Is StudiVZ – Holtzbrinck’s once-proud “German Facebook” – on the brink of collapse?

Alex Hofmann 2012-06-07 1

UPDATE VZ Netzwerke and its owner, Holtzbrinck Digital, have confirmed that 25 staff have been laid off and that a “major restructuring” is underway. All IT staff have been moved into Devbliss, a new IT subsidiary of Holtzbrinck. The company is led by Johann Kempe, CIO of publishing house Georg von Holtzbrinck, who together with [VZ Netzwerke-CEO] Stefanie Waehlert will oversee the re-structuring of VZ Netzwerke – whichever form StudiVZ, SchülerVZ and MeinVZ will take in the future.

Could Berlin-based student social network and one-time Facebook contender StudiVZ be on the brink of collapse? Despite once being one of the most popular social networks in Europe and a restructure last year, new rumours are rife that about a quarter of employees have just been laid off from the Holtzbrinck holding.

What’s more, a spoof website has popped up named Wann-stirbt-studivz.de (literally translated “When dies StudiVZ?), providing a countdown of the supposed amount of time that the social network has left based on its usership graph – to date, it’s claiming the site has just four days left in existence…

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VZ networks: about a quarter of staff laid off?

According to the latest information that Gruenderszene has picked up from a source and from movements on Xing that about 20 of the 70 remaining employees of VZ networks – or about a quarter of the total workforce – have been laid off.

VZ Networks, which runs StudiVZ, SchülerVZ and MeinVZ, told Gruenderszene that yet another “restructure” is underway and more detailed information on the future of StudiVZ (short for Studentenverzeichnis, which in German means student directory) & Co will be available in a few days’ time.

Rumor further has it that all of VZ Netzwerke’s developers have already been transferred to the company Devbliss (an IT subsidiary of Holtzbrinck). The company would not confirm whether the programmers are still working for StudiVZ & Co or are already involved in other projects.

Relaunches and staff changes hinted at shaky times

A few weeks ago Mark Schunk, Managing Director of Holtzbrinck Digital promised a new summer relaunch of the website, reportedly including a complete rebranding to the shake off the site’s bruised reputation.

The attempt to revive StudiVZ comes less than a year after the last reworking of the network in late September. At that time the VZ Group tried less to go up against the big social networks like Facebook or Google +, but concentrated instead on niche markets tailored to the user.

Just two weeks later, in mid-October 2011, the then-CEO, Clemens Riedl left the company. He stated that it was the “right time to leave” having spent three years on the relaunch. He followed sales manager Sven Bagemihl, financial manager Thomas Baum and technical director Jodok Batlogg on StudioVZ’s management exodus. Riedl’s successor was the former Lokalisten boss Stefanie Waehlert.

No chance against Facebook

The rapid and rampant popularity of Facebook as the social network of choice for Western Europe spelled the end for StudiVZ – which suddenly began to look tired, niche and uncreative in comparison, despite healthy user figures.

Visitor numbers began to decline in significant amounts in the couple of years, however – according to the Informationsgemeinschaft zur Feststellung der Verbreitung von Werbeträgern e.V. (IVW) VZ networks secured only 104.5m visits last September – almost 20 percent fewer than in August and about 70 percent fewer than in the previous year. In December 2011 there were 77 million visits, compared to only 53 million in March this year.

Holtzbrinck: missed the ideal exit

Facebook made a bid for StudiVZ in early 2008 that was  had rejected by Holzbrinck –  with Holzbrinck holding out for an amount substantially more than the 85m Euros  it paid for the network – a mistake that has cost them dearly.

Not only would Holzbrinck have been able to exit StudiVZ & Co with a profit, it would also have gained a strong share in its US counterpart. As it was, Facebook decided to sue the German social network leader (at the time, in August 2008) for allegedly copying Facebook’s “look and feel”.

Without the hustle of the original investors the Samwer brothers on board, it almost seems that Holtzbrinck is having more difficulty than ever making successful exits. The three brothers are likely to enjoy themselves even more knowing that they realised their own early exit from StudiVZ successfully.

 

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