Flyeralarm is not just any online printer, but rather the online printer par excellence. Founded in 2002 by Thorsten Fischer, the Würzburg-based company has changed the printing industry like no other.
Today, Flyeralarm is one of Europe’s leading online printers in the B2B sector and one of the largest German e-commerce companies. Despite its rapid growth, the Würzburg-based company has retained its doer mentality and the special spirit of a start-up. This spirit has shaped their corporate culture from the very beginning. This was the only way to successfully open up a large number of new business areas over the years. Today, a comprehensive brand presence is offered not only in the form of print products, but also through marketing services and various kinds of advertising media. Bernd Zipper spoke with company founder and managing director, Thorsten Fischer, about the current state of affairs and possible next steps.
Bernd Zipper: Thorsten, how important is the “Brand Flyeralarm” for you?
Thorsten Fischer: For me, “Brand” is not just an abstract marketing phrase but stands for all the characteristics that make a company and how it presents itself both externally and internally. A “brand” also includes products as well as services and those who provide them – our employees. When our employees positively communicate our “brand” to the outside world, when it is authentic, it is transferred to the customers, who in turn want to build up or stabilize their own “brand” with our services. That’s why the “brand” is important to us, actually it is more of an attitude – and: We love every brand of every one of our customers!
Bernd Zipper: In plain language this means that the “brand” is the banner that you and your employees and colleagues carry in front of you and that customers love?
Thorsten Fischer: If you like, yes. And if we fulfil the task of making our brand and the “brand” of our customers strong, both externally and internally, then we are doing a good job.
Bernd Zipper: Flyeralarm invests massively in sports sponsoring – to promote the “brand” and create a strong brand. But I suppose also because you like the whole topic around sport, fight and competition?
Thorsten Fischer: Absolutely right, we like both – I do. On the one hand, it is an absolute “brand building” when we are present in sport – above all through our partnership with the DFB, Germany’s “No. 1 club”. On the other hand, sport is always a challenge: to want to win, to be No. 1 and a member of this team; to become a German Champion, to become a World Champion, or whatever. We also have that ambition! With that we show: Those who walk the path with us are among the front runners and aspire to the very top.
Bernd Zipper: Strong words. On the downside, sports sponsoring is rather expensive. As an entrepreneur, doesn’t it have to be considered “Does it work for me? Do you make such calculations, or do you say: “That can’t be calculated, those are emotions, those are the matches that write the stories of winners and losers?
Thorsten Fischer: More like the latter, there’s a lot of emotion involved. There are umpteen statistics that prove us right – I would also find some that don’t prove us right – but everyone has to decide for himself. My gut feeling tells me that we are on the right track in this area and it makes us proud to be able to build our “brand” in this environment. But sports sponsorship is only one of the core topics, perhaps also the most visible one in which we invest. But only doing sport sponsorships would be too little.
Bernd Zipper: When you talk to your colleagues and employees – I always say colleagues, I don’t even know what you say …
Thorsten Fischer: I say Family!
Bernd Zipper: Family – ok! When you talk to your family, you can already feel that they “like” Flyeralarm. That’s already their thing! How much do you invest in employees so that they really believe in you and in the message of Flyeralarm?
Thorsten Fischer: It’s easy to answer that. I invest energy 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year in this company, in this family. Because our employees take the company to the top and have made Flyeralarm what it is today. That’s why I have to invest 24/7 in this family – and that’s exactly what I’m doing.
I think we are particularly distinguished by the fact that we decided at an early stage to make our personnel development sustainable and responsible. We have been a recognized IHK training company since 2004. Trainees and all employees enjoy special esteem at Flyeralarm – in recent years we have invested heavily in internal programs to promote professional competence and personal and professional development. In short, we take care of them.
Bernd Zipper: Flyeralarm is based in Würzburg – not exactly the hub of the world. How do you get good employees there? Through the brand, the history or the story?
Thorsten Fischer: I believe that there are good people in every city, in every corner of the world, people with energy – positive energy. The art is to win them over with your company, to attract them like a magnet. FLYERLALARM is not easy to copy. You have to be authentic and you have to find the people who burn for you, tear themselves apart for you – like in sports. They want to score the goal, they want to win this championship, they want to be in the Champions League. There are these people in Würzburg, Munich and Berlin – everywhere.
