Start-up Portraits – Successful Start-up Stories from Potsdam
The Start-up Service at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam has already supported many different ideas and accompanied them on their way to self-employment. You can find some of the inspiring success stories here.
Interviews & Introductions
Our founders and cooperation partners tell their stories and underline once again that every start-up is special.
The Wirkungsanteil Foundation enables start-ups to donate part of their equity capital to charitable projects - comparable to employee participation in companies. This so-called impact share supports non-profit enterprises from the potential proceeds in the form of donations. Because it is a virtual participation, the own start-up is not financially burdened and remains powerful even in the early phase. At the same time, the participating founders benefit from the community network, events, etc. In this way, even very young companies can make their contribution to a responsible society through their success right from the start.
Tom Josczok, founder of the non-profit organisation, emphasises that both start-ups and established companies with many employees from various sectors can participate in the foundation. Nevertheless, we have a few questions for him:
How did you come up with the idea of founding "Stiftung Wirkungsanteil"?
The idea itself is not new. There are already similar concepts in countries like Canada, Israel and the USA. It turned out relatively quickly, however, that offers for this topic in Germany are few and far between, even though there is certainly a lot of interest from many sides of the start-up ecosystem. Similarly, we quickly found the right partners to implement the concept, who have the crucial expertise in start-up, impact and legal issues.
How do you define the term "Wirkungsanteil"?
The meaning of "Wirkungsanteil" can be explained in several ways. First and foremost, it is a foundation for impact. It is a legally binding promise to give something back if the business idea is successful. We want to support founders in building responsible businesses over time. To do this, we offer them suitable opportunities from selected partners. We especially want to strengthen the basic understanding of impact - how negative impacts can be minimised or avoided and in which fields start-ups can get involved.
To which recipient organisations do the donations go?
We deliberately refrain from already defining recipient organisations. If there is an exit and the proceeds that can flow into charitable projects have been determined, each team receives customized advice. We pay particular attention to "effective giving". This means that we take a special look at the orientation of the start-up. Then we scout projects that specifically engage in these fields. Studies show that the impact is significantly higher when the corporate purpose and the purpose of the non-profit are close to each other. In these cases, valuable know-how is often provided in addition to the donations.
All information and contact options for the foundation Wirkungsanteil: shareyourimpact.today/
When the start-up consultant is not teaching or coaching students at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam, she advises companies of various orientations and sizes, supports them in their business strategy, individual implementation, and the development of leadership skills, and gives workshops and interviews experts for the "Strategy Blog" on her website. The business coach and hobby beekeeper is inspired on many levels by her own bee colony:
"Bee colonies have been working with an agile management approach ever since. The hierarchies are fixed, but the roles are flexible. There is a great variety of tasks and opportunities for development. In the bee colony, there are clear rules, but at the same time, there is open clear communication and joint decision-making among about 50,000 workers. Such sustainable honey production creates a win-win situation for everyone and ensures their existence as a bee colony for over 40 million years".
Strengthening one's own (founding) personality in the long term
Sabine's core competence is clearly defined: "Have the courage to change!". As a systemic coach, she accompanies students at the University of Applied Sciences within their teaching on the topics of business model development, business plan and sideline self-employment. In the individual and team coaching sessions, she works with them "appreciatively and at eye level" on goal-oriented soft skills.
At the end of 2020, the three Onboard founders Henning R. Horstmann, Michael Dietz, and Mischa J.P. Wasmuth received funding for an EXIST start-up grant. EXIST supports students, alumni, or scientists in their innovative technology-oriented or knowledge-based start-up projects. For one year, EXIST scholarship holders receive financial support to ensure their livelihood during the start-up phase as well as for start-up-related material expenses and supportive coaching.
Onboard is a virtual reality prototyping tool for the collaborative design of spaces. With a virtual environment, the tool creates the perfect framework conditions for designing spaces quickly and iteratively "onboard" and for trying out ideas early and in an uncomplicated way. Onboard turns shell data into a virtually experienceable, life-size design context in which ideas are modeled, sketched, and validated like in a model building workshop. We asked how things have been going for the founders since receiving EXIST funding:
You are in the third funding month of your scholarship, how are you doing with it?
Michael & Henning:
We are doing very well with it! We started the EXIST year in December with our new developer Mischa and he is making sure that the product is progressing properly. After spending a lot of time in 2020 acquiring funds for our project, it now feels really good to put the plans into action. For the first two months, Mischa was able to learn Onboard's code and lay a lot of groundwork while we focused on business topics like budgeting or setting up a limited liability company. These topics are new and exciting for us, but we are now also looking forward to the coming months in which we will work together on Onboard.
