Claudia-Marie Dittrich knows a thing or two about the joys—and the doubts—of entrepreneurship. As a consultant for the Hamburg Entrepreneurship Initiative (HEI), she and her team spend their days coaching start-up founders through the ups-and-downs of new businesses. From finding financing (and courage!) to solving typical founders’ conundrums, she’s seen it all—and has some good advice for anyone dreaming of starting their own business.
Claudia-Maria Dittrich works at the Hamburger ExistenzgründungsInitiative, where she’s responsible for public relations and social media, as well as event management and start-up advice for new founders.
Hi, Claudia! Every day you answer questions from people who want to start their own business. Do you also help them pluck up the courage to get started?
Sure, absolutely! We try, for example, to take away one of the most common fears people have, which is creating a business plan. Especially when it comes to the financial planning aspect, we really try to encourage people. Don’t be afraid to write up your business plan because you can’t ‘fail’ at that.
Many people have a great idea, but taking the next step is often difficult. How can you start thinking about your idea in a more “professional” way?
First of all, we recommend sitting down and writing out the relevant points of your idea—the points from which, ideally, it will become a business. These include questions about the concept as well as questions about the target group, the competition, the market environment, and what makes the idea unique.
Are there typical beginner’s mistakes that I, as a founder, can try to avoid?
It’s certainly useful to get help and advice right from the start when you’re still thinking about your idea. Many founders turn things over and over in their head before venturing out with their idea and questions. In our experience, talking with experts, supporters and other founders help enormously. There are also aspects that you should think through realistically and assess from the outset, in order to avoid disappointment later.
What misconceptions do new founders sometimes have?
The time factor usually plays an important role. People often underestimate how much time is taken up by planning and administrative processes. For example, we receive regular calls from people asking for advice on a start-up grant application…that’s due the next day! If we say that’s not possible and refer them to another institution, it doesn’t make people jump for joy. Therefore we always advise allowing sufficient time—especially at the beginning of concept development.
You also shouldn’t underestimate the importance of partners you can work with. Right from the start of your project, you should think about who you want to work with and how you can work together.
And last but not least, the phrase “it’s getting more expensive than we planned” often comes up, so it’s definitely worth planning a financial buffer.
How does a group like HEI help entrepreneurs get started and avoid any nasty surprises?
We’ve developed a system based on three principles: Firstly, we offer everyone a personal and free initial consultation. It’s about looking at the entrepreneurial idea from the “helicopter perspective:” clarifying any questions, getting the right contacts, discussing the concept and much more.
… So discussing the cornerstone of the project …
Exactly. And secondly, we offer a coaching program that’s sponsored by the city of Hamburg. It contains nearly 100 expert seminars discussing every aspect of founding a company. The costs for participating in these seminars are subsidized by the city.
Thirdly, we organize regular Founders meetings. This includes a monthly “founders breakfast”, a monthly workshop, and the annual Hamburg Founders Day. There are various start-up and advisory centers throughout Germany for founders who provide similar support and networking opportunities.
Are there any new start-ups in areas you may not associate at first with innovative ideas?
Well, the first question is what do you mean by “innovative ideas?” When we talk about unique and special ideas, then I can say that we’re fortunate enough to deal with them on a daily basis!
Do you have an example?
There are so many. Some ideas take into account a social aspect, like Valentinas BackSalon, where senior citizens bake cakes to earn something extra for their retirement. Or a student who develops an app to simplify the processes and procedures in the school cafeteria.
How important is it for a new business to be online? For example, having a social media presence?
I wouldn’t necessarily break down digitization into individual aspects. Of course, today’s customers expect a company to have a digital presence—at least in the form of its own website. Depending on the target group that may also include social networks or an app. But before we talk about individual aspects or digital options, we encourage our founders to keep their eyes open and to look at this ever-present keyword “digitization” with curiosity and joy, not with worry. After all, it’s not only about the external representation, but also about internal processes or the adaptation of one’s own business model. In any case, it is worthwhile to think digitally from the beginning.
What fascinates you personally about founding your own business?
It fascinates me to experience the variety of start-up events in Hamburg every day and to be there when we help bring the idea to life. I’m fascinated and impressed by the imagination of the founders here in our city. If you deal with the topic of entrepreneurship, it’s never boring!