Allow me also to point out that we are proud of our origins, of our roots in the region, home to the majority of our employees. The vast majority of the successful “German middle class” model is seldom found in cities with over a million inhabitants. We know where we come from. Of course, we also benefit from our growth, our philosophy and our current network. For some time now, we have been operating stores, now known as City Centers, in Hamburg, Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Stuttgart, Munich and Berlin, among others, with the latter metropolises, Berlin and Munich, operating business lounges for top customers. We also have additional teams and employees in Berlin, Vienna, Milan and Paris – in other words, we win good employees through the brand, the energy and the story!
Bernd Zipper: How many trainees do you have at the moment? And: Do you know your trainees personally – and do you bring them into the family?
Thorsten Fischer: We currently have 72 trainees, in a total of twelve occupations, at eight locations. I get to know them personally on their first days at Flyeralarm when we carry out a so-called two-day “onboarding”. Then I usually experience how motivated and committed they are. Individual internal projects repeatedly lead to exciting meetings.
A small example: We have coffee machines with these aluminum capsules in all departments. Recently, a group of trainees presented me with a project to switch to filter coffee in order to save energy and money and to do something good for the environment. We have expanded this initiative into a lighthouse project and are now actually making a complete changeover. With the effect that we can now offer all our employees’ free coffee, still save money and protect the environment. Sounds unspectacular at first – but for a company of our size it is a factor. Furthermore, trainees learn that they are taken seriously and that EVERYONE can make a difference.
Bernd Zipper: How many employees do you have now?
Thorsten Fischer: 2,300.
Bernd Zipper: … if they have all consumed three to four cups of capsule coffee up to now, you have to dispose of a ton of capsules a day.
Thorsten Fischer: Of course, there has been a huge amount of coffee produced each year, which we will save concretely in the future with this concept. It’s also great that the trainees were able to win an IHK prize with their initiative. This means additional motivation. Youth is our future!
Bernd Zipper: When someone starts as a trainee, let’s say as a printer, do you discover his talent when he can do more? Can he or she come to the top or will they remain a printer?
Thorsten Fischer: There are a lot of people at our company who started 15 or 16 years ago at a young age and, for example, stood at a cutting machine, but now manage entire departments. For example, our LFP manager, who today has responsibility and management for over 200 employees. 14 years ago, he first started in postpress as a depalletizer – and then built up a new line of business and his own managerial position. This means that I challenge and support my employees so that they develop. With us, every employee has the opportunity to build his or her own lighthouse.
Bernd Zipper: Flyeralarm offers almost all products that can be defined in some way as visual communication via print. You are a 360° provider from your business card to your trade fair stand. Do you produce all of this yourself?
Thorsten Fischer: We produce most of it ourselves. Right from the start it was our philosophy to make in-house production “Made in Germany” possible with our own employees and machinery. This is still our distinguishing feature. But of course, we also work together with suppliers – I prefer to say partners. The big difference between us and some other competitors on the market is that we have been working closely with several partners from the very beginning. They have continued to optimize themselves with us and occasionally through us and have therefore also grown with us.
And since we have no adhesion contracts, often no contracts at all, I believe I can say that our partners love us. They have built up or secured their existence through us and profit from us. And that is also what distinguishes a family: Everyone should benefit, everyone should prosper. And that’s why the family continues to grow, new suppliers come to us all the time. Anyone who does something very special – and particularly good – is very welcome here.
Bernd Zipper: There are also cases in which Flyeralarm has separated itself from its partners – and this has sometimes had fatal consequences for these former partners, who suddenly lacked the orders and turnover from Flyeralarm.
Thorsten Fischer: It is certainly wrong to speak in plural here. But one thing is clear: when we work with someone, we have to adhere to standards of quality, delivery quality and loyalty on both sides – these are the basis for the deal. But if, after repeated reminders, the quality is no longer right or – even worse – if production is cheaper for competitors than for us, then I don’t want someone like that in the family anymore. Then we also have to part with a partner. There was such a case. But that is also a normal process.
