is processed. In a nutshell, blockchain technology is a database that is shared across a network of individual computers. It’s main use and advantage is the unchangeable documentation of transactions within a trustless network. Both technologies are at the center of Turnbull with our team having many years of experience.
How would you explain the AI behind Turnbull to someone who has little knowledge in the area?
Carl Kirchhoff: AI is one of those buzzwords and for right or wrong reasons many times associated with robots taking over the world. One of my book recommendations, when you asked this question over last Christmas time, was Richard David Precht’s book “Artificial Intelligence and the meaning of life”, which describes in my mind well the ethical side of AI pretty good. Many people are not aware that AI is already part of their daily lives, for years. Chatbots in customer care, navigation systems such as Google and WAZE, Netflix’ content recommendation system or NEO-banks such as N26 are all using AI to predict user behaviors and to better serve them with personalized services and solutions. Like them, Turnbull is leveraging AI for our prediction and recommendation system. For this purpose, our AI recommendation system is using a lot of data from more than 60 public data resources.
All this information about companies, managers, products and resources is available somewhere on the internet. All of them leave a digital footprint. Within our platform, we are building digital twins of our members (companies, its authorized representatives and its products/ services) by creating digital profiles that are both searchable and discoverable in many ways. From those profiles, our AI builds a logical chain of mathematical and statistical models to support and predict a desired outcome such as a successful contact matching up to a successful close of a business transaction. This process is done hundreds of thousand times per day and refines the predictability and accuracy of our platform. Our machine is learning and improving the more accurate data is being used. Hence, we are relying not only on external data but to a major degree on our user’s input. In other words: The more accurate data we get from our users, the better we can help them in their networking, communications and transactions. Unlike other companies, this is all happening on secured servers in Germany complying with the highest legal and technical standards.
Nowadays, a lot of business spans across borders. Amid the corona crisis, negative aspects of globalization become apparent, for example in broken supply chains. In your opinion, should companies refocus on national partners?
Carl Kirchhoff: This is both a political and economical question. While I consider the political side more significant and more challenging, let me focus on the economical for this interview. Globalization grew with the imbalance of natural resources in terms of its availability and demand. We started shipping resources around the globe based on changing demand and consumption patterns, but in the end mainly for pricing reasons to improve profit margins while staying competitive in local but also international markets. Corona out of sudden shifted priorities in demand, consumption and other resources became more imminent to be produced and delivered. Out of this chaos, (German) companies had to adapt to the changing environment. In our start-up world, changing environments are happening every day and as an entrepreneur you have to adapt quickly and more frequently. This so-called pivoting is in every start-up entrepreneur’s DNA and in fact this is what we at Turnbull are looking to help other entrepreneurs and other decision makers with. As Darwin said: ”Not the species which is the strongest or smartest will survive but the ones that are able to adapt”.
To answer your question: If international production, international sales outlets or supply chains are not accessible any longer due to lock-downs and closed borders, the best option is to shift your focus to your own local environment and identify local/ regional/ national supply and demand. This could be as simple as using office locations that are empty due to work from home measures up to leveraging your own skill sets and experiences in a completely new way.
Complementary to the previous question: Do you see Turnbull as a national, european or global project?
Carl Kirchhoff: Turnbull works anywhere where business transactions are happening. There are certain local/ national differences in how business is conducted around the world, however, based on the same three cornerstones of information, communication and transaction. Considering the similarities in business processes in Europe and the market size of more than 25M SMEs alone, we have enough work ahead of us to launch and become a market leading business to business network in Europe.
Which milestones do you intend to reach until the end of the year with Turnbull?
Carl Kirchhoff: Our team has been working on our platform for a few months now and we are laser-focused on our launch in a few weeks time. Like in any business operation there are various goals and milestones you are looking to achieve. Turnbull’s DNA is delivering a product that people enjoy using while experiencing a measurable benefit at the end of the day. In order to deliver a compelling product, you want a motivated team which is particularly important these days. If we can achieve those milestones the rest will automatically follow. This may sound simple but we all know it is hard work where we have to evolve our product constantly. Commercial numbers and KPIs are important for any company, as they are for Turnbull, however we believe in a new mindset away from quarterly financial results towards sustainability. Simon Sinek calls it the “infinite game” where there are no winners or losers but only ahead and behind. Turnbull is a young company and our ambition is to be ahead in creating a business network for makers.
You’ve lived in numerous countries and different continents. How do you feel about the startup and investor scene in Germany – especially compared to the USA?
Carl Kirchhoff: I still remember when I was looking to build my first start-up in the early 2000s, just after the internet boom respectively its bubble burst. Back then, there were a few start-ups that either survived the crash or even exited with a trade sale. Funding was restricted and access to capital hard with almost no infrastructure of Venture Capitalists, business angels and other funding sources available. The booming internet in the US and the entrepreneurial mindset particularly in the famous Silicon Valley created a different platform for start-ups which constantly spun out trade sales and IPOs and it’s reinvestment into this vibrant ecosystem.
Fast forward 20 years, I experienced a major positive shift within the German and European start-up environment with access to capital being more widely available to a growing number of innovative start-ups. Accelerators such as the Hamburg-based Next Media Accelerator, which I am involved with as a mentor, have attracted and invested in more than 100 exciting tech start-ups over the past 4 years since inception. This gives me hope that start-ups are becoming more mainstream in Germany supporting and accelerating the necessary shift towards digital.
Your son must attend school. Do you feel like the German educational system prepares him well for the future working environment?
Carl Kirchhoff: There are many controversial debates about this topic and I am not prepared to have a well-founded opinion about it. The only observation I made is that for the vast majority of schools in Germany, digital is still not part of the student’s colloquium. This shortcoming was painfully revealed when Corona lockdown measures had students being taught from home. Starting from missing laptops for students (interestingly enough they all have mobile phones yet very few have laptops) to teachers missing digital education and mastering technology, the lack of digitalization became imminent. I am hopeful though for Germany to keep up with technical advancements that I experienced both in the US and Asia. At the same time, Germany has always been a nation of poets and thinkers and I would not be surprised to see Germany and Europe setting new (ethical) standards in engineering, communications and the use of data.
If you were asked to describe your work life with a single book title – which one would you choose?
Carl Kirchhoff: I would choose “Gullivers Reisen”, a tale written by Irish author Jonathan Swift comprising multiple books and individual travel stories of Gulliver, its main character. It is a well-known children’s book yet with a lot of satire and life lessons. Discovering and experiencing new things and constant learning became my key traits having traveled Internationally and living in various places for more than 30 years now. In this book, Swift observes various cultures, behaviors and political and economic systems. My observation today is the same as Swifts back then whereby western culture did not change greatly, still dealing with eternal issues concerning people’s behaviors. The Trump era revealed this in its clearest form. Corona for good or bad has become in many ways a reset button which allows us to decide about how we aspire to live and what’s important for us and our children.
In essence, there are still many people who are not ready or willing to accept changes even if the fundamentals of their life are negatively impacted. Ideologies and subjective viewpoints preside over logic. This is our daily mission at Turnbull: to socialize the logic of AI and make it an acceptable tool for better decision making and a better life balance.