Why the Founder Left Profitability for a Pandemic Pivot
Introduction and Early Life
Viki, can you share a brief introduction about yourself?
I'm intrigued by the nickname "Tore." Why do some mistake you for a man in group chats like on WhatsApp?
I'm delighted to share this with you. My name is Viktoria, and I originate from Berlin, where I currently reside. The name ‘’Tore’’ has an interesting history, stemming from my grandmother's strong preference. She consistently lobbied my parents to name me Viktoria. By the way, she had even chosen a name for me in case I had been born a boy – Bertram. Fortunately for me, fate decreed that I would be a girl.
The nickname "Tore" has Nordic origins and is typically associated with boys in that region. However, my grandmother seemed to favor the idea of giving me a more gender-neutral name. I can vividly recall the days when my school friends would come over to play in our garden after school. My grandmother often worked in the garden, and if my friends ever referred to me as "Viki," she would playfully intervene, brandishing a leaf rake, and insist, "No, her name is Tore, not Viki!" It always brought a smile to our faces.
In the present day, only my oldest friends and family address me as Tore, while my colleagues and newer friends know me as Viki. I understand that it can be somewhat confusing, especially when I join group chats with my WhatsApp name. But now you have the story behind it all.
Growing Up in East Berlin
You're originally from East Berlin and refer to yourself as an "Ossi." You mentioned how the women there, including yourself, always worked. How has this environment shaped your perspective on being a female founder?
At just 10, you started selling books and even toyed with the idea of a book rental community. Can you share your experiences and the influences from that time?
Technically, I no longer fall under the category of a genuine "Ossi" since I was born in '93. Nevertheless, individuals hailing from East Berlin, even those born post-"Wende" as we refer to it, often maintain a strong connection to their past and their parents' history.
I typically steer clear of dwelling on the East/West dichotomy, as I firmly believe that one's upbringing and parental influences hold more sway than the prevailing state ideology. I mean, isn't it possible for someone to embrace socialist ideals even while growing up in a capitalist system today? What I frequently observe nowadays, which was entirely commonplace during my upbringing, is the differing perception of gender roles. In households with Eastern roots, it was quite typical for both parents to be employed. The traditional gender division of the mother managing household and childcare responsibilities while the father earned a living didn't hold sway. Both of my parents were employed; my mother even ran her own business in the DDR, with my father acting as her business partner. Furthermore, they didn't adhere to the standard 9-to-5 work hours. Even in those days, being independent meant being self-employed and maintaining a consistent work ethic.
Perhaps that's why I possess this innate entrepreneurial spirit. Indeed, I embarked on small business ventures at a young age to supplement my allowance of collecting Pokémon cards. For instance, I gathered all the books I could find in my childhood room, set up a table outside our front door, and attempted to rent out my books to passersby for a few euros. Ultimately, it was usually our neighbors and my own parents who took pity and ended up acquiring some books from me.
By 16, you had set up your own solo business venture, capitalizing on yourself as a model (you were the product) and nurturing social media platforms like Instagram in the early days. What were your key takeaways from this "B2C experience" as you called it?
It all began in 2010 when I was strolling along Berlin's Friedrichstraße with some friends. Out of the blue, a scout from a modeling agency in Berlin approached me. I received their card, went back home, and excitedly shared the news with my mother. She encouraged me to take the opportunity and introduce myself to the agency. I became part of their talent pool, but, unfortunately, I never received any further communication from them.
Sometime later, fate took a different turn when another scout, this time from an agency in Hamburg, spotted me on their website and inquired if I was interested in making a switch. Without hesitation, I seized the opportunity, marking the beginning of my journey into the world of modeling. Over the course of eight years, I balanced my modeling career alongside my studies. This path led me to travel extensively, sometimes even spending extended periods in foreign countries to capitalize on the lucrative opportunities within the industry.
The modeling industry is fiercely competitive, demanding individuals to stand out and cultivate their own personal brand. During my time, the rise of Instagram further emphasized the importance of models showcasing themselves on social media platforms. Agencies encouraged their talents to enhance their online presence, thereby refining their marketability. Towards the end of my career, it became increasingly common for clients to prefer models with a significant follower base, enabling them to share behind-the-scenes content alongside the photoshoots.
Throughout this journey, I gained invaluable life skills, particularly self-discipline and strong interpersonal abilities. Working with people from diverse backgrounds and nationalities on a daily basis necessitated the consistent delivery of top-notch quality in my work. As the product myself, I was responsible for upholding the value promised by the agency. Despite the occasional challenges, I always felt incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to pursue this career, as it offered substantial financial rewards, even during the tougher moments.
