Outdooractive Inside: How it all began
Founder and CEO Hartmut Wimmer tells the story of how Outdooractive began.
Hartmut, Outdooractive has been around for quite a while now. At the moment, it seems like you are ahead or at least involved in regards to all current topics. How did that happen?
Well, that is a long story. How much time do you have? (Laughs)
Why don’t you start at the beginning – the very beginning? That probably has to do a lot with you as an individual person as well. Where are you from and what motivates you?
Yes, that is probably true. In fact, it all started a long time ago. I grew up in Bad Hindelang in the Oberallgaeu, a place that is strongly influenced by alpine economy and tourism. As a son of an entrepreneur, I had my first jobs in both areas, namely as a shepherd on an Alp as well as opening cattle gates in the nature reserve for the bus line from Hinterstein to the “Giebelhaus”. I am practically rooted in both worlds. The pristine world, which is shaped by the God-given landscape, and the new world of tourism, which on the one hand provides a new, better basis of life, but on the other hand is a burden for nature and the traditional structures of a destination.
Does this mean that you grew up with tourism?
I know tourism in all its facets. I did my vocational training as a carpenter and worked as a craftsman before I studied engineering and started my own business as a structural engineer. During my studies I travelled the world as a mountaineer. Here in the Allgaeu I was one of the pioneers of sport climbing and opened up several hundred climbing routes. I earned the money for drilling hooks and stands by publishing the Allgaeu’s first climbing guide. I drew the overview map and topos by hand, copied them in a copy shop and stapled them together with a filing strip. I sold the finished guide in climbing areas to other climbers for 10 Marks as well as to the local sports shops with a revenue share.
And how did you then combine your hobby with your job?
I basically have always searched for a connection between my profession and private passion for outdoor sports. In my free time I have always been out and about trying the different disciplines of mountaineering and thus travelled to many different countries. I was very young when I joined the Alpine Club and the Mountain Rescue, worked as a ski instructor during winter and as a tour guide in summer. At the same time, I built up an architecture and engineering office, in which we planned tourist projects. The planning and construction of mountain stations, sports facilities, high rope courses and bike parks seemed always more interesting than residential buildings in the valley.
In 2000, we got the first order that had nothing to do with buildings. After we had planned the bike park at the Hornbahn in Bad Hindelang, I sold our spa director Max Hillmeier a mountain bike guide and a mountain bike map. This also included a coordination process with property owners, nature conservations, agriculture as well as those responsible for forestry and hunting to decide which tours were suitable for publication. The 20 tours from the project are now the oldest tours on the platform and remain very good – except for the pictures where the outfits and equipment of the bikers are no longer up-to-date (laughs). Nonetheless, the project was the reason why I finally decided to combine my professional and private passions.
How did you do it?
Well, the whole thing was a long process. At the time there were only a few very careful attempts in the field of digital maps, tour planning and navigation. Around this time mountain biking became a thing and Andi Heckmayr and Uli Stanciu invented the alpine crossing by mountain bike. I also planned my first crossing of the Alps – classically with paper maps. Then I carried them in my backpack over the Alps for a week – almost 1.5 kg! It was clear to me that there had to be something new, something digital. Then I bought my first PDA (personal digital assistant) that had a large, interactive display (operated with a pen), SD card slot and the ability to connect with an external GPS adapter. Together with the first digitally available maps (back than scanned georeferenced printing maps) and many experimentations and handicraft lessons, this resulted in the first digital tour planning with GPS navigation; a few years before the invention of the first iPhone. That was when my drive for action – a typical characteristic for Allgaeu people – addressed. I love being a pioneer and exploring something new. Whether it’s foreign countries, new sports or new technologies. And if there is something that I do not know, than that is a good opportunity to learn it now. And if something does not exist yet, than that is a good reason to invent it. As a trained structural engineer, I appreciate to separate complex situations into their individual components to understand and solve problems from scratch. In tourism, I have found a perfect playground for my passion. For me, tourism is a huge, extremely complex topic with many participants, many topics and many processes. And there are still no continuous data structures and many unresolved problems. If I want to plan an individual holiday as a tourist, this is still a challenge and (for me as an engineer) still solved completely unsatisfactory.
