Founder Stories
Borderless Work: How the Co-Founders of Boundless HQ Are Changing the Geography of Employment

In 2015, Emily Castles decided she wanted to work from France—and became a compliance nightmare for her COO, Dee Coakley. It turned out that cross-border remote work was a hidden opportunity. Dee and Emily co-founded Boundless HQ to help talented people work together, no matter where they happen to live.

When COVID-19 made remote work a necessity rather than a privilege, the chaos began. Office workers migrated from cities to mountain villages, beach towns, and childhood homes, and sometimes across borders. Van life boomed. Most employers had no idea how much of a compliance mess this would become. But Dee Coakley and Emily Castles, co-founders of Boundless HQ, certainly did.

In 2019, they founded Boundless so employers could build distributed, global teams, with employees able to live and work wherever they choose. Their software automates international payroll, benefits management, and tax compliance, which normally require an army of lawyers and accountants. They have now raised $5 million in funding and serve clients that include Code Institute, Airbotics, Cloudsoft, and other high-tech firms.

In the prototypical startup story, the co-founders get firsthand experience with a problem and decide to solve it together. The story of Boundless is like that but with a twist: Emily Castles was Dee Coakley’s problem.

It began in 2015 when Emily, a software development consultant based in Dublin, Ireland, pitched her employer on working remotely from France for a ski season. They said no.

But, with the consultancy’s blessing, Emily went to one of her clients, Bizimply, a workforce management platform that had been courting Emily for years. She told Bizimply that she’d join if they allowed her to work from France for a ski season—and work a four-day work week. No problem, they said, and foisted the problem on Dee, their Chief Operating Officer.

Emily was genuinely “intimidated” while asking Dee to set this all up. Sure enough, “It was an absolute nightmare,” recalls Dee, who started reading up on payroll, benefits, and other compliance issues for France-based employees. Dee did her best, and off went Emily to the French Alps. Dee figured Emily’s relocation would be a one-off ordeal. She was quite wrong.

Dee and Emily were both born in rural Ireland, which seemed to instill in them wanderlust and a reverence for autonomy. Dee, raised in the town of Roscommon, saw two starkly different models of work. Her mother followed her interests, which included owning a clothing store and working for the local newspaper. Her dad worked for the Bank of Ireland and hated it. He retired young to focus on music, his real passion.

“I always say my dad had a job, but my mom had a career,” notes Dee. After university in Dublin, she found herself in London pursuing not a job, but a career in music marketing serving musicians ranging from Beyoncé to Morrisey to Wu-Tang Clan. Although Dee loved the work, it was a chaotic sector with limited opportunities for advancement; most people left the industry at age 30, as did Dee. She saw better opportunities in tech and, eventually, landed at Bizimply.

Emily, raised in Summerhill, grew up hanging out at the pharmacy where her mother had worked since age 13. A natural at math and physics, Emily became a civil engineer but couldn’t stand 9-to-5 work in bland business parks. Moreover, her sister, a veterinarian, was taking lucrative temp gigs to fund her travels around the world. Emily wanted some of that. She took a coding course and pivoted to software development so she could work from wherever. Or so she thought.

Emily’s French compliance mess became history for Dee, at least until 2016 when she joined Axonista, a mobile video startup in Dublin. To Dee’s surprise—and torment—she became responsible for collocating engineers and data scientists at Axonista’s Dublin office. Of course, many candidates couldn’t or didn’t want to move and needed to work in their home country. “And that was when I started to have to actually solve these problems,” says Dee.

To call the process complicated would be a massive understatement. Dee had to retain lawyers and accountants in foreign countries and often relied on employers of record (EORs), which use local entities to legally “employ” people on behalf of their clients, who manage the worker. “The experience was absolutely awful,” she recalls. “It took over a year to set up in some countries.”

It also created tension between Dee and colleagues who needed talent ASAP. They couldn’t believe it took eight months to set up a French entity. But that’s how France worked. The paperwork was actual paper. The files were in real filing cabinets.

