From the lecture hall at the University of Bern to a valuable partner in the digital world: two of the founders of Unic - Stephan Handschin, Chief Operation Officer, and Gerrit Taaks, Chief Market Officer, provide insights into the history, present and future of Unic.
What convinced you in 1996 to make the step into the “unknown” digital world?
Stephan Handschin (SH): Before we concentrated on the Internet in 1996, we pursued the goal to provide consulting services to enterprises through students. We wanted to put what we had learnt during our studies into practice. We were able to enter this area thanks to Rudolf Meyer, one of the founders, who worked in the IT sector on the customer side and was familiar with network technologies and web development. The rest of us (Gerrit Taaks, Patrick Barnert and I) were rather inexperienced in IT at that time. Our name Unic was chosen during the time at the University and is derived from University Consulting.
Can you still recall your first project, the first Unic customer?
Gerrit Taaks (GT): The initial projects were for the University of Bern, although they were not commercial. We executed the first “proper” project for Stettler Sapphire, and Wander in 1997 was our first big customer.
How does it feel when you start as a small enterprise and now you look at a company with about 250 employees? What is the biggest difference to that time?
GT: At the beginning we did much by ourselves but of course it was also far easier. The complexity level of solutions was considerably lower; for example, HTML 1.0 could do only a fraction of what is possible today with corresponding standards. In line with the changing customer requirements, increasingly more complex solutions, and the company growth, new different competencies, tasks and roles were created.
SH: I am often asked this question. However, such development does not take place overnight but it is a continuous process with multiple, sometimes small, steps. For example, a different division of tasks is defined, which is obvious as a result of the development but then it was rather not perceived as a milestone consciously. What changed considerably and what I long tried to prevent, is the closeness to each individual employee. At the beginning, we knew everyone and were familiar with the private sphere. Today this is possible only to a limited extent.
What event from the past 20 years is your most vivid memory?
SH: What comes to my mind as a very pleasant and impressive event is Unic winter parties: You enter a room with 250 people and this is no longer “only” the 30 with whom you have much to do or whom you meet in the corridors.
GT: I can recall autumn 1998 well – we knew that we were developing well but suddenly I realised that we had made the first million in turnover! Also the 100th employee was an impressive milestone. Apart from that, the first large distinction at the Best of Swiss Web 2003 was fantastic, thanks to which Unic suddenly became well-known in whole Switzerland.
The Internet sector has been rapidly developing. What will happen in the coming years?
GT: In retrospect, I think that sometimes it takes really long to implement conceptual ideas broadly. Many aspects of the one-to-one marketing were present already at the turn of the new millennium but only now are they applied to a broader extent. For me, it was not a “sudden” breakthrough but a development over years. However, what is developing rapidly is software solutions that can encompass more and more requirements.
SH: Extensive changes have occurred in the company. When I look back, 20 years ago almost no-one had a mobile phone or a laptop. No-one was available. Today it’s totally different. Over the next 20 years we are going to experience such a decisive transformation once again, in whatever form. Probably our clothes will be continuously online, connect to the network and communicate with others.
Where do you see yourselves in 20 years?
SH: I can imagine that I will be still working for Unic, but certainly no longer in the present role. Perhaps we are going to found many small companies around us – Unic Ventures – then I would be happy to share my knowledge gained from the Unic growth process as a coach or mentor.
GT: I am also very enthusiastic about making something new, putting it to the limits and optimising it. The large dynamics of the “digital capacities” will not decline so quickly. Thus, I still find it exciting to provide consultancy at a rather strategic level and to support our customers in achieving success in their digital business.
Most often successful development is owed also to long-term partners. Are there such partners?
GT: A clear focus on selected software partners certainly contributed to our success. The close cooperation with such enterprises as Obtree and Inxmail, but also with global players such as Hybris or Adobe had a positive influence on our development. A spirit of optimism prevailed at that time and we all wanted to conquer the European market.
SH: Partnerships with design agencies were also very important at the beginning. There were also such customers then that exerted a positive impact on us, for example JURA. They were eager to experiment so we had an opportunity to make new attempts together. The openness and the chances that appeared for us were a major contribution to our development. The situation was similar with such customers as Wander or Novartis Consumer Health with numerous diverse projects - from brand websites, to games, to shops, which motivated us to continue extending and deepening our expertise.
What could we wish you for the 20th anniversary of Unic?
GT: That in the next 20 years right employees will find us and stay in the company. The rest will be the obvious effect of that.
SH: My thoughts also move in this direction. I would wish myself that every Unic employee gives a 5 on Kununu and recommend us to their friends. With the right employees, everything you wish can come true.
The name Unic goes back to the original idea to provide consultancy services to enterprises through students: University Consulting.