In this interview, Kaspar Schmocker explains how to create demand for a brand new product,…
How a young entrepreneur builds an innovative company by converting waste into new valuable products.
Shortly after graduating from law school, she recognized the value of industrial side streams and started a project in this field all on her own. Today, three years later, she has a team of 10 and works with clients from all over Europe.
Linda Grieder, founder and CEO of Rethink Resource GmbH – a company that supports circular economy and sustainability by bringing new life to previously useless industrial waste. Rethink Resource advises companies on how to get the most out of their side streams and develops a digital trading platform to connect sellers and buyers of secondary resources. In this interview, Linda talks about her experience in an accelerator program, the opportunities to finance a start-up without external investment, and the reasons why young entrepreneurs shouldn’t work 24/7.
Linda, your educational background is quite interesting: you have changed between two professions, yet have not worked in either of them. Why is that?
At school I was very interested in science and mathematics, which is why I applied for math faculty. Unfortunately, I soon realized that this field was not socially interactive enough for me, I missed the connection to people. After the first year of studies I was sure that I didn’t belong there and started looking for other possibilities. Then I decided to study law. As a student I participated in various professional programs and also worked in law firms. Then it became clear to me that this was not my world either. However, I decided to complete this education, go through it and then decide what to do next.
You found the new direction very quickly: Almost immediately after your studies, you started to develop a project in a completely different industry. How did you come up with this idea?
Yes, it happened pretty suddenly: At that time, I got in touch with young people who had the basic idea for Rethink Resource. I got to know them through the job of my partner who worked in a mechanical engineering company. Back then, this company held an innovation competition in which the team of young students applied with a basic idea from Rethink Resource. My partner very enthusiastically told me about this project.
However, this team did not intend to make a business out of it. They were still studying and some of them wanted to work for the engineering company. I, on the other hand, couldn’t stop thinking about this idea of valorizing industrial side streams, I found it so exciting. That’s why I arranged a meeting with them, we talked, and they all agreed that it would be great if someone would implement the project; it might bring so much value to the industry! Thank God they also supported me actively in the initial phase.
I had the vision, but I had no idea how to implement it.
So, the student team had the idea and they fully supported your desire to implement it. What were your thoughts and motivation back then?
I thought the idea was absolutely great, I really wanted to get involved. However, I felt a little insecure, because the topic was completely new to me. But I was always inspired by entrepreneurship and wanted to use such an opportunity. Finally, after this hesitation, I thought: If I don’t do it now, I probably won’t do it in my life. Because if I find a well-paid job and then start a family, I probably won’t feel like taking entrepreneurial risks anymore. So I decided to try.
And that without any experience in this field, very courageous! Where did you start, what were your first steps?
Yes, I had the vision, but I had no idea how to implement it. There was a whole new opportunity in Switzerland at that time: an accelerator program for early-stage startups. They were looking for completely new projects that didn’t have much finance and structure yet, just the idea and the desire to work on it. That was a perfect fit. So I thought: If I manage to get in there, I’ll try it for 4 months (that’s the duration of the program); and if it doesn’t work, I won’t lose anything and can apply for jobs in law again.
What were the requirements for this program? How hard was it to get there?
Honestly, it wasn’t that hard. I really only applied with an idea. There were two pitching rounds that I successfully completed and I was lucky enough to be accepted into the program.
To what extent does this accelerator program support startups? What help do they offer?
First of all you get a place in their coworking space. You also receive a lot of information and access to everything you possibly need to develop a business – both online and from the experts. Most importantly, you work with the coaches, not only those who help you with the business model, but also with industry coaches who enable you to validate the idea with potential customers.
Sounds like a really great opportunity for a young entrepreneur. What was your experience with participating in the program?
It was very enriching. But I have to admit I really swam at first, didn’t know what to do and where to start. The Accelerator program gives so much information that you hardly come along to process it. Digital marketing, industry events, business model planning, Google AdWords and many other topics appear simultaneously alongside the actual project development. That was really difficult. But once you calm down and structure your work, you can benefit so much from all the information, insights and real support. For example, I had the opportunity to exhibit my project at trade fairs. And that’s exactly where I found my first customers.
