Sebastian Müller from MING Labs, "The world is going to be fine if my son's generation grows up valuing more than money."

Several dramatic global issues are currently unfolding at once. As a result, the speed of change seems to be accelerating in a continuous spiral worldwide, transforming how we work, live and think in the process.

To unpack some of today's vital topics, I talked to a founder, designer and COO, Sebastian Müller. In the interview, he shares his story of adaptation when moving from Germany to China, explains the decay of today's money celebrating culture and uncovers why he is short-term pessimistic and long-term optimistic about our planet. Plus, he describes why his 97-year-old grandma can be an example to us all.
By Jan Takacs, 11th October 2021

The magical city

Jan: Hello Sebastian, thank you for taking the time. Let's start with something adventurous. Your journey initially led you from Germany to Shanghai. Can you reveal the backstory and talk about your Europe-to-Asia experience?

Sebastian: Hello, Jan! I was born and raised in Dresden, East Germany, and lived there for 18 years. After attending the civil service, I decided to go to Munich for a university, primarily to get out of my hometown, but nothing much out of my comfort zone yet. I wasn't very well travelled at that time, and I wasn't that curious about going abroad yet.

But in Munich, I experienced an international atmosphere and met many people from China and the US. That started to get me curious, and so I started with an exchange semester.

I subconsciously decided to go to China when everybody was applying to the US. In China, Shanghai was the only place where they offered an English speaking course, as everyone said you would have already had to know Mandarin, which I didn't. So I said, "Okay. Let's do it. I want to take that adventure. I want to see it for half a year. Then, if I don't like it, nothing is lost, and at least I will see something new."

I arrived, spent half a year there studying and travelling most of the time—went to Nanjing, Beijing, Shenzhen,... I fell in love with the energy, both in Shanghai but in China in general.

After graduation, I decided to hustle a bit, look around for what jobs I could get here, and figured out that you cannot get a visa without any work experience after graduation. So, nobody could offer me a legit job. But during that time, I met two guys who became my co-founders at MING Labs. They're both about ten years older, both German, worked at IBM before in Shanghai and had another software startup, and they were looking to set something new up at the time. So, we started from there.
“I fell in love with the energy, both in Shanghai but in China in general.”
What would be some of your most significant learnings or observations from the whole transition?

It was (and still is) a dramatically different culture. In the west, we're very individualistic, very much for the freedom of the individual, individual liberties, individual rights. In China, the collectivist culture is omnipresent.

It's about the good of the family, the good of the society. There are larger considerations for your actions. Individuals will not as freely express themselves. They will defer more to what's around them. At the same time, it's a highly contextual culture where not everything is being said, and what's being said doesn't always mean what you think it does. 

In a large context culture like Germany, you say yes, it means yes. You say no; it means no. In China, it also depends a bit on the context of how it was said, when it was said and what kind of setting it was. So building trustful relationships and relying on that is essential.

Also, Chinese people have learned not to rely on the state and the legal system as much, so the personal relationship is much more critical in the business. So I would say that rather than in Germany, we keep a respectful distance in terms of business relationships. And if there's a problem, we defer to the courts, and they figure it out.
Delivery services in Southeast Asia see spike in business because of COVID-19 (Source: Channel News Asia, Photo: Mediacorp)
MING Shanghai 🧧 Chinese New Year's dinner with the MING Shanghai team.
How were your business beginnings in China?

In the beginning, it was just pure hustle. We started with a focus on UX design for B2B software because it's the background of my co-founders and also, with what we saw developing at the time, the trends going on. We thought this would be an area with a lot of demand because we saw all these cool B2C startups coming out to focus on customer experience.

We thought that a similar change would happen in the enterprise world too, where people would crave easy to use software and not these old versions of PowerPoint and SAP and such with their horrible user experience.

Unfortunately, our start in China was a bit mistimed. We were a bit too early. In 2011, you still had the old version of Alibaba and QQ, which was just a mess. The concept of having a great digital design was not a thing. Nobody cared.

At the time in China, we were busy selling nothing. So my co-founder went back to Germany, to Munich in the first year that we founded the company, and he started acquiring our first clients out of Germany. So that's, practically, how it began. Only afterwards, we started delivering from China, where we had a small network of freelance designers, and then step-by-step, we grew.

Our primary intent was always to develop the business locally, so I was just grinding, going to networking events, signing up for the German Chamber, the Euro Chamber, the American Chamber, trying to meet people, figuring out what we could do.

