“A place of maximum agility and bold entrepreneurial spirit”
Audi employees who work together in interdisciplinary teams as intrapreneurs during their time at the Denkwerkstatt gain deep insights into the agile working methods and the start-up ecosystem in Berlin. They integrate the lean work processes into their everyday work, step out of their comfort zone, and sprint toward new product ideas with a progressive mindset. What starts with a seemingly straightforward matter and a grand vision can end in a specific business model following an intensive innovation process. In the fall of last year, Tim Miksche took over as head of the Audi Denkwerkstatt. In this interview, he talks about the main ideas, aims, and the digital lab’s specific projects.
In times of increasing digitalization and globalization, many start-ups are currently producing disruptive business models that are displacing established, powerful companies. Both society and the world of business find themselves undergoing rapid change as a result. How can a company like Audi rise to such challenges?
Tim Miksche: We need new places of inspiration and creation. One such place is the Audi Denkwerkstatt. This is where we make an important contribution to Audi’s culture of innovation. We are driving the transformation from the classic car manufacturer to the comprehensive mobility service provider by creating a place of maximum agility and bold entrepreneurial spirit and giving individuals the freedom to generate their own content. Our aim is to identify business potential in the context of mobility, develop digital solutions, and ultimately bring specific products or services onto the market. Our innovation process is one hundred percent focused on the customer – from day one. Here in Berlin, the environment where our strongly networked customers live, it is the perfect place to evaluate their mobility needs and everyday needs and try new solutions. The Audi employees, who work on these solutions for a while at the Audi Denkwerkstatt as so-called intrapreneurs, learn how to develop valid business models using agile working methods. In order to bolster their entrepreneurial skills they delve deep into Berlin’s start-up ecosystem, network with important players such as company founders, and accumulate various ideas at networking events.
The Audi Denkwerkstatt has established itself as one of the top innovation units among German companies in recent years and is constantly evolving. What drives the team?
We see ourselves as Audi’s speedboat, which, thanks to its agility and strong customer focus, can react to the latest developments in the digital ecosystem and unlock new business potential. Our team has wide-ranging expertise and an extremely high level of intrinsic motivation. The many ideas driving the start-up ecosystem are an important component for us. As an integral part of the tech community, we maintain our network, acquire expertise, and share our knowledge. The open and creative dialogue inspired us to keep on searching for new ideas and thus contribute to a successful future for the Audi brand.
How do the methods and the concept of the Audi Denkwerkstatt work?
The intrapreneurs, who mostly come to us for six months, have already undergone an internal application process. Important selection criteria include being open to new ideas and being willing to embrace change. It is important to us to form interdisciplinary teams from various backgrounds because this creates more innovative strength. At the start of the program, the Denkwerkstatt’s core team, the so-called residents, set out key questions. Here we focus on a previously identified customer need. Let’s take the main target group of the millennials, for example: Among this target group, we have identified an increasing desire to break out of everyday routines and gain new experience. We call this phenomenon “escapism.” It represents a driving force in the way the people in this target group organize their lives. In the Denkwerkstatt we then ask ourselves the following: How could we as Audi fulfil the millennials’ wish for escapism?
That still sound highly theoretical. How do you get from this initial question to the product idea?
The entire mindset of the target group must be ascertained and their personal drivers have to be identified. What exactly is behind this need? In an iterative design thinking process, we come up with ideas for products that perfectly fulfil this need. The teams then work out the building blocks to the solution in weekly sprints and put them together to form a product concept. The aim is to be able to present a specific product idea after just ten weeks. This idea is then presented to a jury, which is also interdisciplinary in terms of its members. It is made up of Audi employees and external experts such as venture builders and business angels. If the jury decides that the idea can be turned into a workable and sustainable business model, then the next milestone is set in the form of this aim. Here, after 22 weeks, the product validation must be presented by means of customer surveys and tests as well as an initial business plan.
Tim Miksche is Head of Audi Denkwerkstatt, the German carmaker’s ideation and incubation Hub based in Berlin, Germany, to develop digital business models. Rejoining Audi after four years working abroad in the uprising start-up ecosystem in Tokyo, Japan, where he supported international start-ups to grow their business potential in Japan. During this time, he also acted as Representative for Japan of the German Start-ups Association (BVDS). Prior to his time overseas, Tim gathered nearly 20 years of professional experience within AUDI AG in the fields of marketing, sales as well as design, innovation management and digitization. As an experienced speaker, mentor and juror, he won the prestigious international pitching competition at SLUSH Tokyo 2018.
The Audi Denkwerkstatt neither has production machinery nor is it purely a software development facility. How is it ultimately possible to turn an idea into an actual product?
There are various ways of turning the idea into reality: We either collaborate with a department within our core organization, where the product can be made – in such cases, it then becomes an Audi product or part of an Audi product – or it may appear a better idea to spin off the business model as an independent company. Then we help to establish a separate start-up in order to realize the business idea.
What areas are the teams currently focusing on?
One team has examined the question of how we can help our customers to identify and reduce their individual carbon footprint. In doing so, we look at mobility as a whole and take into account all modes of transport used. Our in-house developed app calculates a personal mobility score, motivates the user to switch to more sustainable forms of mobility, and offers them the opportunity to get involved in specific offsetting projects for those emissions that are unavoidable. Another project is looking at the option of creating individual experiences in the context of mobility and is dedicated to the corresponding planning of car journeys. What is the best and most attractive way of planning a route from A to B for our customers? Can they do or view anything along the way that fits in with their interests and lifestyle? An app capable of planning a personalized route provides the answer.
After 18 years at Audi, you have worked outside the company in Tokyo for the past four years, supporting young start-ups as an entrepreneur. That sounds like the best qualifications for the position that has now brought you back to Audi.
Yes, that’s right. I helped company founders and start-ups in Japan to get their ideas ready for market and establish cooperation partnerships with corporate clients. Such experience at the interface between the corporate and start-up ecosystem provides an important basis for acting as an intermediary between these two cultures. Our innovation unit is the perfect place to productively dovetail my knowledge from almost 20 years at Audi and the several years spent working as a start-up mentor and ecosystem builder. As a company, Audi has one special attribute that has always appealed to me and will never leave me: When I left university, I went straight to Audi because I loved the innovative products and the brand’s position as a challenger to other more established carmakers. This commitment to progress, a belief in the future, and the will to embrace change continue to serve as my driving force.
Finally, do you have a personal tip for company founders?
It is very difficult to give company founders advice from a distance. It goes without saying that everything stands or falls on the basis of the business idea and it takes a certain amount of entrepreneurial courage, which in my view can neither be taught nor learned. Yet there are moments when you sense that something has to happen. That is when you should make your move. If you have a vision and feel this strong intrinsic motivation to change and build something, then you should throw yourself into it and have to courage to form your start-up. And you shouldn’t forget one thing: Anyone who wants to set up a company is always reliant on help. That is why it is so important to go out, network with others, talk about your own ideas, and ask and permit questions in order to find answers. Only then can you grow – and see great ideas emerge.