Thomas Link founded his own startup with Philipp Pfundstein and Karl-Bang Gottlebe. It was based on the concept of a drivable transportation table called FTT and the team was supported by Ruben Maier, director of the Steinbeis Research Center for Simulation, who works for Steinbeis as a startup advisor. The project was backed by an ESF funding program which awards EXI startup vouchers. In a joint interview with Thomas Link and Ruben Maier, they talk about their experiences on the project.
Hello Mr. Link, when and how was the decision made to set up your own company?
It was after writing my thesis at university. I’d been going through the business case for a drivable transportation table and I knew that once my studies were over, I was going to work with Philipp Pfundstein to make the idea happen. I got onto Ruben Maier after a recommendation from an acquaintance who’d also been advised by him on a startup. I approached him in June 2015 when I was working on my bachelor’s thesis. The thing that was important for us to know was if it’s the sort of idea that would work in business. We wanted to speak to an expert who had experience in setting up a company and who would help us avoid basic mistakes.
And you, Mr. Maier, what approach did you take to the consultation?
We had an initial session to get to know each other and take a look at the prototype. It didn’t take long for me to tell Thomas and Philipp that I found their idea good and that the product concept looked like a winner. It was an eight-hour initial consultation session which is free for anyone interested in setting up a business. So we went through everything and the aim was to work out if the business concept had any legs to stand on, and whether the two founders were even suited to setting up a business.
And what happened next in terms of advice?
Link: Our aim was to get an EXIST startup grant from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy to obtain the right funding and structural support. Mr. Maier quickly recognized that we’d need another co-founder to join us if we were to have any chance of benefitting from the program. So as a result, our main goal in the next consultation was to pull a new team member on board, someone ideal to fill our skills gap in the field of mechatronics. Maier: We managed to organize a series of interviews with students at Pforzheim University who’d be willing to start a business. Our absolute favorite was Karl-Bang Gottlebe and we managed to convince him to join the team. In technical terms, he was the perfect complement to the team because he was a mechatronics student, so he had the crucial know-how that was missing in the company. Also, he’s a good match with the team on a personal level. We also had product design and ergonomics on the agenda, as well as pricing.
Mr. Link, it’s still early days in self-employment for you, but despite this, what would you say were your biggest successes and what are your goals as an entrepreneur?
Our biggest success has to have been getting the EXIST startup grant since August. The bursary will now be paid to us monthly as a startup salary with funding for the company. Thanks to gaining this approval, Philipp was able to quit his full-time job to join me and Karl and concentrate fully on the startup. My aim as an entrepreneur is to fulfill my personal goals and come into work everyday looking forward to it. My aspiration is to try out something new and learn as much as possible, and of course I also want to be successful as a businessman.
Would you be willing to divulge what your biggest fears and doubts were regarding the startup?
Even at the beginning, I fully understood the level of risk involved in setting up a business, but I also knew that “he who dares, wins.” For us as a team, the main thing that’s important is to talk openly about risks and worries and then decide together which risks we’re prepared to take. One worry that will probably take some time to go away would be if we can’t find common ground for essential strategic decisions, or if someone’s not pulling their weight. Despite that, I’m certain there are more positives than negatives setting up a business as a team. You achieve more together. And then there are a whole lot of external risks, for example if a customer doesn’t pay or if the bank doesn’t give us the credit we need. That was where analyzing risks was a help in identifying potential risks internally and externally. Now it’s up to us to put measures in place to prevent risk or minimize it, to look as far forward as possible as we enter self-employment.
Mr. Maier, you’ve worked with lots of business founders now. What mistakes do you witness most often? What are the classic stumbling blocks? And what can business founders do to prepare for them?
Lots of startups have a very one-sided view of their concept. Unfortunately, they’re often a long way off market needs and customer requirements. Also some of them worry about talking to their friends about their business idea, often because they’re scared somebody might steal their idea. Actually that’s not something they need to worry about because the road from the initial idea to successful implementation is usually a long and bumpy one. So I can only recommend getting as much feedback as possible beforehand – from acquaintances, friends, even potential customers.
Mr. Link, so what’s next for you?
Of course we’re trying to drum up more funds for our business and get more visibility. We regularly take part in pitch competitions and Mr. Maier has been helping us with this and giving us coaching. If possible, he gives us a bit of moral support by coming along to events. Otherwise the obvious goal is to prepare our product for the market by next year and work up the sales and marketing strategy.
Mr. Maier, what tips would you give to people who are toying with the idea of setting up a business at the moment?
A startup always involves a certain amount of risk. So because of this, it’s important to get professional advice before the startup. My recommendation to anyone interested in setting up a company is to turn to the right people – like the chambers of commerce, which will offer an initial consultation for free. If the setup becomes more concrete and you seriously think there’s good potential for your own company, in Baden- Württemberg there’s the ESF program with its EXI startup vouchers. The advisors that are approved under the program, like Steinbeis, have experts with the right experience who are always happy to help turn an idea into a reality.
Thomas Link is a graduate of Pforzheim University and he turned to the university for help with identifying a topic for his thesis. It was then that he first met Philipp Pfundstein, who had a business idea based on a drivable transportation table to help in household and care homes. Pfundstein, who is a qualified plant engineer, originally thought of the idea after injuring his leg. He screwed a tray onto the top of a remote control toy car which allowed him to transport coffee, plates and other objects around the room – despite needing two crutches!
Ruben Maier is a mechanical engineer and director of the Steinbeis Research Center for Simulation. As well as lecturing at a private university he also works at Pforzheim University. As part of his work as a startup advisor for Business Start-up, the Steinbeis Consulting Center, Maier helps young business founders with their projects.