1. August 2013–
What does the founder of an app that's received more than 10 million downloads consider to be the vital advice to starting your own business in Europe? Christian Reber from 6Wunderkinder shares his thoughts on what it takes to go from zero to product launch in the European business world...
1. Dream big and start small
If you are dreaming about starting your own company, but you don’t know exactly what it is you want to do, or if it’s even the right time, use your time to study. Starting a fast-growing tech business is incredibly challenging, and requires a variety of skills. The time you take to study allows you to explore your talents and find the one thing you really excel at.
If you have a passion for design, programming or business – try to become incredibly skilled in one of those. The skillset of a founder often defines the focus and the culture of a company. At 6Wunderkinder we are always looking for great individuals who have a broad understanding of the things we are doing and share an entrepreneurial spirit. At the same time, we have a cultural guideline, that says “a Wunderkind is a master in something.” So, as an aspiring founder, invest your time and energy in identifying your talents and then follow your passion.
Success is not dependent on your university degree. Still, if you choose your university wisely, you’ll gain much more than just factual knowledge. By attending the best university in the field of your talent you’ll have the opportunity to meet like minded people and build a great network amongst many other benefits.
Don’t believe the myth of the college dropout who becomes a disruptive entrepreneur. There are plenty of examples where it doesn’t hold true. Early-stage investors look very carefully at the education of founders and their years of industry experience. Be aware of this if you are thinking of starting your own company.
The US has excellent universities for entrepreneurs, most famously Harvard (Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates) and Stanford (Elon Musk, Larry Page).
Germany is also a hub for the best universities for entrepreneurs – here are my personal favorites specialising in the tech industry:
The bottom line: Building a company, leading a team and sustaining a highly successful international business is hard work and requires a lot of knowledge. There are many ways to gain this knowledge. Depending on where you stand in your life, take the time and find a university that lets you discover, explore and grow your personal dream. Ideally, you'll even find your potential cofounders right there on campus. Investing in your own knowledge and skills means investing in your dream.
2. Work to learn, not to earn
Now that you've studied hard and really gotten deep into a particular discipline, it's time to broaden your skill set. While it's critical to become skilled in one area of business, the required skillset to start and run a company is much more varied. Starting a tech business requires a strong sense for products, timing, trends and markets, which you can only acquire through experience.
When I was 16 or so, I discovered a book called Rich Dad, Poor Dad – What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money. I might have even read the childrens edition – I loved it! I’ve recommended it to many of my friends because it contains a solid piece of advice: “Work to learn, not to earn.”
In order to be successful in life, it helps to understand the basics of successful leaders and successful companies. I’ve worked for different entrepreneurs, various startups and larger businesses as both an employee and partner. I did this by starting my own design and web agency right after I came to Berlin. We worked for all types of businesses for about three years.
"right"] There were times of high profitability, but also times when we were close to bankruptcy. We didn’t earn much money, but it sufficed to pay our rent, food and universities degrees. In the end, this experience proved to be the foundation of starting our own tech company. The reason we learned so much was clear: we weren’t focused on money, we were focused on learning. Our personal goals in those first few years were to start a tech business out of the agency business and that’s exactly what we did.
When we started 6Wunderkinder, we put all of our learnings from the agency into the new company and product. We learned how to win and lose customers, how to manage and mismanage projects, and how to hire and fire developers and designers. Most importantly, we learned how to fail at many things – the basics of any tech business. In retrospect, learning to face failure was my biggest takeaway. Each time you fail, you become more resilient. And as long as you do what you love, it will keep you going.
Having a period in my life dedicated to starting my own thing was critical. However, this doesn’t mean you should start your own agency. There are many alternatives to get similar experience. I would recommend you acquire experience at both a large and highly-profitable tech business (e.g. Apple, Microsoft, Google) and also a small, but fast-growing startup. For the latter, join 6Wunderkinder, SoundCloud, Wooga, ResearchGate or equivalents before you set out on your own idea.
