How Christoph Sonnen, an early employee of Red Bull, uses his background in extreme sports to help lead up-and-coming sports technology entrepreneurs.
November 22, 2008, 11:18 p.m.
Christoph Sonnen: You should be here with Tim and me. We are having great time, discussing about future business, Zeitgeist and beautiful sailing. Majorca is amazing! Can you come tomorrow?
November 22, 2008, 11:27 p.m.
Markus Ehrig Holzapfel: I am not one to read or answer my husband’s texts, but Markus just died. I am terribly sorry. Inga
That is how Christoph Sonnen, at a restaurant in the middle of a sailing weekend in Majorca, Spain, learned that his business partner, wingman and closest childhood friend, Markus Holzapfel, had died in a tragic event. It was a figurative lightning strike that changed his life forever.
Originally from Germany, Sonnen is an accomplished entrepreneur who has lived many lives. At the young age of 14, he showed enough promise as a big wave windsurfer that he had ambitions of going pro. He chased the biggest and most dangerous waves from Africa, to Australia to Hawaii—where he participated in the Maui Ocean Academy, a specialized boarding school for top wave windsurf athletes.
In the early ’90s, through his surfing connections, Sonnen joined an interesting—but floundering—beverage startup called Red Bull. The small team at Red Bull was scratching and clawing to get its new energy drink into the right sports marketing channels, but was hitting wall after wall in gyms and other sporting facilities. In a bold stroke, they decided to market Red Bull to bars—that decision (and many others) resulted in a seismic shift in the energy drink landscape. Sonnen managed to get distribution to all of the top accounts in Berlin, then in the inverse to the Leonard Cohen song, the company set out to take Manhattan.
From those humble beginnings, Red Bull now sells 6 billion cans per year. With this early win and serious momentum behind him, Sonnen dove into the Berlin nightlife ownership scene. He opened Sage Club, which was the jewel of the largest entertainment group-event agency in Berlin. Meanwhile, Holzapfel was just starting to invest with his family office into the entertainment-sports field. It was around this time that the pair’s relationship accelerated. They became almost inseparable.
Together, Sonnen and Holzapfel developed a business and investment philosophy that was based on “windows”—big macro movements in markets that led to further success. They looked at big opportunities in 10-year segments that roughly laid out like this: In the ’90s, their focus was on energy drinks, nightlife and extreme sports. In the Aughts, they focused on renewable energy, Berlin real estate and their family office.
With his deep knowledge of trends and innovation, Sonnen realized around the millennium that for the past decade people had been speeding up and looking forward, but for the first time that seemed to be changing and now people were slowing down and looking to the past. Sonnen and Holzapfel saw great business opportunities out of this change.
After these early victories, they clearly saw the next chapter as the time to take their partnership and business interests to even greater heights—all while having a lot of fun. Then Sonnen got the text at the restaurant in Majorca. To be clear, when he got the text, Sonnen was already a veteran entrepreneur—he had been through the entrepreneurial wash, rinse, spin, repeat cycle many times. He had weathered the challenge of having to bounce back after losing huge accounts, persevered through failed product launches, endured the relentless chase of getting product market fit right before his funding ran out and the ever-present nagging self-doubt that he might be pursuing a path that would lead to a fruitless dead end. But this was different.
How to Get Back Up?
“I felt like someone had literally ripped my heart out of my chest, stomped on it and left the rest of me sitting on the ground stunned and unable to move,” Sonnen says of the news of the death of his dear friend. “[I was] just stunned and unsure what to do next…it took two years for that feeling to subside…”
After trying to quickly dive back into the business, Sonnen realized that he required more than self-help, compartmentalization and the ferocious drive that he had always drawn on to move forward. “As entrepreneurs we are hard-wired to go forward ever faster. We are all Type AAA Alphas. At that time this approach was not working, and I had to find another way,” he says. “Looking back on it, I realize now that what was needed was a way to heal.”
And he did heal. He moved to New York and settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that was just beginning a revitalization. There, during the great recession of 2008, he read and slept, made new friends, worked out, kept his business afloat, shaped several new ideas and created a new rhythm for himself that was gentler and less frantic than the pace that he had kept for almost 20 years. Sonnen’s thoughts were tied up in the next decade investment thesis he had established. After the recession, it became clear that he needed to focus again on the booming sports and tech industry.