What happened after the end of the Accelerator program? What was the most difficult part of this initial phase?
During the 4 months I spent in the Accelerator, I didn’t even concern myself with the financing. There all basic costs are covered (e.g. office space, professional support, etc.), so you only concentrate on the actual work. However, when I was on my own and wanted to develop the project further, I suddenly came to a point where I really needed money. I wasn’t sure what kind of funding to choose.
But I was very lucky: at the very moment of my hesitation we got our first client. He had a relatively large project and trusted us. This allowed me to build the team and actually start the business.
Our first customer wanted a different service than the one we originally offered. When we received this request, we didn’t hesitate for a second.
How did your company develop in this early phase?
Actually, it was quite classic for a start-up: we made a bit of a change of orientation. Our first customer wanted a different service than the one we originally offered. So we switched from a purely digital solution to a consulting service. When we received this request, we didn’t hesitate for a second, it was quite clear that we would do that. It enabled us as a company and gave us the opportunity we hadn’t even thought of.
What is this initial digital solution that you offered at the beginning and at what stage is it now?
Our digital solution Circado is a trading platform for industrial sidestreams. It connects sellers and buyers of secondary resources and enables them to more easily offer, find, buy and thereby reuse the sidestreams. This platform remains our major goal. But as we won the majority of our clients in consulting, that part of our business grew faster.
However, it is very important for us to develop Circado further. To finance it, we registered with various foundations and have already received a grant from one of them. It was a relatively small amount, but very noticeable for us. This has helped us to make some progress and see that it is worth working in this direction. After that, we have built up our team and our business so that we can continue to finance this project internally.
While the digital platform is the goal for the future, your main business at the moment is consulting, right? What services do you offer in this direction?
We are the Innovation Agency for Upcycling. We are very much involved in product development – much more than we originally thought, but this is by far the most exciting part of our work. In addition, we support companies in their strategic positioning in the area of circular economy as well as helping to recognise the value in side streams. Sidestreams are all materials that leave an industrial production and are not used in the main product: all by-products, waste streams, overproduction, faulty production. These are materials we deal with.
Basically, you take these wasteful materials and give them new life by adding extra value, right? What are the steps involved?
That is exactly what we do. Usually, companies hire us to analyze their sidestreams and find out how they can be reused. To do so, we work closely with their employees, because often there is already so much know-how, ideas and inspiration inside.
In the next step, we actively search for technologies that could help implement these ideas. I really have a great team for this. Two of my colleagues come from academic fields, so they know perfectly well how to do in-depth research, they can dig very well. After collecting all this information, it’s our job to synthesize it and come up with the product range or the ready to sell materials that the customer can make from his side streams. We can also develop and prototype these products.
I came into the world of incredibly well-educated and very experienced (primarily) men.
Who are your customers and what challenges do you face as a young entrepreneur in this field?
Our customers are companies of all sizes from rather classical branches. This means that I came into the world of incredibly well-educated and very experienced ( primarily ) men. It is not easy to come there as a young woman and say: I know better. So I’m not trying to convince them that I know better; I rather believe that our services can complement and expand their business opportunities.
In which markets are you already active?
We work with customers from all over Europe. And our technology partners and suppliers come from around the world. In other words, we search worldwide for the most suitable technologies and bring them to the European market. Most of our projects are multilateral, which means we have several partners to implement the solutions. For example, one has materials, the other wants to buy them, and the third processes them in between. It is therefore also our task to act as facilitators and ensure matchmaking between companies and across industries.
You’ve probably worked on many exciting projects. Can you tell us about your favourite one?
I can’t say exactly what the favorite project was, but I can give a great example that I really enjoyed working on. It was for a company in the juice industry. To produce the juice they use fruit presses. In this process, incredibly valuable raw materials such as seeds or fruit fibres remain in the filters. Usually they are then disposed of. Within the framework of this project, this raw material from pomegranate juice production was used to manufacture lip balm.
