A year ago, I faced a tough decision. Should I pursue my own startup idea, or should I accept a job offer to become CXO at AustrianStartups’?
I was torn. With AustrianStartups I could improve the Austrian ecosystem by helping others to fulfill their entrepreneurial ambitions. However, I was also very passionate about my sustainable venture rePhil, a new system for reusable takeaway packaging. I questioned whether I could inspire others to pursue their innovative ideas if I don’t lead by example and start my own business.
After a month of weighing the options, I decided to pursue both. I joined AustrianStartups as CXO on a part-time basis while simultaneously working on launching rePhil. We were concerned that neither of these roles could be handled with only a part time commitment and that the decision might send mixed signals. But I saw synergies in the combination. I was fortunate that Markus and the board of AustrianStartups gave me the flexibility to join as part-time CXO and that my team at rePhil supported my decision. Ultimately, the setup seemed perfect – I felt I was fulfilling in my role at AustrianStartups by applying my learnings from rePhil to improve the startup ecosystem in Austria. I could also use the knowledge and network I gained with AustrianStartups to grow rePhil.
Though I worked long hours, the combination worked out well for the first six months. RePhil was making fast progress: We gained a new team member Alex, launched with our pilot customer the cafeteria at A1 telecom, and joined multiple acceleration programs. At AustrianStartups we set a new focus on sustainability by launching circle17, got 19 of the AS Agenda points into the turquoise-green government program and created a strategy for a new project: the Entrepreneurial Leadership Program, fostering the most promising future entrepreneurial leaders in Austria.
Then, the global pandemic took us by surprise.
At first, the lockdown seemed to improve our work. At rePhil, we were faster than expected with developing the app, and we climbed an extremely steep learning curve. We dove deep into user journeys, UI and UX design and what it needs to develop an app. At AustrianStartups we mobilized the community by launching Hack the Crisis, set up a survey to track the immediate effect of the pandemic on startups in Austria, and virtualized all events and programs, including our newly-launched Entrepreneurial Leadership Program.
However, the crisis also showed the weak points in my two-folded strategy. It was a tough journey. Some days I got up and felt like there was a huge weight on top of me and every time I got one burden off my shoulders two new ones appeared. Nevertheless, I learned to understand how to use my strengths, weaknesses, and passions. Here are my key insights from this intense period in the hope you can benefit from my experience.
#1 Founding a startup is not a part-time job
Being in home office made it increasingly difficult to separate my professions. This made apparent how hard it is to build a startup while acting with full passion and energy in a leadership role in another organization. I gave 120% in both roles and still never had the feeling of doing enough. As my two co-founders worked full-time on rePhil, I was often unaware of certain progress, obstacles or steps we had taken. I wasn’t part of all meetings and to move fast, some decisions had to be made without my vote. This created inevitable friction with my co-founders. After half a year of very little sleep, exuberant highs and devastating lows, we realized, after some long conversations that if we want to get the startup off the ground, all founders would need to commit to the project full-time.
This realization didn’t feel right. The canteen market was struggling, and our planed pilot got postponed for an undetermined amount of time. We were very consumed with figuring out our team situation which made our motivation hit rock bottom. On the other side, my work with AustrianStartups energized and inspired me through interesting discussions with our ELP fellows and new projects that were constantly evolving. Almost a year later, I faced the same decision – rePhil or AustrianStartups?
#2 You don’t have to be a founder to be an entrepreneur
This was the most challenging decision of my life. In order to decide, I reflected on my professional journey. I realized my true passion is to inspire, connect and empower others. What gave me the most energy were the sustainable solutions that developed out of circle17, the inspiring fellows that started to implement their own ideas while participating at the ELP and the energized pupils that came up with inspiring ideas during our entrepreneurship week. Nevertheless, there remained this voice in my head, telling me that I was a phony in my role at AustrianStartups if I hadn’t founded a startup myself. It wasn’t until I realized something profound: You do not have to be a founder to be an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship means to be open to new ideas, to take risks in order to implement innovative and impactful ideas. This insight gave me the final nudge to focus on my entrepreneurial role within AustrianStartups.
#3 Focus sets you free
The decision to downgrade my involvement with rePhil, as hard as it was, opened the possibility to focus my energy on AustrianStartups. It allowed me to reflect and take the concept of our programs much further. Even though others felt that I was doing a great job before, I finally felt that I could truly own the leadership position that I signed on for a year ago. Just at that time, AustrianStartups got the chance to launch the dream that was three years in the making: to bring entrepreneurship into grade schools.
My commitment to AustrianStartups freed Markus to take a step back from the operational management and focus on working on a more strategic level, putting our NPO more a financially sustainable foundation. We can bring AustrianStartups much further by truly co-leading the organization, which is why, from now on, AustrianStartups has two managing directors: Markus Raunig and myself, Hannah Wundsam.
I am excited for this next chapter at AustrianStartups and am confident that together with our amazing team, we can inspire students to make their ideas reality by bringing the inventor spirit into schools, making the entrepreneurship ecosystem more inclusive throughout Austria and helping the government understand which barriers they need to do away with to create an environment in which founders can flourish.
Even though, combining my work with rePhil and AustrianStartups was demanding, I don’t regret the experience. I went through the struggles and thrills of an early stage founder and now feel 100% confident that with my full-time commitment to AustrianStartups I can use these learnings to shape the Austrian entrepreneurship ecosystem for the better.
Are you with me on that journey? Then let’s do this!