How far along are you with your business plan?
Michael & Henning:
The scope of the application for EXIST funding includes the so-called idea paper. This is something like a small business plan that we develop further over time. We have already reached a good stage, but until the corresponding milestone at the end of June – the EXIST funding program requires a business plan - we will add a few more topics and further develop others. One example is financial planning: here we take advantage of coaching sessions in areas where we lack expertise. These training sessions are covered by the coaching budget of funding.
What are the next steps?
Michael & Henning:
After we had countless conversations with interested pilot clients and received a lot of positive feedback for our onboarding prototype, the next step is clearly to implement a functioning minimal product. We will test this first version in workshop formats with the pilot customers in order to soon expand the circle of onboard test users. We want to use the funding period as intensively as possible for product development in order to be able to demonstrate success in a timely manner and to secure follow-up funding. With Onboard, we are dealing with a deep-tech topic that needs a longer "runway" to become profitable. The development is very complex, especially at the beginning, and requires a lot of time and energy. Other start-ups with classic apps have it easier, but we are convinced that the effort will be worth it!
Where do you want to be in a year?
Michael & Henning:
In one year, we will have implemented basic ideas of our product and collected case studies in workshops that we can present. In addition, in one year we will have processed the learnings from the test runs for a broader release of the application. Of course, by this time we hope to have raised more money to grow the team and have a budget for marketing and public appearances. So in a year, we want to be on a stage with a working product and a growing team. If Corona lets us ...
Speaking of Corona: Is Onboard suitable for companies to work together as a team anyway?
Michael & Henning:
Yes, absolutely! In a business context, we are not the first to offer collaboration via virtual reality. Some companies implement whole events or office situations in VR, but that's not our focus. We think VR is still too strenuous for these uses so far. Onboard as a prototyping tool is therefore also designed more for creative sessions of one hour. We see the value especially in working on a room concept with colleagues and clients on the other side of the world without having to get on a (physical) plane. This way, everyone involved can experience the changes to the room feeling live, as if in a real 1:1 model. This is simply not possible with desktop tools! If virtual reality were already more present in private homes, the medium would probably have experienced a huge boost through Corona. However, due to delivery bottlenecks at hardware manufacturers and still rather immature software on the market, VR tools were not particularly widespread in contactless collaboration. So, unfortunately, we can't get around Zoom & Co. yet!
What other support do you receive?
Michael & Henning:
We receive support in many areas. Legally, there are a few questions to be clarified and entrepreneurially, we receive intensive training. Since we both have a design background and are not business economists, we are happy to get help here. We learned early on that it's better to ask an expert than to try to implement everything ourselves. That way, we take the most experience with us and save ourselves the trouble of digging through half-knowledge via Google. Financially, we will also soon receive support from Epic Games. But we can only tell you more about that in the next interview!
We also receive a lot of support from the start-up service of the University of Applied Sciences Postdam. Anke Lüers-Salzmann is an angel for us! The EXIST funding program throws up quite a few bureaucratic hurdles, but Anke shows us the way and lends a hand. She also recommended Dr. Liv Kirsten Jacobsen to us at the beginning, who advised us on the ideas paper and is constantly helping us to find clarity on many issues. At this point, many thanks to our supporters! (Interview from February 2021 - Anne Timm)
Jennifer Tix is the founder of the Berlin-based company Großstadtzoo: A Studio for Design – specializing in corporate branding, graphics, editorial design as well as illustration. Previously, Jennifer worked in an agency, and later as a freelancer - sometimes simultaneously. In 2017, she founded her own company – with the help of the start-up service of the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam, among others. Over the years, this has developed into a creative network for which sustainability and appreciative work are more important than the mere idea of service.
Why did you ultimately decide on this path to founding a company?
At the beginning of my professional life, I would never have thought I was the type to take the step into self-employment. I love security, which is not the first thing I associate with self-employment. I was part of an agency for many years - as a trainee, apprentice, and student assistant. I firmly assumed that I would be taken on. And I didn't question this path at all. But things turned out quite differently. Contrary to expectations, there was no offer of a permanent position.
This was probably the first time I seriously thought about how I like to work, what I like to work on, what my strengths are, what I might have been missing, and what I actually want. For a few months, I worked in another agency. But I wasn't happy there. In my head, I was probably already gone. I followed the impulse to quit and simply registered myself as self-employed with the tax office.
