Founder Story
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Founder Story
Ioannis Tarnanas · Founder & Chief Science Officer of Altoida
Entrepreneurship

What is your founder story? 

What led me to be an entrepreneur is a strong personal need for freedom and living the dream of having a positive impact on others. 

Altoida, was inspired by my Grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, and always pushed me forward to enable people to easily assess their brain health and detect neurodegenerative symptoms like symptomatic Alzheimer’s Disease at a very early stage. So I took on the journey and studied the space deeply and became a researcher. After 12 years, I had a lot of evidence and data that made me think that we might be able to do much better in terms of AD (& broader brain health) diagnostics and potential therapeutics with the help of digital biomarkers. That was the key spark for Altoida, initially not really as a business, but as a project. We set out to solve a big problem and while on the journey discovered that this could also be a big business opportunity. Most importantly, it will have lasting impact on patient outcomes.

What is your greatest learning as a founder and entrepreneur so far?

How the small problems appear huge at first. However, with time, different viewpoints, and creativity, solutions can always be found.

Tell us about a turning point / challenge and how you proceeded.

As a founder you experience challenges and even turning points on a daily basis. Breathe, sleep on it, and always be open to change the approach or how you think about it. If I were to now pick out one turning point, it would probably be our go-to-market with our business team. For me, as a scientist, and for Altoida, which initially at its core was just a technical solution, this step was key. 

From your experience as a founder, what matters most and why?

To be a founder, you have to be willing to take risks and to execute on your idea, so it’s important to have a deep passion for your startup and a mindset that welcomes calculated risk. In addition, having a certain safety net can’t hurt either. I would also add that a great, motivated team is also of course key. You can’t go all the way alone.

What advice would you give to a first-time founder? 

First of all, and most importantly, never give up. Also, choose your team wisely, try your best and learn from your errors, and always take feedback from others in the same position.

Person

What keeps you awake at night?

Mosquitos and a snoring partner.

Tell us about one of the most defining moments in your life that shaped you.

Finishing a PhD and being exposed to the ‘real world’ for the first time, at an age where everyone else already has work experience was definitely a defining moment. Although I entered the practical world rather late, I immediately enjoyed the possibilities and freedom, and with my appetite for taking risks, this all culminated into starting a startup. Besides founding Altoida, of course having kids, they say… 

As a founder, what is the #1 thing you have learned about leadership?

The importance of encouraging, inspiring and motivating employees to innovate and create change that will help grow and shape the future success of the company, through letting people grow and allow for freedom, appreciate their strengths and support them in their weaknesses to achieve the best results (also known as transformational leadership).

What is your advice on managing your startup and personal life at the same time?

Do something you love, so work will always be fun, and you’ll never get tired of it.

How do you measure success?

Happiness scale, personal and/or work goals achieved (yes/no), laughing at least once a day, having few regrets, being proud of what I’m doing every day, and of course the bank account. 

What is your favorite book/podcast and why?

“The 5 languages of love” as a framework is adaptable to all kinds of human interactions and allows for an understanding of interpersonal relationships, motivations, frictions, and misunderstandings relevant for leadership, collaborations, friendships, etc. Also, Sebastião Salgado’s Gênesis is great.

If you weren’t a founder, what would you be doing? 

Maybe an astronaut since space exploration has similar characteristics as founding a startup like taking risks. But most likely, I would be an AD researcher.

Fun

If you could travel back in time, who would you want to chat with and what would you ask?

Alois Alzheimer, to ask whether he thinks Alzheimer’s disease is caused by amyloid or whether it is more likely to be vascular factors, initially described in his pathological report but lost in translation over time. Also, my younger self, to ask if I have turned out the way I expected to become when I was a child.

What is your favorite job interview question?

If I’m being interviewed: “If you were to start your job here again, what would be the advice to yourself?”

If I’m interviewing: “When can you start?”

What should be invented even if not possible today?