There had to be a better way of doing international employment. Dee reached out to her network of fellow chief operating officers, and all of them said no, there isn’t. It was a nightmare for them, too. Dee’s challenge started to sound like a startup idea.

Early in 2019, Dee left Axonista to begin the legwork on an EOR startup that could simplify global hiring. By spring, she had a good sense of what to build. That’s when Dee reached out to Emily, Bizimply’s star developer who’d introduced her to this messy problem in the first place.

Emily had decided to leave Bizimply with no plan (her modus operandi) and cycle across Europe, visit Morocco, etc. Moreover, Emily didn’t necessarily want to be a founder. Building software was one thing; it was consistent with her life goal to “maximize flexibility at work,” as she puts it. But managing people exhausted her. She was a no.

After her cycling trip, though, and another meeting with Dee, Emily started to reconsider: “If I’m ever going to do [a startup], this is the thing, right?” Having worked for startups, Emily knew to be skeptical, and maybe even cynical. Yet she had “absolute confidence in the idea,” she says.

Indeed, Emily had designed her life such that she could live and work from anywhere. “The serendipity of it spoke to me massively, which I don’t think has happened very often in my life. It just felt like everything aligned here.” Deep down, Emily wanted to work for a fully distributed company and help other people enjoy freedom of location. Check and check.

In October 2019, Dee and Emily raised a pre-seed round. Boundless then built its EOR solution to manage employment, payroll, and benefits for workers in multiple countries. Instead of spending months working with lawyers and accounts to figure it out, companies could just use Boundless to hire and pay people straightaway. Boundless launched the first version of its platform in spring 2020, just as remote and distributed work was gaining momentum amidst COVID-19.

“It was a tough time because most companies were not actually focused on compliance,” says Dee. No employer wanted to approve, decline, or manage remote work. The less they knew, the better. Eventually, though, companies realized that remote work was a serious compliance and tax liability, especially if employees worked across international borders, unbeknownst to their employer. Boundless won its first customer in June.

Soon, the traction convinced Dee and Emily that it was time to raise more capital. Through London-based Ada Ventures, a frequent collaborator with FYRFLY Venture Partners, they met Julie Maples in autumn 2020. Different from most Silicon Valley VCs, FYRFLY had a presence in Europe and the ability to bridge the US-EU gap.

“Julie was just an extremely warm person,” says Dee. “She was very human, very personable. It was very easy to build a relationship with her.”

FYRFLY and Ada Ventures co-led the seed round in Boundless. The funding enabled them to expand to more countries and ramp up sales. Julie became an important sounding board for the team.

“It’s a cliché that the first person you should phone when you have a problem is your investor. I genuinely feel that way about Julie,” says Dee. “We never feel like we need to hold back. We can be completely honest, and open, warts and all, and that feels healthy. It feels like Julie is on our team.”

Today, Boundless HQ supports employment in 25 countries. Because Boundless owns its entities abroad, it acts as the legal employer on behalf of customers (whereas many EORs rely on entities they don’t technically own).

Boundless’s key differentiator, besides a highly automated EOR system, is what Emily calls “the white glove treatment.” Boundless is passionate—arguably, obsessed—with doing everything 100% compliantly. “Customers that are looking for gray areas are not the right customers for us,” she says.

That makes Boundless a great fit for regulated industries like financial services, private equity, and venture capital. Unlike organizations that can pretend not to know where their employees work, these industries face much more oversight and scrutiny.

The Boundless team of 20 employees (and counting) is distributed across Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, Poland, and further afield. “There’s a lot of adventurers on our team,” notes Dee. Because many work outside their home country, they intuitively get Boundless and enjoy furthering its mission.

Emily’s unyielding desire to live and work abroad could have turned Dee into an enemy. It certainly made her job at Bizimply harder. Instead, that wanderlust unified Dee and Emily around a startup that enables talented people to live, well, unbounded by borders. It’s an evolution in remote work but a revolution in how companies imagine and assemble a team. Nationality won’t matter; talent, compatibility, and shared vision will. Work is work, wherever it happens.

