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A dash of egotism

An entrepreneur, a politician and a theatre director discuss their key strategy: doing what you like.

Having a career plan is a good idea, preferably with few risks or detours, and always keeping your goal in sight. But the more interesting the job, the less likely it is to result in a career that follows a nice straight path. Three people talk about how they planned their careers, or didn’t.

Start young. Florian Nitschke on setting up a business as a schoolboy

The entrepreneur

Florian Nitschke, 17, lives in Wonneberg in Bavaria, in southern Germany, in a village with a population of 1,500. His company, Manufaktur von Doberstein, makes and sells aquariums and water features. He started it last September, when he was just 16, and now reckons he’s turning over about €100,000 (£90,000) a year. As well as running his own business, Nitschke started a commercial apprenticeship at Lukas Meindl, a maker of walking shoes, hiking boots and clothing, after finishing secondary school and he is now in his second year of vocational training.

“I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to be my own boss. When I was 13 or 14 I read up on the internet about how to be self-employed. There are special regulations for setting up a company if you are under 18. I made inquiries. I asked the chamber of commerce (IHK) what I needed to do and when I was 15, I went for it. I didn’t want to be at school any longer than necessary – I wanted to do my own thing. I had to present a business plan to the IHK, so they would confirm I was qualified, because I’m underage. I came up with the idea of doing something with aquariums and fountains because I’m fascinated by them.

“I started off in our garage. I searched online to find out which companies make aquariums and fountains, and who made the necessary parts. Then I asked if I might visit them or work there for a while, so they could explain things to me. My father drove me around. Some of the companies initially asked if I was actually serious about this. But when they saw that I had all the gear with me and knew my way around, they took me seriously. Today, some of those companies are my suppliers. When I have a question about business, I ask my boss at Meindl. He thinks it’s great that I’m setting up my own company.

“I looked at which companies were offering a broadly similar range, because I wanted to make something others couldn’t. Many firms simply import fountains or aquariums. They’re cheaper, but they don’t offer custom-made products. My business partners are important. I am now working with a glazier for the aquariums and a stonemason for the fountains.

“I came up with the company name because Nitschke Fountains sounds boring. It doesn’t stand out. The things we make are exclusive, so I used the word Manufaktur (manufactory) and the aristocratic “von”. We have a Doberman dog and we work with stone, so it became Manufaktur von Doberstein, which is memorable.

“I visited trade fairs to meet architects. I searched the internet for ones who design restaurants or mansions, then I wrote or phoned and introduced myself. That’s how I got orders. Our sales are increasing and I’m going to hire a full-time employee at the end of the year because I can no longer manage on my own. I want the company to keep growing. We started off making small garden fountains and aquariums; now our range needs to become broader.

“We have also started receiving inquiries from trade fair suppliers and hotels, who want larger water walls and fountains. This involves more sophisticated technology, too, because larger fountains have software controls – for example, to synchronise the water program with light or music.

“At the moment, all my energy is going into the company. I work non-stop every weekend and virtually every evening when I get home from my apprenticeship job. There’s plenty to be done. It’s fun seeing how something like this pans out, seeing the company grow, our customers liking our water features and recommending us to other people.”

Know what you stand for, and stand firm. Harald Wolf on the politics of success

The politician

Harald Wolf, 61, receives visitors in his office in Berlin’s state parliament. From 2002 until 2011, he was the city-state government’s senator for economic affairs, technology and women’s affairs in a leftwing coalition. Nowadays, he is a member of the local parliament for Die Linke (The Left).

brand eins: When did you decide to become a professional politician?

Harald Wolf: I didn’t. I was always politically active, even at school. But my biography isn’t uninterrupted. First, I joined Trotskyist groups. At the time, I certainly wasn’t aiming to become a government minister. In 1986, I joined the Alternative List, the Berlin precursor of the Greens, together with other people from the [Trotskyist] International Marxist Group. It was our new project, and in 1988 I was voted on to the executive committee. I left the Greens in 1990 because of political differences, and since 1991 I have been a member of the local Berlin parliament for Die Linke. The term “political home” does not mean much to me, really. Political parties are strategic alliances that you enter into to achieve shared goals.

You were Berlin’s senator for economic affairs for almost 10 years. Do you need a strategy to reach a position like that?