  • Coronavirus vaccine
  • Teleportation
  • Mini brains (brain organoids) with a vascular system for fast and reliable in-vitro drug testing without animal models
  • A fairer justice system
  • Sustainable everything
  • Functioning healthcare system
  • A formula to turn water into wine
  • Hangover remedy

What store would you open on Mars?

Assuming water and oxygen are already there, probably a burger shop. 

If you were an animal/city/location/etc. what would you (want to) be?

An Albatross. Free like a bird, moving comfortably in different dimensions, adapting quickly to different climates, endurance (crossing oceans), and not having a lot of natural enemies.

Extras

Favorite book as a child

Taratata (Greek book)

What would you be (not in technology) if you weren’t a founder

Guitar player

Favorite movie

Gattaca

Favorite cocktail

Americano!

Something really unique, funny, and/or something no one would know about you

Almost served at a US military base at Hawaii developing virtual reality applications for mental health, but had to first serve at the Greek military instead!

 

Founder Story
Dorina Thiess · Co-Founder & CEO of Piavita
Entrepreneurship

What is your founder story? 

After some experience in the corporate world, I was longing for quicker processes, leaner management and fast execution. I applied for a new position at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland to head the Center for Entrepreneurship and support students to found and grow their startups. After helping dozens of other startups for four years, I was “infected” enough to start my own (ad)venture. 

Specifically regarding Piavita, Sascha, my co-founder (CTO) and I ran into each other and somehow the stars were aligned. We felt a perfect match as a founding team with respect to industry and technology expertise as well as readiness to go and jump into the cold water. I used to ride in the past and always had a passion for horses. However, I did not know much about equine veterinarian work until I spent some time understanding current practices prior to meeting with Sascha. Sascha’s technology work on software and sensors was super interesting as it allowed to get appropriate signals through thicker material of different sorts (i.e. thick mud). We looked at the problem of vets regarding horses and other animals and realized that our unique insight, both from a problem and technical perspective could create significant value for horse owners and their vets, as it would lead to better care (through real time data) and significant cost savings at the same time (less travel for vets). So we set on a path to create a professional Fitbit for horses as our initial product. We thought about applications for other animals too (i.e. cows), but we set a clear focus on horses as we realized that the global equine industry has a staggering size of over $300B and the level of care for horses is one of the highest in animal health. 

Up to today, we have measured over 2 billion data points already and we have a great data advantage to provide additional value to users (e.g. benchmark insights) as well as learnings for our own product innovation efforts and customer needs.

What is your greatest learning as a founder and entrepreneur so far?

Nothing is predictable, with every closed door there is another opening up, there is no “everyday”, and this was the best decision ever. In the corporate world your schedule is predictable and when something comes up it’s easy to “put it in the agenda for later”. Within a startup, days aren’t the slightest predictable and when something comes up the mentality is much more “let’s get this done now”.

What advice would you give to a first-time founder? 

Go for it. You will never experience a steeper learning curve than in a startup (either founding one or working in one). Trust your intuition and try to stay focused (do one thing right from start to finish and don’t follow every advice or opportunity). If you are truly passionate about the idea and see real value, the emotional value of pursuing it will overcompensate any loss resulting from failure.

Person

What keeps you awake at night?

In general, nights become sleepless if the workload grows faster than can be worked off. I have to be very honest with myself about how much can be done in a day and structure my tasks – and be honest with myself about what will not be done today or tomorrow. At startups, you will never really be “done” with anything at the end of the day. It’s constant evolution, iteration, questioning, etc.

As a founder, what is the #1 thing you have learned about leadership?

There really is no right or wrong as long as you are authentic. There are so many paths you could go down and people tend to give advice relating to their own successes of their own leadership style, but you have to figure out for yourself what style fits best to you and that you can follow in the long run. 

What is your advice on managing your startup and personal life at the same time?

Tough one! I think there is no way around the fact that we will always live for our startup, in the end it’s our baby and we chose to go all the way for it. So for me, the balance is not to switch off business, but to accept the fact that there is never a day where everything is done and that staying healthy and sane is the most important to follow your dream in the long run. This means, even if I think about business even in free time, I try to accept and embrace it, but try to not get pulled into it too much and feel free to postpone things to business hours.