Founder Stories
The Repeat Founders from Rural Switzerland Who Bet on Generative AI Before it was Cool

After Manuel Grenacher and Andreas Hauri sold their first two companies, they decided it was time to go big and aim for an IPO. Their latest venture, Unique, is “supercharging” financial services teams with an generative AI-powered platform that automates tedious CRM updates, data entry, and compliance documentation

When ChatGPT launched in November 2022, it took almost everyone off guard—but not two co-founders in Switzerland. Over a year earlier, they’d made a big bet on generative AI.

Manuel Grenacher and Andreas Hauri, co-founders of Unique, began using AI models, including OpenAI’s old GPT-3 model, to automate administrative busywork in the financial industry. While everyone speculated about how ChatGPT might transform business, Unique was transforming it.

To date, Unique has raised over $16 million in venture funding from FYRFLY Venture Partners, “Unicorn Hunter” Daniel Gutenberg, Swiss private bank Pictet, Constantin Sturdza, and VI Partners. Unique’s clients include big names in European finance: LGT Private Banking, PostFinance, Sturdza Financial Group, and Swisscom, among others.

Two entrepreneurs raised in rural farming communities aren’t obvious agents of change for the glitzy financial space. In many ways, though, Manuel and Andreas became entrepreneurs in reaction to the inertia of the old-school world in which they grew up. If not finance, they would have upended another industry (and probably will).

Manuel and Hauri were born and raised northwest of Zurich along the border with Germany, just a few miles from one other. Andreas lived in Klingnau, a town of 3,000 people, and his father supported the family as a policeman. Manuel lived nearby in Bossenhaus, a town of just five homes, where his family owned a dairy farm turned timber operation.

Their escape from rural ennui was computing. Manuel and Andreas were fortunate to get their first computers in middle school in the early 1990s. Since no one around knew about computers, they taught themselves to do everything, including code.

Manuel and Andreas knew of each other growing up, but rarely spoke. “I was basically the nerdy computer kid at an early age,” Andreas admits. With his blue hair, Andreas seemed “a little bit weird,” remembers Manuel, who has more of a sales guy vibe. The idea that they’d go on to co-found three tech companies within 15 years would have seemed laughable then.

When Andreas arrived at the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland in 2002, he saw Manuel driving a luxury Mercedes-Benz, which, according to Andreas, he parked in a professor’s spot. Admittedly, Andreas was impressed. How could Manuel afford that?

As a high schooler, Manuel wanted to avoid a future on the family farm. He started selling custom software to local businesses, partly to fund his university education, partly to fund his lifestyle. A Mercedes-Benz garage had paid Manuel for his CRM software with a car instead of cash.

As fellow computer science students, Manuel and Andreas not only overcame their superficial differences but developed a rapport. “At university, I realized that this nerdy guy was a super brain,” says Manuel. He convinced Andreas to work with him in his software business.

“What I found crazy about Manuel,” says Andreas, “is that he could go into a meeting somewhere and then walk out with the deal.” Then, of course, Andreas had to build what Manuel promised.

As students, they noticed that SAP customers struggled to localize its business software to the accounting, reporting, and compliance norms of their markets. So, Manuel and Andreas developed SAP add-on applications to do just that. This became their first company, Coresystems, incorporated in 2006. It evolved into a field service management platform for dispatching technicians.

Along the way, they also built a spinoff called Mila, a platform for crowdsourcing field services, which sold to Swisscom in 2017. Coresystems sold to SAP in 2018, and Manuel and Andreas joined the company as part of the deal.

SAP was a chance to recharge. The guaranteed paycheck and regular office hours were new to Manuel and Andreas. Manuel built a house and bought a boat he kept on Lake Zurich. Meanwhile, Andreas tried to launch his own startup called ambrpay, a system to enable subscription payments with cryptocurrencies.

FYRFLY’s Philipp Stauffer met with Andreas after ambrpay won a Swiss startup competition. Philipp decided not to invest as he felt the market was not ready for what ambrpay was building. ambrpay failed (“nobody pays with crypto,” remarks Andreas). Nevertheless, Philipp was impressed with Andreas’s tech savvy and creative thinking.

