You don’t have the “typical” academic background that most people in the tech or startup scene have. Did your time at Jacobs University Bremen and Stanford shape the way you approach your career?
My background is in international relations and my master's program at Stanford was in international policy studies. Stanford has a pretty broad career approach, especially in the realm of social change and development, which allowed me to drift into the area of social innovation through the private sector. At the time there were a number of pretty revolutionary, big companies that were business-focused but with a real social impact perspective (e.g. Acumen) coming out of Stanford. I was also working out my personal preferences and strengths, realizing, ‘wow, maybe I am less of an institutional person working in multilateral organizations and maybe I can do my part of bringing about some change through the private sector’. And that’s how I started at Polymath.
When I started at Polymath I very strongly focused on bringing about social change through impact driven innovation focusing on the underserved middle class. The approach of Polymath Ventures is to build specific, socially-minded companies that are profitable but really bring about change for the middle class. That was super attractive for me at the time.
You spent a lot of time at Polymath, first as a seed fellow and then as a Senior Business Designer & Principal. What kind of perspective did this experience give you on founding companies?
There were a thousand learnings from my time at Polymath. One big one was how much potential there is for social change to be brought about in the private sector. Another was in the idea of Polymath itself. This idea iterated a lot over time, but basically we had a model in which we were able to basically churn out companies through a very methodological approach. And I think the logical fallacy was, in the first place: that it's extremely difficult to just follow a recipe and build a company. The process is often very messy.
But the other aspect is focus. At some point, our portfolio had grown to six or seven companies, and eventually one or two had to close down. My thinking was always, ‘wow what if we had put all of the resources (including money, talent, and energy) into just two of those companies that we ended up closing - or what if we had invested all of those resources into the remaining five companies?’
Do you think this idea of methodological company creation helped demystify the idea of founding your own company?
It definitely helped. But look, a friend of mine who went through the Y-Combinator program wrote an article and she mentioned that even at Y-Combinator they say there's advice and best practices and there are very obvious steps that you have to go through or hoops that you have to jump through, but there's no panacea for building a company. I just don't think that it's that easy. There are necessary steps, but very clearly they're not sufficient for you to be a hundred percent sure that a company will succeed.
But having said that, I do think that having gone through such a methodological project of building companies and having seen systematically where we failed definitely allowed me to build mental models around things that I have to keep in mind because I don't want to repeat that mistake. One example I would give you today is a mix of learnings from Polymath and a cold brew coffee company I built called Philosoffee that we (to a certain extent) also failed with. This is something you can read about anywhere, but it's different when you have to actually walk the path rather than just talk it. With Polymath, we had a really strong focus on building companies that built on existing behaviors. You always try to focus on people's current behaviors and how to build on top of them, rather than forcing someone to change everything. It’s difficult for people to change habits in general, and so they have to be minor changes. That’s something I learned by building companies in Columbia, Mexico and definitely also with Philosoffee. We thought, okay, this is an existing model, it's a trendy beverage, let’s bring it from the UK, Japan, the US, to the European market where it hasn't grown as much. We’re not the first mover but maybe the second or third company, but we do a lot of things better, focusing more on quality and transparency. You think, okay, now I'm checking all the boxes of what I've learned in the past. And bam, you see that it still doesn't work!
One of the biggest takeaways for me from building Philosoffee is that you should always only go one degree of separation from existing purchasing behavior. Most people in Germany are used to drinking fairly inexpensive hot coffee. To then offer a premium cold brew coffee, that's two degrees of separation and really challenging to introduce into the market. That's the reason why really high-end coffee works, because you're putting a premium on coffee, but it's still hot coffee and you still go to a cafe and you pay for the familiar experience. Or you introduce cold brew coffee, but make it pretty simple, fast to drink and easy to “compare” to existing cold espresso beverages. Trying to be sophisticated, making it expensive, and also asking people to change the use case of when and how to drink coffee… It's just too many steps at a time.
How you deal with failure certainly reveals a lot about your personal character and is shaped by the cultural context.
What were your early inspirations and motivations for starting Philosoffee?
One of my realizations with Polymath was that I was spending a lot of my time and energy on work. That's very much the definition of entrepreneurship. At the end of my Polymath time I thought, if I'm going to be dedicating a vast amount of my time and energy to a company, then I need to be more aligned with the values and the mission of the companies that I'm going to build. It really merges with my identity, so I only want to work on companies that represent the type of future I would want to live in. From a sustainable, ethical, and environmental perspective. I increasingly felt that I needed to build a company that some people would consider a lifestyle company, in the sense of a lifestyle that you yourself identify with. Whether that's electric cars or compostable organic plastic replacements or really high end coffee that pays a fair price to coffee farmers, it doesn't matter, but it has to be really aligned with my own values.
