An interview with Cecil von Croÿ, co-founder and CEO of PlusPeter
In 2016, Cecil von Croÿ and his friend Karl Bagusat founded “PrintPeter”, a copy-service that prints and binds students’ course materials and delivers them to students at home, for free. In just two years, the start-up has attracted more than 5 million euros in investment and has more than 200,000 student-users from over 600 universities in Germany (roughly 11% of the German student population). In 2017 it was awarded the German “Founders’ Scene” Newcomer Award. So, what has a print start-up got to do with law firms?
The Bucerius Center on the Legal Profession often looks to other industries for trends, for inspiration and for lessons-learned. As part of the Bucerius Law School International Exchange Programme, students on the Law Firms of Tomorrow course are asked to design their own law firms and pitch their ideas before a panel of experts. To help the students think like an entrepreneur, we invited Cecil von Croÿ, founder of PrintPeter (now called PlusPeter) to talk to us about his experience. Cecil’s story didn’t just inspire the students, it offered us some key learnings that should give law firms plenty of food for thought.
How does PlusPeter work? Students upload their course materials on our website, we print them, bind them and send them to the students at home. It’s free because companies such as Airbus and Ford effectively pay for the printing by buying advertising space in the printed copies. We use the information we receive from students when they register with us to “match” them with potential employers. This is what makes PlusPeter different - the students only receive adverts that are relevant to them. This means, for example, that a law student who is interested in working in an international firm would see an advertisement from Freshfields, but not an advertisement from Google, unless of course Google was looking to recruit law graduates. So, the students aren’t overwhelmed with
irrelevant advertising and companies can use their advertising budgets in a more effective way.
What sort of information do they provide? And what about data protection regulations? Surely this infringes data privacy?
Not at all. When students provide us with their data, they are asked to consent to the data being provided to potential employers. In fact, students are more than willing to provide information about themselves as PlusPeter is effectively acting as a “dating” agency to match students with prospective employers. They tell us things like where they are studying, the subjects they are studying, their skills and interests, grades and so on.
How does the “dating” actually work? What about students who are not currently printing anything? How do employers contact them? Using the various data points we receive from the students, we use algorithms to “match” them with employers. It doesn’t matter if the student doesn’t print anything, the adverts are both on and off-line, so prospective employers are building a presence with the student whatever the media. When a student visits our website, or uses the LinkedIn App for example, then he or she will see an advert from the particular employer. The adverts stay in their printed materials for at least a semester, so it works like subliminal advertising.
Tell me more about the problems you were trying to solve when you founded PrintPeter? Well, when I was studying in the USA, I noticed that companies didn’t wait for undergraduates to finish their degrees before they began to “woo” them. They were simply much more involved in campus life. By comparison, students in Germany are pretty much neglected by future employers. We wanted to fill this gap and solve a problem for both students and future employers. Students sometimes don’t know where to begin in their job-search and can end up in graduate jobs that don’t suit them. So, through our “dating” function we help match students more accurately with prospective employers, as well as providing a free print service, which is of course great for students.
Employers benefit as our data is first-hand and would otherwise be extremely difficult to obtain. So, from PlusPeter they get more accurate data about their potential target group and can provide more appropriate marketing content to boost their employer brand.
Surely in the digital age print is dead? What future does PlusPeter have when the market for print is diminishing?
Print is not dead. Especially when it comes to learning. Certain types of learning, like browsing for information or research is best done on-line, but things like reading to learn new information, that’s best done on paper. What about our future? PlusPeter isn’t just a print company. We actually combine print and digital. If you scan in the ad in the course materials, you are directed to the advertiser’s landing page. And through our own App, students can access interactive learning content, podcasts and videos.
We are also setting up a learning platform, PlusPeter Smart Learning, where students can study together online, with things like flashcards and shared notes. They can even monitor their own progress through benchmarking.
The new platform, as well as the PlusPeter App, is designed to make learning fun and motivate the students through interaction and gamification. Even if print were dead, PlusPeter is always evolving. We have “JobPeter”, an online job-market for students, and we are leveraging our insights into students’ behaviour by offering recruitment advice. Our latest venture “Aschenputtel”, an in-bound recruiting agency, was just launched at the end of last year.