Wow, that sounds like true passion!
Yes, that is true. I have found my calling and my mission. As an entrepreneur you do not tend to look at the clock, but I am very extreme. When I really want something, I get very stubborn and obstinate. I don’t rest until I find a way. It is my goal to digitize the world or at least create the necessary conditions for it. And I have already come quite a way. Let’s see how far we can get.
And how does your family cope with it?
Good point. The situation in an entrepreneurial family is straightforward: A business needs to move forward. And that requires concessions from everyone. My wife works in the company. Without her it would not have been possible to achieve what we have accomplished today. She also comes from an entrepreneurial family and is very ambitious. I am very happy about this, even though we talk almost exclusively about Outdooractive in our free time. It’s fun for both of us.
I am very lucky to have an extremely good team. Many of my employees have been working for me for over 10 years. At the beginning even they looked at me like “He’s losing it!” and argued with me. It surely helped us to find the right way and to clear our focus. We are now more than 100 people and it is a difficult task to turn an enthusiastic start-up into to an international functioning and successful company. But we will overcome this challenge.
How do you find the right people nowadays?
Yes, that gets increasingly more difficult. Our advantage is the beautiful topic and many people are passionate about it, just like I am, and they make their hobby their profession. Usually, the right employees find us via our products and not the other way around. It does not work if we believe that we immediately need five additional people at our headquarters in the Allgaeu. Our team grows organically, just like our other growths.
So, you stand for the digitalization of tourism. How did you turn that into a business model?
Yes, that was in fact our original decision in 2003. To build a digital platform. The basic idea has not changed: We are building a central database and make sure that everyone in tourism gets involved and can add their content. As a solidary community, everyone has the right to use all the platform’s content without changing them. Thus, we program with the platform. The first software was written by us engineers to plan signage and calculate hiking times. The architects made the graphics. And the engineers carried out GPS measurements in the field.
After the first few projects, the former county commissioner called and asked: Aren’t you the people with the maps and signs? Could you develop a uniform signage for Oberallgaeu? Of course! And thus we became hiking path planers. Within three years we hiked and drove on 5000 km of hiking paths, digitalized the hiking network and the planned the signage from scratch. We programmed the first software for the digital planning of road networks. With that we planned and signposted the “Rheinsteig” and many other long distance and quality trails.
Nordic Walking was next. Driven by the equipment there was suddenly a need by destinations to create offers and to be involved as one of the first. We developed a project that included three or five round tours, an information board with instructions and a digital tour representation on the website. A half of the production costs were sponsored by a few equipment manufacturers. Within two years we sold the product more than 100 times from South Tyrol to Sylt. Suddenly we were well-known planers of a digital solution.
And how did that turn into software products?
Our initial ideas was to do everything digitally. As engineers this was easier for us as we had no experience in the analogue field. Unlike classical cartography publishing, for example, we started with a digital map basis. However, 15 years ago, when we produced the printed maps out of it, the result was still rather cruel (laughs) and I am still ashamed of it. But that was the beginning and we quickly developed into specialists for digital cartography.
The development of software productions was a long path. Due to the decision to develop a platform, ended the mentality of projects. When it comes to a project, you don’t think to the left or right, but try to produce the ordered result as fast as possible. You write a bill, put the binders in the basement and start a new project.
There are many constraints during the development of a platform, because everything is built on the same basis of technology. The possibilities of individuality are thus strongly restricted. However, in the end it is a standardized technology that can be further developed centrally. But back then, nobody understood this. No matter who we tried to explain what we were trying to build, they laughed at us – and particularly at me – and thought we had lost our minds. It was a tough time, the customers sometimes had to wait up to two years for their product, because we were still building our platform. We financed all of it with many projects and so continued to build it. At the beginning it was a bit of a blind flight, because we could not see the result and the correlations.
Are you curious about how the story continues?
Look forward to the second part the interview on our Corporate Blog.