Behind Business - I’m curious about the process that led you to end up saying “why not?” in such a tough market. Could you explain what your thought process was?
Nils - Well, there is a long personal story involved in this process, which includes Portugal as well; it was not just the idea of the product. So, I do not know where to start…
Maybe you could start with that personal story...
The idea for a beverage company here in Portugal we had three years ago, but before getting there… In 2013 my wife and I took time off from work to travel. We travelled around the world for six months. After coming back to Berlin, the seed of wishing to live abroad was planted in our heads. Although we love Berlin, we didn’t feel entirely at home anymore. So we took another time off from work in 2016 after our first daughter was born to spend some time in Portugal. We had been here several times before and we loved the country and the people. Actually, our first holiday as a couple - must have been 2010 - was to Portugal... It was back then when we also discovered Ericeira more or less by accident. So we chose to come to Portugal again in 2016 to spend some quality time with our daughter. We decided to live in Lisbon and in Ericeira. We loved it, and soon we realised that Portugal was the place to be for us right now and we decided to move here for real.
Was Ericeira another trigger that changed your life?
We fell in love with Ericeira, for sure; it’s a lovely place - especially for a family with two little children. And it was there where we met our partner, Hendrik. He’s also German and has been living in Ericeira with his family for a while. Funny fact: They also lived in Berlin before, and we lived in the same neighbourhood!. We were basically neighbours, living just 200 meters apart from each other, but we had never met before!... We only met here in Ericeira.
"I believe that everyone has talent, but often society makes it difficult to unfold them."
Does it feel like it was destiny?
Sometimes I say that about our business! It may sound a bit spiritual, but I like it! So, we became close friends, and because we all love to do things, we started to develop ideas together. Initially, we had an idea for a touristic project, but at the same time, we didn’t want to do the same things as many foreigners do here. So we thought it should be something different. The idea was born because we felt that something was missing here in Portugal, which we all like a lot. We have always been soda lovers. But we couldn’t find good, produced ones here in the shops and cafes - only the homemade ones, but not the refreshments straight from the bottle. What we found were only the big brands with their artificial ingredients, no independent brands, which use better ingredients or offer some diversity. So we started wondering why? Why does a southern European country, which has delicious fruits available all the time, does not have products like these?
In the meantime, we had to go back to Germany at the end of 2016. Back in Germany, we consolidated the idea. In the last 15 years, there has been a significant shift in the beverage market in Germany; until the beginning of 2000 there were only the big well-known brands as well - and that was it. Then, from 2000 onwards, more and more independent beverage brands began to appear. Some of them brought organic-based beverages to the market. So the big brands started to lose some market share. Having this development in mind, we told ourselves, “why not” do something similar here in Portugal and bring some variety to Portugal. So we decided to produce organic craft soda in Portugal.
We worked for one more year in Germany, saved as much money as we could and developed the original flavour for our brand why not soda: LEMON’MATE. At the end of 2017, we had the recipe ready and I - still in Germany - started to find a partner who could bottle the drinks for us in Portugal. Meanwhile, my wife got pregnant again.
So, with a little child of two years and another baby that had just been born, we packed all our belongings into a big truck and moved to Portugal. Now, that I talk about that time, it sounds really exhausting - and it has been exhausting since then, but also a lot of fun.
Did you think about the whole concept of the product and the values you wanted for your company way before? Did you think about it at that moment?
We said to ourselves, that if we are going to do something in the food and beverage industry, it should be healthier, but still tasty. It definitely has to be organic and incorporate sustainable practices. You cannot create another company using artificial flavouring and other artificial ingredients - this is 2019 and not 1990. Thus, we knew we wanted to be organic from the beginning. So we had to search for certified organic producers and other certified partners in the whole supply chain, who share the same values. Our producers/bottling partners I found on a list of biological producers on the Portuguese Ministry of Agriculture’s website: Cerveja Vadia. The guys are craft beer producers and also have one certified organic beer in their portfolio. I wrote them in my poor Portuguese, but they were super open and friendly. They have been like that from the very beginning. They support us a lot.
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How was it to work with the Portuguese people?