Isn’t “in-bound recruiting” simply a buzz word used by HR managers? What 3 practical tips do you have for law firms to help them recruit more successfully?
In-bound recruiting is crucial for law firms, as it is for all types of employers. Firms need to attract potential employees early on and lead them through the “candidate journey” towards becoming an employee. This means making sure your brand is “out there” much earlier than with traditional recruitment methods – like putting an advert in a magazine or website and waiting for applicants. You have to appeal to the candidate at a number of key points on the journey, starting from when they are simply an anonymous visitor browsing your website. It’s a bit like taking a marketing approach to recruitment. It’s important to have the right mix of content and communication channels. What tips do I have for law firms? Well, starting with the communication channels, they need to ensure that they are doing the simple things right, like having mobile-friendly websites, a good SEO website (i.e. a website that is search engine optimised), a social media presence, on for example LinkedIn, Twitter or specific online communities for law students – look at where law students “go” when they are online.
Then the content has to be authentic and interesting. Students like to see what is really going on behind the scenes in a firm, it’s their main way of differentiating between law firm A and law firm B. That and the reputation, so establishing an expert status through short articles or blogs on these channels is important.
Law firms are considered by the younger generation to be hierarchical, very traditional and often work their lawyers too hard. As the Student-Whisperer, what do you think law firms should do to increase their appeal to today’s students?
I think it actually all starts with the recruitment process. Many students feel let down by the whole recruitment process. They do their research, pick their favourite firms, fill in a standard application form, write a cover letter and off it goes. Some of them don’t even get confirmation that their application has been received. It’s so anonymous and says, “you’re not important to us”. If a student feels that the firm sees them as an individual, and not just one of a thousand applicants, then they have more of a connection to the employer. The employer needs to win the employee over long before they actually apply for the job. For example, get more involved in personal networking events – in Hamburg a group of students set up a “meet the boss” community where students get to meet business leaders in a party setting – it’s very different from the traditional career fair! Or get your junior lawyers involved in activities where they meet students, like mooting or tech meet ups. And the long hours? I think firms should be honest about it. Students want to hear from young people working in the firm what it is really like, what’s good and bad, and how they manage it.
Law firms and start-ups may not have much in common, so what have we learnt from PlusPeter?
New perspectives lead to new ideas. By observing how things were done differently in the USA, PlusPeter found a group of underserved clients and solved two problems at once: B2B (marketing, employer branding, recruitment advice, job market) as well as B2C (printing, a learning platform, job market).
Never stand still. PlusPeter started with a pilot project on a single university campus. Two years’ later it is still evolving: print business, job-market, e-learning platform, recruitment agency.
In the war for talent, you can’t start early enough. Firms need to establish their employer-brand much, much earlier, and be proactive, not reactive, about recruitment. It isn’t enough to leave recruitment until you have a vacancy to fill or to wait until the next “milk round” of careers-fairs.
About Interviewee and Author Cecil von Croÿ is the co-founder and CEO of PlusPeter GmbH. Educated in South Africa, he is originally from Hamburg, Germany. Upon his return to Hamburg he completed a Bachelor in International Business Studies. He became interested in entrepreneurship when he founded the sales team for the company “Schokostück”. Following its acquisition by Ritter Sport and Chocri GmbH, Cecil undertook the key management role in the firm. In 2014 he left Berlin to study in the USA, where he graduated from Columbia University with a degree in Business Administration and Management.
Upon his return to Berlin, Cecil founded PrintPeter GmbH (now PlusPeter GmbH) together with his friend Karl Bagusat. It started in 2016 with a simple product: a free printing-service for students. Through the lock-in effect of the free-printing service, PlusPeter has over the last two years become the fastest growing student platform in Europe.
Emma Ziercke is a research assistant for the Bucerius Center on the Legal Profession and a non-practising solicitor. Between 2002 and 2009, Emma worked as a Corporate Solicitor (Managing Associate) for Linklaters in London, mainly in the fields of private international M&A and public takeovers by scheme of arrangement. In 2014 she completed an Executive MBA with distinction and received an award for best overall performance from Nottingham University Business School. During her MBA studies she focused on Law Firm Management and won an award for her dissertation on gender diversity in law firms. Her work as a research assistant at the Bucerius Center on the Legal Profession focuses on law firm management, gender diversity and organizational behaviour.