Interview with Sebastian Mueller
COO & Co-Founder @ MING Labs

We believe in the symbiotic relationship between design, development and deep industry insight. Genius design, a rigorous development process and smart business modeling are the core ingredients to create successful digital products. When engaging with clients, we always think "digital products"​ first — and not just a project. Additionally, we co-venture and create our own products. We believe in the great potential of the digital economy and love to innovate with our clients and partners. By working with an international pool of world class full-time and freelance designers / developers, we bring visions into reality. Learn more about MING Labs here.
Hi Sebastian! Could you start off by telling us a bit more about your work with MING Labs and about your main tasks as the COO?
Hi guys, I'm Sebastian I'm the COO of MING Labs. So essentially what I'm looking after at the moment, obviously it has changed a lot over the years, a lot of business development. I have a lot of client contact, I need to understand what the needs of our clients are, where it's going and what the trends in our industry are going to be. And then besides that obviously the whole operational topics that come up in a company like ours. So we talk about finance, we talk about marketing, we talk about everything that just keeps the ship running beside the main production, designing, developing, strategising around digital ventures.
How has your role with the company shifted as it has grown its international reputation, client base, and influence in the digital product sector?
So in the beginning obviously I was there from the very start, we out with one office in Shanghai and we had 4 people sitting there. So the role was a very day to day operational focus on one office, getting clients, making sure the business runs. Whereas now we are over 65 people globally, more than five offices. So the focus, of course, has shifted very much, also in terms of accounts, in the beginning, everything was very local, how can we get some business in Singapore and how can we get some business in Berlin. Now we're talking about how can we actually globally and strategically serve our customers. Types of conversations are very different. And of course, we have to continuously evolved ourselves from designing and developing solutions in the very beginning to now really being a strategic partner for digital transformation. So the whole strategy side of things, where we can develop, where we have market potential, that was always a strong focus. So it's obviously shifted over the years.
You specialize in growing digital product businesses from an idea into company. What, in your mind, stands out most when you're assessing which companies and products to take to the next level through investment or partnership?
When we work with startups or when we work with founders or founding teams, or start startup businesses for large enterprises. Typically we come in pre-product. There is usually a problem space defined so most important thing at that stage is really to have the right team in place so that means you need people who have some experience. Shouldn't be completely fresh, at the same time they still need to be able to take in advice and support from the outside, they need to be able to challenge themselves and then within the team additional to cover each other's blind spots so that they're all not looking at the problem from the same angle but they actually have enough diversity, these are very important factors. Besides the team, I think the second most important thing is to approach to the process of how to go about it rather than just coming up with an idea because the corporates say that they want to do something in that space and then just going ahead and building it. Really understanding who are the potential customers, what problem do they actually have. What job would they hire our product for, and am I solving that pain point very quickly also validating by talking to people and building one or two prototypes before investing a lot of money into that. So you have that combination at the very early stage of a good team with the right approach to the problem. These are the kinds of startups that i want to be offered.
We often see the "Catch-22" of companies needing funding for basic operations, but are less competitive for funding without such basic operations in place. How can companies show investors their potential to grow the company at a steady pace when funding doesn't happen overnight?
So the fact is we see that every day now that even Asian investors are getting more and more picky. It used to be for the first money in after family and friends were fairly easy based on the problem that you want to solve but now they even want to see the product, they want to see user numbers, even revenue number depending on your sector. It's a difficult conversation to have if you don't have any of that. Essentially the only thing you can really do is talk about the resources that you have had so far, the time that you've spend, a little bit of capital you did spend, and what you did with it, how much did you learn. Where did you start in terms of knowing your problem, where are you now, how did these resources help you and also show if you now raise those let's say five hundred thousand dollars that you're looking for how much learning can you do based on that and shows that it scales in a super linear way, you're going to be able to learn more in terms of using those resources to actually convert them into a solvable problem and then also bring into the mix your experience, what have you done before. Talk about the team, talk about the vision and get them to buy into that rather than just looking at the numbers.
How can smaller companies successfully systematize their operations in order to promote growth and efficiency? Do you have any tips for early-stage startups?
I would say operationally really make use of all of the opportunities that you have nowadays in terms of outsource, building blocks and services. You can plug in hosting from the outside, you can plug in accounting, payroll, HR. There are so many services that used to be internal operations problems that nowadays you can outsource quite easily to make on the one hand side the cost a bit more flexible and variable and that can also scale with your demands. You don't need to in-house all of these things. We focus on what do I need in my company right now. I would also always suggest to start a new department to start new tasks with a freelancer outsource solution and only in-house it when it becomes something so regular that there is a business case to do that. And we also understand what is going to deliver value right now because your resources are constrained. You cannot hire for all roads so often for example as e-commerce companies which in the very beginning start hiring developers which from my point of view is actually a mistake to themselves the tech companies but the base tech e-commerce is actually quite simplistic it's not differentiated, there's no IP there. What is really differentiating the marketplace is that you have a network of buyers and sellers that you are able to scale a two-sided marketplace with both sides ramping up at the same time to what you need in the B2B sector is very strong business development or even more focused B2C marketplace really strong brand marketing. These are people you should for example in that scenario hiring in-house immediately because you need that resource, whereas you can work with an outsourced technology team.
What's next for your work with MING Labs? What main projects do you plan on implementing in 2019?
For me personally, there are three focus areas for the end of this year or next year for Ming Labs. On the one side, we are finalising our shift from individual projects to longer-term innovation programs that means we work with our enterprise clients to essentially create a pipeline of transformative products that transformed our company internally or create new revenue rather than work on a piecemeal basis. It is a very important strategic shift. Another thing is really comprehensive view looking after all of our partnership and community approaches seeing how can we pull that together to actually create true value when we make the best use of our ecosystem, connect the right people and have the right approach to that so that everybody actually benefits fast. Partnerships are a very important part of the business. And then last but not least, we're actually looking to raise our own funds to be able to invest in the teams and it scenes that we should we believe based on what we see every day in our core business where we're learning so much. So it's going to be focused on really finalising proposition for that fund, what's going to be investments seeds behind it and then raising it.