HHL Alumni are Building Platform for Carbon Management
Switching Sides: From Venture Capital to Entrepreneurship
This interview was first published in July 2020.
Helen Tacke is a former Venture Capitalist (VC) turned entrepreneur and is now building a digital B2B-platform for carbon management with her partner and HHL alumnus Fabian Schwarzer. Before starting her entrepreneurial journey, Helen worked in different VC companies providing financial founding for startups. We talked to full-time Master of Management alumna Helen about making the switch from being the giver to becoming the creator.
“We are building a digital solution for companies to manage the entire process of their carbon footprint – we call it a Carbon Action Platform.”
You just recently decided to start your own entrepreneurial journey. Tell us about your start-up and why you decided to leave your corporate life.
A strong driver for looking more into what I am doing now is very well reflected in the statement by a researcher at the World Health Organization (WHO), who pointed out that the biggest health threat of the century is not Corona, but climate change. We know that companies have the necessary leverage and need to truly make this change in the climate crisis. This can be seen in the 76% of Millennials who consider the company’s environmental commitments when deciding where to work.
It is also apparent in the 50% of global asset owners who are currently implementing strict ESG-criteria in their allocation of funds. Further, one can see it when looking at drivers of consumer purchase decision-making, where the majority of consumers look for information on a product footprint which has a significant impact on their purchase-decision.
Thus, companies need to act, but they need the right tools and support to act effectively. Therefore, my partner and I are building a digital solution for companies to manage the entire process of their carbon footprint – we call it a CPA: Carbon Action Platform. Our tech platform empowers companies to master their path to carbon neutrality and remain a competitive business not only now but also in the future when resource constraints will separate the wheat from the chaff. Together, we reduce a major share of global carbon emissions.
“After spending three years on the investment side, it was time to get in the driver seat rather than stay the somewhat distant observer and advisor that I was as an investor.”
How did I get to where I am today? My first real startup experience was at the online coffee retailer Coffee Circle, where I got to experience the ups and downs of an early-stage venture and which had me hooked from day one.
However, my master thesis on the success and failure stories of serial entrepreneurs lead me to work on the investor side first, doing early stage investments in the VC world. I got to know the startup ecosystem, support portfolio companies, build the respective network and learn the toolkit required for early stage investments.
After spending three years on the investment side, it was time to get in the driver seat rather than stay the somewhat distant observer and advisor that I was as an investor.
And I can truly say, with this shift I gained an entirely new level of drive and energy.
How did you approach the idea of starting your own business? Did you have a specific strategy or did things just develop organically?
I took eight weeks off from work and went through the process I describe the last question below. Since it was always my plan to start my own business, I had this thought in the back of my head for a while and it felt deeply rooted in me.
I believe, there has to be a good mix of structure and organic development. Structure applies to the ideation phase and a clear daily routine (that also included body and mind activity) but you have to give yourself some freedom to develop an ideal related enthusiasm and end up at the final idea as part of an organic process.
Let’s look at your time at HHL. Why did you choose to pursue a Master in Management?
The right place at the right time and a good amount of gut feeling made me look for no other option than HHL – the decision was made in no time. After having studied at WWU Muenster with thousands of business administration students I was in need of a change and looking for a complementary addition in terms of students, university size and lecture approach.
I visited the Master Messe in Münster where I met a student from HHL who was super down-to-earth, pitched the Master program and got me excited: a program that consisted of an integrated internship, term abroad, strong practical connection and close collaboration between fellow-students and professors.
“Leipzig – a city that still pulls me back for its laid-back culture, beautiful scenery and vibrant nightlife.”
To see it for myself I went to Leipzig for open house, took part in some classes as a guest student and met the passionate and enthusiastic Dean Professor Stubner, who was at that time professor for business strategy. After that, I only had to pass the challenging application process– already back then an intense process and the first hint what would expect us for our terms at HHL.
I quickly fell in love with the city of Leipzig – the hidden champion in Eastern Germany and the city that still pulls me back for its laid-back culture, beautiful scenery and vibrant nightlife. Fortunately, I got accepted and experienced a flying transition in terms of universities.
In what way did you Master in Management at HHL prepare you for your career?
I believe the Master in Management at HHL is tough but a great preparation for one’s later career on several levels:
TEAMWORK Teamwork takes output to the next level. Or more specifically: most output is the result of a team effort. A substantial share of program credits is built around project-based teamwork. That means you truly had to learn how to set up various teams with clearly defined responsibilities and collaborate super-fast and effectively.
In other words: disagree, discuss and commit to a result – the very essentials of making the most out of teamwork. For myself, until I came to HHL I was not a fan of group work, but my time at HHL let to a total mindset shift.
BUSINESS NETWORKS Networking is really a major focus at HHL: As students we were invited to networking events on a weekly basis and I quickly got to appreciate the HHL alumni relations. The Alumni network is special as it builds bridges no matter your internship focus or job. It’s also great for an inspiring exchange of thoughts or just for having a beer with some great people.
WORKING EFFECTIVELY Get things done: what used to take days, weeks and especially night shifts of work, we managed in a couple of very focused working hours by the end of our studies.
PRESENTATION SKILLS Presentation skills: countless presentation and fairly strict assessment criteria, shaped my way of communicating ideas and the things you want to sell very much.
Finally, I met my beloved partner and co-founder of my startup back at HHL. Even though studying at HHL is a financial investment, I believe it’s overall a great deal – thanks HHL!
“Speak to advisors and clients to learn about the true pain points of your customers.”
What advice do you have for graduates thinking of starting their own business? What should there first steps be?
If you want to gather experience in an employer-employee relationship – do it now rather than later. Having now crossed over to the entrepreneurial side, I cannot imagine going back to being employed.
Don’t get confused by the saying “Do not start a business just for the sake of starting a business.”. I believe that this is a flawed notion. It is not so much about the idea, but rather about the unrestrained will to succeed and the right execution.
What to do if you don’t have any good business ideas? Don’t you worry. These are my personal tips for you:
- Go to an inspiring place where you can settle down for a while and focus on yourself.
- Start creative ideation sessions over a longer period, e.g. couple of weeks, that means going through your fields of interest, reading up on the most current startups and technological developments and getting a first grip of what might be missing out there. Make a list that includes the craziest ideas.
- Finish that process and go into “Deep Dive Sessions” using a general assessment funnel on your chosen market, business model, competition, client group. Eventually transfer it to a classic Business Model Canvas.
- Rate your ideas (very important category is personal fit!!) and write down your top choices.
- Make a decision on whether to give it a try, but my advice is to just start. However, you should give yourself some time to naturally choose the final idea out of your top list that you want to read and learn about for the next 10 plus years.
- Speak to advisors and clients like there is no tomorrow to learn about the true pain points.
- Complete your team and officially launch the company.