You pursued studies in Psychology and Pharma in both Berlin and Holland. What drew you to these fields, and why do you have a special fondness for the Dutch?
In high school, I took my final exam in psychology. Psychology had always been my favorite subject, which eventually led me to pursue a career in clinical psychology. I have never regretted starting my career in science, as I believe that having this background is still highly beneficial. Even though I recognized fairly early on that I would not pursue a traditional therapy career, I found immense value in my studies.
I pursued my master's degree in Leiden, a small town just 20 minutes from Amsterdam. I truly fell in love with Amsterdam because of its proximity to everything (especially coming from a bustling city like Berlin), and I had the opportunity to use my cool Dutch bike every day. The Dutch people were incredibly friendly, and I have fond memories of celebrating King's Day like there was no tomorrow.
Furthermore, the Dutch are known for their progressive and open-minded attitudes. They embrace diversity and have a long history of tolerance and acceptance, which creates a welcoming environment for people. You can see, I am really a fan.
During your master's, you delved into boutique HR and consultancy related to SMB digitization. Do you feel your early ventures set you on this trajectory?
Yes, absolutely. After completing my studies, I joined a consultancy firm specializing in Human Resources (HR). This marked my first exposure to the world of the free market and business. Prior to this, I had little to no understanding of what HR entailed.
Nevertheless, I possessed a strong willingness to learn and harbored a profound curiosity to comprehend this new world and wholeheartedly embrace it. While my experience may not have been rooted in a professional background, I believe that I brought along the right mindset, which was equally crucial.
Working in this field quickly educated me about the pivotal role HR departments play within organizations. I came to realize that they are sometimes undervalued, largely because they are often viewed as cost centers rather than profit centers. However, on the flip side, I also came to appreciate how a skilled Vice President of People or Chief People Officer can truly make a significant impact. In addition to the realm of recruitment, I observed that employee retention was not always a primary focus, but it has steadily gained popularity over time.
At 25, you founded DriveImpact. Can you walk us through the insights that led to its creation? You mentioned a focus on immediate profitability; what drove that perspective?
Unfortunately, you parted ways with your co-founder. What were the lessons learned, particularly regarding roles, responsibilities, and workload distribution?
In addition to the core HR team, my consultancy projects always involved a significant number of freelancers and consultants. During this period, recruiting became a substantial challenge as the job market transitioned from a traditional applicant-driven model to an active sourcing one. On the flip side, the stakeholders in my projects were desperately seeking management training, such as feedback sessions and OKR training, among others.
This led me to conceptualize my first company as a People Development Consultancy, specializing in providing management and employee training programs and workshops. I chose the bootstrapping route because, at the time, I had limited knowledge about the venture capital landscape and believed that seeking investments was reserved for individuals like Steve Jobs, rather than someone like me. As I began acquiring my initial clients, I found myself continuously refining my business model and service offerings.
One significant challenge was the inherent difficulty in scaling a training-focused company. Clients typically sought our services due to our specific knowledge and expertise, making it challenging to delegate tasks to junior staff members. Concurrently, I started receiving numerous client requests related to recruiting and other HR matters that were unrelated to training.
In response, I decided to pivot my company towards becoming an HR Interim Management Marketplace. This transition proved to be successful and offered greater scalability. As a solo founder, I dedicated 3.5 years to building this venture. The most profound lesson I learned during this journey was about resilience.
In the early stages, I exhibited classic traits of an insecure overachiever CEO. I was just 25 years old, and I harbored fears that both my team and clients, many of whom were older than me, might not take me seriously. Consequently, I put in long hours, often working on weekends, in an effort to earn their respect. At times, I displayed an excessive amount of ego, reacting defensively to criticism, as I was determined not to allow anyone to question my expertise.
Over time, however, I developed self-confidence in my abilities and a deeper understanding of who I was. This transformation allowed me to become more resilient and, as a result, a more effective leader.
You've navigated both bootstrapped companies and venture capital-backed entities, as well as balanced between immediate cash flow and long-term KPI targets. Can you share the contrasts and your insights from these experiences?
Navigating both bootstrapped companies and venture capital-backed entities has been a valuable journey that has provided me with unique insights into the different dynamics and challenges each presents.
