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EU Alumnus Dominik Steiner, CEO, Digital Prophet & Investor

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EU Blog » Alumni » EU Alumnus Dominik Steiner, CEO, Digital Prophet & Investor

Dominik Steiner was born in Switzerland and raised in South America and Africa. He has lived in Japan for more than 20 years. He speaks French, German and English, as well as some Spanish, Japanese and Italian.

As an international entrepreneur, CEO and consultant, this “digital prophet” has worked in a wide variety of sectors including medical and biotech, aviation, finance and sports. Within the IT field alone he’s been involved with IoT, virtualization, cloud computing and analytics to name just a few.  

Dominik has worked for Merrill Lynch, Reuters, the European Business Council in Japan and TAG Aviation. This multifaceted background was the ideal preparation for his current roles as a founding partner of 650 VC fund, CEO of VPC Asia K.K. and advisor at Mamezou Holdings.

He studied law at the University of Zurich, then earned his MBA from EU Business School. Dominik is also trained as a commercial pilot, a licensed tennis instructor and a General Securities Representative (having passed the Series 7 qualification exam).

What does a typical week look like for you?

I have a kind of routine I like to keep to. I work between seven and 14 hours per day. The mornings until 10 a.m. are dedicated exclusively to my family; during this time, I don’t touch my work. After that, I work simultaneously on various projects, among them VPC Asia, which I started from an idea, and which is now continually increasing in valuation.

My second focus is 650, a venture capital firm I co-founded that funds and guides startup companies on their journey to becoming valuable, impactful and responsible entities. I’m one of the channel partners in the fund, along with two other partners. We invest money in early-stage companies globally. We work in Tokyo and have a strong focus on Silicon Valley. We invest maybe 70-80% of our funds in Silicon Valley and 20-30% in Japan and Asia, Switzerland and Israel. We will hopefully also invest in Africa later.

These two things are my daily heavy lifting and take up most of my time. As an entrepreneur, you try to roll out as many projects as you can without losing focus. I also advise Swiss companies on how to establish a network or business in Japan, as well as vice-versa. In addition, I have a couple of board roles. Some projects are pro bono, which is what you need to create a network that then helps you a lot in business.

Twice a week I make sure I do sports or some sort of outing. Tuesday is usually my sports day and Thursdays is when I generally go out. I keep that balance. Otherwise, it gets unmanageable.

How did you embark on your entrepreneurial ventures?

It wasn’t easy. After business school, I joined the iconic Merrill Lynch company and then worked for Bridge Information Systems and Reuters, a big competitor of Bridge. Bridge made a lot of investment and acquisitions, buying many smaller companies and integrating them into their organization. That facet of the work was fascinating to me. So, I did that in Hong Kong as well. After about a year Bridge asked me to go to Japan to optimize business there, integrate the companies and get the sales running smoothly. I liked that. But the company, an American company, went into chapter 11, and I “switched sides” and tried to organize a management buyout of Bridge Information Systems but lost against Reuters and came back to Switzerland to join Reuters, to do the integration for them. After a year, I decided I didn’t want to be employed by a company anymore. So, I took two years off to plan, with my wife, what I wanted to do in the future. Entrepreneurship was the only option that would allow me to build companies, find new opportunities and advise, rather than just being an employee having to share credit for their success with their bosses.

I had to start by sourcing money to be an entrepreneur. I realized my hobbies could be useful, including my experience as a pilot. I thought, “People with money have planes, right? So, I’m going to find a company in Geneva that manages aircraft, just for a year, to meet the people that have the money, and try to find an investor.” And that’s what I did. First, I became Director of Aircraft Management for TAG Aviation, and then I split off to build my own business. It may sound simple; it’s not magic either. It’s about having a plan and trying to realize it.

How do you define an entrepreneurial mindset?

Somebody who wants a quiet and secure future shouldn’t become an entrepreneur. It must be somebody who’s agile, likes doing new things every day, understands that managing risk and priority is high on the list and who can manage surprises effectively. Risk and reward assessment are vital skills as an entrepreneur.

I think everyone should have an entrepreneurial mindset. When I hire somebody for my company, I expect them to be a partial entrepreneur, because it’s a quality that I look for. This quality allows them to react differently than somebody who expects a hierarchical structure.

I firmly believe that if somebody becomes an entrepreneur because they think they have no other options, they will probably fail. In my opinion, if you can’t land a job and decide that instead you’ll become your own boss, that is, the wrong setup. Entrepreneurship must be one of several options, not the only one.

What do you think is a skill that entrepreneurs often lack?

I can only speak for myself. I can’t be in a subordinate role anymore. I got to the stage where I was just too aggressive and I couldn’t simply listen, accept and do. I think I’m not the only entrepreneur like that. After a while, you get to the stage where you can’t get back into a company because you become “unhireable”, as many told me.

A famous headhunter told me: “We want your skills but can’t fit you anywhere. You’re too expensive or don’t fit into the company. They need somebody who will listen to a boss who tells you what to do; you won’t be happy. Then you’ll leave again in six months.” I think that’s very true for many entrepreneurs, including me.

Many young and new entrepreneurs are not good at organization and keeping track of details. Further, they often don’t recognize when their employees (or someone else) could do a better job than themselves and therefore don’t get the best out of their people. These management skills are difficult to practice in a smaller company.

So, what is a Digital Prophet“?

A digital prophet is somebody who claims to be able to anticipate what the digital moves or direction are going to be in business. I was told by an investor to use this description when we were discussing titles, and he said that I had been right with a few predictions in the last ten years. If you search on Google, ‘digital prophet’ is one of the top 20 title descriptions in the USA for people in the entrepreneurial world, so I’m not the only one out there. It sparks conversation; it is an interesting description of a role that many appreciate.

Let me give you a more specific example: eight years ago, I worked on a startup in the mobile app world. Initially, I was asked to do a satellite television project; a satellite over Malaysia would broadcast over Japan and the rest of Asia. The satellite was the best way to reach people at that time. I looked at the project, and I said, “Guys, we have to be ahead of the curve. I think it’s all going to go mobile.” They listened, and we started building mobile applications and streamers when nobody else was doing it. Almost a decade later, a gentleman from the fashion industry wanted to buy the apps I did eight years ago, saying it’s now in the market.

The trick is to think ‘What’s the next thing? Where will the market move?’ That means seeing problems that might need solving to make peoples life better. For example, I don’t think there’s going to be an Internet in five to 10 years from now, I think we will still share information, but it will all be peer to peer. So, as a prophet, I would try to anticipate that now, build a solution and hope that I’m right most of the time, because nobody’s right 100% of the time.

How do you mentally keep up with everything you do?

I like to do 15 minutes of daily reflection every evening. This is a little ritual where I ask myself questions at the end of each day. It helps me stay focused and keep on track with my goals as well as allowing me to adjust for rapid change. The questions I ask myself are:

To summarize the day:

  • Did I do what I planned to do?
  • What am I proud/not proud of?
  • What would I do differently?

Taking stock:

  • What are my priorities?
  • What are my shortcomings?
  • How do I minimize surprises?

To build stronger teams:

  • How did I lead? 
  • How did I follow?

Plan

  • What are my next steps?
  • I summarize my thoughts and rehearse actions
  • What do I have to do to achieve long-term goals?

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