Jochen Gross, ajando
“The moment users give us their email address, we can offer targeted content to excite them”, says Jochen Gross, CEO of ajando, winking. This allows them to know exactly what each person should see on a website: constructed in real time, it depends on the user’s current location, the local weather, their Facebook friends and the end terminal they are using to view the website. And eventually, almost invariably, the user becomes a customer. Where the average advertising and digital agency’s marketing concept ends, the “purveyors of passion” are just beginning. They attract the attention of potential customers with blog posts, social media teasers, newsletters – sending users on a trip, the “customer journey”, at the end of which, ideally, they sign up. ajando’s sophisticated interplay of content, technology and data strategies marks it out as a digital sales company in the B2B sector.
In 2012, hardly anyone was thinking about content marketing. Instead, the preferred means of acquiring customers was outbound. In January 2013, however, they launched the operational business. “They” refers to the constellation of three CEOs: visionary Jochen Gross, the “operational strength” Delia Winke, and sales manager “with unassailable resilience” Andreas Mohren. They were proved right: after the push came the pull. Inbound marketing methods can be used to awaken the curiosity of independent users who start off by searching the Web for answers to their questions. “At the time, perhaps it was far-sighted or courageous. In any case, it was a concept with plenty of future”, says Gross. Today, in a loft in Mannheim boasting a “corporate architecture concept” and views filled with industrial romanticism, 30 employees look after operations, sales, IT and design. Approximately 20 freelance creatives are regularly commissioned for video, photo, text and editing work.
Potential customers typically go through three stages of the “customer journey”, which has been well thought out by ajando. “Nine things you need to know to avoid marketing pitfalls” is an example of the sort of title which might send visitors to the website on this journey. Jochen Gross knows: in order to attract the attention of potential customers in the first instance, and to make them read blog posts, odd-numbered lists work best (“Awareness”). If visitors are interested so far, they will find enough material to continue their journey and discover the ajando brand (“Discovery”). If they then download, for example, the free e-book “Die Content Marketing-Lüge” (“The Content Marketing Lie”), they can, in accordance with German data protection legislation, be traced: Which websites make them linger? What kind of content arouses their interest? In this way, ajando is always able to send targeted content – and to classify its contact with users accordingly. “We can identify half of our prospective customers, and of those who we can identify, every tenth person is interesting to us”, estimates Gross. And these are precisely the people who, in the third stage, eventually decide to sign up with the company (“Chose”). They receive further content which rounds off their journey and, if necessary, contact the sales department. From this point, it is highly likely that they will become customers.
ajando has developed a procedure which enables them to distinguish a single end device from five million others. Gross grins: “It doesn’t matter if you delete your cookies. As soon as users visit our website, we receive information about them.” This USP is so unusual that the three CEOs regularly have to reflect on it. Only a year ago, they consciously separated themselves from conventional digital agencies and bravely started down their own path. “We know now: We’re not creatives. We are a digital sales company. We are committed to digital sales”, says Gross. Previously, their website used to offer modules such as digital marketing, content marketing and website development. These have now been replaced with lead generation and new customer acquisition.
Despite having its own USP, the start-up has to compete with major competitors from the products and services segment. To do so, ajando relies on flexible, visionary thinking. With new advert and content formats every day, and new Google and Facebook rules every week, this is not an easy task. Jochen Gross is constantly researching and testing new software, which is then implemented where appropriate – even if certain tools are already successfully in use. He knows that he demands a lot from his employees, and that not everyone wants to be constantly adjusting to innovations. “But I think it’s the only way. Who will be the pioneers and the bringers of knowledge for companies, if not us?”
MSo far, Gross’ visionary strategy has served him well. He and Andreas Alex were working as authorised officers for a marketing agency. When parts of it were put up for sale, they decided on a management buy-out. By chance, they came across an advert in which a certain Dr. Engelhardt and a Mr. Kiefer from Sector 5F were looking for companies to support in the event of such a takeover, in return for shares. “They were both very enthusiastic, and really wanted to make the deal”, remembers Gross. And in fact, in 2000, during the first big dotcom bubble, Alex & Gross Communications GmbH became one of the first companies in Tobias Engelhardt and Georg Kiefer’s portfolio. At the time of their exit in 2009, the company had grown from 30 to 450 employees in five European locations. During his garden leave, Gross worked on an innovative approach to win customers. When founding ajando, he encountered support in the form of Delia Winke, at that time still an authorised officer at Alex & Gross. She was immediately enthusiastic; after 20 years of experience, she was passionate about further developing the area oflead generation, and her role as a managing partner. She jumped from the operational structures of an SME straight into the cold waters of a start-up company.
But the tinglingly cold water turned out to be an icy existential threat: the market was not yet ready for such an innovative concept. Bulk sales took much longer than expected. ajando had to row hard, and was on the brink of sinking. For Gross, Winke, and Mohren, who had worked with “Engelhardt Kaupp Kiefer” for eight years, it was evident that they had to bring the holding company back on board. “ajando’s financial situation was very delicate. But I knew personally that this management team with 20 years’ experience had staying power. After all, they were already part of the family”, remembers Tobias Engelhardt. In addition, the initial situation of “small start-up, handful of employees, desire to work with global players” and the topics of digitisation and digital distribution were right up his street.
The decision to look for an investor on an equal footing was not only the right decision in 2013, but also with the benefit of hindsight, as Jochen Gross had already learnt through experience: the Frankfurt-based venture capital company bought by Alex & Gross had three funds fed by American pensions, worth one billion each. “At this point, I learnt to appreciate our collaboration with Engelhardt Kaupp Kiefer even more. In the broadest sense, they deal only with their own funds and have a manageable number of holdings. Losing one is not an option. These are people you can talk to, and who understand what it means to set up your own business. For other VC companies, you’re just a number.” Delia Winke also feels that the collaboration is rewarding: “It’s good for us, because shareholders are also regulators. We have to prepare for monthly meetings, make sure that the numbers add up, and generate profit in line with general expectations. There is also a certain amount of pressure behind this, of course, but I see it as a positive.”
As a publisher, the start-up now offers branch-specific content for digital platforms, including DIGITALeins (a specialist magazine for IT and telecoms companies) and ENERGIEeins (its counterpart for energy supply companies). By focusing on the design and production of e-books, ajando is competing with existing specialist publishers. This complete package offers customers the chance to enter into the world of content marketing with a relatively small budget, and with a high expectation of success.
In 2017, the start-up will be creating the basic requirements and building blocks for a scalable model in order to remain competitive with the major players. It is already capable of proposing procedures to new customers and adapting to their brand. Developing 50 projects in a single year will become feasible, and in the future, they will have the capacity for 100 customers at any one time. The demand is constant: “We have a much better relationship with our contacts in various companies than we did a year ago”, says Delia Winke. Jochen Gross adds, “They have learnt in the meantime that advertising alone simply doesn’t work. If prospective customers don’t see the added value, they are not prepared to provide their contact information.”