An interview with the founder of Riedel Communications Thomas Riedel (GER).
— What kind of family were you born into and what did your parents do?
I’m German, and I was born here in Germany; I still live in the city I was born in. I have two brothers and two sisters, and my parents ran their own business, but in a completely different industry! They owned flower shops — they were florists. Having said that it is a different business, on the one hand, it is, but on the other hand, to learn about business and to become an entrepreneur you can learn a lot from parents, even though they work in a completely different industry. I still live in Wuppertal, this is where I went to school and where I started my business. In fact, I started my business before I even finished school, and I didn’t go to university. It simply didn’t happen. My business came from my hobby — I did light and sound equipment rental. I organized parties, so I needed the technology. It was just a logical step, to file it as a business, even though I only finished school two years later. I spoke to my parents, asking them what they thought if I should go to university, or try my business out first. My parents said that maybe I should just give it a try, and supported me a lot. That allowed me to start my business, and here we are. I still haven’t started my university career, but, who knows, maybe one day I will!
— How could you legally establish a business at 16?
I was born in 1968, so when I registered my business I was 18 years old. It was very unusual. At that time, it was not normal for someone that young to start a business, but I didn’t think about that. I just did it. I never saw the risk — that’s what came from my parents. If you grow up in a family where a business is run, it is normal to see that you rely on money coming in, and having customers. But I didn’t consider that being a risk, it was just normal. So, that’s why I just jumped in and I did it. Wherever I went, people asked me why my father sent me instead of coming himself. I just thought, what do you mean? My father is a florist, and we’re talking about technology. For the first, I would say, 20 years, people thought I was the ‘second generation’, but I was the founder! Now people have stopped asking me — I’m old, I’m 53.
— What was the first step? Especially because your parents were florists and you were interested in technology. How did you get into this industry?
It was a combination of two things. One was technology. This came from all the parties I organized. I set up loudspeakers and spotlights, and the technology was a ‘learning by doing’ experience. The other part came from an artistic background — I started as a magician when I was 10 or 12 years old. This was another hobby I had, but I also did hundreds of shows. It was a combination of falling in love with entertainment and being on stage and learning about technology. With these two things, I jumped into the business. In its early stage, it was organizing events and bringing technology. For instance, the local bank had a party for their younger staff, and I got hired to organize the event and install the equipment. I also organized the program — I did everything they wanted because I did whatever I could make a bit of money with. The next step only happened when I needed some radios for a bigger event. I bought five Motorola walkie-talkies, around 1991. People could also rent these radios from me, and I didn’t realize that this was a real need. I saw that I was getting requests from all over Germany. This grew quickly from five to 50, and to 500. We still do it today, we have 40,000 radios, and probably operate the largest radio-rental stock in the world. This got me into rental, on one hand, but it also got me into communications systems. This was the step that guided me towards the intercom.
— When you started manufacturing, what products did you start with?
This really happened because of my radio. People needed a connection between the radios and their intercom systems. I took a Motorola radio, put it in a box, built some electronics around it, and called ‘RiFace’. And so, the first product was born! With that, I got into contact with a number of broadcasters and broadcast truck companies, who all bought my box. People told me that I could do more with intercom, so I looked into intercom systems because I had never really learned about that. Based on this, I built the first little intercom. This grew step by step, into a medium and then a large-sized intercom. I was obviously also lucky — I had good clients. I got involved in the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, this was my early intercom system. That worked pretty well, and from there I got more clients. The next step really came when I could convince the Austrian state television broadcaster ORF. They needed a new intercom for their center in Vienna. For whatever reason, I convinced them to go with me. It was an order for a product that didn’t exist at the time, they gave me an order based on a concept. This was a concept for an Artist intercom, which is still today our main product. Of course, there were generations of hardware in the meantime, and the software has been growing for many years. But the name and the foundation are still there, from the second half of the 90s. This product made my company really become an international player.
— When did you start getting employees, and who was involved in manufacturing?