I found this incredibly exciting, because it shows how high-quality and multifunctional the waste really is. In the production of lip balm, for example, pomegranate helped soften the lips while at the same time giving the product an amazing fragrance. Normally, these two properties are derived from different ingredients, but here they are combined in one. This is what fascinates me the most: the ability to identify and develop new functionalities from seemingly useless materials.
What is your function in the company now? Which tasks do you like to take on?
What I enjoy doing most is being a speaker at industry events, because I just love to get people excited about our topic and inspire them with the idea of upcycling. Another big part of my work consists of sales and customer relations, which I greatly enjoy as well.
And what are your plans for the future? How would you like to develop your business in the next 5-10 years?
The consulting business is definitely something I don’t want to expand indefinitely. We have goals that we want to achieve in the next 3-4 years, but they are limited. What we want to focus on is bringing the digital project back to the forefront. In this area we still have a fairly good competitive advantage in Europe, which we do not want to lose.
Our work is very creative and if you’re not passionate about industry, waste and side streams, you just can’t do it well.
What mistakes have you made in developing this company and what would you do differently if you had a second chance?
I really underestimated the importance of well-structured administration. I didn’t pay enough attention to this topic until the day came when I found myself sitting in front of a paper mountain thinking, “Oh my God, where do I even start?” Then I had to invest plenty of time so I could understand everything from the ground up, get papers in order and outsource some tasks. This is why I wish I had dealt with these questions a little earlier.
But the most difficult part for me was building the team. In the beginning, I put a lot of value on perfect CVs and experiences that I thought would define the ideal candidate. What I disregarded though was the emotional connection to the subject. Our work is very creative and if you’re not passionate about industry, waste and side streams, you just can’t do it well.
How have these unfortunate personnel decisions affected your company?
In the beginning we had a really high fluctuation rate. I guess that had a negative impact on our corporate culture and performance. Fortunately, I learned from that mistake and adjusted my recruitment strategies so that now I am really satisfied with our team.
As for teamwork, what kind of corporate culture are you trying to build in your company?
We have flat hierarchies, which means that we are a team with a completely interdisciplinary nature and we all have different competencies. They are all equally important, which of course also means that we all earn the same amount of money. I also try to allocate responsibilities as clearly as possible so that the results in a certain area of our work are entirely a merit of the efforts of the person in charge.
One day I said to myself, “That’s it, from now on: Weekend is weekend. Point.”
You probably had a very intense and busy time building up a startup on your own. Have you managed to find free time for yourself?
Yes, now I actually have free time again. It wasn’t like that when I just started, but it led me to the point where I was losing perspective because I was permanently tired and overwhelmed. One day I said to myself, “That’s it, from now on: Weekend is weekend. Point.” Now I spend this time in nature. My partner and I also ride racing bikes passionately, and that helps me recharge my batteries.
I am often told: As a young entrepreneur you probably have to work 7 days a week. I answer: No, it only harms me; and 5 days are really enough. Besides, the head is processing the work anyway. When I ride my bike, I think about things I never have time for otherwise. So just because I’m not sitting at my desk doesn’t mean I stop working.
Based on your experience, what can you recommend to other young entrepreneurs? Which approaches to use, which mistakes to avoid?
I would definitely recommend exchanging experiences with other entrepreneurs. Really have a one-to-one conversation, lay the cards on the table and discuss questions and concerns honestly.
The thing is, entrepreneurs are incredibly good at presenting their projects in an amazingly positive light. When you attend startup events, you might think that everyone is doing absolutely great. I totally understand that you have to somehow maintain the spirit. But when you start, it’s necessary to hear the truth. I think I could have avoided many mistakes if I had learned more from other entrepreneurs in the beginning.
Thank you very much for this inspiring conversation and your valuable tips. We wish you every success with your project!
Learn more about RethinkResource:
Learn more about RethinkResource