StartupReporter publishes a new article in the series “Startup Journey: from 0 to 1”. In this series of articles, we aim at presenting founders not only through their innovative projects but also by talking about their personalities and the team.
Oleksandr Komarevych (StartupReporter.eu): – Stefan, tell us a bit about yourself. What is your role in the company, and what is your startup about?
With Orderlion, we are building an e-commerce operating system (e-commerce OS) that helps food and beverage (F&B) suppliers and wholesalers that are part of the global food supply chain to digitize their business. You can think of our solution as a „Shopify for the food supply chain“ where our customers are last-mile B2B suppliers of products like fruits and vegetables, baked goods, meat, or drinks that serve e.g. hotels, supermarkets, and restaurants.
Our software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution helps F&B suppliers and wholesalers to build their own ordering platforms and mobile apps so that their clients can connect with and order from them in a fully digital way, reducing costs and errors while also offering up- and cross-selling potential for the suppliers.
So far, most of the food supply chain industry was and still is very undigitized. A lot of tasks and processes are still being performed in quite traditional ways like phone calls, leaving voice messages on answering machines, and even using fax machines. These sorts of outdated technologies do not allow suppliers and wholesalers to become more efficient and scale.
With our SaaS platform, we are giving them an edge over their competition by setting up an easy-to-use ordering app that connects with their ERP systems and also offers them additional features like a live chat for customer service. We are constantly working on new functionalities beyond ordering that our clients need to successfully digitize their business.
OK: – Where did the idea come from?
Stefan: – When I talk to investors, they usually like to ask that question too – I always tell them that before we founded Orderlion, my Co-Founder Patrick Schubert and I have already built many “little Orderlions” before. This is the third company that Patrick and I are running together. The last one before founding Orderlion was a B2B IT consulting agency that we started right out of university and ran for about ten years.
Most of our customers were actually food suppliers. For about a decade, we got to learn what their main pain points are and how we can solve them with software. During that time, we noticed that they very often asked us for the same things. For example, most of our clients wanted to digitize their supply chain processes – that’s where the idea for Orderlion ultimately emerged.
Back then, we asked ourselves how much impact we could create if we turned these ten years of experience into a SaaS product that we can sell globally at scale instead of only doing a few consultancy projects per year, serving just a handful of companies.
To put things into perspective: Every person in the world has to eat and in most cases, food has to be moved from A to B first before it reaches the end consumer. Accordingly, the food supply chain industry is huge – our total addressable market (TAM) alone is about $50 billion. There are a lot of companies involved in moving food around the globe. When analyzing this big opportunity, it was very inspiring for us. So we decided to go for it and start Orderlion.
OK: – Why did you wait ten years then?
Stefan: – When Patrick and I started out as entrepreneurs, we still had a lot to learn. As mentioned, we created our first company right out of university – and when you embark on the startup journey, you make many mistakes in the beginning. For example, we didn’t know how to price our services.
As agency service providers, we usually were way too cheap back then. We also needed to learn how to handle customer objections, recruit the right people, and set up efficient sales processes.
Moreover, as a first-time entrepreneur, you tend to build everything that your customer wants, and in the end, it might not be a good product because they often do not understand how to develop software very well. So overall, for Patrick and me, it was the main priority to get better at doing business during these first ten years as founders – and the more we learned, the more we dared to dream bigger.
OK: – You dared to start your first company right after university, which was not an obvious choice for a lot of people 12 years ago. In your case, was it something that came from having some role models in your family?
Stefan: – For me, it was not so much because of a personal role model. I think if you go to a business university, many students are actually aspiring entrepreneurs who would like to build their own company at some point. That spirit definitely sticks with you. However, in Patrick’s and my case, we always really liked solving other people’s problems by building fitting software.
We did that even before we founded our first company. But when we started to make some money with it, we then actually had to incorporate an entity for legal reasons. After all, it was quite the natural thing to do for us – and I think if you have a big passion for building software, you end up doing so in most cases.
OK: – What is your advice for people who would like to create a company and are looking for co-founders but don’t know how to find them?
Stefan: – In this case, I don’t know if I’m the best person to give advice. Patrick and I are actually childhood friends, so we knew each other for a long time and didn’t have to find each other first before starting a company together.
