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Passion Rules – The Passcon Principle

Three years ago, financial expert Corinna Reibchen went into business for herself with passcon, her own management consultancy. In the meantime, the start-up has grown into a company with 120 employees at ten locations from Singapore to New York. How did she manage this leap?

The name “passcon” already implies a key message from the company: passion. How much passion does an entrepreneur need? 

From my point of view, it is one of the essentials, even for us in consulting. I have to stand 100% behind what I do. And that includes passion for your job, especially when you want to sell products. 

For you, entrepreneurship lies in the family. To what extent does this influence the choice of career?

My grandparents come from the gastronomy and hotel business, and my parents have always been self-employed. But that led to them advising me to look for a secure job. When I finished school, I was told, “Don’t go to gastronomy, do an apprenticeship.” From that point of view there was more of a push in the opposite direction.

You first went into banking and later worked for large consulting firms. So what was the decisive factor in your decision to set up your own business? 

I think everything in life has its time. There is such a thing as an inner maturity. Back then, when I switched from PWC to Capgemini, I wouldn’t have dared to take such a step. It was there that I learned one crucial thing, namely how to think like an entrepreneur. You can’t do that in a large corporation. We were always margin-driven at Capgemini, and at some point I put out my feelers with customers and asked them, “Would you hire me even without a brand? Without a big name?” and I got positive feedback.

“I think everything in life has its time. There is such a thing as an inner maturity.“

At first glance, the timing doesn’t seem ideal. When the idea of your own company became more and more concrete, you were pregnant with your second child. 

Basically, it was very good timing. I was on maternity leave and had time. And even the first weeks with a child are relatively relaxed. An infant sleeps a lot. At least, that was the case with us. I had so much time after the birth as never before in my life. And I simply took the child with me to the authorities or to the notary. I had time to build a website and to discuss project approaches. For me the phase after the birth was almost ideal, it couldn’t have been much calmer.

When one gets to know your company and your book, you always come across a key term: KYC (Know Your Customer). Why is something supposedly banal really a USP? 

First of all, what we do is not rocket science. But because you spend 70 to 80% of your time in corporations with politics, internal issues, or your own career, you often don’t get your ideas through. That is something that always annoyed me. You see the problems, or rather the solutions, but you simply can’t get any further. It’s like walking against a wall all the time. From my point of view, customer management is the supreme discipline. And by focusing on the customer, I also know which products are in demand and can therefore develop corresponding products. If I don’t do that, if I don’t know what’s going on in the market, then I’m not developing in the market. 

Another important topic is the digitized office. From the very beginning, you were committed to being paperless. Would you say that the Germans have a love for paper? 

Certain occupational groups definitely do. And also certain customer groups of mine. It’s not necessary to print everything. The headwind I received when I said that I do everything digitized was telling. We then actually obtained permits from certain authorities to work in this way. In the end, we proved that anything goes, if you want it to. You just have to break down old thinking and old structures.

“We proved that anything goes, if you want it to. You just have to break down old thinking and old structures.“

Passcon has made its way up quickly: from zero to 120 employees at ten locations in just three years. What are the biggest challenges when you grow so fast? 

The biggest challenge is to bring employees along or hire new employees who have both the agility of a start-up, because that’s what we have definitely remained internally and it’s also very important to me, combined with the professionalism of a company that should be and is taken seriously. In the beginning I recruited new employees in a café, which is no longer possible when operating at a certain level. What I have retained, however, is my intuitive view of people; after a few minutes, I know whether it fits or not. The second challenge is finding a balance between internal and external – between doing business with customers and taking care of internal structures. If, like me, you put a strong focus on customer centricity, problems will arise elsewhere. What has become apparent in recent months is the tendency to raise and develop one’s own people. I now have a business development manager who has completely restructured everything in all countries. We’re looking at what we need for mandatory processes when it comes to accounting, for example. We try to reduce this to a necessary minimum because I want to maintain the speed and creativity with which we develop new ideas. The startup spirit, if you will.

