Interview with Niels Mueller-Wickop by PM in SET Learner Raffael Winkler
Impactful entrepreneurship, an interview with CEO Niels Mueller-Wickop
Niels talks about his method to becoming an entrepreneur and why you need a lot of grit and energy to be successful while running your own company.
Interview by PM in SET Learner Raffael Winkler
I would like to know a bit more about your role being an entrepreneur. Was being an entrepreneur your plan, and what was the biggest problem during founding your company?
No, it was never a plan. I started when I was 34, so quite late. I went on an around-the-world trip for a year and figured out that something was missing. A lot of people stayed at home, and they always said I would love to go as well, but they had a play store of reasons why they wouldn't go. That was the starting point for JoinMyTrip.
The very first thing that I found challenging was finding the right cofounder, which I was lucky enough to do so. You need the right cofounder on your side; you can't do it all yourself; that was the first challenge out of many to follow.
Being an entrepreneur is basically about overcoming challenges. You need to be a certain type of person with the spirit of a boxer. They get punched in the face over and over again until they land lend that lucky swing. The funny thing about this, they do it the next day again. Constantly basically, failure, trying out new things; at some point, you figure out the one thing that works, but it only fixes your challenges or issues for the moment because the next ones just wait around the corner.
Just one follow-up question: Was your Co-Founder a friend or somebody you know already, or did you have to search for him?
Funny story. One day I came into the office, and a colleague told me: “Hey Niels you're not a techie right you need someone implementing all these ideas” I think I know someone. He is not normal, so he's a good fit for you. The one thing I found the most surprising about being an entrepreneur is how little I know about it. You have some touchpoints with friends that run companies, let's say that gives you maybe 10 to 20% of the real wheel deal; the rest, once you’re in it, you learn it. The closest you can get to being a Founder, I believe, is working in a startup.
I saw on your website that you also have a mission statement (to connect and empower travelers on our platform to create and discover unique and authentic group trips with like-minded people), so when and how did you create this mission, and how did this mission help you in your daily working life to make decisions?
No, this is another thing. I would put money on a bet saying that the majority of companies, after five years, don’t have the same mission statement that they had in the very beginning. It's something that evolves. The company, from my understanding, is people. Nothing would happen without the people, and people are changing. You hire new people, you hire more people, and some people might leave; in the end, you are an evolving organism, and so is your mission. For us, it was always very clear we wanted to get people together. The core of what we do is that people meet, and travel together, and it's secondary where they go. It's more important who you go with than where you go.
The second part of your question: How much does it help us? That depends on the person. Overall, it helps a lot for some people; it's very important for others not at all. It's very tricky, and I know there's a lot of research on that. They say you need to have a very strong mission statement, and it helps, I think partially, yes, but certain people know their direction without ever having read a mission statement whereas others thrive on that.
I’m interested in your role as a CEO. How would you define your leadership style, and how do you think the leadership styles of others have to change in the current situation where hardly everybody wants to work in this kind of sector?
First, we don't feel that right; we still get loads of applications. People love to work. It might not be the safest job at the moment, but I believe tourism overall will always be there. Roundabout 10% of the worldwide GDP is generated directly or indirectly by some kind of tourism. People love to travel, and I think our ancestors were the ones, who wanted to know what's behind the next mountain and what's behind the river, so we are all kind of explorers, and this makes us find new colleagues fairly.
Leadership style: I think I'm a team player. I don't function if I don't have a team around me that I can spare ideas. I like to lead and set directions, but I'm very happy if someone proves me wrong. I like tough discussions with arguments only, please. For example, this is what we want to know, this is what the data says. What are we doing? I love to ask what you would do. I find it an extremely powerful question; I think it's called collaborative leadership style and in the end, someone needs to take a decision.
The second part is what needs to change: Currently, I think it's both sides. Let’s move away from a business perspective but also politics. I think politicians reflect SoC, and society is highly influenced by politicians. I have the feeling that it is the same in companies, if you have employees that expect things from the CEO, he will also behave in a certain way. Let's make a very drastic example, for instance, if people decide they only want to work for 10 or 15 hours a week max, the CEO needs to deal with that and behave in a certain way. The CEO needs to make sure that you still achieve your goals.
It's a very difficult thing, and I find it very challenging sometimes. If you ask me what people need to learn today in the end if you say hey you need to come to your office because I don't know if you're working, you already lost because you're not trusting your employees that's the worst case scenario.
