How innovation ecosystems can boost your career:
An interview about following your passion and dealing with challenges along the way with Alex Kusch, co-MD at Traplinked.
By Julia Neumann
As one of Germany’s fastest-growing Tech Incubators, ZOLLHOF is the nurturing ground for startups — in the region around Nuremberg and beyond. In our headquarters, visionary minds bring their innovative ideas to life, creating the new each and every day. Being the home of up-and-coming startups as well as corporate innovators we made it our mission to make entrepreneurship happen — for all kinds of organizations.
But we not only open our doors for founders and established companies. We also offer a safe space for future entrepreneurs and innovators interested in the startup ecosystem. During a three-month internship, the Talent Program, our talents solve real business challenges provided by our corporate partners. They learn how to prototype new ideas as well as to validate the resulting solution’s potential and to finally pitch them to our innovation partners.
But what happens after the Talent Program? The journey isn’t over!
With new impulses, the Talents continue their very own career path, quite many even within the ZOLLHOF ecosystem. Among the 94 Talents we’ve coached during the Talent Programm, 6 (co-)founded their own startup and over 50 accepted a job offer from our corporate partners or startups of the ecosystem.
Such as Alex Kusch (24), alumni talent and now second managing director of Traplinked, a ZOLLHOF startup, aiming to digitize pest control by making it more sustainable and efficient. We had the chance to talk to the freshly baked MD about his journey and the ups and downs of being a leader at a young age.
ZOLLHOF and you go way back: In 2019, you started your journey at ZOLLHOF as a Talent. How did you hear about the program?
During my bachelor’s at FAU, I had to participate in extra-curricular subjects. I always had a passion for entrepreneurship and startups, so I signed up for a business plan course. At the end of the semester, we successfully pitched our solution to our professor who loved our presentation. Because he couldn’t grant us a good grade, he thought of a different reward: organizing an interview for a unique entrepreneurial internship: the ZOLLHOF Talent Program.
Kudos to the professor — You were indeed a great fit for our Talent Program! What was your biggest takeaway from the program?
There were so many! Especially the fact that you have to take ownership of your own project immediately. Being confronted with a real-life challenge, you learn how to develop a solution from scratch. The workshops offered in the program, teach you how to organize your time and self and what lean management means. Not only in theory but actually put to practice. Especially the lean approach is something I use daily at Traplinked. Aiming to generate the shortest possible iterations, getting immediate feedback, and prototype, prototype, prototype! It’s such an amazing way of working!
After the Talent Program, you decided to continue your journey within the ZOLLHOF ecosystem. Have you always dreamt about working within the startup world?
I always knew that I wanted to have a real impact and make a difference without being forced to rely on other people. After my three months at ZOLLHOF, I discovered my passion for working like an entrepreneur. I was thinking about continuing the program as senior talent. After talking to my mentor Max Finger, he suggested that I dive into the practical startup world. He connected me to VITAS, another ZOLLHOF startup, looking for a business development intern to scale their voice assistant for restaurants.
My learning curve there was insane! I had the chance to accompany the team through their toughest yet most profitable challenge ever: the pandemic. After restaurants had to close, and therefore no reservations had to be made, the voice assistant basically was useless, until we completely shifted strategies. In an unbelievably short amount of time, we had to conquer the crisis and change our approach. Instead of supporting restaurants with their bookings, the voice assistant now supports corona hotlines such as 116117 with first contact inquiries and distributing clients to the right contact person. By now the voice assistant answered more than 50k calls.
That again strengthened my desire to stay within the startup ecosystem: the short decision processes and challenges that make you so ingenuine and innovative!
After your internship at VITAS, you were looking for another challenge before finishing your bachelor’s and started your journey at Traplinked as a sales intern. Quickly your role transformed to a leading position for sales, and finally, you became co-MD. How did you accomplish climbing up the career ladder so fast right after uni? What’s your secret sauce?
My initial plan was to gain a little more experience between my bachelor’s and master’s. Especially my parents motivated me to extend my learning journey, university-wise, to top off my business administration bachelor. But honestly, I never really dreamt about doing that in the first place. I was motivated to work and as I said before, make an impact. I hurled myself into the opportunity at Traplinked and hustled. I came before anyone else, I onboarded myself into any tasks and researched development possibilities for the company.
Tim Kirchhof, the founder of Traplinked was so impressed with my work ethic, the will to take ownership, and my motivation, that he didn’t want to let me go after the internship ended. So he asked me: What can I offer you to stay with us?