But what I hear from other startup founders who did not have someone else right from the start is that finding a co-founder usually works pretty well through attending startup events. In general, I think it is important if you get out of your usual ‘bubble’, which means that you should not start a company with just the next person that is available or the one who is sitting next to you at school or university.
To be successful, you need some specific skills and co-founders who are driven and resilient, who can e.g. go without a salary for a very long time. I think going to startup events gives you the opportunity to meet people who are willing to do this.
OK: – What’s next for Orderlion and the product you are building?
Stefan: – For our continuous product development, we spend a lot of time with our customers. We want to understand what additional problems they have that we can solve. However, when you’re building e-commerce tools, you always have two sides – the buyer and the seller. So we need to understand the perspective of our client’s clients too. We also have to find out what hotels, restaurants, and supermarkets need from Ordelion when they want to buy products from their suppliers or wholesalers.
In the beginning, we understood that the biggest problem they have is conducting their daily ordering. That’s why the basis of our product is that they can send their orders to their suppliers and wholesalers so easily through our webshop solution. Once we covered that aspect, we saw that people were already using the product heavily every day and we could move on to the next pain point.
For example, as a next step, we figured that the salespeople of suppliers need to drive from door to door to reach their restaurant customers if they want to sell them new kinds of products. But whenever they tried to communicate with the restaurants’ chefs in person or even via phone calls, it was very hard for them to reach them – chefs are usually very busy in the kitchen.
So for suppliers, there was no proper way of actually talking to their customers. Based on that, we decided to help them to sell better through our digital solution by integrating some up- and cross-selling opportunities. Now, our clients can present new products or promote seasonal products easily via our platform – which we call “sales automation”.
With our product, we have the basics of the F&B industry covered by now, but we are nowhere near the end of what we can potentially build and provide to our clients yet. So we will continue with our iteration and development cycles for a long time to come.
OK: – When you go to speak with your clients and sales prospects, which phrases are usually the most convincing for them?
Stefan: – The bigger your product becomes, the more you need to know how to communicate with your clients. For us, it is always about going back to the basics when we talk to a supplier or wholesaler to figure out if Orderlion might be the right product for them. For example, we always ask them how many orders they receive every day – which they often do not even exactly know. Then we try to be more specific and ask them how long it takes them to put these orders from their phone into their ERP system on the computer.
That is a process that usually takes them several hours. If you then tell them that you can help them reduce that time to basically zero, they will start listening closely and you can start pitching your product in more detail. After all, we always start with the basics, and once you establish trust, you can build on top of that for long-lasting and satisfying customer relationships.
OK: – How would you describe your team in one word?
We have set up Orderlion so that every team member can optimally do the one thing they are there for. We are big fans of working in a highly focused manner, which is why at least 95% of everyone’s time should be spent on doing just that one thing they are responsible for – we try to remove everything else that distracts from that.
OK: – Speaking about the team. Could you tell us about the uniqueness you and Patrick have as co-founders?
Stefan: – With Patrick being the CTO, we have this typical business and technology combo as a founding team, which is great because he can build the things that I can then sell. I think this is the optimal basis for every startup if you can envision something together and then actually make it and sell it – or ideally, you sell it even already before you start building to quickly iterate your original idea based on your potential clients’ feedback. After all, this is how we started Orderlion after we had identified the biggest pain points of F&B suppliers and wholesalers when running our consultancy business.
But besides that, I think Patrick has a superpower: If you dream up some functionality or some product, he can quickly create the first version in a matter of minutes. He is like a real craftsman and can code so quickly that it never stops amazing me. That is really an outstanding skill because when we dream about things we want to build, we very quickly get to the point that we can play with some basics to understand if it works or not.
More importantly, we can then still throw these prototypes away easily because we didn’t spend hours on creating them – and because Patrick is also not too proud to do so. He is fine with building and rebuilding until a new version of our product really fits.
OK: – What makes you unique in your role?
Stefan: – In general, it’s probably better for someone else to judge that. But to at least give you some answer: I always try to help everybody on our team excel at what they’re good at and provide them with what they need to do their best work. In my role, I try to do everything in my power to remove any blockers and help set up processes so that our team members feel like they really can have an impact on what we do as a company.