So that was my conviction. We invested a lot of money into branding and positioning, thinking about the visual identity of the company and how we wanted to communicate the company’s values. While I was still in Mexico, we were doing all of the branding workshops and the visual identity workshops to make sure that we had a company that we fully identified with. In hindsight, it was actually really helpful for all of us to be super aligned on the type of company, the type of values. It became a priority because of the personal process that I went through.
Philosoffee was eventually a victim of identity fraud and had to file for insolvency. Not just in this case, but across your experience generally in the startup world and your observance of other founders and companies, what is your personal relationship with the idea of failure?
How you deal with failure certainly reveals a lot about your personal character and is shaped by the cultural context. I was very surprised to see how German friends and people from the industry were really shocked and really scared to hear about Philosoffee: “Oh, you went into insolvency. This is a big failure. We're so sorry for you. You must be feeling terribly.” Whereas the US is a lot more positive about failure. It’s absolutely true and not just a stupid Instagram phrase that you probably learn 10 times more from failure than from success. Nothing's ever going to prepare you to build one successful company after the other, but you definitely become better and you collect accumulated learnings from having built and failed with companies.
Something I learned about myself is that I have an ability to separate my personal identity from my entrepreneurial endeavors. And what I mean by that is that having failed with a company for me has absolutely nothing to do with personal failure: the opposite! The fact that I have now set up another company is a testament to that. Failure doesn't make me scared to try again. I think the process itself is beautiful and you can only get better at it. I'm thankful for actually being able to live in a phase in my life where I can experiment, where I can take calculated risks.
Now you’ve started the Equal Food Company. Could you tell us about the motivations for starting that and how it’s going?
About two years ago, I met my now co-founder, Alberto Mojtar, and we got along super well, and also realized that our professional interests were very much aligned. Alberto was convinced that he wanted to work in the space of food waste with a very top-down approach. He knew of my experience with cold brew coffee and building companies in general. In the beginning, it was a lot of personal advice and guidance, and then our conversations intensified about the company that he was interested in building. I realised, I'm ready for the next adventure. And as I said earlier, what was really important for me is that I very strongly and personally identify with the values of a company.
That's certainly the case for food waste. One of the big statistics that we talked about is that 45% of all fruits and vegetables in the EU is currently lost. There's a reason that reducing food waste is one of the 12 United Nations Development Goals, because the numbers are just so shockingly high. The Equal Food Company has two fundamental ideas and convictions, one of which is that the quality of second class produce is exactly the same as the quality of first class produce. One of the ways to tackle food waste is by giving those fruits and vegetables a second chance, or basically to build a market for it. And so that's the angle we took on. We built a B2B model to go directly to hotels, restaurants, and catering, who care even less if a fruit or vegetable is ugly or crooked or small, because they just process the food anyway. And at the same time, the hotel restaurant sector is super analog. So we said, ‘If we can build a digital platform connecting farmers or producers more directly with their end customers, then we can cut out a lot of intermediaries that would all increase or contribute to price increase and food waste.’ It’s basically making life easier for hotels and restaurants and including a focus on second class produce.
Since COVID-19, we’ve shifted to a B2C model, which is going really well: we have actually surpassed our pre-COVID 19 volume with consumers this week.
That’s such a cool project, and such a culmination of a bunch of interesting things from your history, too.
Thank you. I think this is a great example of what we were talking about earlier, this one versus two degrees of separation approach. Right now we’re saying, ‘Hey, you get the exact same avocados. They're just a bit more crooked or a bit smaller or a bit bigger, but they're essentially the same. You don't have to change anything.’ And it's a great proof to that hypothesis, because it's been much easier for us to sell this and we've grown really fast.
One last question: if you were talking to someone at the beginning of their career, what one piece of advice would you give them?
Be very careful and very conscious of the type of company and people you want to spend a large amount of your life with. By ‘type’ I don't mean whether it's tech or deep tech or med-tech. I mean the kind of implications that come with raising money, that come with wanting to build a billion dollar business versus, for example, building a lifestyle business. In the early days you often just stumble into an opportunity, but it's really hard to see the implications two or three years down the road. I think everyone is going to hit that point where you ask yourself, ‘Is it worth my time? Is it the kind of people I want to spend my life with? Does it really align with the values that I have?’ And that’s worth caring about.