Two is Better Than One: An F10 Co-Founder Success Story
Katharina Aguilar and Alicia Hinon, CEO and COO respectively of 7Places – innovation company, are a match made in co-founder heaven. Intelligent, good humored, and driven by a passion to leave the world better than they found it, when you put these two together there is no limit to how far they can go
by Rachel Johnson | 15 Feb, 2023
To start, a short background of what you were doing before you both met…
Katharina: I was working in the automotive industry and then as Head of Digital Business in an architectural office, which is where we founded 7places. However, my co-founders stepped out because they wanted to concentrate on their core business, and then I was desperately looking for someone who wanted to carry all the joys as well as the burdens of leading a company.
Alicia: I started in marketing and had a long career in corporate environments internationally, but became more and more frustrated by the short-sighted perspective of legacy businesses: revenue growth as the one-and-only objective, avoiding any responsibility, and zero sense for sustainability. I eventually decided that it was time to start my own business, because I had always had a knack for digitalization and it’s possibilities and wanted to make sure that everyone can benefit from it. So I ended up checking the classifieds searching for a co-founder…
Finding a co-founder is really different. You need someone who knows what it means to build a company and has everything it takes.
How did you both come across the F10 website?
Katharina: Of course, I was thinking where the heck do I find a co-founder? Because you can post jobs on a variety of platforms, but finding a co-founder is really different. You need someone who knows what it means to build a company and has everything it takes. That's when I thought of F10 because I knew there was a section especially for that. And I am also very much about female empowerment.
Alicia: For me the most important thing was female empowerment. I wanted to work in a woman led company, where I see a difference. When I found Katharina, I had already had some talks with others who were searching for a female co-founder. Due to Corona, it was impossible to find any co-founders physically, which is how I came across Katharina's job posting and I said: I think that could work.
What attraction did Katharina’s job post have that the others didn’t?
Alicia: For a long time, I have asked myself the questions, "How we can make the world around us more sustainable, how can technology help to create sufficient, inclusive, and empowering smart cities?” When I heard Katharina’s concept, I thought maybe there is a way that we can really create here. The idea of being able to give something back pushed me to reach out to her.
For both of you, what was the main motivation for wanting to start your own company? Like you said, it's not your average job.
Katharina: I wasn't really planning on it. I grew up in a family where my dad was always self-employed, and I knew the rollercoaster very well, and not only in a positive way. As a kid, I always had too much exposure to the ups and downs and sometimes worries about money in the future, and so I actually always said I don't want to have my own company. Ever. I was studying hard to get a good degree in school. Eventually I got a corporate job, and I went the normal safe career way until I was 27. That’s when I figured out that I was having trouble with the corporate environment and with being a woman in technology – I was questioned all the time. Now, here I am self-employed.
Alicia: For me it's actually quite the opposite. In my family, there is no one who has founded a company. If I would have known about the struggle beforehand, I probably would have thought twice. But like Katharina, I was also in the corporate environment. Since I was a child, I have always been very optimistic and energetic and have had the drive to make something from the opportunities I see. In the corporate world, however, there was always this blocking of any creative idea – never being able to move a step out-of-the-box. And this was the main push for me to step outside of this world and put my ideas to use.
Truly a match made in heaven. How did the first face-to-face meeting go?
Katharina: We had, I think, even two phone calls before, and then we met in a really nice cafe in Berlin. It was cool because Alicia was exactly how I imagined her to be in real life. You know how sometimes you think you know people because you've seen them before, but then you meet in person, and they look completely different. But it wasn't like that with Alicia. On top of that, she was really challenging the ideas and the plans I had right off the bat. I was always on the edge between liking her approach, because I wanted a co-founder who is ahead of things, my ego, on the other hand, took a beating... But that was just realistic and actually gave me a very good feeling that we're not totally with our heads in the clouds.
Alicia: This was exactly also the feeling that I had of Katharina when we first met. Before we met in person, we had already gotten a sense of each other. But of course, the personal meeting was irreplaceable, especially for the success that we had later on. I knew I had to challenge her if I wanted to feel comfortable and wanted to really understand what 7places is all about. But I figured out from the very beginning that Katharina is super smart with everything that she already created. I did a little research, actually a lot, and I was thinking wow she's actually talking to me. That I found intriguing. She was willing to give me a part of her kingdom, but, on the other hand, I also understood the struggle because she was being completely honest when she said she didn't want to do it alone.
If you hadn't found each other, what do you think you would be doing today? Would the business have taken off the way it has?
Katharina: I would have quit, absolutely, because, yeah, I wasn’t going to do it on my own. If I wouldn't have found someone as fitting as Alicia is, I would have stopped and I would have gone to, not a big corporation, but some company where I could be in a leading position and share my knowledge.