By 2021, three years into their corporate jobs with SAP, Manuel and Andreas were restless. That’s when Andreas said it was time to do something new together. Although they loved SAP and had never felt so financially secure, they felt constrained.

Their third venture was born on Manuel’s boat, over beers, somewhere on Lake Zurich. “In the end, Andreas forced me to get out of my comfort zone again,” says Manuel, in subtle dig.

“Sure, of course. It’s my fault,” laughs Andreas, who doesn’t seem to cope well with inaction and boredom. (He is, after all, the second most prolific reader on Goodreads Switzerland, having consumed over 1,800 audiobooks as of this writing; he also invented the first mobile karaoke iPhone app in Switzerland just because.)

The conversation on Lake Zurich fired them up again. They’d always dreamed of doing an IPO, and although they had sold two good companies, “It did not satisfy us,” says Manuel. “We wanted to build something people remember.”

They spotted an opportunity at the confluence of AI, remote work, and CRM. COVID-19 meant that sales meetings started happening almost entirely on video conferencing platforms. Meanwhile, CRMs from SAP and Salesforce remained an “empty software box,” as Manuel explains. “You have to force your employees to fill it in to get value out of it.”

The combination of remote work and tedious CRM entries meant that salespeople were spending more time on data entry at the expense of meaningful interactions with clients. And as Andreas noticed, most people are terrible at communication, especially in written form. Salespeople and account managers often turn rich conversations into choppy, impenetrable notes.

But what if they could record sales meetings and then use AI to distill and document everything that had to be entered into CRM? “You could get instant value without doing a lot,” says Manuel. “And that’s why we started Unique.”

Initially, Unique took a horizontal approach, testing to see which industries would bite. One of those industries was tech, which started shedding value and employees following the COVID-19 tech bubble. It wasn’t the fit they expected. Over time, though, Unique recognized an opportunity to verticalize into financial services—a sector where the company could provide immense value.

No industry suffered more from busywork than financial services, and no platform could reduce that workload quite like Unique. Advisors in banking, wealth management, insurance, and adjacent fields routinely spent up to 70% of their time on administrative work, like documenting things in CRM. Unique could cut that down to 30%.

With product-market fit in sight, it was time to bring on a seed investor. That’s when Andreas remembered Philipp at FYRFLY. Meanwhile, Philipp and Manuel were already in touch, having met years ago on the ski slopes in Laax at a Worldwebforum event. It was a serendipitous moment for Philipp when he learned that Manuel and Andreas are working on their third act.

Manuel, who’d spent three years working in San Francisco, liked the idea of bringing a Silicon Valley ethos to a Swiss venture. “You get so much from the competition in the Valley, you get fired up, and you don’t have this here in Switzerland,” says Manuel. “Here, everything is slow. And this has an impact on your habits and on your thinking. You simply don’t think big enough.”

Almost no one in Switzerland took Unique’s ambitions seriously. But Philipp did. He joined Unique’s seed round in December 2021. “Philipp is a person you can trust. He brings reality in,” says Manuel, adding, “he really takes care of the founders. You really can feel that he understands your perspective.”

For his part, Philipp respected that Manuel and Andreas reinvested earnings from previous ventures into their own company—something many founders avoid doing. “These are entrepreneurs who live with skin in the game and ‘walk the talk’ with their growing team,” says Philipp. “They work hard and play hard.”

The funding was well timed. When ChatGPT launched in 2022, it took Unique’s automation abilities to a new level. Their new flagship product, FinanceGPT, launched in May 2023. It generates client contact summaries before meetings, identifies stock transactions in real time, automates CRM entries, generates follow-up emails, and even analyzes meetings for pain points and upsell or cross-sell opportunities. On top of all that, it suggests next steps with action items for everybody.

Today, Unique describes itself as the platform that “supercharges” teams in the financial industry. Both married with two kids each, Manuel and Andreas insist that their wives deserve a shout out for putting up with them. (And no, Monika and Angi, they aren’t just saying that so they can work longer hours…they swear.)

