I was only 19 when I moved to Berlin to study Computer Science and International Management. My big dream was to start a global tech company that would have a lasting impact in Europe. Now, 6Wunderkinder is almost three years old and looking back, things have turned out so much more differently than what I had expected. So far it has been the best time of my life – What a ride!
As founder and CEO of 6Wunderkinder, I am living my dream. With Wunderlist we are building an international product with a huge opportunity to transform the productivity market, both in personal life and business collaboration. It’s a long road to success, but I’m happy and grateful for where we are today and looking forward for all the things to come.
Often students, programmers, designers and business people ask me how it was in the early days. They want to know how we started 6Wunderkinder and what the challenges were. How it feels to become the “boss” of 40 people, build a product that is used by millions of people and considered a market leader.
I know how this feels. I also had the same, sometimes overwhelming, questions on my mind when I was younger. I still have them today and there's still more to learn.
So, I decided that it’s time to write a series of blog posts, to share my learnings and encourage all of you to start your own adventures whether it's in Europe or any other place in the world. The time has never been better to take action and start building the companies and products you want to exist.
Here’s what I am going to write about in the coming weeks. I am happy to receive your feedback, comments and questions. And I will continue to write about my learning beyond these 15 lessons.
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, that 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 careful 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).
Stanford University in Silicon Valley
Germany is also a hub for the best universities for entrepreneurs – here are my personal favorites specializing in the tech industry:
- Hasso Plattner Institut http://www.hpi.uni-potsdam.de
- TU Berlin http://www.tu-berlin.de
- KIT http://www.kit.edu
- TU München http://www.tum.de
The bottom line: Building up 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 find, explore and grow your personal dream. Ideally, you will 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 deeply skilled in one area of the business, the required skill-set 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.
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 co-founders and first employees. Try to vary your experience even further by alternating between design, product, and sales-focused environments.
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.
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.