The founder reports: How hard it is to actually start a big business

Julian Leitloff’s biography is impressive: first a dual degree at Deutsche Bank, then a master’s degree from Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen. At the age of only 22, he founded the startup “Stilnest”, which produces jewelry using 3D printing.

A few years later, the trade magazine Forbes chose him for his appearance in the series “30 to 30”. He now runs his third start-up and has about one million euros on paper. It almost looks like Leitloff has just flown in success.

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But the appearance is misleading, as the businessman describes in his book “Keinhorn”. As a founder, he is repeatedly confronted with existential fears, falling investors and unsuccessful marketing campaigns. There is no room for doubt in most of the founding stories.

Instead, exceptional talents speak superficially in business guides and biographies about how they did it. How they built the so-called “unicorn” – a start-up worth at least one billion US dollars – out of nothing. But most of them will not succeed in this step. Not him either. That’s why he would like to take a sincere look behind the scenes in his book with the subtitle “What does it really mean to find a start-up” on 295 pages.

The first 25,000 euros from the university

For two years, he met his co-author Caspar Schlenk every Wednesday morning in a Berlin café to tell the journalist as honestly as possible about his first company. The two met a few years ago during an interview for “Die Zeit” conducted by Schlenk.

You can tell the story of how this happened in the book: Leitloff tells almost carefully how Stilnest was created and first further developed in Friedrichshafen and later in Berlin. The reader accompanies the founders as they work with their best friend Raoul on a joint business idea at a hotel in Zwiesel, Bavaria.

At that time, none of them had much money – they can only get to the hotel thanks to a voucher from an old coupon brochure. Eventually, the 3D printer becomes jewelry. The two will quickly find four colleagues and receive the first 25,000 euros from Leitloff University.

The beginning indicates which crises are yet to come

The beginning is already bolder than planned and indicates what crises are yet to come. After one of Leitloff’s classmates promises the team an investment, he jumps – just to accept it at the last minute. The experience that the founder should have even more often.

Finding investors goes through the whole book. Over and over again, donors first allocate large sums, then jump out at the last minute – and sometimes find contact again months later. There and back does not make it easy to watch different actors.

Crucial, however, are the passages in which Leitloff is angry at the third rejection in a row or the tireless negotiation of the company’s valuation. Where else can you learn more about how these rounds of funding work? How often a meeting with a notary is canceled, what conditions are dictated to the founders and what unpleasant conferences have to hang – no one usually talks about it.

“It was part of the game”

The author interrupts his chronological story with several passages. One chapter, for example, shows Schlenk’s earlier interview with him, in which he gives a net salary of 1,500 euros two years after the company was founded. A salary that, from today’s point of view, could probably be earned by the delivery service. The book also has successes, such as a turnover of 500,000 euros within three months of working with the English influencer Anna Saccone.

Julian Leitloff, Caspar Schlenk: “Keinhorn – what it really means to start a new business”, Campus Verlag, 295 pages, 22 euros Julian Leitloff

He writes sentences over and over like, “That was part of the game.” Like a game in which everyone wants to show the greatest possible determination. Some founders sleep too little, drink too much, or use other means of stimulation. Constant tension is also evident in Leitloff – for example, on the guard of a bitten bite.

Over the years, the scene made a bad impression. A lot of work may not always go hand in hand with great success. “In many places, we should have taken a step back and asked ourselves: is there anything else we should try?” He is criticized.

Leitloff is now the leader of the next start-up

Leitloff only briefly discusses what will happen after he leaves Stilnest after five years. Given the length of the rest of the story, this is a bit surprising. Overall, the authors manage to tell an authentic founding story with all its aspects.

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Leitloff’s story is a representative story of many people – as the corona crisis shows. In response to the crisis, more than 150,000 small business owners contacted an investment bank in Berlin and showed the 31-year-old that he was not alone in his worries, which would probably never end.

He is currently the head of the “Fractal” blockchain start-up, earning 5,000 gross and seeking new funding again. Stilnest still exists, with former co-founder Tim Bibow taking over.

In the end, Leitloff wants to remove the mystique of founding, which prevents someone from building something themselves. He is doing well in his book. “Keinhorn” is suitable for both beginners and experts. If you are new to the world of start-ups, you can get started quickly with clear language. The book is also relevant to professionals, after all holding a mirror in many areas of industry.

Julian Leitloff, Caspar Schlenk: “Keinhorn – what does it really mean to start a startup” Campus Verlag, 295 pages, 22 euros

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