Michael Unmüssig had a stroke of luck when he sold his company, K + U Printware, back in 2012. The purchaser, the American Clover Group, was only interested in recycling printer cartridges. So the 45-year-old was able to keep the technological centerpiece of the company, a three-dimensional product identification device that it had developed itself.
He and his partner Thomas Schwarz recognized the technology's potential, especially for the retail trade, and used it to develop their next successful venture, Findbox.
Their first product was simple, but effective: A customer just places a broken light-bulb or an empty printer cartridge under a scanner and enters some information via a touchscreen, and an LED light points to the shelf where the product can be found.
One of the company’s first clients was the major cash and carry chain Metro, which has now equipped its wholesale stores all over Germany with the technology, following a test phase. The system recently received a retail technology award by the EHI Retail Institute.
One of the startup’s secrets to success is that it doesn't just offer standard solutions, but designs individual packages in cooperation with the client.
For Eva Stüber, head of research and consulting at the institute for trade research in Cologne, Findbox creates the perfect connection between online trade and off-line branches.
“Consumers are becoming increasingly used to online product selection: To find what they’re looking for they search for their favored product, and the selection is limited by a filter,” said Ms. Stüber.
Findbox makes the process of shopping easier in the world of bricks and mortar, too. The company has installed some 350 systems, and clients include 25 major retail chains, like Media-Markt, Knauber and Kaufland. Now it is forging ahead with internationalization – it is already present in Great Britain and France, and the first systems are being installed in eastern Europe.
“We are also in talks about entering the U.S. market,” Mr. Unmüssig said.
One of the startup’s secrets to success is that it doesn't just offer standard solutions, but designs individual packages in cooperation with the client. For example, Findbox worked with wall fastener manufacturer Fischer to create a shelf where customers can find the right fastener for the weight and building material concerned via a touch screen. Here too, a blinking LED light shows the way to the right section of the shelf.
Volker Amann, divisional managing director of international marketing, market research and e-commerce at Fischer, is delighted at the cooperation. Findbox is a “flexible, quick and reliable" partner, he said. "These are important virtues, but by no means something you take for granted with a startup company.”
Findbox is currently focusing on developing technology for electronic price tags. The company already offers a digital price tag for fashion retailers, which can adapt the price depending on demand and the offers being made by competitors. It also sends information about the article to customers’ smartphones and lets them know if their size is available. And of course, a light blinks on the shelf where the item can be found.
The use of picture identification is also to be expanded. In the future, the Findbox’s scanner will be able to decide how long fruit and vegetables can be kept – and calculate the price accordingly.
Currently Findbox is also developing a nail polish finder in cooperation with a big French company: A customer just places a painted fingernail on the device – and Findbox shows where the corresponding bottle can be found.
And there is also an app which connects a product search on the Internet with what is available in a shop and leads the customer to the shelf via their smart phone.
Despite all this success, Michael Unmüssig remains cautious, however. The down-to-earth entrepreneur from southern Germany has already launched 11 companies, including a wine retailer and an office garbage disposal company. He started his first firm with 400 Deutsche Marks in starting capital and support from a savings bank.
Unlike many startup founders, he did not go to university, but did commercial training in a company instead. And a startup mecca like Berlin has no attraction for him; he prefers to stay in his birthplace Ettenheim on the edge of the Black Forest.
This year he wants to make a profit with Findbox, which currently generates revenues of around €6 million ($6.6 million) with a staff of 22. His advantage is that he can still finance expansion from the sale of his former company K+U Printware. He has neither investors nor debts.
“Many startups go on about how much money they have been able to attract. I was never interested in that,” said Mr. Unmüssig. After all: “If it’s your own money, you think twice before you spend each euro.”
Florian Kolf leads a team of reporters covering the retail, consumer goods, luxury and fashion markets. To contact the author: [email protected]