Probably the biggest reason it was so difficult initially was that we didn't have a solid portfolio to start with as none of us, co-founders, have a design background. We just fell in love with the idea of a great design, so we had to find good people who could do the work and try to break through.

To be honest, the first client that we had paid us 5,000 euros to design a slide deck. No apps, no web applications, nothing. Just a slide deck. That was the first client.
Delivery services in Southeast Asia see spike in business because of COVID-19 (Source: Channel News Asia, Photo: Mediacorp)
The three founders 🥂 The three founders of MING: Sebastian, Marc, and Matthias (from left to right).

The pandemic's silver linings

Going now to more present times, COVID is a topic that we are not going to escape. So I am curious, do you see any silver linings in this pandemic?

It always depends on how you look at the world. I only have my personal view and how I interpret things. The desirable futures are different for each individual. I see that there have been many accelerations of things that we thought should have come a long time ago.
For example, to have hybrid and remote work as default. We never really believed in this 9-to-5 forced office culture, and how it constrains the talent you work with to a single geographic location.

It's nonsensical, but often, because we work for clients who want to see the people, want to have workshops, and want us to come to their office. That means that we have certain geographic constraints, which we had to play in. That context is completely gone now.

Last year, we picked up projects, delivered them end to end without a single physical meeting. I think this is wonderful. I hope it will stick with us for the longer term, but I don't believe there will be a complete 180° shift to the old way of doing things.

Certain "physical" things will likely come back, which is fine, but I think hybrid is here to stay. The same goes for business travel. We did quite a lot of business in Indonesia, and then sometimes I had to make regular day trips to Jakarta, attend a couple of meetings, and fly back—such a waste of fuel and time.

Hopefully, this whole shift will provide a lot of opportunities for people around the world. For people sitting in India, in Africa, and in other remote places and giving them a chance that you don't always have to move to the US or to Europe or wherever to make good money. I am hopeful that more good and high paying job opportunities will be available to remote workers everywhere. That's my hope that comes from that.
“Suddenly, we stopped flying. We stopped doing things. We were disrupted. It took a bit more time to reflect and think about the purpose. Why are we here? Why are we doing this?”
Suppose we move away from the business and work side of things. Do you see any paradigm shift happening in our personal lives as a result of this global tragedy?

I hope that it has helped us reflect on why we are doing what we're doing. Everyone was used to going about daily activities, and suddenly, we stopped.

We stopped flying. We stopped doing things. We were disrupted. It took a bit more time to reflect and think about the purpose. Why are we here? Why are we doing this? And I think that happened for quite a few people.

When I look at, for example, the conversation and the action going on in areas like sustainability and social responsibility, I would say compared to before the pandemic or compared to five years ago, I think we're at the peak. Not at the absolute peak for the future, but it's definitely gone up, way up, and it has to go way further.

We are also trying to go in because we see that as our purpose. As designers, designing for a brighter future and designing for things that are good for the planet and good for society, not only fit for making profits.

This seems to be a discussion with so many people involved across generations, across wealth levels, across countries and geographical boundaries, which I think was also partially brought on by this big reset that we have seen.

I don't think that if 2019 had carried into 2020 had carried into 2021 just generally without any disruption; we would see the activity levels at the number of conversations and deep conversations that we see today. So from that perspective, hopefully, the pandemic served as a massive accelerator.
Delivery services in Southeast Asia see spike in business because of COVID-19 (Source: Channel News Asia, Photo: Mediacorp)
Cross-departmental teamwork 📸  Properly staged photo shoot with our lovely team in 2019.

Growth at all cost

We are operating in a business environment that celebrates money and growth at all costs. Almost everyone seems to be chasing headlines, IPO or valuations. What are your thoughts on this culture of celebrating money versus ethics and sustainability?

To me, it all starts with education. I think Plato said if you want to control the nation, start with the schools. But, unfortunately, the education system seems to be broken. In other words, you show young children ideals and what to look out for. We need to think more about what we put up on the billboards, what we see celebrated on social media.

These are the things that they are influenced by. And if it's like, Instagram accounts flaunting wealth with big cars, big watches, and big houses. That's what gets celebrated in our culture. 