Of course, this is a blow for the partner if we outsource our production packages elsewhere. Therefore, I attach importance to the fact that our partners are strong partners and in principle also able to survive without us – only then does one operate on eye level. On the other hand, there are very good counter examples in which a partnership with Flyeralarm has saved companies from collapse and which today would basically be able to do well on the market on their own.
Bernd Zipper: I can imagine that some partners are quite afraid that Flyeralarm, if a product is very successful, will open its own production line for it and deduct the orders. What is your policy in this case?
Thorsten Fischer: First of all, I can understand the fear, but I also want to alleviate it right away. Together with a partner, we always try to optimize the production size and help him in such a way that he is unique on the market and can also profit from it. Setting up a new production always costs time, money and resources. It will therefore remain the absolute exception, especially when a partner offers top quality and the best customer service and carries the Flyeralarm philosophy. In addition, we are constantly expanding the market. Flyeralarm stands for standardization and “mass customization”, which also gives the partner a larger slice of the cake. We want to keep our family spirit alive and we stand by it.
Bernd Zipper: So, do potential suppliers have a reliable partner in Flyeralarm?
Thorsten Fischer: A very good question. When I look at our partners, I believe that there is no comparable competitor who can look back on such a long history of partners as we do. We have partners who have been with us since the first day of our founding, who join us every year at our partner party and who love Flyeralarm – without exaggeration.
Bernd Zipper: Why is that so?
Thorsten Fischer: Because they have always been treated fairly, have been able to develop with us and have grown in the process. In my opinion, we also set the benchmark for partnership loyalty, which I have already mentioned. And the number of our partners is inevitably increasing – because the many new products we offer in the meantime also require new partners.
Bernd Zipper: What will the partner business generally look like in the future – especially with regard to product development and new products? How will that develop in your company?
Thorsten Fischer: Others rely on partners in the sense of suppliers. Suppliers need supplier contracts. But we rely on partners with or without a verbal contract. Others have contracts – and in some cases, tough restraining agreements. We sit in the same boat with our partners, there is a handshake and a nice wine.
Bernd Zipper: To be honest, that sounds a bit adventurous …
Thorsten Fischer: Ok – let me put it this way: Trust is the basis for every business. I don’t believe that contracts can effectively secure this trust. I want to look my partners in the eye and agree to a smart deal. That’s how we’ve been working for years. Our success is primarily based on the trust that Tanja Hammerl, co-director, and I invest in our fellow campaigners.
Bernd Zipper: How important is quality? I know you don’t define Flyeralarm as an online printer, but rather as an e-commerce company – but when I look at the market for print products sold online, quality is an issue with a lot of potential for improvement. How important is quality for you?
Thorsten Fischer: When we started 17 years ago, the quality standard demanded by an online printer was rather modest and far lower than it is today. From my point of view, however, best quality is no longer a nice-to-have, but a matter of course and the basis of a successful strategy.
As the industry leader, I say this now quite confidently, we set the quality standard and have continued to improve it over the past few years. For example, we are permanently optimizing our processes and are using state-of-the-art machinery, which Flyeralarm acquires and in some cases even develops together with the manufacturers. Our aim is to offer the best value for money. Here performance is consciously at the forefront and we set the standard in the market.
Bernd Zipper: And what investments do you make towards quality?
Thorsten Fischer: The effort we invest here is enormous. After all, quality management and quality assurance often require more than was initially imagined. But it’s worth it. A customer who prints his order once with us can certainly expect to receive the reprint in the same quality a few months later. This is not the case with some competitors who frequently change their supply partners.
Bernd Zipper: Is quality one of your distinguishing features compared to other suppliers?
Thorsten Fischer: Definitely! We will always deliver the best quality at the price we offer. If a market participant produces at a lower price, that would most likely be at a lower quality. If that is not the case, we have failed. But we will never accept that and will have to work for it.
Bernd Zipper: There’s also a flyer alarm on site – you’re in many cities with shops or stores. Does this concept pay off or does it only support the presence of the brand at the respective location?
Thorsten Fischer: Our stores certainly played a significant role in building the brand. We were also the first in the industry to implement such a concept. And it is interesting to note that other major e-commerce players – such as Zalando and even Amazon – have been following suit with stationary presences in selected metropolises for some years now.
