How do you navigate two distinct worlds – that of technology startups with its breakneck pace, penchant for risk-taking and open culture and that of more established industries, like manufacturing, where procedure, process and, sometimes, distrust of industry outsiders reigns? Reconciling these distinct differences is something I encounter everyday in my startup company, Subvise.
Subvise – Startup in the traditional sector of chemical industry
Subvise, founded early in 2014, is an online dashboard that allows users to create and track a dashboard of chemicals against regulations in the European Union. Our primary audience is chemical associations, chemical consultants and small-to-medium (SME) manufacturers and manufacturing associations across Europe.
Berlin, where it all began…
I didn’t expect to grapple with this dichotomy founding a startup; in fact, when I first landed in Germany in early 2013, with a shiny new MBA in hand and some retro programming experience circa the dot-com era, I didn’t have an exact idea of what I wanted to do. I was simply hoping to tempt fate and and perhaps find my fortune in Berlin’s booming startup scene.
Like many others, upon arriving I immediately immersed myself in the startup scene. I attended every startup event in Berlin and was determined to shake everyone’s hand until I found work or could distill one of my own ideas into a concrete business concept. I was operating on a shoestring, so if the event cost money to attend, I called up the organisers and volunteered for any task. Doing this got me pretty well known in the startup scene, and, eventually, led to a short-term communications/business development role with Startup Camp Berlin.
Developing a business idea
After my contract with Startup Camp ended, I continued to attend as many conferences or events that I could, even some that were on the fringe of my expertise or outside my personal areas of interest. I knew that the best idea would come from thinking differently or seeing how an existing problem might be solved through a different lens.
The idea for Subvise came from just such an alignment. I attended a conference on new, more efficient ways to set up database structures. Later, I happened to stumble across a perfect application for this database structure while having a conversation with a chemical regulatory expert. He and his team were using Excel spreadsheets to track the regulatory status of over 700 chemicals. For each chemical, they had to manually search over 30 different watch lists to find the latest status. As you can imagine, this was an extremely time-consuming and error-prone process.
An application to solve the problem with the Excel spreadsheets
I knew if his company – a highly sophisticated, international tire manufacturer – hadn’t found a better solution than an Excel spreadsheet, then there were surely other companies struggling with tracking chemical regulations that would welcome a product that could automate and simplify this process.
So, we combined this database technology and what we call our proprietary Chemical Regulatory Tracking Engine and built a dashboard that allows users to see the status of an entire inventory of chemicals at a glance without any of the error-prone manual searching. The tool also includes reporting and notifications so users are automatically alerted whenever something changes.
Traditional businesses vs. modern startup spirit
Even though Subvise has been proved to save users as much as 80% of their time on regulatory tracking, it hasn’t been an easy sell. We quickly found that running a company based on a non-traditional business model, yet targeting industries run in a traditional manner can be challenging.
The insular nature of the chemical and manufacturing industry and the complexity of the chemical regulations in Europe made me realise early on the importance of having regulatory experts or people with industry connections in-house.
We also learned that what we do offline is just as, if not more, important than what we do online and that sets us apart from other startup companies. I’ve had to spend much more time than I would have anticipated attending chemical and regulatory conferences and nurturing personal relationships with associations and manufacturers from scratch.
On the flip side, we are excited to be offering an IT-solution to an industry that other high-tech companies or startups may snub (it also means less competition) and we love converting a company from an ancient and time-consuming tracking method to our platform.
- Help can be found in the most unexpected places. For being the startup hub of Europe, it can be surprisingly difficult to find available programmers. I’m a board game enthusiast, so when I landed in Berlin, I sought out a board game meetup group. Wouldn’t you know, (some) programmers also like board games and because many in the group were also recent arrivals in Berlin, I was able to scoop them up before they started working for other companies. All this to say that meetups, networking events and activities of all kinds, not just the ones that are professionally related, can yield great benefits.
- Stand out. There aren’t many Canadian founders in Berlin. I’ve used this to my advantage and become one of the few companies that the Canada Meets Germany Alumni Forum regularly calls on to present at their events. From a company perspective, while it’s been challenging to break into a traditional industry, it’s also been a key differentiator. There are simply not that many other startup companies that are working in the industry we do. Figure out what your differentiator is, whether it’s your company or you personally, and exploit it.
- Networking is about helping others. Building a network is critical whether you are the founder of a company or looking for a new job. Now, just because I told you I attended every startup event in Berlin I could physically manage, that doesn’t mean I always felt confident introducing myself to complete strangers. I found that when I approached these events with the attitude that I was there to find out how I could help the other attendees, rather than “what do I need to get from these people,” I was way more relaxed and also more successful. This attitude is even more helpful being the founder of a company where it’s super-easy to fall into salesperson mode at any networking event.