Experiencing both types of businesses and the challenges they face will help you understand firsthand the reasons for their success. Learning how different businesses are structured, how they build their products, how management and leadership works is a long process. There is no way you can learn everything, but trying to understand most of it is incredibly helpful in starting your own venture.
As a founder, you will focus on finding the right idea and building your product. Defining company culture will be equally important for you. By working at different companies with varying missions and ways of doing things, you will learn what kind of company that you want to build. You will also know what skills you’ll need among your cofounders and first employees. Try to vary your experience even further by alternating between design, product, and sales-focused environments.
If you’re looking for a startup job in Berlin, join the Facebook group Berlin Startup Jobs.
3. Join the community and meet founders
Spending time with ambitious and like-minded people shaped my own path. Most of my friends are developers, designers, entrepreneurs, and work for different kinds of startups. When you move to a new city, like I did, it can take some time to connect with other founders. Leo Widrich, one of the co-founders of Buffer, wrote a great, provocative piece about the importance of the people you spend time with, and quoted the entrepreneur Jim Rohn:
"You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with." Jim Rohn
If you start an international tech business, you’ll be competing with intelligent, ambitious, and highly skilled people from all around the globe. It’s a huge challenge and having a great community of entrepreneurs, developers and designers for support is key.
I’m lucky that Europe, and especially Berlin, now has a strong and fast-growing community. But when I first moved here, I didn’t know anyone from the startup scene or anything about related events. I had no clue how to go about meeting with founders or investors.
To help aspiring entrepreneurs facing the same issues, I started a Facebook group called Berlin Startups. My goal was simple, I wanted to build a community to connect people and allow them to share knowledge. I invited founders, investors, lawyers, developers, designers and many more. The group now has more than 7,000 members, with people representing almost every German startup. It’s now the easiest way to discover startup events and connect with great people.
"right"] Besides connecting with founders, I would also recommend you identify potential mentors. These can be entrepreneurs who you think are doing a phenomenal job in building great companies. Surround yourself with them, learn from them. You’ll find out it’s easier than you think to get in touch with these people. It’s incredible how much you can learn from a single 30 minute meeting. I spent a lot of time in the beginning just reading about entrepreneurs and watching interviews on YouTube. I recommend you watch interviews on PandoMonthly, Foundation, Stanford’s Entrepreneurship Corner and This Week in Startups.
I follow many founders, CEOs, industry leaders, venture capitalists and other startups on Twitter and Facebook to learn more about who they are, and what they do. It’s a quick way to learn more about trends and important topics.
4. Find the right location
When I started my first company in Berlin, I lived and worked in my apartment with one of my cofounders. There was no need for an office, we built our product right from our living room. The apartment was incredibly cheap, and we had such a fun time. We were living in Mitte, right in the very centre of Berlin and constantly had people stopping by for a chat. That’s how “the early days” look for a lot of founders and I believe if you rent a space in the centre of a startup hub, you will find it much easier to connect with like-minded people and share ideas. It’s inspiring and motivating.
The main hub for starting a tech business is currently San Francisco. It’s an amazing city, full of people working at tech businesses and ready to start the next big thing. But the challenges you will face there as a first-time entrepreneur are huge. The costs of living are incredibly high and you will compete with the world’s most successful tech businesses for talent. Then if you’re successful in finding them, you will spend more money recruiting talented people than in any other city in the world. Jason Evanish wrote a great post about 25 Things I wish I knew before moving to San Francisco.
If you are a first-time entrepreneur, San Francisco is most likely not the best city for you to start your company. Luckily, San Francisco isn’t the only city in the world, there are other great places nowadays to start a business. New York, Tel Aviv, London and Berlin are vibrant tech hubs too. Depending on your new business, location does matter. If you are an internet/software business, take care you pick a location that helps you to start. We chose Berlin based on the following:
Does Berlin host and attract world-class talent?
