You’re a journalist, mentor, podcaster and entrepreneur. What kind of work is shaping your day-to-day life right now?
Laura: I’m still in a creator mode, and I’ve also found that I really enjoy it and that it’s a great strength of mine. Specifically, I’m still busy writing the newsletter, preparing the podcast, and pushing my sales and marketing. That’s a lot and it’s a lot of different roles, but in everyday startup life you’re on a lot of construction sites at the same time. I’m in the discovery process right now, though, looking at which tasks I want to continue in the future and in which area I need support.
Keyword support. The Campus Founders want to give the next generation of founders orientation and support. What kind of support did you have when you started your first company?
Laura: Above all, I got a lot of advice from experienced entrepreneurs and mentors and pestered them with all kinds of questions. I organized regular meetings for this purpose, where I was always insanely well prepared, so I would value their time – but also mine – and so I could move forward quickly. Together, we defined milestones for me. That’s why: Definitely get mentors! I always find that very helpful.
Your multitude of projects and tasks also meant that you were mentally and physically overworked. How are you doing today?
Laura: I don’t want to pretend that everything always runs smoothly. Again, the key word here is support. I have to know what the most important thing is, what I have to do now to reach my goal. To do this, I also need to know my own strengths. I write down this process and ask myself: Where do I want to go? The mistake people often make in the beginning is to say, “Everything makes sense, everything is cool!” I had to learn that only cool, fancy stuff doesn’t get me anywhere either. As an entrepreneur, it’s also about recognizing which levers are the most important right now. At the end of the day, there also needs to be enough money coming in. To do that, certain things have to be eliminated – kill your darlings! So it’s better to ask the question, “What can I eliminate to get to XY?” and not “What else do I need to do to get there?”.
You also have a lot going on in the private sphere right now. Tell us about it.
Laura: Yes, that’s right (laughs). I’m having a baby in February and I’m really looking forward to it. So I’m taking a lot of time for myself in my private life right now. I meditate a lot and have prioritized my well-being even more. The pregnancy has also helped me a lot. So I’m definitely doing better today and I’m very relaxed right now.
Founding and building a startup is intense – especially in these times. What challenges do founders face in particular now?
Laura: I think the most important thing is good self-management. Constantly challenging yourself, looking at where I want to go, what distracts me from what I actually want. That’s a challenge anyway and certainly it’s a bit more difficult in these times. Especially the early days after a startup are extremely shaky and exciting and you worry all the time. Now there are also external worries due to the pandemic and a generally tense economic situation. This makes the start-up even more difficult. That makes it all the more important to keep a cool head.
In your Smart Chiefs mentoring program, you meet many startup founders. Which topics and questions are currently particularly important to the founders?
Laura: Above all, the topic of mission and vision! I have noticed that no matter how far along the startups are, they have a need and we have to challenge their status quo. Because for me, that’s the cornerstone of a good story. No matter where I want to tell that story, I have to be
inside out and very compelling. And for that, self-exploration is insanely important. It’s a much bigger step to do that kind of self-reflection than to end up publishing the story. What I find exciting is that once the knot is broken, the startups master the rest relatively easily. A lot of it is craft, of course: how do I write better, how do I build good stories, etc. But if step 1 is given and the motivation is intrinsic, then the story almost writes itself.
In addition to intrinsic motivation, inspiring mentors are another success factor for you. Which mentors have impressed you the most?
Laura: Many of my interview guests, but my mother is definitely my number one. I haven’t had her on the podcast with me yet, but she definitely had a challenging childhood. She worked hard to make her way into being a really very impressive and wise woman. I absorbed her knowledge with my mother’s milk, so to speak
You just said that the company story has to be developed “from the inside out.” Can it be that I, as founder:in, am purely economically motivated?
Laura: It can indeed be and then that’s your story. A business idea always makes sense if it is driven by certain factors. But if it’s financial, then there’s a market for that as well. And why is there a market? Because there is a problem for it and then the answer to it, the solution. The solution can then also function as a story. As a journalist, I don’t always just look for the “founder story,” but also for the social relevance of the company. Then these stories are about why the founder took on this very topic. Why is she founding a startup in the health sector and not in the real estate industry, for example, or the other way around. These are also questions that play a role in a good story.
Let’s stay on the topic of vision and mission. Campus Founders focus on “zebras” rather than “unicorns.” What’s your take on this debate?
Laura: Unicorns are Unicorns that shoot forward really fast. Zebras are more herd animals with a community mindset. I think at the end of the day, each:r has to decide for themselves what they think is right. However, I do believe that society and community are very important in many areas of our economy and even our everyday lives. Collaboration is becoming more, more important. It’s not one person leading the way and everyone else following him:her. That’s what I always find difficult about the unicorn debate, that it’s always about “higher, faster, further” and that a lot of investor money is sheer “just blown out of the gate” – because the profit is tempting, if not necessarily sustainable. Ideas are hyped and there is not even a product yet – a lot of hot air.
I was socialized differently. I come from a family business that has been run cleanly and soundly for over 50 years. They also make great returns and profits, but still work in a decelerated and relaxed manner. Some of the employees there have been with the same company for 20 or 30 years and are extremely satisfied. I think it is desirable to have a good working atmosphere and corporate philosophy. After all, the mental and physical health of employees is the most important thing.
In your video series “Meet your Mentor,” you’ve talked to many famous faces, including Toni Garrn, Nico Rosberg and Wladimir Klitschko. With one particular interview guest, you were particularly persistent with the request.
Laura: I’m guessing you’re referring to Gary Vaynerchuck. Here, it was actually the case that I really wanted him on my show. He didn’t respond to the numerous emails. So I was wondering how I could get his attention. What might he not have enough of yet? You can’t really have enough attention and appreciation. Not even Gary Vaynerchuck. So I sent him 300 postcards at once to his New York office. A week later, I was a guest on his show – and I still had an acceptance letter for my show.
So persistence paid off in this case. What other qualities should founders have?
Laura: Yes, definitely persistence! Perseverance is important. And above all, belief in yourself. You’re constantly in doubt and someone comes along who can do something better, who’s done it faster, who’s raised more money, who earns more. You can’t let that get you down. Everyone is on their own journey. You should internalize this sentence, preferably write it over your bed.
You wrote in one of your columns that you try to avoid using social media on your phone as much as possible. What’s your current status?
Laura: Yes, actually, I don’t currently have LinkedIn or Instagram on my phone. I even have the web link pages blocked! But admittedly, I do have a second phone that has those apps on it. It doesn’t help, I have to know the apps and use them regularly. And yes, sometimes I download the apps to my personal phone, only to delete them again relatively quickly.
About Laura Lewandowski:
Laura Lewandowski is a “Top 30 under 30” journalist, entrepreneur and on a mission to redefine success for the era of modern leaders. As Co-Founder of the Meet Your Mentor Experience, she questions the status quo and learns from the icons of our present day how we can better unite wellbeing and performance – including Wim Hof, Jay Shetty, Toni Garrn and more. As Founder of Smart Chiefs, she teaches storytelling to startup founders. She also shares her expertise in thought leadership and storytelling with corporations such as Facebook, Uber and Google. In 2020, she was awarded the Digital Female Leader Award and as a Top Minds XING. Laura Lewandowski currently writes regular columns for Business Insider.