Fun

What is your favorite job interview question?

What would be the first three things you would do if you were the CEO of Piavita for a month? 

What should be invented even if not possible today?

The automation of tasks that free the brain and let you focus on one thing at a time while making sure everything is registered, sorted, and prioritized for the next days and weeks to come would make life a lot easier.

What store would you open on Mars?

Wearable solar panels in smart clothes – this idea is actually stolen from my co-founder who is definitely the more creative and instantly had three ideas on this question :).

Extras

Favorite book as a child

The very hungry caterpillar

What would you be (not in technology) if you weren’t a founder

Teacher

Favorite cocktail

Negroni

Something really unique, funny, and/or something no one would know about you

I grew up in southern Bavaria, where people indeed wear Lederhosen and Dirndl for various occasions (although some Americans told me they thought most Germans are dressed like that all the time 🙂

Three of my friends actually married in “Tracht” (as we call it).

Founder Story
Cristian Grossmann · Co-Founder & CEO of Beekeeper
ENTREPRENEURSHIP

What is your founder story?

Our story wasn’t a straight path, much rather a bumpy one with many ups and downs and plenty of learnings. Prior to Beekeeper, my co-founder Flavio and I pursued several startup ideas, all of which didn’t come to full fruition, however, we learned valuable lessons from these experiences, all of which greatly contributed to Beekeeper. 

The first idea was Blicklick, an anonymous flirting app for students. Here we fell in love with the idea without really considering the user and hence first learned about the importance of focusing on the user. With this learning, we observed our users more and realized that the chat function in Blicklick was popular. We therefore went with this and launched Spocal, a location-based chatting platform for students. Despite initial success, we had to make high investments to acquire users and this wasn’t scalable – here we learned that it’s not enough to just focus on users, you also have to make sure they pay. With this in mind, we concentrated more on users’ willingness to pay, which led us to serve companies that were looking to create online communities. Initially, we tried to sell this value proposition to anybody that could remotely be interested, and this actually was already our next big mistake – we lacked focus as we were trying to serve every type of community. In response to this insight, we then tried to pinpoint the communities that were the most promising and that’s where we found our “sweet spot” – connecting unconnected non-desk workers. Here we not only found a large pain point and therefore a great starting point for a startup, but we also fell in love with the specific use case and mission behind it. 

So, all in all, perhaps the biggest learning here is that entrepreneurship isn’t a smooth ride in one direction, you will have plenty of setbacks and that’s ok & normal – instead of giving up, see them as welcome opportunities to learn & adjust.

What is your greatest learning as a founder and entrepreneur so far?

I would say it’s 2 things – It’s all about the team and focusing on customers, their pains and selling effectively around that. As previously mentioned, our venture attempts with Blicklick & Spocal passed important lessons along to us, all around the importance of obsessing around the customer. And this perhaps is the top priority for a startup as it is key to sustained success. Besides customers, it goes without saying that you can’t do anything without a team. Big thanks to all our Beekeepers!

Tell us about a turning point / challenge and how you proceeded.

COVID is a major shock for everyone, and at Beekeeper alike, this period caused deep reflection, especially in the first few weeks of March. We were fortunate to be in a good cash position and that our core value proposition is aligned with the acceleration of digitalization and specifically the importance of clear communication between essential workers and their employers during COVID times. Thus, we saw ourselves in a position to have a significant positive impact in this crisis and expanded our services to verticals that had a particularly high need e.g. logistics, healthcare, etc. 

From your experience as a founder, what matters most?

Grit. Sticking to the mission, to solving a problem and serving customers for the long run. Entrepreneurship is not only about solving real pain points, but also about continuously dedicating yourself to your customers and ensuring that the direction of the core product or service is always a process of co-creation, guided by their needs.

What advice would you give to a first-time founder?

Think really well before starting if you want and can commit (at least) a decade to the venture. Startups are more than short side projects. They require a lot of time & energy, so make sure this is something you love!

