That was probably the most intense experience of the last ten years: I was able to present my idea as a founder on Germany's biggest startup show, Die Höhle der Löwen on VOX, and yesterday it was broadcast. About two months of preparation went into the pitch, and in just over an hour, while I was able to stand in front of the show's investors, the highlight of my startup existence so far was then over. In the end, I was very happy with the outcome.
But from the beginning!
The application decision
When we launched our Meminto app in the summer of 2021 and almost immediately after that between 20 and 50 people signed up for digital ghostwriting assistants every day, I knew that the time had come: I felt ready to apply to the show “Die Höhle der Löwen”. Until now, I had always strictly refused, because I didn't feel the product was ready yet and our books hadn't quite convinced me of the sales volume. I had always shied away from going there with more than “just” a prototype or even an idea. No – for me, the prerequisite for participation had always been: The product had to work and we had to sell. If we could get good feedback from our customers at the same time, that would be the crown. And that's exactly what happened.
Criterion 1: "The system has to work first!"
We had now been working on Meminto Stories, the life journaling platform, since 2018 and made it a really fine tool. Thanks to this digital assistant, a large number of questions from many areas of life are selected for each user from a huge database of questions to help them remember and record all the important moments of their life. Meminto helps to structure the answers and then forms the chapters of the book from the stories of the “authors”. Of course, photos can also be uploaded.
The business model was that customers could either buy one of the various Meminto books directly (available were life books, childhood books, relationship books, memory books for the deceased and travel books) or start with a trial version first. The average price for such a “life project” was 99 euros. There was no time limit, nor was there a limit on the number of questions that could be answered. Only the maximum number of pages should not exceed 300.
Criterion 2: "We have to sell!"
In the first attempt at a market launch in December 2020, we sold 70 books and generated sales of around 7000 euros by advertising on social media. However, a total of 350 people had signed up who also simply wanted to test the product.
Shortly before that, we had developed gift boxes to make it easier to give away what was actually a digital project. In fact, these boxes were also well received. Customers praised the design, which looked like a book and contained a “living pencil” inside – it has a flower seed in the end – as well as a Meminto Stories card deck with about 40 questions. Using an activation code, the people who received the gift were of course also able to start their book.
In January 2021, we also ended the campaign directly again and dealt with the feedback of the newly generated customers. We were able to learn a lot and fix dozens of bugs in the system, which in turn made it more stable and increased the automaticity.
In the coming months, we expanded features, improved our layout editor, and even started producing some books completed by customers. In line with Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, we launched another campaign with the renewed goal of selling Meminto Stories books as gift ideas. Again, some new projects were launched, and again we took the new feedback as an opportunity to improve our platform.
Since we had built Meminto bilingually from the start, we also tested sales in the U.S. right away – and indeed we were able to sell some projects in America as well. We had already taken care of a local print shop and had some print copies sent to us so that we could compare it with the German quality standards. It held up and we were happy to be able to compete directly with our biggest competitor, Story Worth. They had been on the market in the U.S. a bit earlier, but could only offer one life book, while we were already targeting new audiences with 5 more books.
In another campaign between November 2021 and Christmas, we sold 250 more books and generated 30,000 euros in sales. An enormous increase compared to the year before in almost the same period.
Criterion 3: Customer feedback
The third criterion for me to participate in DHDL was then that we got good customer feedback. And that became more and more the case. Sure, there have always been voices that found 99 euros for a book too high. But as soon as they understood the principle and the distinction from photo books better and then also saw that they would get 300 pages for a fixed price, this criticism quickly fell silent (either because they then simply had no more arguments or because they bought). However, most customers who then held their book in their hands contacted us again and emotionally thanked us for the moving memory they had created with our platform.
Is there potential for growth?
I kept asking myself what the growth potential was. I could not orient myself to other competitors because there were no figures in this regard. All I had were market figures for photo books. And they looked like this:
- Every year, 9 million photo books were sold in Germany alone. That made for a daily figure of 24,300 books. The top seller accounted for more than 17,000 books a day.
- As a result, the sales volume was around 340 million euros per year.
- I did not have any reliable statistics and figures for Europe or the USA.
