“Failure? I don’t use that word.”

by Natascha Zeljko

Amber Riedl is the co-founder and CMO of Makerist, Germany’s biggest platform for creative hobbies like sewing and knitting. With her first company it didn't work out so well. On F10 she reflects what went wrong and what she learned and why she doesn't consider this experience as a failure

Let’s talk about how you started. What was the idea of your first company?

I started an online wedding planning website in 2008 under the name 1001hochzeiten. I got the idea from the painful process of planning my own wedding – I am Canadian, my now-husband is Austrian, we were living in Germany and wanted to get married in Greece. There was no website or online tools in Germany at the time that could help me with the planning, so I decided to make that product. I thought, if there is nothing out there, and I have an idea how it could be better for people planning their weddings, I should just do it.  In retrospect, that was quite naive, which was a good thing and a bad thing at the same time.

In what way?

When you’re naive, you just do things without too much thinking, or over-thinking. You have more trust that things will work out. I didn’t really stop to think about the things I didn’t have, which could prevent me from realizing this dream:  experience, structure, feedback, and so on. I went into the startup full of ideas, energy, and optimism. The idea was a lead generation platform for wedding planning, paired with an e-commerce platform for gift registry. The online wedding planner had planning tools – for budgeting, for seating arrangements, guest management, or for finding vendors. We paired this with a lot of content. The idea was to attract people to the planning website 1001hochzeiten and then move them to our second website 1001hochzeitstische [gift registry] and to monetize over e-commerce by having the bride and the groom do their wedding gifts with us. Even today I think it was quite a good idea, but in fact – this is something I say very often – you need more than a good idea for a successful business.

You were three founders. Why did you split up – what went wrong?

In the beginning I was working with two people in my founding team who, at the time, were married – and who ended up getting divorced a few months after we started the project. And, not surprisingly, it turned out that it was not easy to work on a project together which was about love and weddings. Together we made a great team: I’m great with concepts and content, the guy with technology, and the woman with e-commerce. Quite soon after their divorce I got pregnant with my first child. That was the point where my two founding partners  left the company – right at the time where I would have really needed help. I think if I had known in the beginning I would end up doing it alone, I probably wouldn’t have done it.

How did you manage this situation?

I was stubborn and wanted to show everyone I could still make it. I continued with a small team of freelancers – mostly for the tech side and one excellent person to work with me on the content and vendors. But then my first son arrived five weeks early and with all my hustling around, I hadn’t stopped to make a plan about what would happen after the birth. Everything was very chaotic and spontaneous, and I asked Manja Kuchel (who was working with me at the time) to take over. She managed amazingly. This was at the end of 2009.

That sounds overwhelming. What can you say about that time as a mom?

I was working really hard on this website trying to get everything done before the birth. Without realizing that things were never going to be done. When I look back on it now, I wish I would have done it differently – I can see that I didn’t take good enough care of myself, and felt too much stress. And I always feel I carry this guilt around with me that this could have been one reason for the early birth. One of the biggest things I learned was that self care is not up for debate – you need to always put your health (including your mental health) first.

What was the biggest problem in hindsight? Why didn’t the business pick up momentum?

In 2010, I we launched our e-commerce website 1001hochzeitstische. The concept was great -we were actually the first online shop selling famous brands like Villeroy & Boch, KPM porcelain, and Robbe & Berkin silverware. We were Springlane before Springlane (and sadly only focusing on wedding couples!).  But – we were such a small team doing so many things – it would have required more investment to make it scalable. The amount of customers that we had doing the tables with us in the first year was around 50, and then it was like 200, but it wasn’t really enough to scale an online business.

The most important thing you learned when building your second business?

At Makerist we got financing from investors early on and that helped us to build our team and quickly professionalize. With the wedding business I always had just enough money to survive but not to take it to the next level. To be honest, I didn’t really understand the financing game at the time – I only did one pitch, quite late in the business, maybe 2012. I think if I had approached it more professionally, if I had had this experience of what the company needs and how valuable it is to have a professional structure and set up with investors, it would have worked out.

When was the moment you decided to give up the wedding business?

In 2012 I had my second child. I remember we took a holiday around the time of his first birthday, where I still needed to do the bookkeeping of the wedding business. I was looking at the accounts and said to my husband, “It’s going to be a few hundred dollars short this month, we’re going to have to put money in.” This was the point where we decided we couldn’t do it anymore, we had to find a different way. We had to let go of our employees, and then think about what to do with the company. I didn’t want to put it in insolvency but I didn’t know what else I could do to make it successful.

How did you deal with this?

Actually a great solution came up: I met my current co-founder Axel Heinz and we started talking about my experience with the wedding business and his experience building Marketplaces. Axel was the first employee at Dawanda and saw potential for a platform like Makerist. We imagined building something big together. That was appealing to me on many levels – working with a professional partner sounded like a dream, and I myself was really into crafting – again, I felt that I understood our target audience, and that they would want this product we could make.

And how did you transition to the new project?

Michael Brehm was one of the founding shareholders of Makerist – and he was a customer of mine on the wedding gift registry. He believed in the business and helped me to arrange a shares deal. I found another founder who was interested in starting something in the wedding space. It was a great set up – this meant I could step away from the company but it would keep running with a new name. And that was quite successful for many years under the name Foreverly. Unfortunately, Foreverly filed for insolvency in December last year.

Things you know today – and didn’t know before?

It’s not enough to have a good idea; you have to also have enough money to make it big. You need investors. This is essential, not just from a financial perspective, but in terms of getting experience and having people you can talk to and develop strategies with. Investors will naturally force you to do the deep thinking you may not have done on your own: “That’s a great idea, but how will you make money with it? What’s the business model? What are the goals and the metrics? And how are we going to track them?”  
Another major takeaway from my first startup is that we did too many things. It was like two startups and three different business models. There was the content model where we earned a lot of money from Google ads. Then we had a listings format where we got money from service providers in the wedding industry. And this third – and completely different – model with e-commerce on the registry side. To make a long story short, “Do one thing and do it really well,” instead of doing five things all a little bit. This is what I know now.

In every startup story, there is a game-changing moment. When was yours?

At Makerist we also were starting to do way too many things: e-learning video classes on sewing and knitting, quilting, crocheting, and producing these classes on our own. Additionally we were running a marketplace for sewing and knitting patterns. And we started selling material. So we had paid editorial content, a marketplace model for digital content, and e-commerce. Three different business lines and simultaneously, we started to internationalize.  And then our Head of Finance – Hillary Evans – recommended a book. It was called Radical Focus and was about introducing OKR-systems. It was a game changer. From that point in 2016 on, Axel and I worked to implement OKR in the company, thinking quarter to quarter. This process has been a main focus of Axel since then, and he has done a great job making it understandable and manageable to everyone in the company.

How do you deal with your first project ending that way? Do you see it as a failure?

I am a big fan of reframing things for myself mentally. So, I don’t really consider the wedding-project as a failure and I actually don’t use the word “failure”. I always just say, “Oh yeah, it wasn’t that successful.” It feels totally different because there’s not so much negative association. That would be something else that I learned: you can reframe everything as you want to. I studied political science and then I went into this different field. For me, we could also say that my first startup was an expensive MBA.

Your advice for other founders?

It’s hard to be a solopreneur and start a family at the same time. Invariably, one or the other will suffer.  If you want to start a family and a startup at the same time, it can work, but consider what kind of a model you can use to accomplish that. Maybe you have one co-founder or even four or five business partners. You spread the responsibility and know what you can commit to and then do it.

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