F*ck Up Stories Aachen
Learning from mistakes is one of the most important skills as an entrepreneur. This applies to start-up founders and experienced corporates alike. So why not exchange these negative experiences?
To ensure an open and honest exchange on the topic of failure between big industry players on the one hand and young entrepreneurs and future founders on the other, the latest edition of the Fuck Up Stories Aachen turned the spotlight on established companies that had an encounter (or two) with failure. The speakers were 4 experienced entrepreneurs from high-profile companies: Gyvinne Koh, Founder and Director of German Educare, Rolf Geisen, Owner of Alabon Business Development GmbH, Dr. Anne Völkel, Innovation Manager at the VOSS Incubator and Malte Pollmann, Chief Strategy Officer at Utimaco GmbH. This expert line-up translates into over 67 years of combined experience in 4 different sectors. And there’s more: With Voss and Utimaco, the participants not only learned from front-row industry innovators but also met two strategic partners of RWTH Aachen University who actively pursue R&D projects in collaboration with university researchers within a Key Account partnership. But part of the truth behind these truly impressive facts and figures is that there have also been some serious setbacks.
So what could possibly go wrong in big business? Our speakers had a number of very concrete answers to this question:
For example, Rolf Geisen, the owner of Alabon Business GmbH, who had quite a few experiences with failed attempts. The biggest one, he told the virtual audience, was when years ago his company had built a computer with all the hardware and software ready. However, they had forgotten the computer chips – and no money left to change that. Unwilling to succumb, Geisen’s team got creative, eventually convinced customers of the importance of their product and received the support to add the missing chips. Looking back at this and other failures, Rolf Geisen emphasised the positive aspects. He wouldn’t call them failures, but strategic turning points that changed the outcome for the better. Geisen’s advice to the curious audience on how to persevere: Be insistent, be patient, and surround yourself with intelligent and complementary minds.
How important this last point is became clear when Gyvinne Koh, one of the founders of German Educare, took the stage. Having come from Malaysia to Aachen to study engineering, the young woman wondered why there weren’t more students from Malaysia in Germany. After finishing her studies, Koh decided to found her own business – she wanted to help bring more Malaysian students to Germany. Soon after she had found four co-founders who were willing to set up the business with her, Koh’s story of failure began. The young entrepreneur’s top priority had always been the quality of their programme. One of her co-founders, however, was only in it for the money. The mood inside the team changed, the co-founders started fighting over trifles and lost important time. In the end, that one person left the company. Koh has learned her lesson. Although it’s true that more people mean more brains and more input, leading a sustainable business is only possible with likeminded people. Her advice to young entrepreneurs looking for co-founders: Start with a mini-project to see if you and your potential co-founders have the same goals, values and priorities.
A recently failed attempt was presented by Dr. Anne Völkel, Innovation Manager at the Voss Incubator, who told her story of a failed Kickstarter campaign that only started last year. In 2020, she wanted to validate an idea in order to test the market potential of the product. Looking for ways to get honest feedback on the product and an idea of the demand, Völkel turned to Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform, and started a campaign to finance the development costs. Völkel believed Kickstarter to be an appropriate means of market validation. Soon she realised that it was not so much a suitable tool for market validation, but a community platform with a marketing strategy. As a result, she not only lost valuable time but also failed to reach the goal. Völkel’s learning from her failed campaign is to better plan ahead, cater to the needs of the target group and gather as much feedback as possible, including from social media. Her piece of advice to young entrepreneurs: Understand your community, understand different boosters, don’t hesitate to get honest feedback from potential customers.
Probably the most emotional story of the evening came from Malte Pollmann, Chief Strategy Officer at Utimaco, who experienced how the private life can have a significant impact on professional activities. His company Utimaco develops cryptographic solutions, e.g. for toll collect bridges that charge trucks. At some point, the company noticed problems in the systems of these bridges that led to many outages, and started looking for a reason. Then, miniature short circuits were detected which were caused by elements that had been squeezed too tightly in one of the manually performed steps of production. After some investigation had to be made due to an incomplete documentation, the respective employee was identified. In an open conversation, Pollmann learned that his employee was going through heartbreak at the time of production, which must have caused the mistakes. Yet, despite his mistakes, the employee was not treated as a culprit but as a winner, since the mistakes had led to important improvements in the documentation process and quality management. This is why Pollmann advised entrepreneurs to appreciate mistakes as opportunities to learn.
Unsuccessful campaigns, missing pieces, manual mistakes, disintegrating teams – the range of negative experiences unmistakably proved how many things can go wrong even in established companies. As bad as the individual failures may have seemed at the time, our speakers’ inspiring stories illustrated that it is not about the missteps, it’s about what you make of them. All four agreed that if you’re willing to learn from your mistakes, your progress will only be stronger.
We would like to thank all of our speakers for being so outspoken about their failures and for their inspiring contributions to breaking down an entrepreneurial taboo. It was specifically rewarding to see our successful KAM partners connect with and open up to young and aspiring entrepreneurs about the failures of their business histories. Instead of cutting failure out of the entrepreneurial conversation, let’s appreciate it for what it is: It is not just part of the process, it is part of the progress.
The event was moderated by Torsten Schröder and organised within the Exzellenz Start-up Center.NRW initiative in cooperation with QuellPunkt, digitalHUB Aachen, AC.E - Aachener Entrepreneurship Team, Collective Incubator e.V., , the Coordination Office "Doubts About Studying" of FH Aachen University of Applied Sciences and the Student Advice Centre of RWTH Aachen University.