Alexander Dettke and Tobias Hauptvogel are the founders of the Wilde Möhre Festival: music, art and workshops are combined into a colorful program at the festival. The program is designed to be participatory and is only completed during the event by the approximately 5,000 guests. Learnings and Results from the workshops as well as art will be integrated into the program for all guests. As a Purpose-Company of the first hour Alex and Tobi want to ensure that the Wilde Möhre can stay mission driven for the long term, is growing economically healthy and creates a sense of well-being for all participants.
In an interview with Adrian from Purpose, they talk about collaboration at Wilde Möhre and their motives to transform to steward-ownership.
Thank you for taking your time for this interview. In preparation I looked at your quote on the Purpose website – there it says: “Social injustices increases. Purpose corrects a long existing mistake and gives the bounty of labour back to the people.” Tell me a bit more about this?
Alex: (laughs) Tobi, do you even know that?
Tobi: No, you did that without me, but it sounds familiar to me.
Alex: Yes, I just copied it from Marx – no, I’m kidding. I meant it exactly that way. For me, the old misunderstanding lies in what happens when very few people own something, but many create value and worked to achieve it. In the case of traditional ownership, the owner often profits very strongly, while the employees hardly profit from the development of the company or only with their normal salary. There is an imbalance. The owner is in a position of power and additionally often has the exclusive knowledge how the company is doing. He can influence the salaries in a completely different way than the employees can. This creates an imbalance between owner and employees. Purpose and steward-ownership enables us to build the foundation to correct this mistake. It offers the opportunity to distribute responsibility among several employees even in the ownership structure. There is no single person anymore who decides what happens with the value created by many.
Tobi: Today, by the power and information of the owner, we often see an extremely one-sided distribution of the surpluses that a company generates. You have to question how this could be justified.
In other words, all of them should get the same amount of money and ownership would be divided equally among all employees.
Alex: No, this is not mandatory. Not everybody is equally involved and not all carry the same risk. Tobi and I had to take great risk on the way, others did not. There were also some who have decided to work less. Others have given more. It would therefore not be justified to say that everyone should be treated equally. But it is our basic idea to transparently work on that with the team to find a suitable, consistent and fair system.
What motivated you to think about ownership structures in the first place?
Tobi: The first moment that comes directly to my mind is a situation with our co-founder, with whom we had a conflict. In such a situation, someone ownership of the company lays with someone who is no longer involved in it and actually shouldn’t take decisions anymore – but he still has certain rights. For example, he must be invited to the annual board meeting. For me this was a point where I quickly realised how much ownership and its structure matters. Another aspect for me is ideological: at the Wilde Möhre we all work for the same mission. We are ok with lower salaries. In such a situation in particular, we can not allow ourselves to have an ownership structure that leaves any aspect of employee’s motivation unanswered.
Alex: I would like to pick this up: For me motivation is the central point. When I remember when I first took over a project in school, I wanted to create something together, but did not integrate the others in the design of the project accordingly. It prevented motivation among the participants. Sure you can try to replace missing motivation by paying a lot of money – but I think it is more effective to involve everybody in generating ideas, form the mission, co-create the organisation and let participation flourish. Ownership influences participation and both belong together.
Tobi: In particular, ownership is a form of security for employees. It secures that the participation is permanent and not only on the owner’s will, who could otherwise make the decisions alone at any time without the appropriate ownership structure.
Theoretically, however, you could then just simply give shares to all the employees gradually to increase participation. And then at some time in the future sell the company with profit for each individual? Just as it is usually done in the start-up world.
Alex: That wouldn’t have been in my interest. For me the Wilde Möhre is a project run by many people and at the same time a focal point of life for many people. Selling the company would take away a lot from many people. This company is not a piece of software that you can sell. It is also about a special philosophy of life that can not be sold. This is why it makes much more sense to secure this value and manifest it in a construct in which it can no longer be taken away. This creates security, trust and serves the idea and the cause. So it no longer depends on the two of us. We are and have been good drivers for the idea, but I want it to evolve and live on without us. I can also imagine that we start other projects in the future and with steward-ownership we can ensure that the Wilde Möhre will continue to exist in this form in the future.
So the question “what comes after you?” was relevant for you, too?
Alex: Exactly. It is important to me that we install a system today, which then ensures that the idea will continue in the future.
I know that you have also created a special kind of organisation and collaboration internally – key words are consensus and democratic processes in the organization. How important was this aspect for finding the appropriate ownership structure?
Alex: This is a difficult question for me. It is difficult to assess your own performance in the company so that it can be reflected accordingly in the ownership structure. Of course you always estimate your own performance very high. This is really hard for me to answer. I am only ok with this because I see the moral value, but I am always struggling with myself. I perceive that the company works well, everything has evolved and I think it has to be protected. I believe that a lot works well because I brought it into the company. I know this is a blatant view that potentially can not be validated. And it is, in particular, my point of view, which is perhaps not true at all. But I am convinced of it anyhow. Then, of course, it is extremely difficult to let go and give the company to other people. In particular, if there are still doubts if these people would have taken the same route. I hope, however, that it will slowly develop. Especially because we integrated a philosophy that is manifested by Purpose. It develops strongly in people’s minds and lives on by that.
So the hope is that the ownership structure can strengthen the way you collaborate, but it is also connected with the concern that what you have created could be endangered by the distribution of responsibility. And a very personal feeling of concern that it might not work out. At the same time, I perceive the faith and conviction that it is the right path.
