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Tuesday
Mar112014

The talented Mr. Saidler

"Software is eating the world" it says on Centralway's site. Currently, the Zurich based company building start-up is primarily eating the cash of former UBS CEO Marcel Ospel

The meeting rooms of Centralway's headquarters at Binzstrasse in Zurich are called Warren Buffett or Steve Jobs. These are the people Martin Saidler likes to compare himself to. In emails the Austrian born resident of the Swiss tax haven Zug regularly refers to himself as one of the world's most important Internet investors.

In a recent meeting with the SonntagsZeitung to prove how serious he is, the 46-year-old placed one certified bank payment slip after the other on the table: CHF 7.5 million for the start-up Numbrs, an e-banking mobile app. 5 million for Project D system. "That's a secret ," Saidler says. So is Project S system, another app funded with 3.5 million .

In the past nine months, CHF 16 million have been pumped into software, which will never be available in Switzerland. " Software is eating the world", it says on the Centralway site . "But Switzerland is unfortunately too small a market ," says Saidler. He is thinking big. Much bigger than Switzerland and is homing in on Germany or the UK. By the end of 2015, Saidlers wants to have raised and invested CHF 100 million, the equivalent of USD 115 million. That is big money for the local Zurich tech startup scene. Other Swiss start-ups are lucky, if they find CHF 100 000.

Saidler claimed to have built the Scout24 Group into a multi-billion dollar company.

"Martin who?" asked the business magazine Bilanz, when it listed Saidler as one of the 300 richest Swiss for the first time three years ago. And this is how he apparently amassed his fortune: Saidler claimed to have built the Scout24 Group into a multi-billion dollar company. After selling it's Scout24 shares, Centralway invested in 200 companies in Eastern Europe, which it went on to sell for 500 million francs.

This is what Centralway's and Martin Saidler's Wikipedia entry claimed. At least until the SonntagsZeitung called the former CEO of Scout24 Group, who now lives in the Silicon Valley. He explained that the Scout24 had many founders. But that Saidler was not one of the key figures.

Twelve hours after the phone call, the Wikipedia entry concerning Centralway and Saidler was modified by an anonymous user from Zurich. Now there is no mention of any connection between Centralway and Scout24. There is also nothing more on the apparent Eastern European sales of CHF 500 million.

Saidler's actual contribution to the Scout24 Group was the sale of the platform Jobinteractive.com. A small job search platform the Austrian built up in Berlin. In return Saidler received a small amount of Scout24 shares and was included in the Scout24 management, during which he spent a lot of the time on sick leave. In 2002 Saidler sold his minority shares of Scout24.

Of the 200 companies Saidler claims to have invested in, only a little more that a dozen are traceable.

The second part of Saidler's from rags to riches story, his expansion into Eastern Europe, is more difficult to clarify. Of the 200 companies Saidler claims to have invested in, only a little more that a dozen are traceable. The other ones, if they ever existed, have merged with larger companies.

However, if Saidler is not as wealthy as he claims to be, where are the CHF 16 million coming from he has spent to finance his costly vision of the company building firm Centralway?

And this is how Centralway Headquarters AG works. All of his current 69 employees are listed as employees from this company. But they work on projects for start-up companies Numbrs AG or Project S System AG. These startups, that also belong to Saidler, don't have actual employees.  

The funding itself comes from a Luxembourg fund called Incubation Capital SARL. According to Saidler this fund has half a dozen investors, including Adriana Ospel, the wife of the ex-UBS banker Marcel Ospel. She plays a key role and is also on the company's board, together with the lawyer Thomas Ladner, founder of the renowned Zurich Club zum Rennweg. The other investors are secret, but, according to a source that can't be mentioned, apparently all have connections to the Ospel family.

Ladner commented his on involvement with a one liner: "Switzerland needs more entrepreneurship. " Adriana Ospel was annoyed by the request and could not understand, why a Swiss newspaper had such a negative attitude towards any Swiss startup. Saidler reacted cooler than Arianna Ospel:  "Why don't you see the positives? Itsn't it great that Swiss investors are pouring so much cash into these startups?"

He promises the original founders "to lift their business on to the next level, with his years of experience."

Saidler is not always at cool headed and charming as this. Over the past few months the SonntagsZeitung has spoken with a slew of Swiss start-ups, who have all had bad experiences with the Austrian. His involvement always follow a similar pattern. He agrees to invest into companies that allow him to buy shares at nominal value, even if the company has been going for several years. And then he gets involved operationally, after promising the original founders "to lift their business on to the next level, with his years of experience and international contacts." It turns out to be all talk.

However, when the startup founders complain about money not arriving on time or promises made not being kept, he very quickly involves his lawyers and can get very uncomfortable. His tone quickly changes and he writes threats like: How could anybody be so stupid to provoke him. His behavior is also often extremely erratic. One startup founder told the SonntagsZeitung Saidler used to regularly want to speak to him for urgent meetings to buy out his company. And then would never follow up on the offer. "I am still confused what Saidler really wanted", the source said. 

It's not the first mystery Saidler has created in the Swiss start-up scene. 


 

Apparently, after the Czech Republic, Centralway is now focusing on Switzerland 


Only a fraction of the companies Saidler claims to have invested in, are traceable today, most of them in the Czech Republic.

In the official Powerpoint presentation of Centralway, aimed at investors of the Luxembourg Fund Incubation Capital Sarl, there is talk of 200 company investments - most of them in Eastern Europe. Obviously, Centralway thinks Eastern Europes primarily consists of the Czech Republic. The SonntagsZeitung could only trace 16 Centralway investments, and only Inviva.cz , a travel site, and Autobazar.cz, car market, targeted users outside the Czech Republic. These investments included a cooking portal and price comparison services and apparently sold for a total of CHF 500 million.

Martin Saidler makes a point that this was not the income of the Centralway, but refers to the  total sale price.

Today, Saidler is focussing on Switzerland. An early investment was the Proseller AG , a service to improve IT trade efficiency. According to an insider Saidler had lofty visions of what Proseller's business could be, but when it came to implementing them, nothing much else happened. Other Swiss start-ups, Centralway has invested in, but left again, are C-Crowd (online fundraising), Next Generation Finance (investment company ) or Brains-to-Ventures (investor network). At Sandbox, an online community, two co-founders left their company a few months after Centralway's involvement. Recently, Centralway acquired a minority stake, a few thousand Swiss francs, in the Swiss security company DSwiss and in the US start-ups: Buttercoin, a Bitcoin currency exchange, and Lender Club, an online money lending community.

 

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN GERMAN ON 19. JANUARY 2014 IN THE SONNTAGSZEITUNG

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Reader Comments (1)

Somebody seem have disappeared from last Bilanz ranking...

Tue, December 2 | Unregistered CommenterAndrej

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