Back to being boss
Three company founders wanted to leave the old corporate culture behind them – but that is precisely where they ended up.
It’s a title she doesn’t find easy to say and she utters the word with care, like an alien concept: “boss”. But there’s no getting away from it: that’s what Friederike Tschacksch is. Together with Philipp von Sahr and Beatrice von Wrede, she manages a staff of 37. In 2014 the trio founded an online food shop, Gegessen wird immer (Eating never ends). So “boss” is what each of them is, but all three found it took a bit of getting used to.
No wonder, the word does not sit well with the startup scene, which welcomes flat hierarchies, teamwork and loose structures. Not slow, inflexible and passionless set-ups like the established firms. Tschacksch had experienced that at Zalando, her previous employer. At DeinBiogarten (Your Organic Garden) everything was going to be different. That was the predecessor to Gegessen wird immer, which was founded by von Sahr in 2011 in the Café St Oberholzer in Berlin’s Mitte district. He got the idea playing FarmVille, sitting at his computer at 4am picking virtual strawberries. At DeinBiogarten customers could grow virtual fruit and vegetables and the real produce would be delivered to them. It didn’t work out that way and DeinBiogarten soon became an ordinary online shop for organic food.
Investors love this sector. The venture capital company Rocket Internet has a stake worth billions in HelloFresh, which delivers Kochbox food and recipes. Amazon and supermarket chains such as Edeka and Rewe have also entered the market. The big beasts prepare the ground and make the idea of ordering food more popular. But at the same time they are competing with the small suppliers. Some of these, like KommtEssen, have already gone out of business.
When von Wrede started at DeinBiogarten in early 2013, online food trade was still small. She had come from a traditionally managed firm and wanted to build up something of their own with her good friend Philipp. “A lot of things in my old company were too stuck in the groove for me. Writing reports was my nightmare,” she says. “And then it was me, of all people, who brought in minuting of meetings, which everybody had to sign. I did it with a heavy heart, but it was necessary.”
It took time for her to see that her startup ideals had come up against the limitations of new working practices – and that not everything about a traditional corporate culture was bad. The new company, Gegessen wird immer, emerged from this new understanding.
At first sight, it still matches all the startup clichés. At midday the team always sits together in the inner courtyard of their old brick factory in Wilhelmsruh in northern Berlin: a young and hip crew, with hardly anyone over 30. They work in two offices beside a storeroom and eat whatever the team on kitchen duty, which rotates daily, conjures up from food no longer fit for sale. The business model is also typical of a startup: boost turnover quickly, profits will come later and until then an investor, the Bavarian agricultural company Wimex, will put up the money. Only the ping-pong table is missing. “We had to get rid of that,” says von Sahr. “There was just no room for it. We hardly played anyway.”
When Tschacksch joined DeinBiogarten in the summer of 2014, the business was not doing as well as they had hoped. “We grew organically,” says von Sahr. “We had hardly any money. At first the goods were stored in the kitchen of my shared flat and I delivered them myself.” People were taken on when needed. “In some cases, we recruited off the street. The waitress in our favourite café started out working in the storehouse and we also simply accosted our first driver,” says von Wrede. They did a lot of improvising. “The mood was easy-going and relaxed,” says Mathias Steigerwald, who was in charge of deliveries at DeinBiogarten. “There were hardly any rules and no clearly defined goals.” That led to many projects being launched but few being completed.
“When we got to 10 of us, a boundary was exceeded,” says von Sahr. Misunderstandings began to creep in more often. Once there was a heated discussion about who was responsible for organic quality. Von Wrede was convinced she had passed on the task to a colleague who did not remember her doing so. “After that I introduced the reports,” says von Wrede.
The shop, too, started to slip out of control. It had become a hotchpotch for niche food and hardline diets. It was not just organic any more but also vegan, Palaeolithic and gluten-free. As soon as they adapted to the wishes of one group of customers, another group rebelled. The goal of making a profit receded more and more into the distance.