Another topic mentioned in the book is loneliness at the top. How do you manage to deal with it?

This has been a theme for me since early on. It started when I became a manager at PWC. When I became a partner at the age of 35 in 2012, things got lonely around me. Friends became sparse around me, there was hostility and envy. It just weeds them out; I have two or three very good friends and of course my family, my husband and my two daughters. These are real bases. But you are still alone in this position. But I deliberately chose this path, which was also a decision. There would also have been the option of staying in midfield forever as a manager, but it wasn’t what I wanted. 

What helps you there? What are important resources to not to despair and give up?

In any case, exercise helps a lot. This morning, for example, at 7 o’clock in the morning, I did three quarters of an hour of exercise. This feeling that you have already achieved something carries you positively into the day. I also do a lot of yoga. And the meetings with my girlfriends are real sources of strength. By the way, they all do something completely different – which also helps when switching off, to deal with completely different fields. 

What makes a good entrepreneur?

Taking responsibility! If you have problems making decisions, you are completely wrong at the top of a company. If you don’t have the stomach for it or if you have to ask 100 people to be certain, you should probably stay away.

“If you have problems making decisions, you are completely wrong at the top of a company.“

What has been your greatest success so far?

Definitely building this company; it was my dream. And the fact that it’s worked so well is a mega success for me. 

Many fail on the way there. What did you do differently?

I believe that this is really the consequence of how I put my convictions into practice day after day – to always and above all focus on the customer. The priority was right from the start, with every project, we first have to earn money. And that paid off, we even managed it from our own resources, completely without outside capital. The second thing is, I have specialized in a topic that no one else wants to do. Everybody wants to work in cool fields; advertising, marketing, strategy projects. We, on the other hand, deal with hardcore regulation. That may sound dry and boring, but you can make it nice – and it earns money.

You wrote a book, This is How Success Works. Now I can imagine that you are not bored. What was the motivation behind it?

I write a lot on long-haul flights, I’m constantly on the move between Germany, the USA, and Singapore. You have a lot of time there. I was mainly interested in two things: on the one hand, I would have liked to have had a book like this myself when I founded the company. I had to get all the information with difficulty and ask for it. On the other hand, I would also like to encourage other founders, especially in the consulting sector as the proportion of women is still very low. That is simply a shark tank. At the size of passcon, there are hardly any female colleagues. That should change. 

What are the next steps? 

We are now expanding our portfolio, broadening our customer base, and continuing to work on the globalization of our brand with two new branches. 

The Book:

What it’s about: 

Reads relaxed and exciting like a novel, but has the impact of a professional workshop when it comes to setting up a company. This is How Success Works addresses the whole spectrum with which new entrepreneurs are confronted: finding a niche and the USP – and pursuing it sustainably. At Corinna Reibchen it was the consistent focus on the customer (KYC – know your customer). It’s about the right structures, organization, and processes. It’s about the question of whether an office, including sensitive areas such as HR, can actually be completely digitized (spoiler alert: yes!). It’s about how you grow with the growth and what that means for recruiting. And passcon has obviously found the right answers; in three years, a startup has grown into a medium-sized company. After all, the trick is to maintain the flexibility and creativity of a startup and to communicate to the outside world the necessary professionalism that a formal industry like banking still requires. In addition to all the tips and insights, the book is also a stimulant, an appeal to other women to move out of the famous comfort zone. Because there’s something to do and something to win out there. 

The extra bonus:

The book has nothing of that annoying “hooray” attitude. No. Starting and running a business is high performance sport. And sometimes it also makes you lonely. The clear structure and guidance is pleasant – this is where the financial expert’s accuracy manifests itself. In addition, there are numerous lists such as “Top Tips of the CEOs” or “My Most Important Tips From the Company’s First Year” as well as well-prepared infographics. 

The spirit of the book in one sentence: 

“Keep the vision, trust the process.”

Interested? You can buy the book here.

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