Stefan's lifelong passions - entrepreneurship, politics, and the military - have sculpted a unique journey. From becoming a military officer to founding one of Europe's premier deep-tech VC firms, his diverse experiences now converge at Othis. His mission is to build a resilient organization where every individual is empowered to excel.
What was your upbringing like?
Growing up, I had three defining interests – entrepreneurship, politics, and the military. I tried to satisfy all those interests in parallel, so my life has always been a combination of these things (in varying intensities).
My upbringing in a nutshell:
- After finishing school, I worked in Norway to sell timber.
- After Norway, I went to the military and became an officer in the Austrian Armed Forces.
- After the Army, I founded my first company, providing security consulting services to various governmental bodies and corporations.
- In parallel, I started a political movement around entrepreneurship and economic policy.
- Later, I started investing in startups – investing became a passion, and this passion led to the founding of the venture capital firm, APEX Ventures.
Today, I'm glad that I can still pursue all three of my passions in parallel by running a company, engaging in politics, and serving as an officer in the reserves.
It’s a unique background in a startup community. How did you transition from a military setting to becoming an entrepreneur?
I would argue that a military background is more common than one would think – I know quite a few military folks who became highly successful in business. Think about Simon Murray, who was in the French Foreign Legion and became CEO of Hutchison, or Bob McDonald, who was in the 82nd Airborne Division and became CEO of Procter & Gamble.
The military teaches core values like camaraderie, discipline, humility, and humour, to name just a few. It also equips you with tools to properly deal with demanding situations and encourages creative thinking. These values and tools come in handy when you enter the entrepreneurial environment. In my view, running a startup is fundamentally not much different from running a military operation. Both involve operating in challenging environments, making the best decisions with limited data, and surrounding yourself with resilient, trustworthy people to achieve your mission.
The transition into the business world was therefore smooth for me and I decided against a corporate job and directly went into founding my first company. At first, I thought it might be an issue that I did not study finance or economics, but it turned out that it mattered more that I just was curious enough to just try things out. That is how later APEX Ventures was also formed – there was no previous experience in setting up funds – we decided to go for it, drafted a detailed plan on how we can obtain a license, and then we meticulously executed it. The important thing when tackling something you have not done before is to be very honest and self-reflective about what you do not know (yet) and not to be overwhelmed about how complicated things seem to be at first glance. Always keep in mind that someone else has already done this and survived it – so nothing is impossible.
APEX Ventures was one of the first VC firms in Austria when Venture Capital was just emerging, and few were familiar with this asset class. How was your experience with gaining the support of partners, investors, and regulators?
Looking back, we confronted the challenges that every new company faces – we have had to convince a lot of people that we created something valuable for them and the ecosystem. We had to convince our partners that we are a reliable and solid counterparty. We had to convince the regulator that we understand the rules and uphold the highest standards of business. We had to convince investors that venture capital is an interesting and profitable asset class.
The underlying element of all this is trust, and it is one of the most valuable currencies, especially in the financial services industry. Extremely high standards need to be continuously met to earn it and to maintain a certain level. Another key aspect of building trust is brutal honesty – we informed potential investors about both the pros and cons of investing in venture capital. Some potential investors realized it wasn't the right asset class for them, given their expectations for guaranteed returns and liquidity. Never promise something just to close the deal, especially if you aim for a lasting relationship.
What did you learn from working with High Net-Worth Individuals (HNIs)? How have these insights influenced what Othis is today?
Building on my answer above – trust is what matters most to HNIs when it comes to the big three in life – family, health, and wealth. The HNIs I have encountered and worked with over the years have always sought long-term, stable, and trustworthy relationships.
This need has not changed over the years, but the approach by many service providers is misaligned with it. What we see today is, what I would call, a lack of patience. HNIs are often tired of receiving endless requests from people who want quick access to their wealth, and once they have secured it, they do not nurture the relationship properly.
These experiences heavily influence our approach at Othis – we take the time to properly understand the needs of our clients, deliver our product only if their needs genuinely match our offering, and then we focus on building a solid relationship. This approach requires time and effort, but it pays off in the end, as HNIs are typically very loyal customers.
You are a co-founder and COO at Othis. How do you see the role of the operations team at Othis?
The way I see operations at Othis is that it goes beyond mere day-to-day management of resources and execution of tasks. We create a product, and we need to deliver it – it's called “Company Excellency”.
We aim to provide a supreme and flourishing environment for clients, employees, and partners. Our goal is to remain scalable at every stage of the company’s lifecycle while adhering to the highest operational standards.
Four principles guide us in building Company Excellency:
- Client First: Our No. 1 priority is providing our clients with a stupendous experience when growing their wealth.
- Top Tier Products: Our products are top of the line in every detail.
- High Performance Teams: Our experts are formed into powerful teams, units, and task forces that deliver high-performance output.
- State of the Art Framework: Our operational framework provides clear guidelines, structures, and processes for every aspect of our daily business.
We ensure that these principles are implemented and monitored, and if necessary, we intervene and correct. My core mission is to care for our people, empower them, and create systems that support their creativity, drive, and ambition – ultimately channeling this to fulfill our company’s vision.
It seems that you are on a personal mission to help other people realize their potential. How does this mission shape the hiring decisions and culture at Othis?
It is true that I find immense pleasure in supporting others and helping them realize their potential. This partly shapes our company culture and hiring decisions, which are deeply driven by our values. Let me mention some, not all, important guidelines:
“There are no bad people, just wrong positions”: we deeply believe that everyone has certain skills or talents in which they excel. Whether they can fully use their potential depends only on them being in the right position.
“Expect and live up to the highest standards”: as we are on a high-stakes mission, everyone can expect from everyone else on the team that they live up to the highest standards. This requires personalities with remarkably high intrinsic motivation and self-reflection. It also requires an environment where one can openly speak about people not living up to the standards, and people helping each other out if someone struggles with this.
“Respect is earned, not given”: while we appreciate past achievements, they have no importance when it comes to judging one’s performance at Othis. It is clear to everyone, no matter their position in the hierarchy, that one is judged purely by merits they have earned while being part of the team.
“Trust over performance”: living up to the highest standards goes beyond performing well in a business context. All members of Othis are united by common values like respect, helpfulness, and integrity. Only this combination builds trust and a formidable team culture – we do not need high-performing, but toxic leaders or team members.
If you could instill one cornerstone value for the whole organisation, what would it be?
One value I feel is often neglected in most companies is what the Royal Marines call “Commando Humour,” which means cheerfulness in the face of adversity. At Othis, Commando Humour plays an especially significant role in our daily lives – everyone who knows our team also knows that we constantly crack jokes about nearly everything. While this makes working a lot of fun, it also fulfills three crucial functions (as written by Anthony King):
- A good sense of humour reduces a hazard by making it seem less serious in the mind of an individual.
- Humour relies on shared understandings. It draws on common experiences which allow the mocked object or situation to be put in an incongruous setting that all recognize.
- Humour highlights membership and emphasizes the solidarity between group members.