We wanted to keep a healthy balance of young and talented people, but also very experienced ones. The success of Wunderlist helped us to attract top talent, but Berlin also provided an additional motivating factor for people to join us. Thanks to its underground music scene, cutting-edge art galleries, stylish bars and low rent Berlin has enormous international appeal. Over the past couple of years Berlin has attracted talented developers, designers, marketers and creative people from all across the globe.
What are the costs of living (and working) in Berlin?
Berlin has one of the highest and at the same time cheapest living standards of all capitals worldwide. Living and working next door in the city centre is still affordable, even though the city is growing at a fast pace.
What companies do we compete with in terms of recruiting?
When we started our business, only a few global tech businesses were also located in Berlin – most famously SoundCloud. There was already a lot of talent in Berlin and it was relatively easy to hire. Nowadays, it is becoming more challenging as you're competing with a lot more startups – but it’s still incomparable to San Francisco.
Does the mindset of Berlin’s culture fit to our mission?
One unique thing about San Francisco is its energising culture around building new companies. Everyone talks about it, everyone is part of it. It’s still a lot more vibrant, but Berlin is catching up. We also decided to go for Berlin because we wanted to shape Berlin’s startup culture – we always had the goal to expand to the US at a later stage.
In Berlin, most startup are based in Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg and Kreuzberg. Try to rent an apartment in one of those districts. Or if you're on a tight budget, Wedding is a great choice to find something affordable yet still central. Those districts are not only right in the epicentre of the community, but also very beautiful and lively.
5. Identify good and bad ideas, early
As founders we all have a ton of new product ideas, each and every day. Some of them sound promising but only a few have the real potential to become a successful, fast-growing and highly profitable business.
Before we started with Wunderlist, we had juggled a few different product and business ideas, but in the end we followed solving a problem we all shared: having one utility to organise both our personal life and business. We never used to-do apps before, but we sure used project management systems to organise our projects, and to coordinate work and communication with clients. We’ve tried many solutions but were never satisfied. We quickly started building our own solutions and realised, if we do this right, this could become its own business.
Most of the project management tools we’ve used were highly profitable products but equally hard-to-use, ugly and poorly integrated. Those were problems we thought we are able to fix but there was an even bigger opportunity in this market that many didn’t see. Most project management systems are powerful solutions to organise projects of any kind, but they lack intuitive design and what’s more, complicated pricing and poor integration prevented people from using them in their private lives. No one really used a project management solution at home, but there sure was a need.
That’s where we saw our opportunity of inventing a utility that’s as simple as a to-do app, but as powerful as a project management tool. It also helped us to start lean and simple, and grow Wunderlist into something bigger. Wunderlist, as you know it, was our MVP, our simplest approach to solve a problem that’s huge – helping people to organise their private and business life. A simple solution with the potential to serve hundreds of millions of happy users. Once we reached that proof point we were able to grow our product step by step to get closer to our vision.
So, how do you actually pick the one idea that has the chance to change the world?
I believe it starts with the ability to identify your own problems and think about clever and smart solutions. One big problem can be solved by thousands of simple solutions, it’s your job to find the best one. You need to become your biggest critics. Challenge every single idea with your team to the extreme. Be aware that most ideas that seem great in the first place are either already taken or not so great once you’ve challenged them further. Try to play devil’s advocate. A great idea also doesn’t necessarily mean doing something entirely new. Sometimes it’s even better to just do something better. In our case we took an entirely different approach to productivity software, without reinventing the wheel.
We didn’t focus on productivity methodology, but rather on making productivity simple, human and fun to use. We also learned that it’s important to get a working prototype into the hands of people really early in order to get feedback. Being open to feedback is something you have to learn – but don’t listen to everyone. Learn to identify the nay-sayers and ignore them. Find people that give you honest and valuable feedback. Don’t wait for an idea everyone likes, because most likely it doesn’t exist. What were the most ridiculous startup ideas that eventually became successful?