Alicia: In my case, it was probably a little easier. I was searching for something new, and I had several options. I was thinking of going into teaching, because I love showing people different perspectives and explaining close connections. The second path was probably also corporate, although deep inside of me, I would have had a hard time going back into those kinds of structures. And the third option, I had a little idea for another start-up that I wanted to create. Most likely I would have stepped into this direction, and I probably would not have been as successful as we are right now, so I am definitely lucky that I found Katharina when I did.
Katharina: It was fate or how do you say it... yes, destiny.
Alicia: (laughs) The world deserves our togetherness.
Most of your work is digital or virtual since you're in two different cities. Has that been difficult, and do you have advice?
Katharina: No, it wasn't difficult, but I think everyone was already very used to the online game by then. Now, Alicia comes to Stuttgart sometimes, and we are already planning on some joint trips together. So that's always a good time to really connect on another level. But it works well remotely, and I think we're much more efficient like that. When we choose to spend personal time together, we choose wisely so it's always quality time.
Alicia: You need to have trust in the other, to understand that you have the same motivation, that you share the purpose of where you want to go. Even though Katharina, and I are physically apart, we still have the same thoughts. We are often coming into meetings and immediately hooking up with the ideas of the other. We share a similar mindset. If you don't need to explain yourself, if you don't need to start every time from the very beginning, but you can just connect where you left off last time, and you have the trust, then working online is basically not a problem at all.
Katharina: You just have to be flexible and have an open mindset. Being open to a remote working model makes it easier to look for people right now, because, in Stuttgart, I wouldn't have found anyone like Alicia.
If you had to name one quality that's most important to you in your co-founder what would you say?
Alicia: It’s hard to choose the top quality of Katharina, but if I have to name one it would be her positivity. She has this drive, and she's always thinking of creating the better. This positive energy is amazing because it lifts everyone up and is good leadership. She is honest, and you know that you can rely on her.
Katharina: For Alicia, fortunately she has all the top qualities. But to choose one, maybe her intelligence. Before we even had a contract, I could already see how she understood the concept, my vision. She got all the fragments that everyone always think I’m totally confused about. Having this common mindset in a co-founder is so imperative, but I think it's the combination of common ground in the brain and honesty. Being 100% transparent, that's the basis of everything.
What are the next steps for 7places?
Alicia: We want to create a platform for digital learning experience places, to give them an extension in the physical world. What we created is an operation system for people who do not have or are limited in access to digital tools. It can work in all sorts of places, from museums, exhibitions, libraries, and archives, but also, even small retailers, companies who want to have their learnings digitalized. All these things we want to give a home and create a platform for, and we have several tools developed to digitize their analogue offers.
Katharina: And that's the first thing we created together. So from now on it's not only my baby, for half a year now, it's our baby. We have founded another joint company for that. 7places is an agency that brings innovation to spaces, and this is a sister company that has to do with all those digital business models. Its first product would be the one Alicia just described. Now that we are in the last steps, we have the opportunity to scale it, to do marketing and to develop, which is why we're looking for number three, at least in our amazing team.
The next step is that third co-founder, then…
Katharina: Yes, exactly. That would be the technology lady.
Alicia: And ideally, she is like us. On the other hand, she should have the qualities that both of us not really lack, but the skills we aren’t as strong in. In this case, someone technical who enjoys being organized and all the nitty gritty details.
Katharina: And, of course, she needs the love of technology that we have. We are all tech oriented, but we need someone who can code and who really wants to code. And someone who also wants to develop a team and wants to grow together with us.
The fears are coming and going and sometimes they are rational, but most of the time they're super irrational. And if you have someone next to you that you can go through the individual points with, then the only way is up.
Your biggest advice to others founding their own companies?
Katharina: Stay positive and know that whenever the rollercoaster is down it is just swinging to take the next hill upwards.
Alicia: Exactly, it's not you, it's them.
Katharina: (laughs) That's our new motto Alicia invented, because right now we're pitching a lot. We're in a lot of contact with customers, and we get a lot of rejection. Actually, to be honest, she created the sentence, “They don't deserve our awesomeness.” Whenever we get a rejection that's what we say, and it helps to get over it really quickly.
Alicia: Follow your course, stay positive, and ideally find someone like Katharina. Someone who really has the same mindset because it is much easier when you're not alone in all of those things. The fears are coming and going and sometimes they are rational, but most of the time they're super irrational. And if you have someone next to you that you can go through the individual points with, then the only way is up.
Katharina: And of course, it's not easy finding that one person. It's probably the hardest part, but if it's meant to be, it will be, and you will know if the other one is the right one. My guidance is to ask the question of “Do I want to spend more time with that person or not?” If it's not a hell yes, it's a no.
Are you looking for a female co-founder? Apply to be featured on F10 here.