Sports & Legacy
Sonnen’s experiences meant he also thought about legacy—he was convinced that in the coming years people would start asking: “What footprint can I leave to the generations behind me?” So with Sonnen’s sailing partner from Majorca, Tim Krieglstein, Sonnen combined sports and legacy in his new company, Zeitgest Ventures.
He inherently wanted to connect the two concepts, and one of the activities that helped him do that was golf. After many fun, contemplative outings with friends, Sonnen found himself in the Bahamas on a course with rain threatening for much of the round. When a small shower started, he and another golfer—a stranger—took cover under the branches of a few large trees nearby. Within 30 seconds, the largest lightning strike that either had ever witnessed hit the ground about 20 feet in front of them. “It was surreal,” Sonnen says. “We jumped almost out of our skin and ran as fast as we could into the locker room about 200 yards away. I have never, ever seen anything like it.”
When the strangers made it to the locker room, they looked at each other and introduced themselves:
“Hi, I am Christoph.”
“Hi, I am Horst.”
That literal lightning strike encounter resulted in two things: a deep friendship between the two and leAD, an accelerator for tech and sports startups. LeAD stands for legacy of “Adi” Dassler, founder of Adidas and Horst’s grandfather. Sonnen speaks of him with reverence: “My favorite story is when Adi Dassler, a footwear craftsman and inventor, was asked for a sponsorship of 1,000 Deutsche Mark from the German national soccer coach Sepp Herberger for the 1954 World Cup in Bern, Switzerland. The coach had already approached Dassler’s older brother Rudolf Dassler—founder of Puma—who refused. Herberger then approached Adi with the same offer. Adi agreed and said he would double his sponsorship if he could sit on the bench during practices and games to learn from the players how best to improve their shoes to optimize the game. The DNA of Adidas was born on those benches, starting with the first soccer world champion title 1954 for Germany.”
That lightning strike that almost hit Sonnen and Horst provided the answer to Sonnen’s question about how to combine sports and legacy. Together, Sonnen and Horst spent the next two years creating an entity that would embody Adi Dassler’s creativity, drive, passion and spirit. LeAD is now the foremost accelerator for startups at the intersection of sports and technology. Its first cohort of 15 startups launched in 2017 in Berlin, and the company is now accepting applications for 2018 and has expanded to New York, with plans to branch out further to Rio de Janeiro 2019 and Tokyo by 2020.
“As entrepreneurs and young businesses, we became a family, all striving for the ultimate goal: sustainable success,” says Jamie Graham, CEO of 2017 leAD accelerator startup Who Knows Wins. “Led by Christoph and the leAD team, guided by the superb mentors and motivated by our passion for sports, we gained unforgettable and invaluable experience through leAD, and it’s a key driving factor for the future growth of Who Knows Wins.”
In retrospect, one figurative and one literal lightning strike shaped Sonnen’s approach to entrepreneurship and life. “Plan all you want,” he says. “Obsess over the decision trees, and map out every contingency. It may help, but the truth is that it may not. You cannot plan for life’s lightning strikes—you can only do your best to recover and grow again. The starting point is using your energy to be kind to yourself and allowing yourself to heal. It is impossible to move forward when you are broken.”
Sonnen has been on top of entrepreneurial waves and crushed by them. He has learned that there will always be more waves to ride, but before attempting to conquer the next one, ensure that your mind, body and spirit are truly prepared. After an amazing start with the first batch from the leAD sports accelerator, Sonnen is turning leAD into a global catalyst for sports entrepreneurship and is next launching a $75 million sports tech fund focusing on early A-round startups.
“As entrepreneurs, our drive, our internal energy, defines us—that engine needs fuel,” Sonnen says. “The best, longest-lasting fuel I have ever used is kindness to oneself. Take time to be nice to yourself and appreciate what you have earned and how hard you are working. Without that, you can’t help others and can’t give back, which is always the goal. Without that, nothing else works.”