Good question. In the early stage of a company, you can typically not afford highly educated experts. So, I worked together with friends and family. Lots of things were organized with what we had and what our skills were. Certainly, when I built the first Artist intercom, software and electrical engineers became a part of the group. I myself have no engineering background, even though I pretty much think like an engineer. I also have no commercial background, but I can think commercially as well. I sort of had a ‘foot in each camp’. In the meantime, I’ve hired a few more people; Riedel today is almost 700 people. We work in 25 offices in many countries. Sometimes I feel like I am in a dream. We started at zero — I had to ask my mum if she would still cook for me and do the laundry. My mother said sure, just live in our house, and you can put the money you make into the business. Today, I would say that we are a key player in the broadcasting business with our technology. This is now also audio and video infrastructure products — a wide portfolio. I surprised even myself with this success story. I am proud, I must say. I’m proud of what the whole team has achieved over the years.
— This story feels like a fairytale, you got a contract with the Lillehammer Olympics. How could this happen? You were such a small company.
The Lillehammer Olympics is a small story of its own. Keep in mind that you cannot compare the Olympic games of the early 90s with the Olympics of today. The technology was not that advanced at the time, and the Olympics were smaller compared to today. Certainly, it was already a very big global event. However, the organizing committee made a mistake in their planning. They completely forgot that they needed an intercom system for their opening and closing ceremonies. They only found this out in November, for the games which started in January. Normally, it would be impossible to make that work. Someone from Germany who was involved in the Olympics, from German recommended me. I got this call and said sure, I can do that! My attitude to this day is that when people come I say, sure, let’s have a look. They said they needed an engineer to come to Germany to look at the company. I’m smiling because I was thinking about what I could do to convince them. Because I thought that the Olympics in Norway must be very cold, I bought a large freezer and put all the equipment inside, to prove that it worked in the cold. When the guy arrived, he saw all my equipment in the freezer. He smiled at me and said, what realistic testing! That was all I could show them, but obviously, I did the right thing, because I got the contract. I think, to be honest, they didn’t have an alternative. It was so late in the process, but we made it work. Maybe this comes from my magic experience, but afterward, I was telling everyone that it was like being on stage. This became sort of a part of Riedel’s marketing aspect today. If you follow us and see what we do at these big trade shows, you can see that. Once, at the Las Vegas NAB, I used a chainsaw to cut a box at a press conference. If you know that my background was in magic, you know where that is coming from. So, all of this is kind of the combination of growing up in a family of entrepreneurs, doing magic, and being interested in engineering. I still say that I am doing a kind of magic, and I still like technology. The only difference is that the projects have become bigger, and I have so many team members in our crew, that we can do bigger shows.
— You were only 18 when you established your business. What was it like?
To file a business in Germany, you just have to go to the city authorities and pay what today would be around 10 euros. You also sign a piece of paper saying that you own a business. This was a very easy process. But I had no clue what it meant — you had to make tax declarations, things like that, I had no idea how to do any of it. Learning about the technology was a very ‘learning by doing’ process, so I would say that the same thing happened with the business.
— So, you never went to university?
No, I never did. My life is kind of my university. But, funnily enough, the head of Wuppertal University is a very good friend of mine these days. So, I’m very much connected with the university in my hometown, but also with many other universities. In Riedel, there are so many engineers and PHDs and I always smile at them and say guys, you spend too much time in university! In reality, I respect that a lot. I believe that it is about the right balance. You need people who learned through life, but you also need people with very proper education. If you mix them in the right way, you have a great balance and an excellent team. This is probably part of our business secret.
— Were you a good student at school? Could you have gone to university if you wanted to?
Theoretically, yes. I would say I finished school with just the right number of points. I was, to be honest, a very bad student. When I finished school, I didn’t speak a word of English. Because of English, French, Math, German — all the things you learn at school — I even had to repeat two grades. I did 7th and 10th grades twice because I was always interested in everything but school, it was very boring. Obviously, I learned my English. I learned it from one of the guys who still works with me in the company. When I met him, he worked for one of our competitors today. For a little while in the 90s, I was their distributor in Germany, which is what helped me to learn about intercom before I really started my own system. This guy is now our general manager in the UK, and he taught me English. I had a small deal with him — each time he corrected me, I owed him a drink. He could probably be constantly drunk with all the drinks I had to buy for him. This is not a given, if you are with people and you make mistakes, they typically don’t correct you to be polite. But it’s very important to learn. I wouldn’t say it’s perfect today, but I can communicate, as you can see.