With serial founders like Manuel and Andreas, Switzerland continues to punch above its weight in global technology. Moreover, Manuel and Andreas are mentoring the next generation of Swiss founders, with many former employees going on to launch their own startups. And Manuel and Andreas have no plans to slow down—at least not until they’ve rung the bell in New York.

Founder Stories
Test Me When I Can: How an Afghan Immigrant and Swedish Engineer are Changing the Future of Exam Proctoring

The existence of, an AI proctoring platform for educators and certifiers, is extremely improbable in retrospect. Co-founders Noor Akbari, survivor of three wars in Afghanistan, and Martin Jakobsson, a Swedish computer vision engineer, met online but bonded over a mission to democratize education. is an anomaly. Truly, it’s hard to imagine two co-founders with lower odds of meeting let alone founding a company that develops AI proctoring technology to make education available to everyone, everywhere.

One founder’s journey began in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1985 when Noor Akbari was born. The Soviet Union’s decade-long invasion would end in 1989 after claiming the lives of more than one million civilians. Civil war broke out soon after. “From the beginning, it was always about survival. That was the priority of our family,” recalls Noor.

Entrepreneurship was a key to survival. Noor’s mother figured out how to arbitrage aid supplies from the United Nations. The UN gave each refugee family the same amount of cooking oil, irrespective of the household size. So, the Akbaris bought surplus oil from small families and sold it to big families.

Once the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, there was less bloodshed but even less freedom. Some of Noor’s friends secretly bought Taiwanese VCRs, smuggled into the country. Bored, Noor wanted a VCR too, but it was too much of a risk to his parents and four siblings. His mother insisted that Noor get a computer instead, convinced by her nephew, a UN employee, that computing was the future.

Noor’s first computer had a 1 GB hard disk and ran Windows 1995. Shortly after the U.S. Armed Forces booted the Taliban from Kabul in 2001, Noor launched a digital printing press to challenge calligraphers. He produced newspapers, magazines, and marketing materials using Microsoft PowerPoint. Soon after selling this press to a government-backed enterprise, Noor served the U.S. military as a translator and cultural advisor, earning a special immigration visa to live in the U.S. In 2007, he relocated first to Nebraska and later to Columbus, Ohio and worked as head of testing for Mission Essential, a defense contractor known for sourcing and vetting linguists.

Martin Jakobsson, born in 1982, says his background is “boring” in comparison to Noor’s, and that he was “born with a silver spoon.” His mother, a pediatrician, and father, a serial entrepreneur, raised Martin and his younger twin sisters in the beautiful countryside of southern Sweden.

Martin was fascinated with technology—partly out of need. In sparsely populated rural Sweden, getting together with friends wasn’t easy. So, Martin spent a lot of time alone with computers. Soon after inheriting his father’s old IBM 8286 at age seven, he taught himself to code with Borland’s Turbo Pascal system and became a “hacker” (in the non-criminal sense).

That dedication to computing eventually landed Martin at Lund University for his undergraduate and master’s degrees (which included a stint at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign). In 2005, before even completing his Master’s in computer science and engineering, Martin was recruited to join Lund-based Scalado, a startup focused on image processing for mobile phones.

Scalado was acquired by Nokia in 2012, which was acquired by Microsoft in 2013. Two years at multinational tech companies were enough of corporate life for Martin. In February 2014, he became an independent software consultant. Though not for long.

In 2012, Noor was onto building his second U.S.-based company, Invedyn. It began when Noor pitched Mission Essential on a way to save money on language testing. At the time, the organization flew thousands of candidates annually to physical locations for human-proctored tests. Noor launched Invedyn to offer proctoring over video conferences—and landed its first contract with Mission Essential. Although Invedyn saved Mission Essential tons of money, scheduling tests remained a hassle. What if Invedyn could run tests asynchronously to reduce talent costs?

Invedyn started recording videos of testers and passed them to proctors for review. It occurred to Noor that online universities might need solutions like this, too. “If I’m in Afghanistan, and I want to go to university online, one of the challenges has got to be exams,” explains Noor. “How do you trust someone who’s taking the exam?” And how do you provide an exam that will work on any device, whether it’s a cheap smartphone in rural Afghanistan or laptop connected to fiber-optic WiFi in Europe?

