Michael Schuster is one of the partners at Speedinvest, but his business card could very well just read „Product Guy“. By avoiding “typical investor tasks“, he is focusing on operations and helping his start-ups build their products. His journey to being a VC started as a fan of „Knight Rider“ and blogger in the early days of weblogs.
„A fortunately unsuccessful merger” led Michael Schuster to his role at Speedinvest. In 2011 his employer, semantic technology-start-up „System One” merged with another technology company, and the management team ended up leaving. So did Michael, who served as a COO to the company. What makes the investor refer to the event as „fortunate“ is the fact that he met Speedinvest-founder Oliver Holle during the process. „Oliver was helping us with the merger and was already raising money for his first Speedinvest fund.” In search of partners, Holle approached Michael to come on board, a challenge he gladly accepted.
Talking about his career, Michael makes use of the word „coincidentally“ a lot. Not knowing what he should study after high school – „I could imagine pretty much any major“ – he decided to sign up for computer science after getting bored with his business major in the first semester. It was during that time when Michael became interested and eventually „fascinated“ with blogging. Known as „‚smi” in the blogosphere, he ran his first blog in the early 2000s on the hosting patform Antville. His fascination with the new media opportunities rose and his passion landed him his first professional role after university. Vienna-based digital agency Knallgrau hired Michael as a product manager for their own blogging software Twoday.net. Founded in 2003, the hosting service was one of the most successful in Europe, totally overwhelming the small agency that couldn’t keep up with the high demand, plus a lot of the know-how now everpresent, wasn’t public knowledge back then, like “Freemium” models and the like.
Having built a reputation as „product guy“, he landed his next position at „one of the first US-style Viennese start-ups” in 2006. As Head of Product at System One, Michael was in charge of the semantic software the company developed. He was also part of fundraising and taking the company to the next level. In its heydays, System One employed around 25 people. „All we did was pretty much learning by doing. There wasn’t a start-up community around and not many experienced people who could’ve helped us with the process“, Michael remembers. Those years of apprenticeship, success and failure ultimately transformed the Speedinvest partner into the business professional that he is now.
Michael is not shy to admit that he tries to avoid „typical investor work“ as much as possible. Rather than reading contracts, raising money and dealing with administrative stuff, he likes to be involved with the companies that Speedinvest is invested in. His self-described „Hands-on”-approach is his understanding of being a partner at a VC firm. „I very much care about the product“, Michael stresses his collaboration with the founders of their portfolio. He prefers start-ups to have a vision about the product but to be open about the ideas that could get them there. While a lot of Silicon Valley investors claim that the founder team does matter more than the actual product, Michael disagrees: „I think you need a product first. If there’s nothing there, being an entrepreneur and a good team alone won’t get you anywhere.“
Being highly involved with the day-to-day-business of Speedinvest does come with challenges sometimes, Michael admits: „You can only be their advisor to a certain degree. At some point you have to accept that and let them do their thing.“ His insistence does lead to success, though. Spirits subscription service Flaviar – “anything food and drinks related lands on my desk” – was recently part of the YCombinator program and has built important relationships all over the world. Another startup of his portfolio, Bitmovin, was a bit reluctant to apply until Michael pushed them to send their application. Indeed, Bitmovin got accepted and is part of the most current YC batch.
As a product enthusiast, Michael does get the start-up itch every so often: „I can’t rule out that I’ll found my own start-up some time in the future“. For now, he’s pretty content in his role as VC partner at Speedinvest. With eight companies under his wings, Michael surely is keeping himself busy. While he certainly sees a lot of different start-up ideas, the investor would like to see more things coming out of the transportation industry. After all, watching „Knight Rider“ got him excited about innovation at a young age.