It's estimated that a person born in 2007 would work in his or her future in a job that on a percentage of 65% is not existing at the current stage, so we need to like kind of train and teach the younger generation like important skills, but what do you think are the most important skills like future employees and entrepreneurs must dispose of?
One thing they always come up with in research that I can swear, I say yes, that's true, is grit. If you don't have grit, don't go for being an entrepreneur. If you don't have the willpower to hang in don't do it. I think learning only happens if you're willing to get feedback. You need to evolve as a person constantly, but you need to be willing to learn and change your perspective constantly. Coming up with ideas that are very easy, at least ten people on the planet will set the same, most probably even more. The idea itself, for me, is nothing; execution is everything. Execution means primarily you need to be able to adjust to whatever is happening right now, and you need to change yourself constantly, your view on certain things, and how you behave. There is another thing, and you need a lot of energy.
When you founded your company, was there one thing you would have been grateful to know before you found it, and what was the biggest issue you were facing?
I think it's a bit like having kids, right if you knew beforehand, you might reconsider, but once you're there, you're very happy knowing before. I think now, being in the game for a while, if you ask me how long it would take you now with the next company, most probably maybe half of the time because you know the people you need to talk to, you know the tools that you need to use you know about whom to hire when to hire and so on.
Let's talk a little bit about sustainability; how do you think our travel behavior and our behavior, in general, changed to get to net zero?
When it comes to this, I'm a very negative person, and I hope that the next generation is smarter. You know this Michael Jackson song that already says, hey, you're just damaging the planet to the degree that is not acceptable, that's not sustainable, and it will backfire horribly. We didn't learn anything, but then I think the behavior of people is not going to change because there is one degree more during summer than the year before and the year before. I think the impact must be ridiculously high before people start changing. I think, especially where we're from, most people would say, okay, there is global warming, but changing their behavior not so much.
The core of what we're doing is getting people together, and I think the biggest beauty is if you meet people from other parts of the planet earth. It is very contradictory to net zero because you would need to travel one way or the other. Yes, you can travel further and stay in one place or take sustainable transportation over there, right like you did in Costa Rica. You can save the rainforest where you cannot learn about the rainforest or people who live in Costa Rica by taking the train to Munich. It’s just not the same. It doesn’t do the deal. If you are in Costa Rica, how do you get to Nicaragua or Mexico? There is local transportation so that you can use that. I think what needs to change is we need to start getting into a habit of always questioning why we do what. What kind of means of transportation that we use, and how do we behave? It needs to be ingrained in our DNA, constantly asking ourselves hey, is this needed? It starts with everything. I think it needs to hurt. I do hope that it stays in a way that people meet from all around. You have the chance to get an understanding of why certain people try to come to Europe. Because we destroyed the environment over there, so maybe we should change ours. It’s a very complicated, fuzzy topic, as you might have noticed, and it comes down to always asking yourself what is needed.
Is there anything else you would like to share with the community?
Yeah, get ready whenever your friends say it's not going to work. You need to find a handful of people that you trust, and they want you to succeed. They would only tell you don't do it; they truly believe this is not working. The majority of people, especially in the country we are from, are not entrepreneurial, not at all. We've been raised in an environment where entrepreneurship is not part of our culture. Most people are not running their businesses. That's very different from some other parts of the world. Make sure to find the right people to listen to. Otherwise, you're not going on a journey that might be very interesting.
Relation to my personal mission statement
My personal mission statement in one sentence:
I'd like to inspire people with my experiences so that they rethink their actions in order to grow sustainability together.
By talking with Niels about important topics such as sustainability and modern entrepreneurship, I learned a lot related to that. Some of my takeaways are the following:
-If you don't have grit, don't go for being an entrepreneur.
-I love to ask: what would you do? I find it an extremely powerful question.
-I think the biggest beauty is if you meet people from other parts of planet earth.
Gave me the possibility to reflect in different ways. For example, I found it very interesting to hear the perspective of a CEO with all the practical experiences and combine it with the lessons we took. For instance, Niels mentioned some things which have also been in the lessons. Moreover, talking to him gave me a clearer vision of my mission statement and potential business ideas. It prepared me well for being an entrepreneur, and I liked the challenge. I prefer to keep it brief here and sum it up with the sentences of my interview. We need to start getting into a habit of always questioning why we do what.