Why are communities thriving? Why does some software become a success? How do you quickly get help with a specific problem? Dr. Tina Ruseva advises the European Commission, she launched the Big & Growing Festival, and she founded her first company right after college. Some companies listed on the DAX are now introducing the mentoring platform from her second start-up, Mentessa. The idea for that came to Ruseva, a native of Bulgaria, because she was so frustrated with many mentoring formats that she finally brought her own concept to market. Networking was also at the center of her work for Fraunhofer Venture TechBridge. There she created the TandemCamp format, which brought together Fraunhofer scientists with entrepreneurs in growth industries.
Ms. Ruseva, women as tech founders are the exception. How did you become one?
In 2007, after I had finished my studies in information technology, I started at Microsoft in a very well-paid tech job. There I learned for the first time how it felt to work regular hours: ultra-boring! I definitely wanted more. I applied for a full-time MBA program through Technical University Munich and gave notice as soon as I was admitted. As part of my MBA studies I drew up business plans, got involved in entrepreneurship and financing and thus all the things that are different in our time. From that point on I was a founder and there was no going back.
After the MBA in technology and innovation management what was the next step?
I became pregnant. I had my head full of business plans and ideas, and for the first time, as a “white woman” in Europe I found myself facing a real challenge: I could no longer “have it all”. Above all I couldn’t go to the gym. In 2009 YouTube limited the clips to 4 minutes. So, there was just no reasonable technical option for longer courses on the Internet. I was longing for my mother’s old aerobic VHS tapes with Jane Fonda and then, at about that time, Apple came out with the first iPhone. After that, the business concept behind the GymZap start-up was an absolute no-brainer.
What was GymZap?
In essence it was fitness over the Internet, you might call it a kind of YouTube for high-quality training units of about 40 minutes each. It worked quite well, but in 2009 there wasn’t yet much willingness to pay for such content. This started to change in 2012 and 2013. But when I became a mother for the second time, I gave it up. It’s hard to work 80 to 90 hours a week when you have a baby.
So, back to regular work hours?
I said goodbye to the start-up life with a heavy heart. After a stint at United Internet I switched to the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft. That was a “match made in heaven”. Naturally there are hierarchies and requirements here as well, but this terrific idea of a decentralized structure promotes innovation, research and, finally, Germany as a location. It is truly a unique organization, something that I hadn’t experienced up to then. My time was also very much in tune with Fraunhofer’s values. We ran our team as a democracy and we created a lot in an open innovative approach – from the bottom up. I really enjoyed that part, and I learned a lot. Nevertheless, as a founder, I didn’t see a lot of space for myself within the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft. But even if it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, this job gave me an unbelievable boost in the courage and the confidence to found my next start-up. The experience of freedom and democratic processes were an extremely important building block in my career.
What exactly were your duties at Fraunhofer?
I was in the coolest department: Fraunhofer Venture. Together with Andreas Aepfelbacher and my colleague Niels Dietzsch I built up the Techbridge Project, which was directed at cooperation with start-ups. That project was the first automated cooperation with growth companies, aimed at using an open innovation model to bring ideas from the outside into the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft. If, some time in distant future, I will have lived out my fantasies, Fraunhofer will absolutely be something I would consider again.
The idea of bringing together expertise and innovation seems to be a thread that runs through your work life… ?
After Fraunhofer I first became a director at Werk1, a start-up incubator run by the Bavarian State Ministry of Economics, Domestic Development and Energy. One of my responsibilities was to set up a mentoring program for founders from the Founders’ Center of the City of Munich. As a woman, tech founder, immigrant and young mother, I was a natural candidate for every mentoring program, as both mentee and mentor. But I was somehow unsatisfied with these programs, with all the marketing, meetings and discussions. Which is not to say that they don’t have their own raison d'être, to provide guidance or networking platforms.
But if, for example, as a newly-hired employee you depend on concrete results in a digitalization project and you’re looking for someone with expertise in change management or transformation processes, such programs are very frustrating.
What could be better?
Take an organization like Fraunhofer Gesellschaft. There are many people who have exactly the knowledge you need for a particular project. And now imagine that all of them put their heads together, using the whole bandwidth of their skills for the benefit of the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft – wouldn’t that be terrific? That would be enough for at least 1,000 more MP3 success stories.
So, what happened after the job at Werk1?