Kevin Systrom gave an inspiring talk about Instagram and he explained the reasons why it became such a success. I think you can narrow it down to these three precise problems Instagram fixed:
- Before Instagram, capturing beautiful images was hard. The iPhone camera and the invention of photo filters on mobile phones solved this problem.
- Before Instagram, uploading photos was hard. Again, the mobile phone and Instagram’s smart uploading process solved this problem.
- Before Instagram, sharing images was hard. The integration of Tumblr, Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter made sharing photos incredibly easy.
As you can see, often it’s about identifying the problems, but also about finding clever ways to fix them. It’s a difficult and long process. There are certain methods that can help you to set up your process and processes that lead you to fast ideation and iteration. Make sure you check out The Lean Startup, it’s one of the best books to identify and develop great new ideas. Another one I can really recommend is Business Model Generation. Both books can help you and your team sort out which idea is worth exploring and which is the one you should settle on for your business. As a founder, all methods and books aside, I can also only encourage you to trust your own gut. With Wunderlist we solved a big problem we all had in our own lives. It just felt right to start our business based on that idea.
6. Understand trends and markets
When we’ve launched Wunderlist, Dropbox and Evernote have been the two fastest-growing cloud businesses. Both had a great traction, and demonstrated that it’s possible to scale a productivity app to a huge customer base. Both companies helped pushing the trend around the cloud – amongst users, journalists and especially investors. The cloud itself is a huge topic in the tech industry and it helped us tremendously to gain attention and to grow into the business we are today. But when we initially started raising money – for building a new project management tool – investors fell asleep. Seriously, when I just mentioned the word “Project Management”, their eyes started rolling. No one believed in it.
"right"] But when we’ve redefined the story to “to-dos in the cloud”, the reaction was quite different. We’ve explained how Dropbox and Evernote have invented a new type of market – a market that scales, and a market that’s profitable. There was a trend around cloud business, and now also around productivity apps. When you build your own business, try to understand what the trends currently are, and build a story around it. When I came to Berlin the trending topics were all eCommerce, communities and software-as-a-service, and it then became social, mobile and cloud. Trends can help you to get attention, but be cautious. Trends are temporary and your goal should be to build a company that lasts.
As an entrepreneur you start a company with long-term goals. You want to create something that stays and adds value to people’s lives, both your customers and your employees. The challenge is to balance the awareness for trends and momentum without making yourself or your product a slave of those. It’s like surfing. You can’t change the ocean, so you need to observe and read the water and get on your feet in the exact right moment to ride the wave.
Niklas Zennström, co-founder of Skype, invested in Wunderlist one year after we’ve launched it. He started Skype in Sweden. One of the first things he talked with me about was “World Domination”. I didn’t quite get it in the beginning, so he said the following:
“Look at Skype. If we would have been successful in Sweden, we wouldn’t have been successful at all. Build Wunderlist in a way so it can be used all over the world, in every country and every language. Dominate the world.”
This has been a key piece of advice for me. Right after launching Wunderlist, we open-sourced the first version to get additional help from our community. It took just a few days until Wunderlist had been translated into more than 20 languages. It’s now a global product, in US, Asia, Europe and Africa. It was an important learning for us, that Germany, even though we started here, is not our only market. Our market is the world, we build a product for everyone.
The more we grew, the more we also understood the differences of countries and cultures. Our top countries today are the US (by far), Germany, United Kingdom, Netherlands, China and Japan, but all those countries have key differences. In Germany, for example, it’s easy to scale and grow, but it’s harder to satisfy and monetise. In the US it is much easier to monetise but it’s really tough to gain attention.
Do your homework before you start with your idea, understand how big your market is, understand in which countries you can grow the fastest. Build a brand and a product that works globally, not just in your country. Really, the world is your market.
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