Journalist: Marah Rikli | Photographer: www.foto-shooting.ch | Magazine: Trust engenders courage – October 2022
A chat with Zattoo founder Bea Knecht about focus, having the courage to turn offers down and why Switzerland shouldn’t understate its importance.
Bea Knecht, you attended the University of California, Berkeley, in 1990. The university’s basement housed a supercomputer worth 25 million dollars and you calculated at the time that this kind of computing power would probably become affordable for an average household in 2005.
That calculation was one of the starting points for the idea behind Zattoo.
In what way?
I had calculated that microprocessors would be capable of outperforming this basement supercomputer – a Cray 2 with a 244 MHz clock cycle – in 2005 and that instead of taking up a whole basement, the computer chip would be no larger than a sugar cube. That was extremely relevant for Zattoo because it meant a flatscreen with HDTV capability would only cost consumers 2,500 USD. In fact, today they cost just 500 USD. Back when I was in Berkeley, I also met Sugih Jamin, who later became one of Zattoo’s co-founders. He was teaching a course on visualising mathematical functions. I apparently made a good impression on him and we struck up a friendship.
But first you went your separate ways before Zattoo.
I worked at UBS after graduation, then at McKinsey, and I also developed two software products. During that time, Sugih Jamin tried twice to convince me to help him commercialise his research projects. From a strategic perspective, his ideas were always extremely far-sighted. The first time he asked, it was about a geo-localised short-message service, much like our modern-day Twitter. The second time, it was about developing multiplayer video games, which are now the standard. When he finally came to me with the third project – the TV idea – I said yes. We became co-founders.
What took you so long to agree to a project?
I was completely absorbed in other projects at the time. What’s more, I’ve always made a conscious effort to ensure that my career followed a common theme – even if it’s not always discernible at first glance. I spent five-year periods working at major companies, after which I “distilled” the insights I’d gained during those five years to create a product. At UBS, I learned about a major bank’s data centre requirements so once I left, I designed a data centre software for banks. Then there was the HR product I developed for SAP, which incorporates a wealth of insights from the five years I spent at McKinsey. By 2004, the only period I hadn’t processed yet were my years at Berkeley, which began in 1990. That meant it was high time for a product that commercialised the insights I gained at Berkeley. And that’s how Zattoo got started.
With some 3 million monthly subscribers, Zattoo is the largest Internet TV and video-on-demand platform in Europe. Founded by Bea Knecht and Sugih Jamin in 2005, the Zurich-based public limited company currently employees 220 people.
What’s more, Zattoo has been operating its own B2B business since 2012 and also makes its technology available to media companies and network operators.
In 2020, Zattoo was presented with an Emmy Award in the Technology and Engineering category.
Lots of people wouldn’t have had the courage to turn down two interesting offers from a renowned professor.
I always believe that doing one thing always means not doing something else. So I’m always turning enquiries down or scrapping a project. I should mention, though, that I don’t necessarily pursue the projects that look best at first glance, rather the ones that seem best after much reflection. It’s true that “opportunity favours the prepared mind”. If you’ve considered an idea carefully enough and an opportunity arrives to implement that idea, then things just automatically click into place and you take the leap. Good preparation is the key to success.
What else do you think it takes to be successful?
The courage to take charge. That’s something best practised during childhood, like at a club where a child learns to take responsibility. Then you need an interest in leadership, modesty and an understanding of the fact that it’s not always about the big things. It’s the little insights that produce those big, pivotal moments later on. A balanced blend of direct and consultative communication is hugely important. If we want to be heard, we have to communicate directly. That’s my advice to women, in particular.
“Picture life as being a wild, mountain stream peppered with rocks, where you’re trying to keep yourself afloat.”
But communication is actually considered to be one of women’s strengths.
That’s often the case, yes. But just as often, they also lack the right communication tools for leading teams, which is a major obstacle. Our powerful, modern-day tools were developed by men for men. You
need time and patience to master those tools, and that puts many women off.
Because they don’t have as much uninterrupted time as men. Their work is interrupted constantly, both over the course of a day and throughout their lives. The result is that instead of trying to learn those tools, women try to manage their entire lives – including career development and research – on their iPhones, when it would work better on a laptop with a larger screen. If that doesn’t work for them, maybe because a laptop is too complicated, women should get involved in new technology development to ensure that the new, emerging technologies are better at meeting their needs. As a nice spin-off, tech products wouldn’t just become better for women, but for men, too.