“It dawned on us that things could not go on like that,” says von Wrede. Instead of continuing to stick plasters on the wounds, the three of them decided to seek a radical cure.
While DeinBiogarten carried on as usual, they spent several months working with an agency, devising a new business concept. That is an unusual strategy for a startup, where the method is usually to get on the market quickly with a basic product and then develop in line with customer wishes. “This time we wanted to find ourselves first and define clear goals and values as an online shop and an employer,” says Tschacksch. The staff knew the three were in crisis talks. Eventually the shake-up was announced: it would be a new business, called Gegessen wird immer, aiming at a broader target group. With high standards for quality of taste and origin, but without the compulsory organic label that many smaller producers cannot afford. Less organic, more just enjoying good food. And with the new start, the trio also imposed a clear corporate structure. For the first time there was an organisational chart, detailed job profiles, a plan for the year and monthly targets. Briefings were recorded in writing. There were long wearisome discussions. Von Sahr in particular found it hard to let go of the pioneering entrepreneurial spirit and return to hierarchies and structure. “It is sad that things don’t work without them,” he says, “but they don’t work without them.”
Ulrich Wagner, managing director of Wimex, was quickly convinced about the new model and financed its implementation. Like the three founders, he is not seeking a speedy exit but sees himself as a strategic investor who keeps an eye on the market and wants to learn something new.
But for many of the staff the restructuring was a shock. Until then everything had been decided collectively. They felt left out, and thought the new shop too trendy and too expensive. Some couldn’t come to terms with the new structures and felt patronised. “We were such good friends and now you are playing the boss,” was a complaint von Wrede heard frequently. She says: “I found it really hard to draw back and switch to a professional level with relationships that had previously been between equals for years.” With the higher investment came increased financial pressure; each department was now responsible for its own figures and had to account for them regularly. For some people that was too much to handle.
Four key DeinBiogarten workers left within six months. The office team was replaced in one go – except for Steigerwald, who is now in charge of business customers at Gegessen wird immer. “The atmosphere during the transitional period was really bad,” says Steigerwald. “There were two opposing sides which became more and more entrenched.” Tschacksch, who had been the last to arrive and was promoted above the others, came in for special resentment. But with every new person recruited the mood gradually shifted in favour of the new corporate culture. The new arrivals were young and grateful for clear instructions. “We could have involved the staff more closely in the makeover,” says von Sahr, “but it would not have made much difference. The old colleagues just did not fit in with the new model.”
There was now more personnel planning; the founders not only paid attention to professional competence but also to their workers’ passion for good food. They have raised wages to the Berlin average, they say. The two-tier company structure now has five tiers. The latest level, management support, was added three months ago.
They now avoid the word startup as no longer appropriate. “I prefer to call us family firm 2.0,” says Tschacksch. She now thinks it is important to build mutual trust with the producers and would rather create one permanent post than four internships. Employees have a fixed salary matrix, with no negotiations. At interview candidates sometimes set their price lower, but if they get the job they still get the fixed amount.
So far, Wagner has invested several million euros and the trio are expecting €1m turnover in 2017. The average order is €50 and every month brings about 600 orders. In addition, there are 70 business customers with deliveries from once to five times a week. “In the business-to-business sector we are on target, but we are not quite there yet with the private customers,” says von Sahr.
All three are still hesitant about that word “boss”. They have not embraced the role. It was a creeping process that showed itself at particular moments: when they stopped drinking after a second glass of wine at the Christmas party; when they no longer took turns cooking with the others; or when they could no longer gauge the team’s mood each day. They withhold certain information from the others and consider how much of the pressure they sense from the investor they will pass on. They still make most decisions together with the team but sometimes there are no consultations, such as when a merchandise management system was introduced – to opposition from all of the staff. “People hated it, they really struggled with it, and for a time we were afraid we could have an outright mutiny on our hands,” says von Wrede, “but we forced it through.” The last key step was taken nine months ago: when they moved out of the open office into the conference room. It is now the bosses’ office.