When we were here in 2016, some people told me about difficulties in some contexts and also because of the language. But since the beginning, I tried to write in Portuguese, and I took many Portuguese lessons to be able to speak as soon as possible. I made an effort to learn the language as fast as possible, which is not so easy since German and Portuguese are really different. My experiences with our business partners are outstanding. I started to bombard the guys from Cerveja Vadia with questions about the possible production. I did my research and knew what I was talking about, but of course, I did not have any experience in producing beverages. Cerveja Vadia also had no experience with soft drinks, but they understood what needed to be done and - most important - that it should be possible in their brewery.
Weren't you afraid of being copied throughout the process?
No. The guys from Cerveja Vadia for instance were always really helpful. They were sincere and cool people; we decided that we would do it, shook each other’s hand and went for it. Sometimes it’s a matter of personal feeling. Of course, I might be wrong, but if I trust, I trust. But let me say something in general: I think that at the end of the day sharing what you know is always better. When you are willing to give, you will receive, even if it is not from that person. For instance, at the entrepreneurs-program “From Start to Table” by Startup Lisboa, we received so many useful advices from other entrepreneurs, who were in the same program - because they knew the country and sometimes the market. So I got a lot from them and, although I was willing to share, at that moment I had nothing to give back to them. But I know that there will be moments when I can help them. But it is not just this economic calculation, that you receive when you give. I believe that you should consider every person to be worthy of help and friendliness. As a former student of philosophy, I believe in Kant and the categorical imperative. At the end of the day, you have to watch yourself in the mirror and see the kind of person you are. You got to deal with the things you do. If someone steals ideas from you, that person has a problem with his or her image in his or her mirror. I do not have a problem with mine. In fact, I am quite ok with it. So in short: sharing is my philosophy, and I won’t change it. But of course, we have security, signed contracts, confidentiality agreements and all those things.
What role do you think your previous experience has played in your entrepreneurial venture?
We think and act, organise ourselves, talk to people, that’s it. I think most of these things we have also done before, but we did not have any experience in the beverage market. For example, I studied Political Sciences and Philosophy. Then I started working as an analyst for the social impact of charities for a start-up in the nonprofit sector. Later I became a project manager in a more prominent foundation still in the nonprofit sector. The goal was to empower young people to participate in politics and society. Human empowerment and participation have always been my topic. I believe that everyone has talent, but often society makes it difficult to unfold them. Before moving here, I worked in a worldwide operating big transport and logistics company. I worked in a department, basically an internal think tank, close to the Member of the Board for Human Resources. This department was responsible for the corporate culture/organisational development.
Wasn’t that a career path you wanted?
One’s impact on such a big company is close to zero. So I started to get really frustrated. I needed something different, where I would see that I make a difference. I had the feeling that I could do more than what I was doing. And I was also getting tired of just working for the success of other people. So, combining my experiences in the field of social impact, innovation and organisational development as well as my personal characteristics as a fun-loving person, I said to myself: “I want to create a somehow sustainable, cool, joyful product.”
How do you see the consumer's trends shaping society in 10 years? Are the consumers already pushing for having natural based products?
Humm…in my studies of political sciences I learned that there are many independent variables, which affect how things are developing. Many people say that organic is the trend and in the future, everyone will care about what they consume because we will all be more conscious and so on. But, the truth is that it also depends on how much money people have in their pockets. And I don’t know how the economic development, in general, will be. One thing I know is: unfortunately, it’s always cheaper to produce at a big scale, but “big scale” in the past often harmed the environment and society - the so-called economic externalities, and these are not really included in the prices, which we see in the shelves. If they were, local biological products might be really competitive. Unfortunately, we tend to find out or understand much too late what the externalities of many businesses are.
Would it be needed to rethink the way the pricing is done?
In my opinion prices for products should include the costs of their externalities, which for instance, would consist of the impact a product has on our health and in that regard the burden for our healthcare system. The same counts for the impact on the environment. There are approaches in terms of taxes of course, and Portugal is actually applying an interesting measure with the sugar tax. We have to pay sugar tax because our products contain sugar. I don’t want people to drink our beverages all day long. Soft drinks with sugar are not meant to be for that. I believe that we should not stop to consume sugar. We got to enjoy some things, but we should be more reasonable about them. That is why we try to keep the amount of sugar as low as possible in our drinks, and for the amount of sugar we use, we think that it is good that we have to pay a sugar tax.
