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IKOM: Company founder Jakob Bitner and scientist Nicola Breugst on start-ups' search for personnel

"We need people who are better than we are"

Jakob Bitner and the VoltStorage team at their daily meeting.
15-minute "stand-up": Jakob Bitner (l.) and the VoltStorage team at their daily meeting. (Image: U. Benz / TUM)

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Hire acquaintances or a grueling recruiting campaign: How do start-ups find their first employees? What makes them attractive when they can't offer much in terms of pay? Does a start-up boss have to hold an impassioned speech at least once every week? An interview with Jakob Bitner, who built the company VoltStorage as a student, and entrepreneurship researcher Prof. Nicola Breugst, occasioned by the IKOM career fair set to take place from June 19 to 22 at the Campus Garching.

Mr. Bitner, only a little more than a year ago you were still a student, now you employ seven people. Are you sometimes intimidated by the responsibility?

Bitner: I think that's a question of personality; up to now I've always been able to sleep at night. I also find the overall responsibility bearable because my two co-founders and I were very quick to delegate a lot of responsibility to our employees.

You worked hard for months in a closely-knit and committed team to plan all the details of your company – then suddenly you let people you hardly know get involved. Was that a difficult thing to do?

Bitner: Not at all: Because all the people we hired are clearly better at what they do than we are ourselves, for example in IT. What's more, we all talk with one another continuously. Every day we have a 15-minute "stand-up" where each of us talks about what he or she did yesterday, what's in store for today and what difficulties there are, if any.

Ms. Breugst, what do your research results say – has Mr. Bitner done it all right?

Breugst: A stumbling block for many start-ups is the question: What will my first employee do? I need support in one point, but in two other areas as well, then I hire someone who does a little bit of everything. That rarely works out well. Another thing that is often underestimated is the establishment of a corporate culture that will still hold up when the next 20 people are hired who may be widely diverse individuals. Here for example the issue is how much I have my employees do, how I channel their ideas, and how well I keep them informed.

Bitner: We made some early mistakes here, because we as founders kept talking as if we were still alone among ourselves. For example, we spoke openly about possible investors and specific individual employees. At the same time we didn't talk enough about what our objectives are: Why are we working on this topic right now, where will it lead?

How can founders who are inexperienced as employers find good employees?

Breugst: Start-ups often fish around in their own environment. That can have its benefits, because then they're in a better position to evaluate candidates. But some start-ups also simply hire everyone they know – simply because they have no time for a lengthy application process. But start-ups are only successful when they select people who are willing to adapt, because the nature of their assignments is guaranteed to change with the development of the young company.

Bitner: Up to now we've primarily taken people with whom we've already worked in the past. But we always hire only those people who can do exactly what we need. We also receive applications which are in general very good, but which we nevertheless reject. On the other hand, we put a lot of effort into acquiring a candidate if we really want the person in question. While we were in China we coincidentally met a specialist in "Design for Manufacturing" who totally convinced us. This of course meant we had to invest more time in bureaucracy and integration. When we were looking for an experienced researcher, we conducted an exhaustive online search. That paid off as well, but we really don't have the time to do that sort of thing. Therefore, a human resources manager will be joining the company soon, even though we're still small – advice we received from successful founders.

How do you motivate these good people to work for you? As a start-up you can't offer the salaries that major companies pay to engineers and managers.

Bitner: We have to almost keep up with larger companies in monetary terms. This is why we offer employees a share in our company. The main focus however is on the fact that we're working on a sustainable energy supply, a task that many of the people can identify with.

Breugst: Those who want to work in start-ups are often looking for inspiration from a strong personality on the part of the founders. However, our studies have shown that entrepreneurial passion doesn't help across the board. This kind of energy only benefits the team when the founders manage to transfer their passion to the everyday working world of their employees. If they constantly shout the praises of founding a start-up, their employees will at some point become more unsettled than inspired: This could also mean that the bosses can't wait to move on to found their next company.

Bitner: As yet, I still haven't held any impassioned speeches. But I think our team nevertheless notices how we co-founders are putting our energy into the company and how committed we are to what we're doing. 

Jakob Bitner and Nicola Breugst:

Jakob Bitner, 30, is the CEO of VoltStorage GmbH. The company has developed an energy storage system for private households which makes nighttime use of solar energy generated during the day. The device, set to go into series production in 2018, makes use of a battery technology which in the past could only be utilized on an industrial scale. Bitner built VoltStorage in 2016 during his university studies in Management & Technology at TUM, together with prospective business engineer Michael Peither and the Electrical Engineering student Felix Kiefl.

The team received support from the TUM Start-up Advising Team. At UnternehmerTUM, Center for Innovation and Business Creation, the founders participated in the programs "Kickstart" and "Climate-KIC Accelerator" and made use of the high-tech workshop "MakerSpace".

Furthermore TUM provided the team with an office in the "Incubator". Nicola Breugst, Professor of Entrepreneurial Behavior, works only a couple of doors away. With a degree in psychology, she investigates the role of human behavior in the founding of companies, for example group dynamics. Breugst and the VoltStorage team remained in close contact throughout the founding phase. Thus entrepreneurship science and practice learn from one another at TUM.

IKOM:

VoltStorage is one of 40 companies which will present itself on June 20 at IKOM Start-up in the buildings of the TUM Mathematics and Informatics departments. Among them will be about a dozen TUM spin-offs.

On June 19, the IKOM will begin, Germany's largest student career fair. Until June 22, over 300 companies will convene in the building of the Department of Mechanical Engineering to offer jobs, internships and theses. In addition, students can receive free consulting and advice on their job application materials and can have an application photo taken. Speakers will include: 

  • Dr. Martin Brudermüller, Vice Chairman of the Board of Executive Directors BASF SE: June 19, 11:00 am
  • Dr. Andreas Nolte, CIO Allianz Deutschland AG: June 21, 1:00 pm
  • Dr. Christian Bruch, Executive Board Member Linde AG: June 22, 11:00 am
  • Joachim Drees, Chief Executive Officer MAN SE: June 22, 2:00 pm

The IKOM is organized entirely by students.

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