This time last year, I was working in the hectic start-up environment of Silicon Valley. As part of MANN+HUMMEL’s InCube innovation program, we had just six months to get a new product idea up and running – quite a challenge but one we were all up for. Together with four other MANN+HUMMEL colleagues from around the world, I developed qlair, an innovative, data-driven application which actively improves air quality within buildings.
I’m now back in Germany and qlair is thriving. In such a short space of time, the qlair team has brought a working prototype to market and negotiated pilot tests with key clients around the world. However, our success has come after making some very difficult decisions. When our six-month Silicon Valley phase was at an end, we had to plan for the next stage. With the team separating and going back to our home countries, the first challenge was deciding on a base to continue our work.
Getting the right balance to move forward
Deciding on a location was a difficult decision – but one that we all understood had to be taken. It was obvious that working out of four offices (two in Germany, one in the USA and one in South Korea) was not going to work. We decided that qlair would have a main base in Raleigh, North Carolina with Ellie (who had originally come from the Raleigh office) and Marcel, who had the flexibility of not returning to Germany and remained in the USA. I returned to Germany and worked full time for qlair focusing on the European market. Carlo and Minsik stopped working for qlair and took other new positions inside MANN+HUMMEL. So we had to adjust to several changes at once: reducing the team size from five to three, and not being able to work out of the same location any more.
Partially reintegrating into the corporate world
The next part of the project had a different feel to it. After being out on our own in Silicon Valley, we were now based in MANN+HUMMEL offices so the ‘corporate mindset’ was starting to creep back – expectations were different with a focus on defining objectives, reporting progress and achieving key results. This is, of course, in no way a negative but just needed some adjustment for me and my colleagues in the USA. After all, we had worked and lived together so intensely, we knew each other really well on both a professional and personal level. We knew how the others would react to situations and recognized each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Another challenge was moving from being in the same location and having personal face-to-face contact every day to now working together much more independently and remotely. Even the time difference became a barrier, as it was simply not possible to have all strategic and management meetings together anymore.
The challenge of a new market
Selling qlair to a European audience was also proving to be a challenge. qlair relies on data collection and analytics to predict air quality in rooms and areas within a building. However, it soon became clear that potential European clients had a different perception of data protection and data security. They raised many very detailed concerns around data collection, data ownership and cloud storage, probably as a result of the introduction of GDPR regulations in the EU.
After investigating the market for a couple of months, we concluded Europe was not a suitable fit for qlair and there were much greater differences to the US than anticipated. We could not incorporate all customer requirements and the US showed a better product-market-fit for the time being. We took another hard decision – to concentrate on the American market and only work reactively with customer opportunities in Europe, the consequence of which led to yet another decision: for me personally to step out of qlair.
Some may call this a failure. However, I don’t see it as that. The qlair team have learned a lot about the expectations of the European market and we can use this knowledge to develop the product further. Plus, by knowing that the European market is not for us at the moment, we can now focus on other opportunities in the US market. We have been training up the Tri-Dim sales force to help promote the product and find new clients. For the first time, qlair exhibited at both the CES in Las Vegas and AHR in Atlanta. Just to underline the importance and opportunities in the American market, qlair was also chosen as a CES Innovation Award honoree.
A proud achievement
Personally, I still support the team part-time with the residual customer activities in Europe and some marketing and overall strategic issues. qlair has been an unforgettable experience and I’m excited for its future and what the growing US team will be able to achieve.