(Photo by Tyler Woods)
It was the early 90s and Wilfried Beeck, now bald, self-assured and successful, was a young programmer who’d recently graduated from the computer science department of the University of Kiel, in the north of West Germany, just 60 miles from the border with Denmark.
His most important meeting then was with Steve Jobs, who, ousted from Apple, had started his own computer company, NeXT. Beeck had wrangled a way to be Jobs’s NeXT distributor in Germany but thought the company needed to produce a German keyboard, like the old Apple II’s had.
“First of all he’s your big hero. You think like hours and hours weeks and weeks before the meeting,” Beeck recalled of his meetings with Jobs. “It’s such an intense time when you have this one hour and most of the time you walk out very frustrated because he’s not sitting there nodding his head saying ‘Yes, Wilfried,’ he’s saying ‘No, Wilfried, this is bullshit.'”
Jobs refused to believe there had ever been a German keyboard for Apple.
“If Steve believes there’s no German keyboard, then there’s no German keyboard,” Beeck said. “I knew we needed a German keyboard and I knew Apple had a German keyboard because I had one, but you don’t say that, just next time you come you bring a German keyboard.”
What followed would be a career that included venture funding, international fame, billion-dollar bank accounts and a tech bubble bursting it all. Now, Beeck is trying to start again in the United States. We caught up with him at his company’s American offices in Greenpoint recently.
The company, ePages, is an ecommerce platform that allows small and medium-sized businesses to make their own online stores. Unlike its competitor, Shopify, which allows companies to build websites with ecommerce features, ePages partners with website-hosting companies like GoDaddy, to be the mechanism by which people can add ecommerce to their site while they’re building it.
ePages has more than 180 employees in Europe, split between Hamburg, Barcelona and London, but only two here in New York. It’s looking to expand its offerings in the states, and has set up shop here in Brooklyn.
Beeck had the idea for the company before the advent of the web. As a hardware distributor for NeXT, Beeck needed a way for his retailers to see what inventory was like, how long delivery might take and what prices after discount would be. At the time, the retailers had to send a fax to Beeck to place an order.
“So we built an interface on a browser that was provided by Tim Berners-Lee [the creator of the world wide web]. The easiest way for a reseller in Paris to see our inventory and answer his questions and see it for himself and order through that interface. That was even before Netscape started,” Beeck explained. “That was sort of the first online store.”
When NeXT sold to Apple in 1997 and Jobs was reinstated, the whole system was gone, but the team rebuilt it for Netscape, the browser that could be accessed by all types of computers and that was founded by Marc Andreesen just a few years earlier. Beeck and his cofounders called this new project Intershop, and it proved quite successful.
Intershop raised venture capital money, hired employees and eventually moved to San Francisco. Its founders were on the covers of magazines, especially Stephan Schambach, who was raised in communist East Germany. Eventually, Intershop grew to 1,400 employees, said Beeck, who was its CFO. At the height of what we now know as the dot-com bubble, Intershop had an IPO and a market capitalization of more than $14 billion, Beeck said.
— ePages (@epages) March 2, 2017
“It was like you were the heroes,” Beeck remembered. “Every one of us were billionaires. We were invited with the Forbes’s to go on boating trips up the Hudson. It was this whole market and valuations were so inflated it, had to happen. We were so busy with our customers and programs we didn’t really look at the valuation we didn’t sell any shares.”
And then, on January 2, 2001, the company announced much worse than expected revenues. That day the company’s stock lost 70 percent of its value. The Wall Street Journal wrote, the following year:
In recent months, Mr. Schambach’s success story has soured. Only a year after being splashed across magazine covers and courted by giants such as Time Warner Inc. and Motorola Inc., Mr. Schambach’s company has stumbled badly. An ambitious effort to sell next-generation software has largely failed, and the 31-year-old has all but shuttered his U.S. operations.
Intershop effectively folded, but its founders didn’t disappear. When it sold, each retained some parts of the product that were most interesting to them. For Beeck, he bought the small and medium-sized part of things and has rebuilt that product under the current name, ePages. For his partner Schambach, it was ecommerce for larger-sized businesses. His new company he called Demandware, and he built it into another success, selling it last year to Salesforce for $2.8 billion.
Beeck’s own ePages is now the dominant method of ecommerce in Europe, where it has about 140,000 clients, which is about 80 percent market share. Looking back on his career, he says that he’s learned that implementing new technology is the way to create real value for a company, but it’s better to be a fast follower than an early adopter.
“The first ones to adopt are the crazy ones, the geeks, the programmers,” he said. “What SMBs [small and medium-sized businesses] need are innovative tools but also rock solid tools that are still going to work while they’re growing.”
Another lesson he’s learned is to remain grounded and think from your client’s point of view.
“I think because I’ve been always very close to the end users and was an SMB myself it was always trying to put myself in the shoes of an entrepreneur. Never forgetting about your own beginnings and the things you were struggling with. It gives me enormous satisfaction to help people doing that.”
Now, in Brooklyn, Beeck’s company and his multinational staff is working with 1&1, a German web hosting company looking to build out its customer base. They’re in Manhattan but Beeck prefers Brooklyn, which he feels is more creative, experimental and entrepreneurial.
“For me, when I come to New York, it’s a big difference. If you go to Manhattan and have all the financial stuff and you come to Brooklyn and you have all the creative people. If you have a choice where do you want to be? In the corporate world or among the crazy, creative and startup people? The answer is clear.”