"The best time is always now"

WHU-Alumnus Dr. Martin Heibel shares his thoughts about the courage to found a company and the right timing

Photo: Dr. Martin Heibel

You're an experienced founder. Are there any decisions that you made at your first foundation that make you shake your head in retrospect?

It's so nice to say that you're always smarter afterwards - and that's especially true when it comes to setting up and expanding a company. 

In this respect, there are certainly things that I - if I had to decide them again in the same situation with today's experience - would do differently. In particular, I would think much earlier and more consistently about where the real customer problems lie and where large markets are. 

At the same time, however, it is experience in the positive sense that gives me the opportunity today - at least that's what I hope - to make the right decisions faster and without unnecessary detours, to bring the right talents into the team, to select the right investors and to prioritize the right things in the company.

How has the start-up scene changed in recent years? Are there any niches for new ideas at all?

I think there are always possibilities to achieve improvements through entrepreneurial creation. Opportunities for this exist continuously and in all areas of our lives and society. 

Many of these opportunities arise today because of technological progress, which is so interesting for entrepreneurs because it suddenly shifts the boundaries of what is possible. That means "Disruption" in the language of the startup world.

For a long time, the Internet per se was one such technology that produced very successful start-ups, such as the large e-commerce players. Later then the smartphone. Today, similar transformative technologies, such as artificial intelligence, are used to drive cars alone and make complex computer decisions. The falling costs for sensors of all kinds are also opening up completely new business areas.

The interesting thing about this is that it is not about niches, but rather about opportunities to do established things completely differently and thus find new business models.  

So I would say that it has never been more attractive to start a business than it is today. The best time to get started is always now.

You have settled in Munich with your startup Ciara. Is Berlin no longer the place to be?

The reason why we are sitting with Ciara in Munich has to do first of all with the fact that my co-founder and I are both at home here. So that was a much less strategic decision than you might expect (laughs). 

However, I have got to know the Munich start-up scene very well over the last 15 years and think that Munich has very strong technology networks, produces many talents relevant to tech companies and keeps them in the region as well as a lot of entrepreneurially managed venture capital in the city. These are all ingredients for an attractive location and ultimately companies are created where the conditions are good - and they certainly are in Munich. 

But I wouldn't call the end of Berlin a startup hotspot in favor of Munich. This would misjudge the fact that more than twice as many start-ups are financed in Berlin every year as in Munich and that the cumulative investment sums in Berlin are far higher than in Munich. I can recommend Munich as a startup location but without any restriction.

Are you still nervous before financing rounds?

I get excited about financing rounds from time to time. Fundraising is a phase that demands a lot of energy and where it is a matter of convincing investors in a short time to go on a long journey with the founding team. That alone makes things emotional - on both sides.

I have learned that the previously planned and ultimately achieved results in financing rounds can be far apart. Although it is already statistically the case that the vast majority of fundraising conversations do not lead to a measurable result, the process is also fun. After all, it offers the chance to learn a lot from many clever people in a short period of time.

If you could just give one tip to young founders, what would that be?

First of all I believe - despite all my lack of experience - that there is no better time to start a company than directly after the apprenticeship or after the studies. According to the motto "If you have nothing, no have nothing to lose", the step will never be easier again. That is why I would encourage anyone considering setting up a business to take the plunge into self-employment as early as possible.

To those who have actually gone among the founders, my advice is: "Seek strong mentors, listen, be open to the experiences of others but always have the courage to make your own decision even if it is not consensus or if it is very high risk".

You have created the XPRENEURS incubator. What are the most common mistakes founders make?

XPRENEURS is a program of UnternehmerTUM, the Entrepreneurship Center at the Technical University of Munich, which is considered to be the largest of its kind in Europe. 

When I spoke in 2016 with the CEO of UnternehmerTUM, Dr. Schönenberger, about the idea of an incubation program that should be positioned beyond the usual German university structures, it was a matter close to my heart to take over the development. It was important to me to treat the founders as customers and to meet their needs. 

An important aspect of XPRENEURS is therefore a community of experienced entrepreneurs who can help to avoid mistakes. But I don't find the most common error(s). One may make mistakes in the team building process, the other in the choice of his investors, yet another in the detailed drafting of license agreements. The list is as long as you like and mistakes are constantly made during the business trip. That's just part of it.

But it is impulses and recommendations from outside that can help any founder to stay within the corridor of success. A founder with an open ear will seek advice and draw his own conclusions from it, because he himself has a great interest in avoiding all too great mistakes.  

To what extent does having studied at WHU influence your work today?

Even though I was interested in starting a company before I started studying at WHU, it was actually at WHU that I took the first step into self-employment: my first company, IntraWorlds, has its roots in the myWHU project. When we - at that time together with my fellow students Jens Bender, Benjamin Elixmann and Stephan Herrlich - Professor Brockhoff made the suggestion to spend our intended internship in a kind of 24/7 programming flat in the main building of the WHU, he naturally wanted to understand exactly what we were planning. However, he agreed to the proposal, which was certainly unusual at the time, because he could feel our entrepreneurial enthusiasm and wanted to support it. This would probably not have been the case at any other university and I am still very grateful to him for it today.   

Of course, the WHU training and the WHU network are eternal values that are of great help to me in the current phase of the new foundation. 

Recently, we filled the first positions at Ciara - some of them with WHU students and graduates, of course.


About Ciara

Ciara (www.getciara.com) is a digital assistant for sales staff. Sales agents can create customized and interactive sales guides, manage playbooks, and structure their sales calls. The objection handling function supports sales staff in answering difficult customer questions, such as about competition, pricing and new products. The connection to common CRM systems makes it possible to store customer information obtained by telephone simply and centrally.

Ciara is already helping 200 companies around the world build a unified and efficient telephone sales force and quickly train new employees. Within the framework of the ongoing Early Access Phase, interested parties can register free of charge at www.getciara.com and start their own sales assistant within two minutes.


About Martin Heibel

Dr. Martin Heibel graduated from WHU in 2004 with a degree in business administration. This was followed by teaching and research activities at the LMU Munich and the Harvard Business School. In 2008 he received his doctorate in Innovation Research & Entrepreneurship at the LMU Munich, where he started the project myWHU - until today the intranet of our university - from which IntraWorlds GmbH emerged. Based in Munich and Tampa (FL), IntraWorlds has 50 employees and specializes in the development and operation of alumni and talent networks for large international companies.

In his capacity as head of the Munich Tech Startup Program XPRENEURS, Martin Heibel advised well over 100 startup teams on all aspects of founding and building the company. With his startup Ciara, Martin Heibel offers a digital assistant for telephone sales. The first financing round took place at the beginning of 2019. Ciara is currently working on international growth and the gradual further development of its product. 

During his time at WHU, Martin Heibel was a scholarship holder of the Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes and the DAAD. He lives with his family south of Munich