I didn’t have a strategy, and I had not intended to become the senator for economic affairs; that was not my plan. I wanted to remain the chairman of the parliamentary group, so that I would not have to bow to cabinet policies. I had to step in – contrary to my plans – when Gregor Gysi resigned after five months in office. It was clear that I could not imitate him: I am not as dazzling a figure. My most important task – you could call it a strategy, if you like – was to prove that the leftwing coalition was able to govern Berlin and that leftwingers could manage economic affairs.

You have always been fairly quick to reach positions of leadership. In the 1980s, you were seen in the radical leftwing groups as someone with rather robust strategies for achieving power. Is that all part of politics?

Of course. A politician is not just an idealist. Politics means constantly wrestling for influence and power to achieve your political goals, both within the party and society.

Was the debating culture fostered in the ‘K-groups’, [the small far-left groups of the 1960s to the 80s], good practice?

It was good, tough training, along with all the extremes of those times. You learn to convince others and form alliances. That continued with the Greens, who were not always very harmonious either.

When did you decide to make politics your profession?

There was no one day when I suddenly decided to become a politician. It happened gradually. When I was on the executive committee of the Alternative List, I was given a contract. I had to coordinate the exchange of information between the party, the parliamentary group and the senate in the first Berlin coalition, between the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens. That was my first employment contract in politics, at the age of 33. Before that, I was a researcher at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, among other things.

Would a career as an academic have been an option?

Spending my days behind a desk and in the library without producing material for practical political purposes would not have satisfied me.

A political career is insecure. If people no longer vote for you, you can find yourself in a tight spot, professionally, especially if you have no training in anything else. Has anything like that ever happened to you?

When I resigned from the Greens in 1990, the outlook was murky. I didn’t know what would happen next. I had no financial security – I lived off my savings for six months. Politically, I was interested in a democratic national leftwing party. Neither the Greens nor the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) fitted the bill at the time. I wanted to work with the reformers within the PDS and the leftwing section of the civil rights movement. But it did not offer a career option.

Were you afraid you wouldn’t be able to make a living?

Not really. I considered opening an editorial agency with other people, which I had done before. I was self-confident enough to know I would always find a way of earning a living. My lifestyle isn’t extravagant. You only get short-term contracts in politics, which is how it should be. The risk of losing your mandate and having to reorganise your personal life is always factored in. It is no reason to get maudlin.  Compared with the terms for casual labourers, for example, MPs’ contracts are fairly luxurious.

Were you grateful when the PDS offered to put you on their list of candidates in 1991 and let you run for election to the Berlin House of Representatives?

I insisted that candidates who had been members of the leftwing opposition in East Germany and the civil rights movement should also be put forward, otherwise I would not have agreed. We had some tough arguments with some old East German Communist party (SED) functionaries in the Berlin regional group, over how to deal with the Stasi [secret police] and former informal collaborators, for example. If the reformers had not come out on top, I would not have been able to remain in the parliamentary group in the long run. I only joined the party itself in 1999.

Was it a shock when you were suddenly made a senator in 2002?

I was angry at Gysi’s resignation. That was my first reaction. I knew it would not be easy. Berlin was bankrupt, we had very little to spend and had to consolidate the budget. I had to learn how to work with the administration. The business world was not exactly hoping for a PDS senator of economic affairs. It was a question of gaining the trust and confidence of the chamber of commerce and industry, and of the businesses. I gradually earned their respect by being dependable, and through a strategic realignment of our economic policies. Much of what I did as a senator, such as reorganising the institutions promoting economic development, could have been done equally well by a politician from another party. However, my conservative predecessors had failed to do so. By introducing a minimum wage for public contracts, social standards for economic development, and initiatives to bring privatised companies back into public ownership, I was able to implement some leftwing policies.

People don’t stumble into positions of responsibility and remain in parliament for 26 years by accident. What were your strategies to survive in power?

I don’t think that authority and influence in a party or a parliamentary group can be achieved through backroom negotiations. That is not a stable foundation. You need expertise and competence; those are what give you authority in the first place. Planning a political career as an end in itself, without having convictions that you are prepared to fight for, is not going to work in the long run. Our political opponents in the Free Democrats (FDP) or the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) are also fighting for their convictions and not simply for some position or other. Certainly, there are cases of people opportunistically backing down on some substantial issue in order to secure an office or mandate. But things get very difficult if you no longer know what someone stands for.

