Lessons Learned: The Road to Self-Employment is Not What People Expect

Extracts from the diary of a startup

When we embarked on our startup, the only thing we were actually clear about was the concept, but we didn’t realize that until afterwards – looking back. The concept was about setting up a platform for experience-based learning, which would be fundamentally different from what was on the market. It was a long and sometimes challenging road to turn this idea into a reality but we had the professional support of Steinbeis along the way. When I say “we,” that’s Sonja Johanna Döring and Alex Müller, the founders of no/academy in Stuttgart.

As a business founder, you’re on the road a lot trying to get to know as many people as possible, who not only like the idea but also stand by you with help when it comes to the inevitable formalities like the company formation, capital, collaboration partners, suppliers, and ultimately the customers, who you also have to go out and find. The issues are complex from the very beginning, because you don’t know where to start, and there are a variety of places to turn to for the first stages of the startup.

Anyone who’s invested five minutes looking at the startup scene notices that there’s a whole host of initiatives, accelerators, investors, business angels, startup advisors, all financial institutions – all with their own recommendations, which, ideally, you’re supposed to look at right away. The first thing we learned was that there’s no kind of timetable that immediately works for you. And at the beginning it really wasn’t a comfortable feeling because the more people you talk to, the more you realize what you don’t know.

We asked ourselves so many times over the last twelve months what’s actually special about our startup – or different – and we asked plenty of questions but nobody seemed to be able to give us simple or clear answers. It was like, “In this country, n-thousand companies are set up every year, so why – now of all times – can no one tell me if we need money on a bank account before we march off to the notary public, or whether we have to go to the notary first in order to set up an account?” That’s just one example. Just a simple question for which we got a whole variety of answers. We were often in this kind of situation and we were astonished by the kind of fundamental issues we had to deal with. In the end, we went with all of the many open questions to Steinbeis, where we got a startup voucher (EXI). And that’s where we met the startup consultant Mario Buric, who still works with us today. The EXI voucher helped us get support during the pre-startup phase. We went through a variety of topics during the consultations with him. The starting point was to identify the business model, which is where the business model canvas came into it. Then came the strategic positioning and the funding strategy, which involved a detailed comparison of funding options until we got to the best financing concept. Based on the business strategy, we then worked up the product portfolio, made adaptations, and set the pricing. There was a lot of intensive discussion about the structure of the business plan and during this time, our networks expanded massively in both directions – through different events and intro sessions with various key players in the startup scene in Stuttgart and Karlsruhe. In the end, we managed to pull together a startup plan and significantly reduced the anticipated capital requirements. So now it was possible to press the green button with a low level of financial support, basically funded through customers and an extremely precautious approach to costs.

We embarked on the startup in May of this year. The direction of the concept changed another two times since originally hitting upon the idea. We used a lean business canvas and some pretty austere calculations, and we had lots of incredibly useful insights – which we’d be  happy to share with other startups. They’re not so much recommendations on doing it exactly this way or that, more a variety of ideas that were important for us as a startup. These ideas still inspire us and remain with us to this day.

The point where our startup became a success was when we realized that treading “our” path, doing the journey our way, was actually the whole aim of it. Experiencing things ourselves, getting a feel for our consultants, concepts, techniques, and customers – those were the things that were decisive in taking us forward. And yes, we reached a point where we realized that it was about the personal insights we were gaining and our own personal development. Independent of what everyone else thinks. We’ve internalized this, deep within us.

A pivotal part of the way we develop our products is being fundamentally open to outcomes and remaining flexible, how we communicate with customers, how we approach issues ourselves. It’s about seeing things from a different angle, constantly questioning yourself, and never seeing anything as a given. Looking at amazing opportunities, or sliding into hopelessness – neither helped us shape our original idea, and neither hindered it, either. If anything, it was about challenging things from different angles, changing perspectives, trying out new things, and, ultimately, not having to do everything perfectly. We’ve learned to reflect on being a team and to not let go of this idea whatever happens. We wouldn’t want to have missed out on a single thing, no matter how difficult it was. For us, entrepreneurship is being ourselves, whatever the challenge.