I tried to derive a company value from three aspects, with which I would then present myself in the event of a possible acceptance of an application to DHDL. For me, these included previous sales, market size and potential. As a fourth aspect, I would also include the manpower that would be needed to exploit this potential, but since my developer and I (and, since October 2021, my support and shipping employee) had managed all the hurdles together so far, I was sure that things would continue to go well. Today I know that a strong CFO would certainly have done us good!
Here we go: The application and casting
Since all three of my criteria were met by the end of 2021 and I was sure I could now scale with the product, I signed up for an appearance in front of the lions on DHDL on Sept. 15, 2021. After the initial feedback, I filled out a casting sheet and shot a video.
In the end, Meminto was selected. I signed the contracts after a careful review and sent them back. The adventure could begin!
Now that it was clear that I would be on the next recording, it was time to start preparing. The DHDL editorial team supported me in my preparations for my appearance, patiently answered all my questions – and sometimes also my worries regarding my pitch.
To prepare myself as best as possible for the Investor:ins, I watched videos and re-watched all the episodes of the last two DHDL seasons. But I also looked across the pond at what was going on at Shark Tank and was surprised at how much “faster” the show felt in the U.S., and how doggedly the investors sometimes had to fight for deals. But that founders were also pushed harder and didn't always go home with praise. For starters, I was glad to be dealing with lions first, and not sharks.
I had something special in mind for the show: I was going to create a personal book for each lion, but then I took sample books into the den, because for legal reasons I didn't want to and couldn't take real prints with me (after all, at Meminto we write privacy bigger than anything else).
Then I was supposed to come to Cologne to perform in Die Höhle der Löwen. The countdown began.
One of the most important things is of course the opening pitch. As with my 3-minute pitch 3 years ago at startupBW, every word should be right. Fortunately, there was also a lot of support from the DHDL team. I practiced my pitch again and again, because I wanted my text to come across well and personally, and of course I didn't want it to be too long. Even one day before the recording, I went over my text again and again during the car ride to Cologne. I wanted to be there the day before, because I wanted to unload my props and take a look at the studio.
The day before the cave
Around ten o'clock we set off. I didn't drive alone, but took my wife along as mental support. I had thought about really celebrating this event, regardless of whether or not a deal came out of it. I mean – what could I possibly lose?
Of course, that included exceptional accommodations. Because I had often heard about the breathtaking view from the Hyatt Regency of the Cologne Cathedral, the Rhine and the Hohenzollern Bridge, I booked us a room with a view of the Rhine without further ado.
But before we got there, we first went to Studios on the other side of Cologne. I had invited our wing chair and brought some material for later display in the cave, which I had to hand in. When we arrived there around 2:30 p.m., our car slowly rolled across the studio grounds. Then at some point we were also at the DHDL studio, where I parked and carried the chair into the studio with the help of a founder's assistant. We had to be quiet, because a recording was actually running with a team of founders. In the background I could hear Carsten Maschmeyer, Judith Williams and also Georg Kofler talking.
When the car was empty and my “costume” for the following day was unpacked, we made our way to the hotel, where I immersed myself in my pitch again. At least I didn't need a piece of paper anymore. I already had my text pictorially in my mind's eye. Yes, the human brain is fascinating…
The night before the cave
How do you sleep when your pulse is up to your neck? I haven't mentioned yet that I was naturally excited the closer the day got. In addition, I had been told shortly before that I would be the very first to take my turn. And that meant that I should be there at 8 o'clock. So I enjoyed the wonderful view of the dark cathedral for a while and then went to bed with earplugs. I could still hear the grumbling of the train over the Hohenzollern Bridge. But only briefly, because then I was asleep…
… and wide awake again at 3 a.m., awakened by the grumbling that had shifted from the bridge to my stomach. Immediately my thoughts were in the cave. But not only. For now, in the silence, I remembered many of God's promises from His Word. I had asked friends around me to think of me and include me in prayer. And they did. I looked at my cell phone, which was full of wishes and encouragements. Someone wrote to me:
“Albert, I give you Psalm 37:5 to take with you today. God bless you today, give you focus and strength to speak. May he free you from nervousness and give you inner peace. May he equip you with wisdom and carry you through. Know that we are behind you!”
I opened the Psalm. “Let the LORD direct your path, trust in him, and he will act.”