Noor noticed that box stores were beginning to use computer vision and AI to detect stealing. Perhaps that tech could be adapted to proctoring. To create it, though, Noor needed an expert consultant—a “magician,” as he puts it.

Noor found his magician on LinkedIn in 2016. His name: Martin Jakobsson.
“I’m pretty sure I rejected you at first,” says Martin to Noor over our video call (he did). Yet something about Martin convinced Noor not to give up. Compared to other candidates, Martin seemed to be far more understated and honest. He had quiet confidence.With Martin’s track record, he could have chosen any project to work on, but after enough nudging, he chose Noor’s. “I love interesting engineering challenges,” says Martin, “but you can get that in many places. The difference with Rosalyn is its mission of democratizing education across the world, whether you live far away from testing centers, or have five kids [like Noor] and need to test in the middle of the night.”
Keenly aware of his privilege growing up, Martin also felt a degree of guilt, which, he says, “brought on the will to change things.”

For a year and a half, Martin consulted for Noor, during which time they built mutual trust. Noor began to realize that if their AI proctoring technology was going to become a full-fledged venture, he needed a co-founder and CTO, not a consultant. Who better than Martin?

It was not an easy decision for Noor. At the time, Invedyn had lots of revenue. To substitute that with a bigger goal—and to give Martin co-ownership in a technology that could have belonged entirely to Invedyn—was risky. Noor’s willingness to sacrifice short-term profit for a longer-term mission was a testament to their rapport. Martin gave up contracting to co-found, named for Rosalind Franklin, the British chemist who helped discover the double-helix structure of DNA but was overlooked by the Nobel Prize committee, which recognized her colleagues instead.

They landed a spot in San Francisco’s Alchemist Accelerator, where Martin and Noor met in person for the first time in 2017. Following Alchemist, they went on a fundraising roadshow, traveling from Airbnb to Airbnb together. They managed to raise angel funding, but after some 140 pitches, they were struggling to convince seed investors. Which is when they met Julie Maples at FYRFLY Venture Partners.

Something clicked in their pitch to Julie, recalls Noor. Within a few weeks, they had FYRFLY’s term sheet. FYRFLY led the seed round with Brighteye participating.
“Julie came across as genuine and caring, not venture capitalist-ish,” says Noor.
Martin, more cynical in general and especially towards VCs, wanted FYRFLY to deliver value beyond funding. “It was definitely something we would never have to regret,” as Rosalyn’s chief technologist puts it.
Julie effectively became part of the team, assisting with business development and advising the co-founders regularly. It was “…beyond what a typical VC would do,” insists Noor.
“Through Rosalyn’s ups and downs, she’s been very supportive,” says Martin. Whereas many VCs add pressure and fear in tough situations, Julie seemed to provide positive encouragement and constructive feedback. “She has always believed in our future, and that instills confidence in us,” he adds.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced education to go remote. Yet it wasn’t the inflection point for AI proctoring.

Educators scrambled to adopt remote AI proctoring solutions, which were thrown together quickly by existing edtech companies. That provoked a massive backlash from students who found that everyday behaviors—coughing, sneezing, looking down or up, wearing a headscarf—triggered the AI to flag them for cheating. Students of color were disproportionately accused of cheating by AIs trained on non-diverse populations.

Despite offering turnkey AI proctoring with respect for privacy and human diversity—and with a human in the loop to make consequential decisions—Rosalyn was fighting an uphill battle against public sentiment.

Then ChatGPT arrived in November 2022. It made cheating very, very easy, renewing concerns about academic integrity. It also reintroduced AI as a credible technology. Educators and students accepted that, despite the proctoring kerfuffle in 2020 and 2021, AI was the future. Rosalyn reasserted itself in the market.

Today, has raised $5M in funding and serves a range of clients including the U.S. Department of Defense, online education platform Coursera, the tech company Red Hat, and traditional academic institutions like Dominican University and Missouri Baptist University. With an AI trained on over a half million exams and diverse test takers, Rosalyn has overcome the many biases that soured students on AI proctoring during COVID-19.

