Jennifer Browarczyk, originally from the United States, but living and working in Germany. Not only working, but Jen is also the founder of Foreverly here in Berlin. Moreover, she did not only just found a company, but also gained national fame with her platform by participating (& succeeding) in the TV Show ‚ Die Höhle die Löwen‚. We had a chance to ask her all about starting a Tech company, what to look for in potential investors and how to grow a website from its infancy to a big online platform.
Dear Jen, could you tell us a bit about Foreverly?
Jen: Launched in March 2015 by myself, Foreverly has grown to display the products & services of over 1000 vendors and seen over 70,000 brides enter its searchable pages every month.
While previously an immense headache to arrange, brides can now browse through over 3000 relevant and vetted options while gathering info about wedding trends, tips, and getting daily support from a surprisingly active bride-to-be community. Couples search by geographic regions and easily turn inspiration into reality, finding & securing the local suppliers best suited to their tastes, price level, and whim. Foreverly operates in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria – Giving brides (and their better halves) access to everything they need for that perfect day, in one simple place.
You told me that you came up with the idea when you had to plan your sister’s wedding. So you had the idea and three months later the website was online? How did you start?
Jen: Well, I had been thinking about the idea for a few months, before really taking the first steps. The first year was basically me and an intern developing a WordPress website, which at that point was just an online bridal magazine. While writing the content we were in contact with our target group (brides and wedding vendors). It was therefore easy to test the platform ideas that we had, by asking vendors and brides about their preferences, their challenges and needs. We really tried not to make too many assumptions and always ask if we were not 100% sure. When the magazine was beginning to get traction, we did a rough sketch of a first marketplace, which was basically a search machine to find wedding vendors.
After approximately a year I got my first round of funding, which allowed me to hire a CTO. However, we continued using our basic WordPress magazine & marketplace for another half year, until it was too cumbersome to fix all the WordPress bugs, due to our increased traffic. Then we switched to a more professional system. Only then, we started to focus on expanding our product. We added more search functionalities and filters, we made it possible for brides to create their own profile, built a mobile application and integrated a wedding planner tool. So we started small, tested our ideas and then built on that, step by step.
What would then be your most important tip to grow an online business?
Jen: As I mentioned before, it is all about testing your ideas with your target group. Do not make too many assumptions about what they need, what they like, or what their challenges are. Go out there and ask, make mock-ups of your products and show them some ideas.
Also, do not dwell too long on a decision, and do not make them too fast either. There is a fine line, but the key is to keep moving forward in a steady pace and always work on how to monetize your product. Monetization will prove whether your assumptions were correct, will give you peace of mind at night, will make your employees happy and of course your investors as well. Therefore, it is key to work on products that bring in money first.
A lot of times I hear that you have to invest in technology, hire developers and make a state-of-the-art platform before you launch. Although this is important, it is extremely expensive. Tech is probably the most expensive resource right now and you normally do not have that kind of money in the beginning. Therefore, focus on sales and traffic first, and not the fancy Tech. You can build the most fancy and expensive Tech, but if nobody wants it… then you lose. Better make a simple version first, and adapt it later when you already have proven your idea. In the case of Foreverly, we started simple and built on that.
In ‚Die Höhle die Löwen‚ the Lions looked shocked when you told them you own less than a third of your company shares. Is this really so little? I can only imagine how hard it is to trade shares of your company for funding. How did you handle this? How did you make those decisions?
Jen: Die Höhle die Löwen is a TV show, and as with any TV production, they edit reactions here and there. Either way, giving up shares is something very normal in the Tech industry. We are not used to giving up shares when we own a shop, a restaurant or another offline company in general. However, the founders of the biggest Tech companies in the world often do not own more than 10% of their company. This is perfectly normal. You always have to make tough choices when you start a company. Tech is super expensive and getting a share of the online market cannot be reached without significant investments. Consequently, if you truly want to bring your company forward and achieve your goal, this is the way to go. As long as you have the goal of your company in mind, it is less hard to give shares up.
Talking about investors, what are the most important things to consider when finding investors?
Jen: Firstly, you have to write a business plan.
Secondly, you need to remember that actually nothing goes via plan. Especially with start-ups. Some investors will not be interested in you, although you were convinced they would invest. Sometimes you suddenly talk to people, you thought you would never talk to. Another time you find unexpected partnerships, instead of funding. Perhaps you even encounter different cooperation possibilities than you thought upfront would be possible.
Thirdly, get help from people who have been through this. In general, it is always good to have other founders in your network. They can tell you which software systems to pick, which systems are prone to fail or have great scalability. It is always better to learn that from others, instead of learning it yourself the hard way.
Lastly, an investor will do due diligence on you, but you should definitely also do due diligence on your investor. Which other companies did he or she invested in? How are they doing? Go on LinkedIn, search your network and find a way to talk to the founders and ask them about their experiences. Another important aspect is what kind of investor are you looking for? Someone who will give you strict targets or who will give you the freedom to do your thing? You need to figure this out upfront, so that you can have an effective working relationship afterwards.
Do you think it makes a difference for a woman as founder? Is it harder to find investors for example?
Jen: Well, I don’t like to talk about this gender topic actually. I think we should get over that finally. However, sadly there is still a difference. There are very few female founders in general, and even less in the Tech industry.
Sure, there will be some differences between men and women, I never had any bad experiences though. Actually, it has advantages too. You get more attention from the media, you stand out on events, and as a woman you approach problems differently, which makes us stand out from the other founders as well.
So it sounds like a very smooth story. You started small and then expanded slowly. Did something go wrong sometimes as well?
Jen: Yes, but it is important to stay positive. I am always looking for solutions. Starting a company is a constant learning curve. You will always make mistakes, hire the wrong person, give up on an idea too quickly, and stick for too long with another idea. It is important to always be on your guard and be ready to learn.
You are originally from the United States. What can we learn here in Germany from start-ups or the corporate world in the US?
Jen: Actually, I would advise you not to compare. The markets are super different. People think too easy about taking a product abroad and that it will be successful immediately. What works here does not work somewhere else necessarily! Customers are different, regulations are different, sales is different, technological infrastructure is different, suppliers are different, and valuations of companies are different. It is really something you have to be cautious about. Sure, always look what the start-up scene is doing, but adapt the learnings to your own country and market.
How does a normal day in the Life of Jen look like?
Jen: It is definitely never the same. I do take time off to get enough sleep. Founders are running a marathon. Even though in the beginning you always think you are running a sprint. You are sprinting for the next Go-Live, the next investor round, the next product release. But in the end, there is always something new and you are running a never ending marathon.
However, it is not big news that a founder’s workweek is at least 50 to 70 workhours and that you are never really ‚off‘. You wake up in the middle of the night because you have a new idea, or you start working at six in the morning because you just thought about a solution to a problem you had. That being said, I do take time to reflect on what is going good and what I should do better. Also I take time for friends and family.
So what is the next step for Foreverly?
Jen: We are now really focusing on automating things. Really building up our Tech. We need to automate our processes, use algorithms to give better recommendations, link our brides easier with the vendors as a lot of handy work is still involved. Also, we have a lot of valuable data, which we should use to improve our product even more.
In general we really aim to create more transparency in the wedding industry. We are used to compare prices for all our products, why not with wedding vendors? Especially the current generation is really looking for this. We aim to change that bit by bit!
Thank you for the interview!