It felt good not only to read those words, but to rest in them. I knew that no matter what happened today, I had already won. Just having been there had been worth trying.
My wife's niece had told me the day before, “No matter what lions are in front of you, rejoice in the lion that is behind you!”
Not many would know that she was referring to the “Lion of Judah,” as Jesus is also called, but I took it upon myself to somehow incorporate that saying into the show because I thought it was really neat.
Nevertheless, I was now lying there, unable to fall asleep. It got to four, then half past four, and finally five in the morning. One more hour, then I would have to get up. Suddenly my alarm clock rang, and when I looked at the clock again, it was 6:18. It took me 25 minutes to get to the other side to Cologne, so I should leave shortly after 7. I got up and started getting ready, going over and over my pitch in my head.
Here we go!
After I had checked out and Olly had organized the most expensive breakfast of our married life, I left with a pretzel and a yogurt. I could not eat it, my stomach did not play along. Now a slight headache had set in as well. In the car I started my favorite playlist and drove towards the studios.
What came out of the speakers hit me unusually deep: to my astonishment, they were loud songs of encouragement. “What should I be afraid of?” one song said. I don't know which song it was, but tears really welled up in my face. Tears of excitement, tears of affirmation, tears of happiness. What kind of story did I just get to witness here? Thousands of startups and tens of thousands of people wished to be here. And I was on my way to make history. For my team. For my startup. For me. Wow.
In my mind, I went over my expectations again. What if I really did get a deal? How would I feel if I didn't get one? What did I actually want more – to have a deal, with the risk of no longer having a quiet life, or to have no deal, with the risk of not growing as a startup? No matter what, I told myself, I had nothing to worry about. Because I was safe in the knowledge that God would do the right thing. So – on to the fight!
The last step before the lion's den
When I arrived in front of the studio and was corona-negative-tested, the day could begin. There I presented my pitch once again. I also had a guest lioness in the pack, but my favorites were Carsten Maschmeyer, Dr. Georg Kofler and Dagmar Wöhrl. I was told that the former would not be at the start today.
Then it was time for the interviews.
I was allowed to take a look around the studio beforehand and try everything out. A short time later, the team was there to greet me. The spotlights were already shining brightly, cameramen were scurrying around everywhere, and I first looked around. At my back I had five or six cameras. One for each lion and one for all of them together, I thought to myself. Another cameraman was waving a camera on a long arm. Still others were walking around freely with the cameras. So it was getting serious.
“Please go through your pitch again with us, take your tablet and check if everything is running correctly,” a DHDL employee said to me. So I did. Images faded in, my tablet was mirrored on a large TV, the Meminto logo was emblazoned large on the right side. At that moment, I felt a great joy and also some pride. It was just incredible. Meminto had made it to the biggest start-up show in Germany! Regardless of whether my appearance would be broadcast: I was here! And that was real! Simply unbelievable.
My final pitch went well, even though I got a little muddled. Everyone was happy with the stage set, the technology worked, and so did the Meminto system. So we could start. All that was missing were the lions.
In Höhle der Löwen
In the meantime it was about 9:50 o'clock. I had handed in my watch and my cell phone so that nothing disturbed me. Siri had been giving off something from my wrist every now and then during the pitch rehearsals, so it had to stay in my jacket pocket.
I got my microphone attached under the beige sweatshirt I had chosen as my outfit for the day. It was paired with a pair of dark blue jeans. I didn't want to wear a startup hoodie with a logo, I wanted to look simple and down to earth.
While I was still standing there getting wired, we heard the lions coming. They talked, laughed, and then took their seats. On a small monitor, I could see them, but they could not see me. In fact, it's how you hear it: founders and investors don't meet beforehand, meticulous care is taken to make sure they really do see each other for the first time on the show.
And then, for them, the takes began. These are the takes where they speculate what the next startup might be about.
“Two minutes to go!” I made my way to the front of the gate that was about to open for me. It was a different gate than the one seen in the episodes so far: Previously, the founders had to push the doors open themselves, but this gate showed a lion, and when you walked up to it, it drove open to the left and right.
I stood, and looked the lion in the eye. Once again, a push prayer. Once again, going over the first few sentences of my pitch in my head. A glance to the left. Someone nodded at me. “Okay. You may.”
