Always a step ahead of the game
We meet Harald Mika at the company's headquarters in Bergisch Gladbach, where 75 full-time employees work. It's a sporty place. In their free time many go running or cycling, take part in marathons and triathlons, or even in the increasingly-popular obstacle races. Some of the people still working with Harald Mika today were also part of his very first team, the same that he put together when mika:timing got his name and really began to grow. It all started much earlier than this, however.
m:t now: You have been working on timekeeping at sports events for 30 years. How did it all begin?
Harald Mika: The first event where I did the timings was in 1987. A friend and I timed a triathlon in Herrenstrunden - less than three kilometers from here. The local triathlon club organized an event at the open-air pool there, and we measured the time with stopwatches that had a built-in printer. They printed the results out on strips of paper. We analyzed the results with an Apple IIe that had been lent to us by the IT teacher from my school in Herkenrath. I had written the analysis software in my parents' attic over the summer holidays.
m:t now: How did the analysis work back then?
Harald Mika: Of course, a triathlon is made up of three disciplines: swimming, cycling, and running. In 1987 electronic timekeeping didn't exist. For every discipline, we pressed the button on our stopwatch every time a competitor came past. The stopwatch printed out a time, whilst we wrote the starting number in a list. Then we manually entered the details into the computer. Ten minutes after the competition had finished, we already had a complete results list for the overall race and for each individual discipline. At the time, that was still highly unusual.
m:t now: What was the feedback like?
Harald Mika: Brilliant! The then-president of the North Rhine Westphalia Triathlon Association, Michael Fieberg, was also at the event that day. He was so impressed that we soon shook on a deal to time the next 15 events. That was really the kickoff for mika:timing.
m:t now: How does a student get the idea to work with the time measurement concept?
Harald Mika: Good question. It was a combination of time measurement and results generation. Above all, I wanted to do something that nobody else had done before. At the time there were no software tools available. So I had to think of a solution myself and then program it. It was so much fun!
m:t now: And it wasn't until 15 years later you founded mika:timing. What happened in the 15 years after Herrenstrunden?
Harald Mika: We had only done the first triathlon in 1987 for fun, not with the intention of making a business out of it. But after we'd been commissioned to time the next 15 events, my buddy Bernd and I saw an opportunity to make some money while we studied. In the meantime, of course, we tinkered with the timekeeping system.
m:t now: Tinkered? I can only imagine!
Harald Mika : We replaced the stopwatch printers with laptops. We sat with laptops at checkpoints along the route, used a numeric pad to enter starting numbers, and with a key stroke generated a time. That meant we didn't have to manually transfer times anymore and, as a result, we could minimize errors and made the process faster. And then of course came the question of whether we could measure the time automatically. In 1994 we came across transponder technology and the ChampionChip. We tried it out, and then implemented it on all of our triathlon events. The next milestone was in 1997 when we were commissioned to time the Cologne Marathon.
m:t now: So the Cologne Marathon was your first major event?
Harald Mika: Yes, that's right. And from there the work started coming in from all over Germany. At the time there was an exclusive distributor of the ChampionChip technology in Germany. In 2000 we took over that company. And with that, the number of events we dealt with each year rose from 30 to more than 100.
m:t now: 100 events? That's pretty ambitious for a side job.
Harald Mika: Exactly. At that time I had said that the business had grown so much that we had to completely focus on it. However, my buddy wanted to carry on part-time. Therefore, in 2001, I founded mika:timing on my own, which by 2002 was operating with four employees. That year, thanks to other temporary colleagues, we were already managing more than 230 events.
m:t now: And then?
Harald Mika: Things started moving really fast then. We expanded our list of events and employed more people. Apart from that, we started to offer more and more services such as online registration. And that's how we've grown from five people in 2002 to 75 in Germany plus another 15 in Sweden today.
m:t now: Thanks for the look back into the past!
In the next part of the interview, find out more about technological developments and trends at sports events.