And how did it finally come to Großstadtzoo?
In my move out of solo self-employment and into starting a business, there was a desire to build something that would last. It's a chance to pass something on and take responsibility for myself and others, to shape and grow as a team, to train, to act in a self-determined way, to take holistic responsibility for projects, and to experience feedback and appreciation for one's own performance.
You founded Großstadtzoo as a team back then. How did that come about?
In the years before, I was a solo self-employed person. But I began to long for teamwork and exchange. I founded the company with two fellow students and friends during my Master's degree. We wanted to go new ways, shape our working environment ourselves, and change things. For me, it was first and foremost a chance to grow – personally and professionally. For my two comrades-in-arms, it was a jump into the deep end, out of a permanent employment relationship. But also out of structures that could not be changed.
What support did you have in the process?
Without the support from the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam or the start-up service program of the university, we probably would never have taken this step. It gave us the necessary space, time, and know-how. We received legal advice, training in business administration, and coaching for team building. After a year, we had a comprehensive and well-thought-out business plan, a small test client, and many good ideas (some are still in the drawer today). There was mental support from friends and family and the first orders from my old agency.
How many heads belong to Großstadtzoo by now?
After my co-founders left in 2019, I started anew in 2020. At the moment there are three of us. Klaus, a long-time colleague and illustrator, Janina as an intern or freelancer, and me as the founder. We would like to expand the team this year with a fourth "permanent" person. Our long-term goal is to make Großstadtzoo a home (collective) for a large number of freelancers. Through a good network, depending on the project, an individual team of graphics, text, programming, and much more is already forming.
How do you get your orders/projects?
We have a small pool of regular clients. The rest is project business. Like many industries, we also live from recommendations. Thanks to satisfied customers, we are usually approached. That's a very comfortable situation. We manage larger projects with friendly agencies and take part in tenders. But of course, we also cultivate our network and do a small amount of cold calling.
Do you also turn down commissions, if so, why?
Yes, we also turn down assignments. This can be due to content, for example, i.e. projects that we cannot represent because they do not correspond to our values. Or we have very different ideas about conception, implementation, timing, or budget. It is also important for us to be perceived as a partner, not as service providers. And it helps to listen more to your gut feeling. There are potential clients with whom you just don't really warm up. If your gut tells you to leave it alone, then we leave it alone. Otherwise, no one will be happy in the end.
How do you manage your daily work as a company manager and your private life with your family and co?
There are things that are sacred, even having your own company doesn't change that. Whether freelance or employed - everything stands and falls with good organization. Nevertheless, during peak periods, private life sometimes gets a little too short shrift. On the other hand, being self-employed also allows for freedom, which has special qualities. When I take things home with me, it's not because I'm freelance, but because I love my job so much and live it with a lot of commitment.
Do you regularly have interns like Janina? Is it an option to take her on afterward?
Janina was our first intern. But she should definitely not be our last. I also got my trainer's license in 2019 and would like to train at the Großstadtzoo as soon as we have the staff capacity. However, we are still a small team, and therefore, for the time being, we only take interns who have already completed their basic studies or an apprenticeship. In principle, it is very desirable to take on interns or student assistants as well. Since Janina herself has already founded a company with a friend and fellow student*, this is not possible in this case. However, we are happy that she will stay with us for a while after the internship as a freelancer. (Interview in March 2021 - Anne Timm)
*Janina is a student at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam, already works as a freelancer, and has now founded her own company, sojadesign.
Martin Lexow studied design at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam. In 2015, with the support of the FHP start-up service, he set up his own software company, IXEAU. He specializes in designing and developing apps that focus on Apple operating systems. He always emphasizes that his products are developed carefully and designed honestly.
Responsibility is an important concept for the interface designer and programmer Martin Lexow. On his website, he describes himself as a software auteur. He chose the term auteur from (French) film theory not only because he has an undeniable soft spot (and talent) for film production, but also to emphasise the artistic responsibility of designers. His holistic approach to "attitude in design" and commitment to the user (behavior) becomes particularly clear when listening to his podcast Design Therapy with colleague Jannis Riethmüller and guests.
As a responsible designer, the exchange of knowledge is very important to him. He not only shares his experiences on his YouTube channel with 6080 subscribers and is available as an external consultant for product developments - since 2019 he has also been teaching software design and programming at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam. His followers, business friends, and students praise the constant quality and high value of his work. It's high time we talked to the successful founder:
What has happened since you started your business?
