This is not the end — How startup “failure” became a learning catalyst for the founders of Movaco

by Anne Christin Braun

With our news feeds full of the latest IPOs and unicorns we tend to focus on this one side of the startup medal. But given that 90% of startups don’t make it, let alone become a unicorn, the other side shouldn’t be overlooked.

“Success is a lousy teacher. It makes smart people think they can’t lose.”
— Bill Gates

At ZOLLHOF, it’s our mission to make entrepreneurship happen and to go the extra mile in order to help the startups we work with get to the next level. If this doesn’t pan out as planned, we want to make sure that a) the ecosystem can learn from the founders’ experiences and b) help make “failure” an aspect of entrepreneurship that is often more about gain than pain.

Movaco is one of these startups. We (virtually) sat down with 2 of the founders of the carpooling app, Valentin Eiber and Tim Hellwig, to discuss how they decided to make a cut, what they learned during the past 3 years working on their service and why they wouldn’t start another venture as an all-male team.

What you’ll read about in this article:

- How Valentin & Tim benefited from openly talking about their startup struggles

- Why they would not start another male only founded business

- What really matters in early startup days

- Why money plays a vital role for being a “perfect founder”

How did you decide it was time to not continue with Movaco?

Valentin:
With COVID-19, obviously, there is little demand for carpooling and after our EXIST funding ended in August of 2020, we set ourselves a deadline. We soon realized that we didn’t have the slightest chance at the moment, but also how it took a toll on our way of communicating within the team as we became more and more irritable. We felt that it’s not authentic anymore to put up a brave front towards the team while knowing that it doesn’t make sense anymore from a business perspective.

What were your biggest learnings in the 3 years of your Movaco journey?

Tim:
First and foremost to validate if there is a market for your idea. Before you invest resources in developing anything, have your user data right to be sure there is an actual business case. In the beginning, we were a bit naive because we were so sure people were desperately waiting for a carpooling app in order to commute to work together. If we would have focussed more on our user’s needs before developing our prototype we could have learned more about the different needs of different user groups, but we didn’t because we were too sure about what should happen next.

Another point is to keep development cycles short in order to ensure you don’t develop a prototype in the wrong direction at too high costs. Since startups usually lack funds in the beginning this is crucial when planning your scarce resources.

Valentin:
One of my main learnings is how much early-stage incubators like ZOLLHOF can help — a lot. In the beginning, we didn’t have that kind of support and guidance. It wasn’t before we started at ZOLLHOF that we realized: Ok, maybe we have to try different approaches, there is more than one way.
Personally, I especially learned how important the team is. We were a team of seven super dedicated people and it’s great to see that we did quite a good job there establishing a good set of values and culture.

How did you manage to build a company culture as a remote team?

Valentin:
Communication is a crucial aspect and also the team value workshop at ZOLLHOF helped everyone to commit to a common set of values. It helps to find and onboard new people and it also establishes a common understanding of how you want to work as a team.

Would you ever start another startup?

Both:
Yes, absolutely!

Tim:
But before we’d found something together again we want to make new and own experiences, because we are not “perfect” founders yet. We need to see different teams and organizations and watch how they work and tackle problems.

What would you do differently if you ever became a founder again?

Valentin:
A lot (laughs). Would I found Movaco again in the exact same way? No. I’d follow a more American approach of getting user feedback and commitment, then collect money and start off. The typical German way of building a prototype, then get in touch with companies to ask if they want to buy it and if you got 20–30 commitments, you go and get an investor — that doesn’t cut it for me anymore.

You once mentioned in a conversation that you wouldn’t found as a male-only team anymore.

Valentin:
Exactly. I think diversity is super valuable because it adds quality. In the beginning, you tend to think “ok, we got a team and that works for the moment” while in reality, it’s not a long-term solution.

Tim:
Especially when building a product you have to bring in as many different perspectives as possible to cover multiple target groups and you just don’t get that from a homogeneous team. One thing we realized in terms of our sales process is that whenever we had a female contact person things moved forward more quickly. We realized that in our case women were a lot more open and foresighted towards the topic of sustainability and hence carpooling. We asked ourselves: How is it possible that we as a completely male team offer a service that has a predominantly female target audience? There is obviously a gap and it was an insightful process realizing that.

Valentin:
Also in terms of attracting new team members, I think it’s not beneficial if people go to your website and see nothing but five white cis guys in the team section. This way you might just never hear from great talents with awesome input that you scare away with your super homogenous team.

You are very transparent about the end of Movaco which is rare. Should we speak more about failure?

Valentin:
Absolutely. The fear of failure should never be bigger than the urge to dare something new. Now being in the middle of application processes we also see that the experience you have as a founder isn’t worth all that much if your venture wasn’t immensely successful. If we would have worked in a corporate setting for the past 3 years we would be able to earn more faster. But at the end of the day we were able to make experiences that people in established companies or people who have been successful with their first startup right away don’t have. This wealth of experience is worth a lot for me and absolutely unique.

Tim:
In recent months Valentin and I exchanged a lot and contemplated on why and which decisions were made. This helps us to react better to certain mistakes or situations in the future. Also, I feel that there is not always enough courage in established corporations because people are too afraid but we as founders talk a lot more open because we learned that being too cautious is not helpful.

Valentin:
Being completely honest about our situation opened the door for us on many levels. We were offered lots of exchange and support as well as valuable new connections from people around us. There was absolutely no one who said: “What’s wrong with you? Why couldn’t you have made it work?”. If we wouldn’t have been so transparent this could never have happened.

We often read or hear about founder personalities and what it takes to be a founder. Earlier you mentioned you are not a perfect founder yet, Valentin. What does a perfect founder look like for you?

Valentin:
All founders I know and appreciate are authentic but this doesn’t necessarily mean being successful. What is also key are personal human experiences and cherished values that allow you to create a company culture that is again, authentic.

What also makes you at least a better founder is money. It might sound weird but if you come from a wealthy family you can’t go wrong because of an already existing network that opens a lot of doors, helps you to build your team and find investors. People with money are also a lot of times the ones who get to grow their business in a very short time. This is something people within the startup scene hardly ever mention.

Tim:
Maybe there is never a perfect founder but instead a perfect team, because it’s never a one-man or one-woman show. It’s always a team that accomplishes something.

What’s next for you two?

Valentin:
I am staying within the ZOLLHOF ecosystem and work as Mozaik’s Growth Manager now.

Tim:
My next steps are still in the works but I might very well stay within the startup world.

Anne is the Marketing Lead at ZOLLHOF. She has many years of experience in tech communication, marketing strategy and PR. When she’s not at ZOLLHOF, Anne is working on her Master’s degree in Health Sciences.