Or the very few 0.0001% of entrepreneurs who get on the cover of magazines, and nobody talks about the people doing good but the people getting rich. Then, that's the culture you get, and that's the culture that we have had since the 1980s when everything started becoming financialized, first in the US and then in Europe and then in Asia. Everything just became about money at all costs and then obviously growth at all costs, and it's pervasive. 

Money has gone from being a tool to being the purpose in and of itself until you have it and you see how empty it is and that there is no purpose behind it, but people chase that. So it's something that is definitely, not healthy.
“I think people get mental health issues also to a large degree when we are divorced from what it means to be human, and chasing money is not what it means to be human.”
What do you think can be done to change this way of thinking?

How to change it? I don't know. I think it takes a lot of conversations like this. I think it takes a lot of rewiring of the media, rewiring of social media algorithms, what you see in your feed every day, the stuff you see on YouTube, the things you can read in the papers.

We have to get exposed to other ideas. We have to get exposure to more stories about people doing good, not necessarily getting rich, but how many people they helped. We have to get more people active in volunteerism to feel how rewarding it is to be at the service of something.

Go out and plant a bunch of trees. Spend your Sunday giving out food at the food shelter. Do something to serve other people, and suddenly, you see how rewarding that is, whereas just chasing another dollar, which is in and of itself empty, unless you also get to help other people in the chase of that.

Additionally, I think people are talking more now about mental health; at least here in Asia, I feel that there's more attention now. And I think this is, to be honest, intricately linked. I think people get mental health issues also to a large degree when we are divorced from what it means to be human, and chasing money is not what it means to be human. That's not what we're here for.

This shift will probably take a long time, and it'll take many people to talk about it and actively do it. It'll also take many media outlets that we're consuming to change the way they do things. So it is a slow process. But I believe it's going in the right direction. It'll just take a long, long time. I'm long-term optimistic, short-term pessimistic.
Delivery services in Southeast Asia see spike in business because of COVID-19 (Source: Channel News Asia, Photo: Mediacorp)
Speaking engagements 🤓 Talking about organizational design at an event in Singapore.


Is there someone that you admire and why?

Yeah, my grandmother. She's 97. She lived through the Second World War. When she was a young woman, she lived through the German Democratic Republic of East Germany and brought up a child almost by herself. Her husband died quite early when my dad was ten years old, and she fought through all of it.

And still today, she is curious, she is vital and 97, and she's up to date. She has an iPad now where she sees pictures of her grandson using WeChat. We do video calls. She's just such a curious person and a natural learner and always not letting her age stop her. When I look at my other grandparents, or I look at her friends. It doesn't seem so natural. And I admire that. I think she is powerful and a fabulous person.
“How would I describe myself in three words? Energetic, curious, sceptical.”
If you wouldn't be a designer or a founder, is there a profession you would love to be instead?

Gardener. I would like to believe that I am fond of gardening. But, unfortunately, I have no proof of it. In my daily life, I don't have many greens around me, to be honest, but it just goes back to, I think my childhood because my grandpa had a garden, a nice one with growing strawberries and cucumbers and tomatoes, and we always loved as children to go there, grow the crops, harvest them.

My grandma would make food from that, turn on the barbecue, or eat the homemade tomato salad. That stuff was excellent, and I look back at it with so much fondness. So in my romantic view, I would like to be an urban farmer, an urban gardener and start growing my stuff.
What app on your phone do you use the most?

Probably Grab, to be honest. Rides, food delivery, Grab Mart and Grab Express to send things to other people in the company because now we don't have an office, so we send stuff between each other. I think that's what I use the most, to be honest.
What would you keep if you lose everything tomorrow, meaning materialistic possessions, not people, and you can only keep three things?

I could keep three things,.. (mulls it over),... That's a tough question. I'm not that fond of my possessions, to be honest. I like my phone, but it's not that important. No, not really.

I'm attached to my watch. It has emotional value for me. It signifies a milestone, so that I would keep that. I'd keep my wedding ring and probably one of the little things that my kid made in kindergarten, which I use as decoration in my home.
How would you describe yourself in three words?

Energetic, curious, sceptical.
And the world is going to be fine in the future if?

My son's generation grows up to value more than money.
About Sebastian
Sebastian Müller is a founder, designer and COO of MING Labs. He believes in the creative renewal of systems through concerted efforts from inside and outside to preserve what works and change what does not and is passionate about transforming the old economy into the new economy and designing for a brighter future for people and the planet. You can drop him a note via LinkedIn here.
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