Self-employment, which at the beginning was just a sideline with an uncertain outcome, has turned into a fulfilling full-time job. I develop apps according to my own taste and don't have to accept commissioned work. This gives me a lot of freedom. My company foundation was the driving reason why I learned programming in the first place alongside my design studies. I wanted to remain as independent as possible in my decisions and followed Dieter Rams' idea that we should be "Gestalt engineers". He meant that designers also need a deep understanding of technology. This uniting of design and code is one of the central reasons why the company is successful.
Did you think it would turn out like this?
I feel very grateful that everything has turned out well. I could not have foreseen this. A start-up challenges you on so many completely new levels, especially at the beginning, so there is little time to plan for the future. In addition, there are many variables that always make predictions difficult. Even today, I concentrate above all on doing as good a job as possible at that moment. Of course, I also associate certain hopes with every new app development, but I steer clear of forecasts and believe that the really good solutions to problems (in my markets) will always prevail.
How did the start-up service support you in your start-up project?
The Gründungsservice was my first point of contact before I started my business. Anke Lüers-Salzmann was an indispensable support: she answered many of my open questions in a very uncomplicated way and offered her help in numerous directions. I took some valuable seminars from the start-up service, including "How to set up an agency", a start-up course with Enrico Sass, and a workshop on legal topics. I also felt well looked after in questions of funding and scholarships.
What hurdles were/are there as a company founder?
There are apps that I could never publish because they didn't make it through the approval process in the App Store. Bugs creep in that are difficult to fix because the only frameworks available are not reliable. And then there is the sometimes devastating feedback from users, who express their displeasure in 1-star reviews. Setbacks of this kind happen again and again. They often hit me personally, especially in the beginning.
What are your plans for the future?
Again, my thoughts revolve mainly around my current project. In a fortnight, I'll be releasing my next app* and am currently preparing everything for the launch. These days, when work finally finds its audience, are some of the best experiences in my self-employment - they never get boring. (Interview from July 2021 - Anne Timm)
*Editor's note: The app launched in the meantime.
Design alumna Yasmina Aust is a successful photographer in her adopted home of Potsdam, but her road there has been rocky. You could also say "Wow, what a story!" An inspiring start-up story that encourages you to trust your own instincts and tells you that being self-employed on your own doesn't automatically mean having to do without advice and help.
When did you decide to become a photographer?
Actually, early on, at the age of 11, it was my most urgent wish to study photo design later on. In the end, I actually studied design and started my own business as a photographer on the side. However, the way there was by no means that easy. At the time, my father spent a lot of energy trying to talk me out of this idea, for which I was completely on fire, with sometimes very hurtful comments. Of course, parents are great caregivers and so I finally bowed to his judgment and buried this vision of the future.
After training as a marketing communications clerk, I was quite aimless for many years and worked in all sorts of areas: From a receptionist to shoe and jewelry saleswoman, to promotion girl, handing out flyers to people who don't want them, or promoting Captain Morgan in seedy discotheques. It wasn't until the rather fateful beginning of my studies at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam that my life took on its first vague structure. Fateful because, due to the fact that I had dropped out of school at the time, I wasn't actually allowed to study. Nevertheless, in a fit of boredom one day I leafed through a book "Studying from A-Z" from the employment office and came across this degree program, and felt like I had been struck by lightning. When I found out that it was possible to study with a special aptitude, my ambition was absolutely aroused and in the end, I was actually able to hold my own among the applicants.
To supplement my Bafög a little, I worked at the cash register of a drugstore and was absolutely miserable there. In addition, my first own dog died, which I got from the animal shelter at an old age. So I looked for solutions to make my life more worth living. So I offered a walking service on eBay Classifieds and uploaded a photo of my deceased dog. On the very second day, I was asked who had taken the photo. A little later, thanks to immense persuasion on his part, I had my first shoot for €50. My client recognized my talent and kept at it: "Make a Facebook page and upload five photos of yourself there. Then you'll see..." His words were proved right and what followed was an almost absurd rocket launch where I was virtually overrun overnight. After three weeks, I quit my part-time job at the cash register, stamped out business cards and websites, and was only on the road with my camera.
I basically owe everything to this person and I tearfully read him a thank you letter. He has access to free photos at any time, which he has modestly never once taken advantage of in all these years.