For me, money never was a huge motivator. Instead, I dreamt of working strategically, making a difference, and in this specific case; making Traplinked huge! So I told him, I want to be your right hand, become managing director, and build something big! The rest is history: He offered me the job, and here we are!
So I guess my biggest secret or advice for anyone is: if you have your eye on a certain role, be so indispensable, they don’t have another option than keeping you!
Which responsibilities come with your new role and how do you split your tasks with Traplinked founder Tim Kirchhof?
When you join a directory board, it’s really important to decide who is responsible for what. To better define our roles, the whole Traplinked team participated in a nine-hour workshop aiming to clearly specify ownership, tasks and responsibilities. In the end, we designed a mini organigramm that lines out all existing departments and their responsibilities.
When it comes to the leadership tasks, Tim as founder and co-developer of our products is responsible for product development and our tech department. Whereas I manage the production processes and HR department.
But our roles will definitely change and evolve as we continue to grow as a company. That’s why we have a lot of meetings to update each other on the different projects and what’s happening in the different teams. Communication really is key!
Your journey is impressive! Still, were there any challenges you had to face or hurdles you had to overcome? If so, how did you deal with them?
In my private life, I definitely had to do a lot of persuading towards my parents who wanted me to do a master’s degree or something “serious”. Today, they 100% support my decision and what I do because they see how much it means to me and how much I’ve accomplished in such a short time.
I think the best solution to conquer any challenge is intrinsic motivation. The biggest driver for me was my desire to make it within the startup world and follow my dream to take ownership and be successful. In a big company, I could have never reached my goals in such a short amount of time. Unlike many, I don’t see startups as risky employers but as a great chance for self-development. And every entrepreneur knows: Failure is the key to success. Even if something doesn’t work out the way you want it to, there will be other opportunities just waiting around the corner!
Especially in the corporate world, it is quite unlikely to become a managing director at such a young age. Do you ever feel underestimated or not taken seriously?
At this point, my personal environment fully supports me and knows what I am capable of. When it comes to my working life, I can definitely say that Tim puts me to the test a lot. Traplinked is his baby so to speak, and he has very structured plans about the whole strategy. Like me, he still has to get used to now sharing the leadership position, which can be quite challenging. I often have to prove myself as well as mark where my responsibilities begin and his end. Not only to communicate my boundaries but also to keep productivity high. Of course, there have been some discussions between us, but they’ve brought the both of us even closer together.
At the same time, the shareholders very much welcomed the decision to make me co-director. Tim is a very ambitious person, who likes to push things forward and tends to make decisions on the spur of the moment. Whereas I like to take on the role of weighing everything up once again. As a management team, we therefore maintain a good balance, which is highly appreciated by investors and stakeholders in particular.
So overall, I can definitely say that I have great support, in my working environment as well as from my loved ones.
After graduating from university, there are plenty of opportunities waiting for you. What do you suggest to others when it comes to finding their own way, and why was the step towards entrepreneurship the right move for you?
Already before graduating from high school, I wondered what I wanted to do with my life. I could never think of a specific occupation because the actual question I asked myself was: ‘How can I become successful by creating something from scratch that amazes and convinces people?’ Even in school, I had plenty of business ideas that finally failed due to financial reasons or the wrong co-founders.
Eventually, I decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in business administration to understand how companies work and how you built them. But honestly: the biggest knowledge sources have always been internships instead of desks.
I never forced myself to found my own business but wanted to have a job with a purpose that offers me a possibility of self-growth. And I definitely found that within the startup ecosystem.
We are looking forward to seeing what the future holds for you! Any special projects coming up?
2021 is full of different projects for us at Traplinked. We are currently working on one product offering that can be adapted to several use-cases nurturing various customer needs. Other than that, we have of course specific revenue goals, we have to reach.
For me specifically in our production department, there will be a lot of scaling on my to-do list. Adapting contracts to capacities, hiring more people and developing an integrated process and interface management to make all of that happen.
You see, there is a lot on my plate but I am looking forward to new challenges and opportunities. Stay tuned!
Julia is currently working in Marketing Communication at ZOLLHOF. Being a creative mind, she loves to inspire people by telling stories through writing or photography. When not at ZOLLHOF, she is working towards completing her Master’s Degree in Digital Business at TH Nuremberg.