Noor and Martin have had a strong, trusting relationship throughout their journey. They demonstrate why as we wrap up our conversation. Noor emphasizes how important it is for startups to get things “right” early on, when small decisions have an outsized effect on the future.

Martin takes the counterpoint that mistakes are inevitable. “The most important quality to have in a founding team is the ability to recover from mistakes,” says Martin. “Being able to mentally overcome and try again, even when things are dire, brings confidence because the next time you face that, you know that a comeback is possible.” Noor acknowledges the wisdom of his counterpoint. They clearly disagree to learn and improve, not to be right.

Perhaps the quality of their rapport is not just about compatibility and healthy dialogue, but gratitude. The way they found each other—coming from the most opposite backgrounds imaginable—brings with it a realization that their present defies immense odds. For to be where it is today, Noor and Martin had to be and do the unexpected.

Founder Stories
Anna Jaffe · Founder & CEO of Mobi

Mobi grew out of several labs at MIT in 2012 and has evolved to become a B2B solutions provider within the global travel industry, solving complex routing and planning challenges for large enterprises while integrating with existing products.

How does a CEO stay level-headed?

When you’re building a business, things feel more significant in the moment than they are in the grand scheme. You may feel like your company is dead if you don’t sign a particular client, but if you really internalized that, you might freeze up or make mistakes. In the journey of a startup, don’t let the highs take you too high and the lows too low!

Being an equestrian shaped you.

A big part of my childhood was riding horses. For an equestrian program to be world-class, you have to focus on the little things, the microsuccesses. At competitions, you see the results of your hard work. With horses, you’re always trying to make it to the Olympics. There are things you can control and others you can’t, but you don’t go in with a skeptical mind. You outline a clear plan and going to execute it. The same is true for startups. There are hundreds of ways we could fail, but the path I see most clearly is the path to success.

Tell us how Mobi grew out of an MIT project.

I founded and led the Vehicle Design Summit. We built prototypes with the goal of only 5% of the toxicity of the Prius. There is no more complicated supply chain than the automotive industry, and not many more complex engineering systems than a vehicle. We looked around the world for embedded knowledge from experts: great specific solutions that sometimes don’t make it out of the lab. We built a network of 21 teams and took care of fundraising – so very much like a startup.

How did Mobi turn into a business?

Large supplier companies have spent all their time developing exceptional physical assets, but don’t have the same sophistication in the digital realm. So we saw the opportunity to provide a digital experience to large enterprises that had a high level of detail and human touch. And we had the optimal technology to deliver that digital experience.

Find people who love what they do and are masters at it.

What have you learned about building a team?

I thought back to the project I led at MIT and asked myself why over 400 people rallied so enthusiastically. I realized they were at the intersection of “you’re doing something challenging” and “you’re really good at it.” These are the people who succeed and solve the problem. The fundamental essence at MIT is that everybody is different than you and everybody is smarter than you in what they do. So when someone tells you they’ve solved a problem, you trust them, and when they can’t solve a problem, you think “okay, that’s probably not your core area.” Let everyone be the expert where they are, and talk openly about areas where they are not.

Advice for first-time founders?

You want a team that doesn’t just care but really knows. If they just care, they’ll be emotionally invested but you’ll fail because you can’t really solve the problem. Find people who love what they do and are masters at it.

Founder Stories
Ioannis Tarnanas · Founder & Chief Science Officer of Altoida

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.


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.


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.


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


Favorite cocktail


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 Stories
Dorina Thiess · Co-Founder & CEO of Piavita

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.


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.


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 :).


Favorite book as a child

The very hungry caterpillar

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


Favorite cocktail


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 Stories
Cristian Grossmann · Co-Founder & CEO of Beekeeper

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!


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.


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.


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


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 Stories
Thomas Kessler · Co-Founder & CEO of Locatee

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.



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.


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.


Favorite book as a child?

The Adventures of Tintin

Favorite movie?

Snatch is a good one

Favorite cocktail?


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) 🙂