Person

As a founder, what is the #1 thing you have learned about leadership?

I would say, the #1 leadership learning for me is the realization that leadership has so much to do with communication between people. For example, a company’s culture ultimately comes down to every interaction within the company and the job of leaders here involves setting the right environment for the right culture to take hold. We for example did this through the creation of 5 core values that communicate how we operate – Bee Brave, Bee Open, Bee Proactive, Bring Out the Best in Each Other, & Keep it Simple. However, this is only the beginning since, for such principles to really take hold, they have to permeate every process in the company, especially in its early stages.

What is your advice on managing your startup and personal life at the same time?

Keep a “balance” and don’t forget the personal side. Startup life is a marathon that requires endurance in the long run – it’s not just a sprint for a few months or years. However, I put “balance” in quotes because I don’t see this as a strict balance or zero-sum game. Your “work” should be something you love and not something that’s only stressful and requires balancing – I believe more in a work/life integration than balance. Nevertheless, it’s definitely important to sometimes change environments and to devote time to yourself as this time pays off non-linearly.

How do you measure success?

How many lives we positively touch and change, be it via our product because people are using Beekeeper or employees that work at Beekeeper. 

What are your favorite books?

The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins, and Principles by Ray Dalio are great, to name just a few.

Fun

If you could travel back in time, who would you want to chat with and what would you ask?

Christopher Columbus – in order to understand what he was thinking when he sailed into the complete unknown sea to discover America. Being an entrepreneur back then often literally meant risking your life like in the case of Columbus, so I would be very eager to learn more about his thoughts and mentality.

What should be invented even if not possible today?

Something that makes the world live, work and grow in a peaceful way, no matter the differences people might have.

What store would you open on Mars?

An oxygen tank store and charging stations.

Extras

What would you be (not in technology) if you weren’t a founder

Policeman

Favorite movie

Big – with Tom hanks

Favorite cocktail

Moscow Mule

As an international founder, tell us something about your upbringing, your country, or anything that comes to mind as a global citizen

Always happy to see that authentic and innovative Mexican Cuisine has started making it around the world beyond Chili con Carne and Fajitas 🙂

Something really unique, funny, and/or something no one would know about you

When I was young and single, I came up with a dinner plate that was healthy and took less than 2 minutes to get done. Then ate it 1.5 years straight to minimize time cooking and to still always eat healthy, but certainly without too much variation 🙂

Founder Story
Thomas Kessler · Co-Founder & CEO of Locatee
Entrepreneurship

What is your founder story?

Before founding Locatee, my co-founder Benedikt and I worked at UBS and Credit Suisse. Both banks had been introducing modern working environments where people no longer had their own desks and could freely roam around the office building. We experienced first-hand as employees that this modern concept was not without its challenges.

Benedikt found himself being constantly approached by colleagues asking where his colleagues were. Frustrated by this, he realized that he would be able to answer the question very easily by querying the company’s computer network. Meanwhile, I was at Credit Suisse and realized that students were walking around the office manually counting the number of coworkers in the building. Curious about this labor-intensive exercise, I approached the responsible manager and found out that she was using the data points to estimate how many people could still fit into the building, when to make adjustments to workplace settings, and for planning the distribution of desks and meetings rooms.

While grabbing a beer at our favorite restaurant, we realized that the identified challenges shared a common theme: a lack of transparency in the workplace. The challenge of finding a colleague in a large office building reflected the lack of transparency in who is using the space, and the inefficiency of manual counting reflected a lack of transparency in how the space is being used. We also realized that both challenges could be solved through the same technology, based on already available data. While Benedikt started programming the first prototype for what would be known as Locatee Workplace Analytics, I went on to test the market and began initiating conversations with potential customers. This confirmed our gut feeling that Workplace Analytics was key to unlocking huge savings potentials lying uncovered in the real estate portfolio of enterprises and led to the founding of Locatee.

What is your greatest learning as a founder and entrepreneur so far?