Professional photography is a highly competitive market - how much do you feel the competition?
In my beginner phase, I met a photographer who took me by the hand a lot as a friend and gave me some valuable tips about photography. Admittedly, I was extremely skeptical and not sure how right everything she told me was, and even feared that she would just bamboozle me in the end. However, as time went by, I realized that everything was so right and so I learned not only these things but a lot about valuable interpersonal skills and the power of mutual support. I now know that you can achieve much more together than on your own. You are always exchanging ideas and learning from each other. And maybe a colleague will spontaneously stand in for you when you're sick or help you with technical questions.
Furthermore, photography is not just photography. Every photo ever taken is always an insight into the soul, the past, longings, fears, and strengths of the photographer. You could have the same setting at the same time of day and year with the absolutely same people and moments and yet the photos would always be completely different. Because everyone sees things differently and captures them differently. That's why everyone has their own customer base and no one gets in each other's way. In addition, I think there is a huge demand thanks to social media and the like. So no talent has to go empty-handed in the end. I like to pass on this attitude and my know-how, and that's why organizing workshops and coaching sessions for young new photographers is one of the things I do very often at the moment. This door would never have opened for me if I had put it under competition. Good for me - good for them.
What do you think makes you so successful?
I think what makes me so successful is primarily my enormous ambition, which stems from my past history. Every shoot, every grateful customer feedback I receive heals a few old wounds and strengthens me in the fact that my father was simply not right back then. In the meantime, I have been able to free myself from what others think of me. I recognize, see, and feel my worth and that is probably one of the most touching things that have happened to me in recent years. No matter what anyone says about me, I know that I always try to do my best and that's all that matters to me now.
Of course, my circumstances also play a role: I don't have a partner or family and can concentrate fully on my job. This naturally gives me more opportunities to establish myself firmly than many of my colleagues who are responsible for so many other things in life.
Another point is my great need for security. A security that, by its very nature, is almost non-existent in self-employment. Having grown up in quite poor circumstances, I really appreciate financial security and food in the fridge. And at the same time, you never know when it's "enough" money. Faced with a possible broken bone, illness, or pension at the end of it, and in parallel no family or partner to catch me if necessary, I always feel restless and driven. I still urgently need to learn to respect my own limits, which I overstep almost compulsively. But everything is in process. Always.
Besides these pragmatic facts, I guess I also have quite a good feeling for people, colors, shapes, light, and moments, which of course benefits the photo results.
So as a freelancer, you have a lot of responsibility and little time, yet this was the only right path for you?
It's like having children - you can't know what it's like until you actually have them. And it's the same with self-employment. Besides, it wasn't really a conscious decision, it was more like being pushed into it. It's more of a vague idea. You'll never be able to comprehend how you just never get off work in your head, how you have to pull all-nighters for weeks on end just to go on holiday for a few days. You are a complete company, with all its different departments, in just one person. I don't know if I would have done it if I had been able to get an authentic taste of this emotional world, but I can also say quite clearly: I simply can't imagine doing anything else at all and I think I will continue to be self-employed for the rest of my life. In whatever form that takes.
So you wouldn't do anything differently if you could rewind time?
Definitely: no! In the end, every fall on my face was of great importance to the bigger picture. I wouldn't be where I am if things hadn't honed me. Even though a lot of it was of course often painful at the time or sometimes just stupid.
What compensation do you have that helps you in particularly stressful times?
In particularly stressful times, I simply don't have time for a balance. I feel like I'm working around the clock - even when I'm watching TV or going for a walk, I'm answering messages on social media, checking emails or planning posts, etc. Even when I'm in bed, I'm mentally busy. Even when I'm in bed, I go through what I have to do tomorrow or what I mustn't forget, either mentally or on my mobile phone.
My only oasis of peace is the warm, loving, and cute beady eyes of my dog Fridolin. I draw a lot of strength from this! However, if it is " only" stressful-stressful and not particularly stressful, then I take advantage of even a short lunch break to go out into nature in my converted station wagon. There I go for a walk or lie in my boot and read a book while my dog runs around in the field in the meantime. My car is my epitome of freedom and everyday escape. Here I can set off at any time and leave everything behind. At least physically, but of course, the thoughts often come along. (Interview from October 2021 - Anne Timm)
25 years of the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam have brought forth many start-ups. In a touring exhibition to mark the 25th anniversary of the university, 25 founders from all departments were portrayed and interviewed about their start-ups for the catalog.