OK: – Often, in an interview, I want to understand why you chose a certain project or problem and why you are so interested in this specific topic. Going a long way around, this brings me to the following questions: What kind of child were you? And, did you have someone who influenced you when growing up?
Stefan: – I don’t come from a family of entrepreneurs. In my family, people always had very solid, traditional jobs. But what influenced my childhood was spending time with my dad in a way that we always built things together – at first with Lego and then later with wood. We usually spend our time building things, and once I learned to use a computer, I started to build digital products. Overall, I guess I simply have this inherent drive to create things that can help people. By being a founder, you get to build the things you have on your mind every day. I get to create something that can be part of something bigger.
OK: – Can you describe the conversation you had with your wife when you first mentioned that you wanted to start Ordelion?
Stefan: – In my case, the conversation was not so unique – because when I met my wife, I was already an entrepreneur, running a company. So for her, it was more like: “Ah, it’s a new logo.” (laughing)
OK: – What can you suggest or what are tips to founders during the “low points” you sometimes have to go through as a startup?
Stefan: – These times surely can be hard for founders, because you feel like there’s just nobody there who you can ask in particular moments and it’s your responsibility to fix things. It’s different compared to working at a company as an employee. Usually, you can ask other founders who went through the same process as before. Especially, when it is about more general problems, you can usually replicate what is already out there. Then it is definitely easier to ask someone else how to do it.
But when you’re building something that didn’t exist before and ideally revolutionizes an industry, you’re in this void that can be scary. What helped me to overcome situations where I had this feeling of not really knowing what to do or how to move forward, e.g. when it came to how to do fundraising or how to hire executive people, two things helped me a lot: Reading books that often already offer solutions and connecting with people who at least already do some particular thing you want to do.
For example, when I needed to learn how to do B2B sales for a SaaS product, I simply reached out to some Senior Sales Executives that had substantial experience working in technology companies. I asked them to go for a coffee and have a chat with them about how they are doing things in their role. This also helped me to learn what not to do.
Most importantly though, I understood that they are also “just people” and that usually there is no magic behind a certain thing. All it usually takes is practice and experience.
If I were to start over again, I think I would already do this earlier – reaching out to people who already do what you want to do. After all, founders should definitely build a network early on, which they can tap into for help when they need it.
OK: – Can you recommend some books?
Stefan: – One book that I like is called “Drive” by Daniel Pink. What stood out to me with this book is how you can find purpose in your work and go about it so that it is motivating for you and your team. He writes a lot about how to build your company culture on purpose so that there is a meaning, but also about how to establish autonomy so that people can do things their way and don’t feel constrained. It is about mastering your craft so that you don’t see work as the same thing over and over, but actually as a learning journey.
Another book that I think is a good one especially for founders is called “Deep Work” by Cal Newport. It is about how you can focus on your job, doing one main thing and removing distractions – e.g. by quitting social media.
OK: – What purchase of €100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)?
Stefan: – Maybe a plane or a train ticket to go somewhere. I think it is a good idea to spend money on new experiences – it can be learning something new or just the pleasure of seeing a new country or trying a new dish.
OK: – If you had a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it — metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions — what would it say and why?
Stefan: – “Be kind to each other.”
OK: – What did you learn from being a founder?
Stefan: – To not be afraid and to be resilient. It helps if you leave your comfort zone: Go a little further. Try a little more. Push a little higher than you would otherwise because there’s more to gain from trying and failing than you lose from falling. It is important to me to not be afraid and try more constantly. When you eventually fail, you also learn to brush it off and say: “Well, okay, that was a learning experience. Let’s try again!”
It is crucial that you do not become more careful once you’ve failed – I think this is not the path that leads to success. If you fail and try to be more careful next time, that’s the wrong approach.
OK: – What would you like to wish the readers?
Stefan: – I think that a lot of people should be positive and appreciate that we have the opportunities we have to try new things – and I think we can be very grateful that we are in a situation where we can build things and if we fail, we get another chance. But some people don’t have that opportunity, and they may not even get a chance. Accordingly, we shouldn’t complain. I wish for the readers to be grateful for what they have and try out new things.