Focus is very important. Startups, by virtue of their early development stage, are constantly faced with countless options. At the beginning, customers might present you with hundreds of problems and product suggestions. But also, later on, for instance when expanding, there are so many different paths you could pursue. This all is only compounded by the fact that startups usually find themselves in emerging and dynamic markets where there still are a lot of unknowns, few rules, and plenty of options. Here it’s important to stay focused. The specific focus of course depends on criteria such as the customer, market, or business model, but it always comes down to your core customers and their greatest pain points and frequently involves saying “no”. A great book to read in this context is Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm.

One crucial point I would add to this is that it’s not only about choosing the right focus, but also about communicating it effectively with your team. Without a cohesive team that pursues that focus with you, you’ll get nowhere. And this of course should not stand in conflict with keeping an open mind and encouraging unrestricted ideation around that focus.

Tell us about a turning point…

There are two turning points that come to mind that were key to where we stand today.

Our first important turning point was when we could confirm that our Workplace Analytics solution is solving a recurring pain point. Historically, our customers were used to conducting one-off manual studies, and it took us some time to figure out which of their pains were strong enough for payment on a recurring basis. After identifying these pains and iterating accordingly, we were then able to adopt a typical SaaS pricing model with multi-year subscriptions.

The other turning point was the shift in terms of how we deploy our solution from on-premise to the cloud. This was crucial for various reasons such as scalability, pace of expansion, speed of innovation and closeness to our customers.

locatee-fs-02

Person

As a founder, what are your most important learnings about leadership?

Two come to mind for me. First, as a founder you set the pace and expectations, but for people to follow, you have to be empathetic. You have to understand how your team feels and always communicate the “why”. Why should they care? This is where a meaningful mission comes into play. For us, we see ourselves as helping companies create places where employees love to work, and we strive to integrate this into everything we do and thereby be a mission- & result-driven company.Besides being mission-driven, it’s important to foster an environment of transparency and open communication. The success of a startup depends on its agility or ability to adapt, and this is only possible through feedback. At Locatee I therefore encourage all employees, including our most junior employees, to challenge everything and speak up.

What is your favorite book/podcast and why?

Two books that are a must-read for every startup founder are The Lean Startup by Eric Ries and Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey A. Moore. While The Lean Startup provides a framework for how to create an innovative product in a lean way, Crossing the Chasm gives a framework to sell an innovative product to the mass-market. What fascinates me the most about Crossing the Chasm is that even though the first edition of the book was published in 1991, in the “stone age” of internet technology, the framework fully applies today. Both books greatly influenced the team and me to build Locatee to the point where we are today.

My favorite podcast is “How I Built This” by Guy Raz on NPR – great to hear the founding stories of Instagram, Patagonia or Airbnb. Big learnings and inspiration guaranteed.

If you weren’t a founder, what would you be doing?

In general, I am fascinated by the possibility of creating something you can see & feel from as little as an idea. Therefore, if I weren’t a founder, I think I might be an architect – I am intrigued by how architects determine how we perceive and feel space through their designs. In a way, this is also quite similar to Locatee as we visualize how employees behave indoors and help companies create environments that employees enjoy.

Fun

If you could travel back in time, who would you want to chat with and what would you ask?

I would probably go back and meet Leonardo da Vinci around 1500, let him know which of his inventions made it into the 21th century and try to learn from him with regard to future inventions. I would ask him over a glass of wine: “With all the knowledge on what has happened between the 15th and the 21st century now, what do you think should be invented in 2020 that will be still around 500 years later?”

What is your favorite job interview question?

I like to ask candidates what they are truly passionate about. I’m not looking to hear something related to Locatee – it can be something entirely unrelated. The passion someone has tells you a lot about their personality including their enthusiasm and ability to learn.

EXTRAS

Favorite book as a child?

The Adventures of Tintin

Favorite movie?

Snatch is a good one

Favorite cocktail?

Negroni

Something really unique, funny, and/or something no one would know about you

Can’t stand cheese (quite uncommon as someone from the deep Swiss Alps) 🙂

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