In bootstrapped startups, financial resources are often limited. This necessitates a scrappy and lean approach to operations. Every expense is scrutinized, and the focus is on immediate cash flow to sustain and grow the business.
With venture capital backing, there is more financial freedom. This allows for aggressive growth strategies, including investing in talent, technology, and marketing. The emphasis often shifts towards achieving long-term KPI targets, even at the expense of short-term profitability.
It's essential to recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, as we always tend to believe the grass is greener on the other side.
The ability to adapt strategies to the specific needs and constraints of each situation is crucial. Whether focusing on immediate cash flow or long-term KPI targets, the overarching goal should always be to drive sustainable growth and value for the company and its stakeholders.
You successfully led a team of 50 to profitability. Yet, you decided to step back when a new MDs came on board. What prompted that decision?
I took a step back when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Primarily, this was due to my ambitious nature and my belief in the untapped potential of both the company and the market we were addressing. Working within our niche was perfectly fine, as long as we didn't attempt to expand the company too aggressively. However, I had always harbored a desire to create something of significant impact that could shape an entire generation. Furthermore, I yearned to reconnect with my original background in healthcare.
The COVID-19 pandemic served as a tipping point for me, as it accelerated the workplace healthcare market. Starting from scratch again, after just achieving a more comfortable position with my first company, was undeniably a significant risk. However, my curiosity ultimately prevailed, and I decided to embrace this challenge.
Mindsurance and Product Development
With starting Mindsurance, you faced challenges due to biased customer feedback. How have you refined your approach to avoid such biases and build more responsive products?
When we launched Mindsurance, we entered a landscape teeming with B2B2C companies tackling the challenge of employee health, spurred by the impact of Covid-19. Many of these companies were fixated on the well-being of the employees themselves, often neglecting the crucial consideration of the value proposition for the actual payers. Given that our target audience was HR, and HR departments seldom wield direct control over budgets, we frequently found ourselves soliciting feedback from employees rather than the decision-makers who hold the purse strings.
A prevalent theme among these B2B2C ventures was a strong emphasis on delivering direct health services and showcasing the perfect choices available to employees. Consequently, many of these companies evolved into service-oriented entities rather than adhering to the B2B SaaS model. Our vision, however, diverged from this trajectory, prompting us to adopt a different approach. As a result, we pivoted our strategy and prioritized product discovery by engaging directly with decision makers—the individuals ultimately responsible for budget allocation.
Given the saturated nature of the market, what sets Mindsurance apart? And with the knowledge you have now, would you approach things differently?
Could you elaborate on the concept of a Healthcare Suite and how you envision it shaping the industry?
With Mindsurance, our vision is to pioneer and proliferate a novel category within HR Tech, namely workplace healthcare management systems. Our primary objective is to address the escalating absenteeism rates, particularly prevalent in blue-collar and field worker industries, which result in substantial financial burdens for organizations. We arrived at this juncture by embarking on a journey that encouraged us to view things through the lens of employee service perspective. Without the insights and knowledge gained from this experience, we would not have achieved our current position. Thus, I am pleased that we seized this opportunity for learning and adjusted our course accordingly.
Our Mindsurance solution is strategically designed to prioritize employee health as a guiding force within organizations. To achieve this objective, we commence by establishing transparency concerning the current state of absenteeism, pinpointing the locations and departments that are most affected. Furthermore, we conduct a comprehensive assessment to identify the specific risk factors contributing to this issue.
In the subsequent phase, we empower companies to develop a tailor-made health program that aligns precisely with their unique challenges. This program is then disseminated to employees through an intuitive mobile application or via internal health initiatives. Finally, we assess the efficacy of these initiatives and provide a detailed analysis of the return on investment, highlighting cost savings achieved.
As you look ahead, both for yourself and for your organization, what are your aspirations? How do you foresee the growth and evolution of your ventures?
My primary focus for the next decade, or possibly even longer, is on Mindsurance, as mentioned earlier. I embarked on this journey with the goal of establishing a pioneering company that shapes a new generation. I am an extremely ambitious individual, and I am fully aware that I will not relent until this company attains the position I envision for it. I firmly believe that the future will revolve around prioritizing employee healthcare strategically within European organizations. This is not only due to the significant financial burden it places on employers but also on insurers who are compelled to pay out as a result of the ongoing remuneration act. We even see the first legal cuts, for example, through the psychological risk assessment that is mandatory for all companies according to the Occupational Health and Safety Act. I think this is just the beginning and there will be more to come.