Courageous Opinions

A conversation with communication consultant Maximilian Flügge about communication in times of crisis, real courage, and statements with an unexpected effect.
Text Michael Köckritz
Photo Nela König

Mr. Flügge, on your website it says that you never work with start-up companies. Do you have something against start-ups?
No, of course I don’t have anything against them personally. I work in Berlin-Mitte, and I have them all here in front of me. Ironically, I work for one of the largest start-up investors in Germany.

Perhaps we should clarify what constitutes a new start for you.
If you define a new start through the romantic lens, with a spirited team having common values and attitudes, then start-ups don’t really fall under that definition. Because start-ups are in fact very functional companies. Start-up entrepreneurs aren’t planning a medium- to long-term business in the classic sense; they are seeking to establish a company within a short amount of time and sell it as profitably as possible after five years at the latest. And if that doesn’t work, they close down shop, file for bankruptcy – and move on to the next big thing. Someone else takes care of the long-term issues of corporate development and establishing the company on the market. And this kind of new start is completely unromantic.

So it’s one new start after another . . .
If the company goes to the dogs, they close it down and start a new one a few months later. With a new idea, with a completely new type of branding and perhaps even a completely new function. This has little to do with a carefully thought-out new start.

But you advise companies in crisis. Aren’t all start-ups basically in crisis mode? Doesn’t that put them in a wonderfully problematic situation for you?
Good point. That had never occurred to me. On closer inspection, start-ups truly are in a constant situation that strongly resembles that of a crisis: an uncertain framework, an unclear future, and little calculation and predictability.

"Start-ups generally don’t have a marketable product yet, sometimes not even a demonstrable prototype of their idea. But they still want an aggressive communication campaign to take the country by storm as quickly as possible. This is where the trouble starts, because people see through something like that rather quickly."

Maximilian Flügge

You’d also assume that every start-up is a stroke of luck because a new idea is being brought into the world. That’s just begging for communication!
I totally agree. A start-up is like a reset in life. At least that’s what these entrepreneurs tell me. And at the beginning, that’s quite liberating and motivating. That’s just what it’s like in communication consulting for young companies, which sometimes affects me personally. But there’s one crucial difference: start-ups generally don’t have a marketable product yet, sometimes not even a demonstrable prototype of their idea. But they still want an aggressive communication campaign to take the country by storm as quickly as possible. This is where the trouble starts, because people see through something like that rather quickly. And unfortunately, these sorts of campaigns are often lacking in professionalism. I’m sure there are those who will find that endearing, because it belongs to the whole start-up spirit. But for real communication, it’s poison.

Tough one.
You said it. Communication consulting involves me working closely together with my clients. Besides the professionalism that I just mentioned, it also requires, as I’ve already said, a certain amount of courage. Most people think courage is about being flamboyant or offensive or running half-naked across the stage. That’s just embarrassing. It’s about having courageous opinions, making a careful and considered impact in the media and with the public. To be frank, I’ve seen very little of that in the start-up scene.

"Most people think courage is about being flamboyant or offensive or running half-naked across the stage. That’s just embarrassing. It’s about having courageous opinions, making a careful and considered impact in the media and with the public."

Maximilian Flügge

But there must be exceptions . . .
The social networking service Nebenan.de is a positive example. The app connects people with their neighbors in order to strengthen local communities. The main focus of the business and of the communication strategy – the neighborhood – was emphasized even further by the establishment of a non-profit foundation. Together with the German government, the foundation presents a nationwide neighborhood award and cooperates with a number of well-known institutions working to promote social cohesion, for example the church social welfare organization Diakonie or the German charitable lottery operator Deutsche Fernsehlotterie. What we have here is public relations work being performed through the operation of a non-profit foundation – unusual for a start-up, but in this case absolutely successful.

What should I watch out for if my system is lagging and I need to reboot the business or brand?
Of course, that depends a lot on why the system is lagging and why I have to or want to reboot. Giving up a really strong brand with all its layers and history isn’t easy. That’s only understandable; after all, creating a successful brand that is loved by loyal fans costs money and demands stamina and perseverance.

That sounds like hard work – and not a lot of fun.
On the other hand – and this is absolutely refreshing and promising – we are seeing start-up companies as well as grown-up enterprises breaking all the rules and shaking up the established way of doing things at an impressive speed and with courage, zeal and lots of creativity. And in this context, I think courage is the most important quality.

"Giving up a really strong brand with all its layers and history isn’t easy. That’s only understandable; after all, creating a successful brand that is loved by loyal fans costs money and demands stamina and perseverance."

Maximilian Flügge




MAXIMILIAN FLÜGGE, 36, advises companies and institutions in Germany and abroad. Before going into business for himself in 2013, he worked for a member of the German parliament, later as a lobbyist and as a business consultant.




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