No crisis, just lots of drama. Theatre director Ersan Mondtag on how to stage a triumphant career

The theatre director

Ersan Mondtag, 30, is a star in the German theatre world. Just a few years after his first production, he was invited to Berlin’s prestigious Theatertreffen festival two years in a row, something other directors don’t manage in a whole career. Nowadays, he is free to pick and choose where he wants to work. He is currently at Munich’s Kammerspiele, Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre and the Berlin Ensemble.

His real name is Ersan Aygün, but he changed his surname for its literal German translation: moon-day. His parents are Turkish migrant workers whose first visit to a theatre was when Mondtag invited them to an opening night. He was single-minded in pursuit of his directing career right from his start in school plays. “It was clear to me even as a teenager that I didn’t want to do anything else,” he says.

After leaving secondary school, he went to the Berlin Ensemble and the Volksbühne as an intern, going to performances as often as he could. At 24, he got a place studying directing at the Otto Falckenberg School of Performing Arts in Munich. So far, so straightforward. However, from a fairly early age he also began to play by his own rules: “Somehow I always knew nothing could happen to me, I was not afraid. I always had delusions of grandeur. Even when I attended rehearsals with the famous German theatre directors Frank Castorf or Claus Peymann at the age of 20 or 21, I knew that one day I would make a better job of it. I admired them, but you have to kill your masters.”

By the time he was kicked out during his second year, having antagonised just about everyone at the school, it was clear there was nothing straightforward about his career plans. Mondtag’s strategy for interviews is that he tells you everything, including his nightlife (he likes it boisterous), his sex life (gay), his relationship status (he has been with his current partner for two months), the idea that he ought to become the new theatre manager of the Schaubühne in Berlin soon, and his plans to only direct operas and films within two years.

 “After my time at the Volksbühne, I found it impossible to take studying seriously. The world of the municipal theatre was so narrow and I didn’t understand why everyone thought the Munich Kammerspiele was so wonderful. If I did have a strategy, it was to provoke. I overstepped boundaries and called it independence. If someone said, ‘you can’t do it that way’, I said, ‘yes, I can, I’m an artist and I have the right to define my own rules.’

“I wasn’t a grateful student – I fought everyone. At one point, during the first few months, I burst into one of Johan Simons’ rehearsals with a video camera. He was the theatre manager of the Kammerspiele at the time, the godfather of the directing and acting school. I was almost kicked out then and there. If I learned anything at drama school, it was to stand up for my own position. Nothing is as productive as confrontation. I said: ‘What do you want with these old directors and professors anyway? You cannot produce contemporary theatre with them. I am the future.’

“This resistance to any form of structure was very juvenile. I was against the entire rule book, but that was also necessary in order to experience for myself what I actually wanted. They kicked me out after two years. They boycotted my work. I had to raise money myself to hire actors and rehearse. I had to learn to organise myself. It was actually a really good thing.

“We set up a collective and organised performance parties in clubs. We used the money to finance our theatre performances, and I became quite well known in Munich. This club culture was important to me. If I took over the management of a theatre, it would become the hottest club in town. I was living on unemployment benefit, but I went on taking taxis and going out for meals: I’m an artist, so I live like an artist. What’s the big deal? The worst that can happen is personal bankruptcy. If things hadn’t moved forward in the theatre, I would have gone on with the nightlife and the parties, and I would have turned that into art, too. Two weeks after I decided to leave drama school, I got a call from Schauspiel Frankfurt; they wanted me to direct a production. It was a coincidence. A dramatist from Frankfurt was looking for a young, radical director and had heard of me. I am very grateful to her for that, and for putting up with me afterwards. 

“When I am directing a play I want to move into the theatre like a king with my own court, not like a grateful employee. That was my attitude when I first worked at Schauspiel Frankfurt, at the age of 25 – my first production under professional conditions. That was megalomania, of course, but it was right as well. I walked on to the stage, and there were two actors, a table and two chairs. I threw a tantrum. ‘I am producing theatre with strong images,’ I said. ‘This is impossible. What is the idea of such a small room? I want the theatre manager here, at once.’

“I fell out with everyone at the theatre. I acted the part of the big-shot director from the start, even though I was just starting out. I wanted to dictate every detail. If I had been the theatre manager, I would have kicked me out. I am still occasionally like that today, but no longer as bad as I used to be. The production turned out terribly, but we were invited to take it to an important festival. Working at the director’s studio meant that you did three productions, no matter how awful your first one was. After the second production, other theatres started inquiring. Could things have turned out differently? Probably. But I never stopped to think about that.”