Off I went.
Five lions in front of me. The strongest lion behind me.
The gate opened in front of me and I walked under the cage, which was tunnel-shaped, towards the point that was to be my standpoint for the next hour. My tablet, which I was to use for presentation, was ready on a table, my hands free. I looked up – and there they were: Judith Williams on the far left, then Nils Glagau, Dagmar Wöhrl, Diana zur Löwen and Dr. Georg Kofler on the far right. I was welcomed with a smile by all the lions.
“Hello dear lions, I am Albert and I am happy to be here today. Life writes the most beautiful stories! And with Meminto we capture them forever! I need 250,000 euros and offer 15% of my startup for it.”
For the next four minutes, I blanked everything out, had complete focus, and really felt the blessing flowing through me. I didn't lose my train of thought. I didn't stutter. I can say: the pitch went perfectly, the lions took lots of notes – all except Georg Kofler, who had neither paper nor pen with him.
And as if I had just started, I ended after my presentation with the sentences:
“Everybody has a story! Let's tell them! With Meminto Stories. And now, enjoy your sample copies.”
I pulled up the cart, which was lined with sanitized books. One for each Lion with sample content. Everyone took one and we moved into the Q&A session.
If you've seen the pitch, you know what I was asked. However, out of the 1+ hour Q&A, understandably only about 15 minutes were shown. Showing the full pitch would be way too long for the audience.
However, I remember well Dagmar's question about data protection and privacy or how Georg Kofler was mainly interested in the numbers. I also remember well how Dagmar then said that she preferred handmade memories, after she had considered me lucky to have had many memories written down by my grandmother. Or as Nils said, it was a cool idea. It was also well received that we wanted to offer the function of integrating videos.
There was a lot of praise, but of course I also remember the criticism, I allowed it and didn't interrupt; maybe I should have done that more often. In particular, there was criticism about my company evaluation and how I would like to achieve my sales target of 10 million euros. At some point in the middle, I realized that there was no real interest in the topic among all five of them. One by one, the lions dropped out.
I was given a friendly goodbye, thanked for the valuable feedback, and turned to walk back down the aisle where the cameras were already waiting for me.
I was not disappointed! Even in the interviews afterwards, I was satisfied with the outcome, because I was sure in myself that exactly what was supposed to happen had happened and that all things were for the good.
At large again
Of course you wonder what would have happened differently if you had said this or that differently. But it's quite an art to persuade someone to invest 250,000 euros in 60 minutes; I take my hat off to that. Perhaps I had staked my hopes too high. In any case, I was sure: Even if I had come in with a valuation of 100,000 for 15%, I wouldn't have gotten a deal, because I hadn't sensed any interest from the lions. But that was always my goal: to work on this project with people who don't just see Euros, but the opportunity to change people's lives by passing on values through stories.
Within half an hour, I had my props back together and was in the car. It was already 12 o'clock. At that moment, I realized I hadn't even had breakfast yet. So I grabbed the pretzels and my yogurt, calmly ate up and reviewed the last few minutes. I called my wife, who was walking through Cologne somewhere, and told her succinctly what had happened. Then I called my telephone joker, who would have been standing by in case of a deal meeting. I told him about the recording, too. And apart from that? Other than that, I didn't tell anyone else how the pitch and the conversation in the Lion's Den ended. So everyone had to wait anxiously for the day of the broadcast… and I went back to my quiet life. Without a deal, but with a deep peace in my heart. And with some good tips that I wanted to implement to maybe still get to a goal of making 10 million euros in sales with Meminto Stories in the near future.
Never goes down well when the impression is given that you are only participating in the program for marketing purposes.
DHDL was a unique experience for me and an intense experience. The positive stress level was so extreme that a sty in my right eye swelled up in the evening. The next day I looked like a boxer, and one day later the eye was still swollen shut. Yes, the day and the stress before it had not passed me by without a hitch, but I would do it again every time. The team accompanied me well, the lions were fair despite everything, and no one will be able to take this day away from me. I experienced what thousands dream of and millions don't dare. Those who always just sit at home on the sofa and criticize the people who create something, and who then still defend their idea, have understood nothing. The world belongs to the industrious. And you can also dream big. But you always have to start with small steps.