The other things we’ve learned along the way with Steinbeis and Mario Buric include:

  • How to approach a startup, even on a part-time basis.
  • How to tackle difficult decisions, to trust our intuition and our gut feelings. If something doesn’t feel right, we don’t do it.
  • How to take something positive out of a situation that seems negative or is frustrating. At the end of the day, being turned away or something going wrong is an indication that you need to do something differently – you just need to look at it from a different angle.
  • How to deal with capital requirements. And that’s not just about reducing any foreign capital that might be needed. It’s about how we take on each decision and ask ourselves every day if we need something. And if we do, who might be able to lend it to us or do it better themselves.
  • How we can fund our startup ourselves, starting from nothing.
  • We were a totally “normal” startup and as such, in Germany, you have to go through all the regulations, rules, provisions, laws, and obligations. It was also clear that we could call on lots of people for help and advice.
  • We also learned that, as a startup, we founders really complement each other well with our original skills and capabilities, and these were completely different from what we expected. These weren’t just specialist skills, they were more about empathy, inspiration, stamina, and a shared mindset or understanding. We learned that a startup is built on trust and a shared idea, and if we’re not sure about something, we can ask each other. This philosophy of openness and attentiveness is something we’d want to share with others.
  • We also learned that being open to outcomes and taking an adaptable approach to our startup has an influence on how we shape the overall concept, or the products, or even our relationships with our customers and key stakeholders. We don’t develop ideas in an ivory tower, we work together with people on products from the very beginning – resulting in success and first orders!
  • For us, being open to different outcomes also means that we’ll have products that weren’t 100% planned but evolved through interactions with those around us – and not by leaning on market research data. At the core of every product are “components of open outcome” which are developed through interaction.
  • The initial fear of failure evaporated on the shared journey, even in unusual ways, and it ended up in the things for which no/academy stands: Learning New Things – You’re the Starting Point.


Mario Buric studied economics (Diplom-Ökonom, MBA, CSP, certified credit advisor, qualified banker) and is a startup advisor at the Business Start-up Steinbeis Consulting Center where he supports startups identify business models, draft business plans, and find startup funding. As co-founder of CROWD NINE, he provides advice on crowd funding, crowd investment, crowd lending, and other crowd topics. He also works as a guest lecturer at a variety of universities. In his role as a mentor and coach, he supports startups through a variety of initiatives offered by different accelerators, incubators, and the EU. He is a founding member of Startup Stuttgart e.V. and the German Crowdfunding Network.

Sonja Johanna Döring and Alex Müller are the founders of no/academy, a platform for experiential learning offering training sessions, coaching and events. Their startup works alongside a variety of partners to train and support professionals working in the “people business“. Döring and Müller draw on disruptive models and techniques to develop new outlooks and skills. They provide people with ideas for making personal changes in new working environments. They also help people perceive and appreciate their collaboration with others – from startups to established companies.

Mario Buric
Steinbeis Consulting Center Business Start-up (Stuttgart)

Sonja Johanna Döring
Alex Müller

no/academy UG (Stuttgart)

And the winner is…

Voting for the best TRANSFER article in 2016

As in the previous year, it was you who picked our winner: The article featuring “Extracts from the diary of a startup” was voted best article of 2016. Our congratulations go to the authors Mario Buric from the Stuttgart-based Steinbeis Consulting Center Business Start-up, and Sonja Johanna Döring and Alex Müller from no/academy, also from Stuttgart. Further congratulations go to Charlotte Schlichting from Nersingen, a student at Steinbeis University Berlin, who won the vote on the 2016 articles.

The emails received at the TRANSFER office almost set our inbox on fire: More than 600 readers took part in the vote. After counting all the votes, we had a clear winner: 101 votes went to “Lessons Learned: The Road to Self-Employment is Not What People Expect,” one of the articles under the featured topic of entrepreneurship in the 3/2016 edition of TRANSFER. In the article, Sonja Johanna Döring and Alex Müller, the founders of no/academy, joined Mario Buric, a startup consultant at the Steinbeis Consulting Center Business Start-up, in describing the long and sometimes arduous journey of turning an idea into your own startup

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