I was supposed to bring these founders together. After participating in more than 30 mentoring programs I was able to put my experience and contacts to good use. But, of course, as an IT specialist I also always try to have repetitive tasks done by a machine. So, I was searching for a tool that automates this matching. But there was no solution that works in a decentralized organization and that reflects the diversity of founders and mentors. That’s where I got the idea for Mentessa. Aside from that, my kids were now old enough, and by March 2019 I was ready to get going.
Isn’t it surprising that such tools don’t already exist?
Matchmaking is a big issue; up to 23 percent of the digitalization budget of HR departments is used to match a job to a talent, or to match a talent already inside the organization to a project. For a few years now this market has been growing by double digits. So, there are solutions on the market, but they are aimed at long-term job rotations with centralized processes. We concentrate specifically on “diversity” and “decentralization”. A team that works together every day doesn’t need Mentessa. We support large organizations and people in agile networks who have an idea and ask, for example, “Who can help me with artificial intelligence?”.
But is there enough need for this?
The future of work will be extremely decentralized. That goes for locations as well as for the type of cooperation, which will be increasingly interdisciplinary. Rigid team structures will be dissolved and replaced by self-organized work and rotating roles. If you follow that through, then even within an organization at some point everyone will be an independent force. And no later than at that point we will need a tool that can provide quick and targeted help.
Even if our clients don’t like to hear it: Mentessa is a sort of tinder for mentoring, because with it, it’s so simple to find the right skills. Aside from that, rumor has it that the reason this dating app is so successful is that the nerds in Silicon Valley did not trust themselves to approach others. But “getting help” at work is similarly associated with being introverted and with psychological anxieties. Mentessa is not a social network like LinkedIn, in which you have to market yourself and post content in order to be seen. We offer only profiles or skills and automated networking.
Meanwhile, Mentessa has won over some really big companies as clients. How do you build something like that?
First I put together a team using Wayra’s innovation lab. You need partners with whom you can implement a scenario. Without that it’s just an idea. The first prototype took shape around this Wayra community and it was in this collective that we were also able to quickly test our ideas. So, we quickly had conceivable prototypes. Since meanwhile mentoring has also been regarded as important in the corporate environment, we were able to start discussing sales with large German organizations very soon.
Moreover, because of the corona pandemic we fielded a great many inquiries. Companies are uncertain and are freezing new hires. At the same time these companies have to respond to the new situation. Managers are being forced to get the maximum out of the skillset that is available to them. But it’s not only efficiency and productivity that profit; this mentoring concept also leads to the creation of a new corporate culture. In order to be competitive in a global environment, companies need a community.
But thanks to the internet and social media, aren’t there more communities than ever before?
That’s exactly the point! As an alumna of the Technical University Munich and of the Ludwig Maximilians University I’m part of many other communities. But many of these don’t manage to affect anything beyond their own structures. You have to decentrally operationalize these communities and give users the power and the capability to network themselves, to update themselves, to adjust content themselves.
This is also a generational issue. Many large companies have millennials as employees and they are not interested in taking a seminar; they would rather have a mentor they find on their own. If they can find the solution there right away, that saves the HR department a lot of work.
What is it about Mentessa, what’s the rocket science?
It’s not about that! We are surrounded by software programs that don’t deliver any particular innovation, but that are nevertheless widely used. What makes the difference between success and failure is user experience. Not all needs can be filled with just one tool. Today’s apps are exactly ONE type of application, ONE user experience, ONE why. When I log onto Fraunhofer Alumni e.V. it has to be clear why: In order to network!
Isn’t networking possible with the known tools, too?
Why don’t you get any help from LinkedIn? This platform also has a matching module and a lot of people with fantastic capabilities. But why should a busy person whom I meet through this network help me to learn something? It’s different if, for example, the mentor and mentee both work at Fraunhofer; then there’s a greater willingness. That’s exactly why more and more companies are trying to create their own communities: A sense of belonging and empathy goes a long way toward binding people to an organization. But in social networks and on the Web, there’s just too much noise. For that reason organizations want to bring it back under their own control.
How will you continue with your work as a founder?
With the shutdown came the first inquiries, and we have since acquired the first DAX companies as clients, so that we have a lot of work to do. We are adjusting and growing. This is the point at which start-ups become too heavy. The time for dreams is over. You can’t just build up and market, you have to deal with hard facts. You have to be very realistic; you have to fulfill the expectations of people who believed in you. Right now is a very critical phase, but with Dr. Lena Bernhofer, among others, I have a fantastic team. We are optimistic!
Thank you for your time and this inspiring conversation, Ms. Ruseva. We wish you all the best in your future endeavors.