Bea Knecht was born in Zurich in 1967 and grew up in Switzerland. She studied computer science at the University of California (Berkeley) and graduated with a Master’s in Business Administration from the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne. She then joined UBS, and from 1996 to 2001 was an associate partner at the corporate and strategy consulting firm McKinsey. These posts were followed by stints at Linuxcare and the SAP software group. In 2005, she collaborated with Sugih Jamin to found the Swiss TV streaming service Zattoo. In 2012, Bea Knecht stepped down from Zattoo’s management team and is currently Vice President of the Board of Directors.
Until transitioning in 2012, Bea Knecht was known as Beat Knecht.
According to the guest contribution you wrote in the book entitled 50 Jahre Frauenstimmrecht (50 Years of Women’s Suffrage), women need to be enormously resilient in order to be successful. What did you mean by that?
Women are always having to start over, for example after a pregnancy. Their careers are interrupted by the birth of a child and maternity leave and they lose time. In the IT world, those months or even years represent a period of enormous technological developments. Then, when the woman goes back to work, she has to invest even more time and energy than a colleague whose career hasn’t been interrupted. That takes resilience. Moreover, a career hinges on expertise and experience: here, I like mentioning the 10,000 hours needed to acquire expertise. Women are also interrupted in that. Which therefore means that they need perseverance and focus.
How do you manage to stay focused?
I concentrate on my work and leave other things alone. My insurance policies are one easy example of that: I’ve never compared policies in my life and don’t even try to get the best deal. I’ve also had the same mobile number for decades. And the same bank. I devote my time to other things. There are so many things we’ve got to take care of in our lives – you can’t optimise everything. We mostly get swept along by it all anyway.
What do you mean by swept along?
Picture life as being a wild, mountain stream peppered with rocks, where you’re trying to keep yourself afloat. You swim past some rocks and hold on tight to others. That’s how I view life. And sometimes mishaps and disasters happen.
What kinds of mishaps have you experienced in your career?
I experienced two huge crises in Silicon Valley: when the dotcom bubble burst and 9/11. When things like that happen to you, it’s like suddenly having a car accident through no fault of your own. But inaction can also be damaging: on the topic of Apple, for example, I submitted a paper entitled The Computer of the Year 2000 in the 1980s. Then in the 90s, I was so focused on UBS and McKinsey as well as my parents’ business (a transportation company) that I didn’t devote any attention to it. A lost opportunity for me. Of course, when McKinsey collapsed in Silicon Valley, there were moments when I did a lot of soul-searching when making those kinds of decisions. But the way things ended at McKinsey also had a silver lining: it gave me the motivation I needed to devote my energies to launching Zattoo.
“I’ve always made a conscious effort to ensure that my career followed a common theme – even if it’s not always discernible at first glance.”
If you’re successful, do you also need to be sceptical?
Success can also attract people who want something from you or give you the run-around. “Gaslighting”, a practice in which somebody very subtly makes you question your own reality, is common in the world of business. Take this situation, for example: you’ve launched a company that’s become successful. Then, somebody with their own economic interests tells you that you may have launched the company successfully, but should let somebody else handle the scaling. During the development phase, I’m also wary of statements like: “You’re good, but now it’s time to let the pros take over.” That’s when it’s time to call in another person you trust. It’d be a pity, though, if we stopped trusting people entirely.
In a panel discussion for Avenir Suisse you said that Switzerland doesn’t like “stepping on anybody’s toes”. Do you think Switzerland lacks self-confidence? That it isn’t courageous enough?
The way Switzerland communicates is good in principle. We consistently look at situations from different perspectives, and that’s commendable. Switzerland is extremely cautious and gentle, in its dealings with both its own people and other countries. What often happens, though, is that the country plays down its own role and understates its importance. In science, this can slow things down and is often inconsistent. After all, in the world of science we’d never say something like “we’ve discovered this new atom – but then again, maybe not.”
Do you wish Switzerland were more courageous?
What I think is that Switzerland shouldn’t have to soft-pedal so often and downplay its contributions. We’ve achieved quite a lot and are collaborating with experts from other countries to conduct important research – we really do have to step up those efforts and be more assertive.
Bea Knecht – In the spotlight
The first thing I think of when I hear the word “courage” is …
the moment when you do something you’ve thought long and hard about.
For me, the colour of courage is …
red, definitely not blue.
When it comes to courage, my role model is …
This animal embodies my personal courage the best …
there’s no one animal. All animals are courageous.
If you want to make courageous decisions, you have to …
be willing to deal with the uncertainty that follows a courageous decision.