Tobi: I believe that widening decision making and spread ownership on many shoulders will also have a positive effect on the company in the long term. In contrast, I always imagine a family-owned company that has been in existence for 40 years, is controlled and managed by one owner – and then gets into trouble. I believe that with the shared responsibility and shared ownership we are building competencies to deal with such situations. If in 10 years we are no longer the right people to drive the Wilde Möhre I would like to have an organisation that can also decide against me and install the people who are the right people for the cause.
Alex: I still have two thoughts, which I would like to share. So, first of all, on the initial question about the collaboration and organisation in the company: I believe this has developed together with the awareness of the management team. To arrive where we are today, our consciousness had to develop so that we could allow that. And that is precisely my concern: How can this consciousness continue to exist when we are no longer there? It was quite a personal development we went through. The work with consensus and democratic processes in the company is nothing that inherently comes to you. I believe that anyone who works like this has achieved something great and makes a difference. The second point is that I do not believe that a systems where a large amount of people participates is a good system per se. If the system is not right, stuff goes wrong and nothing is running well. It is about developing a system that has a clear focus and mindset. It is important that it is clear and follows one direction. If the system is badly created, the whole thing goes apart, because particular interests become stronger. It is very important to develop a system that prevents those effects. I think that Purpose inherently makes this step easier. The notion of “building and increasing your own share and sell it” is simply taken out of the system. This is a huge point and advantage.
Tobi: My concern is that we must in addition to ownership ensure to create awareness and ability for entrepreneurial decision-making. Especially in a company like ours where everybody likes each other I otherwise see the risk that distributed voting rights prevent hard decisions to be taken. For example to let go colleagues. it is important that the organization is able make such tough decisions if necessary.
Back to ownership and your personal perspectives: You have built this business and now you give the value that was created away from you as private persons to the organisation, to the company, to the idea – what was the most difficult moment for you?
Tobi: A great concern is to lose your own role. The concern to suddenly have no influence anymore.
Alex: On the other hand it is unimaginable that we as the founders have no more influence.
Tobi: Nevertheless, it could theoretically happen.
Wouldn’t it be the right thing for the organisation if you had less influence in that scenario?
Tobi: Yes it definitely would be – however in traditional organisation in such a situation it would often be the owner who would sort out the people who no longer consider him the right one in charge. With our ownership structure and our way of collaboration we changed this basic assumption and situation.
Alex: It is both: great value for the organisation and simultaneously personal fear linked to this decision.
It seems this again is the aspect you mentioned above, how important it is to develop and establish the purpose and the mission of the company very clearly – beyond the ownership-structure – so that the organization is able to take decisions aligned to the values and mission of the company – and possibly even against you. So ownership is a necessary but not sufficient condition and must be combined with the appropriate governance.
Alex: Absolutely! And to answer your original question: An exit has never been interesting for us at all. And I’m very glad about that. If we had to make this decision while a lot of money is on the table already it would definitely a more difficult one. That is why I believe that now is the right time to make this decision – to be altruistic and give the ownership to the team, organization and team now.
Tobi: For me, selling the company has never played a role. We put so much work into the Wilde Möhre. Already the idea of selling it and someone else from the outside being responsible without me playing a role anymore feels extremely wrong.
Alex: You also have to look at it from a very different perspective: By reinvesting the profits, the company can prosper, we are evolving, the motivation of all parties involved is much higher, and we are growing. Maybe not necessarily faster, but – I do not know how to say this: in a more beautiful way. We have a focus, we have a better life, we can work together more harmoniously in the group and, of course, the salaries can be higher in the future as well. So for me it is a decision for a good life! Against what I’ve observed at other companies, where the boss stands against the employees below. This is exactly what we thrive for – and what gives us a lot.
Coming back to your personal situation as the founders: This idea of “selling the company in 30 years and have a nice pension”: Does it worry you that this no option anymore? Have you already developed a solution?
Alex: Not yet, but we will definitely work to find a solution that is right for us. In theory we should have a more motivated team, work better, grow faster than it would have been possible without this form of corporate design. We would increase the value for the whole company and everybody involved. We already experience this. Probably in the end you don’t even give up anything because what has become possible through this step has created much more value than otherwise would have been possible. But yes, it is our belief in the value of collaborative work!
Tobi: The idea of an exit is replaced: we create real value and the question of our personal future is solved with the company and not at the expense of the company.
This is interesting where exactly do you already see positive effects today?
Alex: Perhaps you have to see it from another perspective: To organise a festival, you need a lot of people who think for themselves, operate their own areas and take responsibility. In a hierarchical “pyramid organisation”, in which all information gather at the top and one person being in charge, such a large construct simply no longer works. So we have to make it wider and distribute responsibility.
But wouldn’t this step also be possible without thinking about ownership?
Alex: No, ultimately I do not believe that. Ownership is the foundation to really develop the whole potential of entrepreneurial thinking. The basis for the employees to really develop, feel, identify and engage. This is closely related. The motivation to work for one’s own is always higher than working for someone else.
Tobi: I think there are other forms, such as bonuses, but ownership is the most powerful and also most useful for the company. In the case of bonuses we also often see that it can lead to false incentives that can become a risk for the company. When one is really involved in a company, behaviour changes. The relationship between readiness to assume risk and work performance is more balanced.
Do you also hope for an external effect through this step?
Alex: We do not communicate our internal aspects of the cooperation intensively. But I do hope that we will be a pioneer company and become ambassadors for this idea. In the future, I would like to help bring this idea into society. This is basically what we do at Wilde Möhre. Our projects aim to influence society and Purpose is a very important part of that. I would also like other companies to gravitate towards this and to become rather normal and “state-of-the-art” in the future to set up a steward-owned company because it is much cooler than anything else.
Thank you for the interview!