An additional aspect for us in this context is the quality of the advice – as a further quality feature. Many customers simply need professional support – and you can only offer it on site. That’s why it’s a clear strategy for us to have a local presence in order to provide our clients with maximum support for their success.
Bernd Zipper: Nevertheless, you be closing one or two the stores.
Thorsten Fischer: With a heavy heart we have indeed decided to close some stores – but this is clearly in light of a new strategy. The Flyeralarm stores are taking over additional areas of top customer service and sales. In order to make economic sense here, we have identified a total of six core target regions and metropolitan areas in Germany in which the stores will be expanded into so-called Flyeralarm City Centers. This includes, among other things, the redesign to do justice to the entire World of Flyeralarm as well as the establishment of key accounts on site. As part of the conversion, however, the stores in Freiburg, Dresden and Nuremberg were closed at the end of April – we now operate a total of 16 stores throughout Europe.
Bernd Zipper: You already mentioned it – last year you set up Flyeralarm lounges at real hotspots in Berlin and Munich. What is the idea behind it?
Thorsten Fischer: That can be summarized very briefly: Customer proximity and service. We also see our top customers as our partners – in addition to personal support for their concerns and projects, the lounges are always available for individual use. Either as a guest at our events or as the host of your own events. In this way we get to know our customers even better – and of course they get to know us and our entire range of services.
Bernd Zipper: Flyeralarm also presents its own coffee table magazines – Townhouse in Berlin and Rindermarkt in Munich – for the lounges. For a mere customer brochure this might be too expensive. What is the purpose of this?
Thorsten Fischer: You’re right – only as brochures would they certainly be too expensive. With these absolute premium magazines, we want to prove our competence as a publisher, because since last year we also offer corporate publishing services through our own unit. Additional in-house titles will certainly follow. We offer complete magazine productions – from the creation of the concept, editing and design to distribution. If you have spared the effort and costs of producing your own magazine so far, Flyeralarm can produce your own customer magazine or the internal employee magazine at a reasonable price.
Bernd Zipper: Where will Flyeralarm be in five years? How do you see the future?
Thorsten Fischer: We don’t rely on Onlineprint alone – I firmly believe that only a holistic strategy that offers customers the right products when they need them can work. We also firmly believe that we have to support our customers locally and inspire them on the one hand with advice and on the other hand with a smart service. And not to forget: We want to and will continue to be trendsetters and impulse generators in an industry that we have already influenced disruptively. Of course, we want to retain the spirit of a “forever start-up”.
Bernd Zipper: Okay, makes sense. But maybe a little more concrete: Where will Flyeralarm be in five years’ time?
Thorsten Fischer: Flyeralarm has generated healthy growth in the last few years, as you know – in 2018 we achieved more than 350 million euros. In contrast to some other – often leveraged – players in the market, we are not forced to grow by eight, ten or even 15 percent every quarter, every year. With around 85 percent equity, we are independent and can think long-term.
Flyeralarm’s story proves us right: Don’t be misled and make the market happy step by step – this is the real engine for our growth. And believe me – we still have some ideas that will bring us, our partners and our customers forward in the next five or ten years. I can already promise that we will devote ourselves very intensively to the further development of more conscious, sustainable products and environmentally friendly production standards. Here, too, it is our declared aim to be a pioneer. Let us surprise you … it will continue to be exciting!
Bernd Zipper: Thank you very much for the interview.
My take: Just a few years ago, online printers were regarded as “destroyers” whose pricing policies ruined the industry. On one side there are still many traditional companies with their craftsman ethos, and on the other there are clever entrepreneurs who have transformed the craft into an industrial process and at the same time use the tools of e-commerce for marketing. Thorsten Fischer has revolutionized the graphics industry with Flyeralarm, a hybrid of e-commerce and industrial printing. And now even the last of them should realize that industrial printing is the ideal way to earn money with print. Thorsten Fischer was one of the first movers, perhaps the most successful. And no matter how innovative the online print business model may be, Thorsten Fischer is at the same time confronted with a self-conception reminiscent of a time long gone: the honorable merchant stands by his word, his handshake is his bond. For Thorsten Fischer, this also counts when he enters into partnerships. A mixture of tough business and informality, if you will.