The concept of being an entrepreneur has a lot of risks associated with it. How do you deal with uncertainty?
Being a father of two children, dealing with the lack of security can be tricky. It’s a roller coaster of feelings every day. Sometimes we look to each other as if we were saying “Who had this crazy idea to create a soft drink and a completely new market in a foreign country?” But you have to believe in what you do because if you don’t do it, no one does. And I think there is a market for what we do. The extreme thing is just that we are trying to create a market in Portugal that has not been created yet. Of course, I feel like I have a safety net back in Germany somehow, in the sense that I suppose that I could find a job there. That’s something that relaxes me sometimes. But I don’t want to live in Germany at the moment. We moved here because we do want to live here, for real.
Be prepared to suffer. I am kidding, but there is definitely truth in this sentence: If it were easy, everyone would do it. Be prepared to have really tough moments. And if you are a reflective person as I am, be prepared for a real roller coaster, because being an entrepreneur will challenge you every day. You will need to do things, that you might have thought of not being capable of. You are going to be rejected many many times, so you have to deal with it. I think you should not celebrate every tiny success and at the same time not overreact on every loss. You will need to find your mental balance. Being an entrepreneur is not knowing what to do all the time; it’s not like having a strategy that works all the time. You should follow a plan, of course, but you should also be very fast in understanding what works and what doesn’t, fast in changing plans and quick in execution. One key learning: at the beginning of a business, if you had a good idea, many opportunities unfold. Of course, you should be open to using these opportunities, but when you are just busy following the opportunities you are offered in different occasions, you lose focus, and you are leaving the driver’s seat. But that is what you wanted when becoming an entrepreneur, right...sitting in the driver’s seat...so don’t leave it. We had to learn this as well.
What would be your first advice to someone who wants to do something like you did? Any learnings from being an entrepreneur you would like to share?
Does your brand reflect who you are and your values? How is that connected with the art design in the bottle?
A lot of product design is still focused on minimalistic stuff, but we believe that a product should be fun, that everything should not be taken so seriously. That is why we chose this street art-like design. Our third team member has a great aesthetic imagination of what will be the next thing. And we believe that Minimalism is overrated. That is why our “thing” is so colourful. Actually, I personally do not believe that humans are minimalist. Look at us, we are colourful, we are strange, we are diverse, we are tough to get. Same counts for our label.
Do you think having your wife as a business partner helps you to thrive and to push yourself more and more every day?
Of course, she helps me to push further all the time. Having someone who trusts you and who drives you and want you to succeed and to be happy, is something super helpful. Having my wife as a business partner at this point in my life makes it easier to organise our living together between business, children and partnership as well. People might think that it is super crazy to set up a company with children at this young age, but what people do not realise is that it would also be super-challenging to organise “normal” work lives, when both partners want to have interesting, challenging jobs. Most of the time one of the partners has to stay home, or the family has to get involved. We do not have this support here, but we are now the bosses of ourselves, and we can organise our lives around it.
Can you describe a typical day at work?
We leave the children at the kindergarten at 9am, and then we go to Lisbon to make sales until 4 pm, unless one of us goes to Algarve or Porto, for instance... on our way there or in-between sales-talks we do follow-up phone calls, solve production or logistics issues, create marketing material, create Social Media postings, work on the strategy. That means, we do not eat a real lunch - we push push push, and when we then drive back to Ericeira, we make some calls again, and from 5 pm to 8 or 9 pm, we try to not speak about work, because we want to be present for our kids. Of course, that is tough sometimes, as new things happen continually. And then, from 9 to midnight, we work. This is the life we have at the moment. We, unfortunately, need these evenings, we cannot escape from them.
What I mentioned before about looking at yourself in the mirror and saying “This is cool for me, I’m happy”, I could not look at the mirror if my kids would be unhappy. But they love it to live here. So our happiness here forces me to try to make this thing work.