— I would think your parents were shocked to have such an intelligent child that was not at all interested in school.
Actually, no. Because my parents were both florists, neither of them studied. It wasn’t that common in my family to study. But I can tell you they were concerned that I would never have a proper income. I proved them wrong, and my parents were very proud very early on when they saw that my career was pretty successful.
— When you were in your 20s you got a contract at the Olympic Games, and that put you onto the international stage. How did your company develop internationally?
I used two things. One was being very German, but at the same time not being very German. What I mean by that is that Germans are typically known for their engineering, being precise, on time, producing with quality. All of these things are very important in Riedel. At the same time, Germans are also not really known to be fun people. I am not like that, probably thanks to my mother who is Austrian. From this other half, which was not German, I am very open-minded. I am open to other mentalities, cultures, people. The important thing is that we all respect each other. If you are open-minded and try to adapt to people, you also get the business. Funnily enough, this goes back to my magician days. I used the same show for children in kindergarten and adults, but there was a completely different presentation. What I mean is that you should talk to people differently depending on who they are. If you talk to a theatre — I did business with the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow — you talk to them in a different way to how you talk to the BBC. This way of adapting to your audience as a magician helps a lot in business. I think, for international development, this is really the fundamental key — that you understand people. You can’t say this is how we do things, so it should also work here. Absolutely not. There are certain elements, which are the same in our industry, but how people work is typically different. You should be open-minded and listen a lot, to understand what the requirements are.
— Where was your first international office?
My first office outside of Germany was in Austria. The reason for that was very simple — we had business with Austrian television. It was driven by the business. If you look at how our business developed, it started with Germany and then moved to the surrounding countries. I went to Austria and Switzerland — both German-speaking countries. It was also pretty close from a cultural point of view. I then went to the UK, France, Spain, the Netherlands… it went step by step. I didn’t follow the rule exactly, because I opened an office in Australia in the early 2000s. From a logical point of view, this makes no sense, but I met someone at a trade show who wanted to work with me who was Australian. This shows that I can do some planning, but I don’t really have a big master plan, which is also unusual. If an opportunity comes up, why shouldn’t I take it? That’s how some of the offices came about, like Sydney. Australia is a very good market for us. It’s great to see that whether you go to one of the most important theaters in Australia (we work with the Sydney Opera House) or in Moscow in the Bolshoi, we are there.
— Why did you choose the strategy of opening your own offices instead of working with distributors abroad?
I’ve learned that if you want to build good products, you need to be in very close contact with the users. It’s not black and white, and we also work with partners in certain countries, but in key countries which are big enough, we believe we should have our own office and be in direct contact with the clients. This is not a way to make quick money, because typically it takes years until you are fully established, but in the long-term, it is the better solution. It is much more sustainable than just dealing with things and not knowing much about your clients. There are certain markets that are simply too small for that. In southeast Asia, for instance, the countries are too small for us to have an office in each of them. But in some of the larger countries, we absolutely need to be there.
— What is your life like outside of work?
I guess you can already tell that I don’t separate work from free time. For me, it is all ‘life’ time, it is just one thing. Talking to you is enjoyable in the same way it is to be with family. I try to have most of the things in my life be a good time. I am a family person, even though I have no children. I have 12 nephews and nieces (I have two brothers and six sisters), and I get along with them very well. I always say that the nice thing about them is that they come, and then they go. I am very close with my brother, who also lives in our town. I like to play games, and be out in nature. I can relax, even though people call me a workaholic. I really like to watch Netflix. They’re actually one of our clients, we just received a new large order from them. When I spend a bit of money on my Netflix account, I feel like I am giving something back. Hopefully, they spend it on more Riedel products. The same goes for Apple, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Facebook… they’re all clients of Riedel. I also like to travel, whether for business or privately. But really, it is like a business. It needs to be fun, you need to find a balance. I am an active person, but I can also completely relax.