“Soft factors are often neglected when setting up a startup.”
After one year, SINGA founders Seraina Soldner and Mirjam Walser are going their separate ways. In January, Seraina Soldner and the new co-head Tina Erb are taking over the SINGA Factory. Mirjam Walser has left the successful project amicably. In an interview with Samira Lütscher, who is supervising the project on behalf of Engagement Migros, they explain why the collaboration did not work. They want to sensitise other founders to the difficulties of teamwork by openly dealing with them. Their summation: issues in interpersonal collaboration should no longer be taboo in the start-up world.
Seraina Soldner and Mirjam Walser, your collaboration on the SINGA Factory ended in December. Mirjam Walser is leaving. How did this happen?
Mirjam Walser: The starting phase was very intense. We just wanted to deliver and present results quickly. We never discussed the division of tasks in detail, nor what was important to us in our collaboration. Once I was able to breathe a little bit for the first time after six months, I realised that different ideas had developed regarding our long-term collaboration. We were like two ice floes drifting further and further apart. Recognising that it wouldn’t work was terribly disappointing to me.
Seraina Soldner: We did not work at the same location during the first four months of the project. I couldn’t get out of my employment contract at that time and had to work simultaneously for the SINGA Factory and at my old job in Geneva, while Mirjam was in Zurich and Bern. On a human level we fit; we were euphoric and we were looking forward to the new task. That connected us. But you need a lot more than that.
What do you consider the biggest sticking point to be?
S. Sol.: In the beginning, everything had to happen quickly. Because of the fast pace and the geographical distance between us, communication fell by the wayside. Even though we both attach great importance to it in principle.
M. W.: Although we talked a lot about the content and goals of our project, we never discussed what was important to us for our collaboration. If I could turn the clock back, I’d put more emphasis on teambuilding. Even if you like each other on a personal level, this does not mean it will also work professionally. Looking back, I realise I set too fast a pace. This can lead to tension, which we could have defused if we’d talked about it.
S. Sol.: But that is also Mirjam’s strength. She just goes for it. One problem was that I sometimes felt like I was lagging behind in Geneva. I periodically didn’t know what she was working on. And by asking made her feel I wanted to control her. We only had open discussions once we took on a coach to constructively complete the final phase together. But by the time we got that help, Mirjam had announced her departure. That was unfortunately far too late.
“Communication fell by the wayside.”
How did Engagement Migros react to your leaving, Mirjam Walser?
M. W.: At first I was nervous. Engagement Migros placed a lot of trust in us. And then we brought them the news that it’s not working. I was relieved when they responded so sympathetically.
S. Sol.: I have a positive memory of that, too. We were extricated from difficulty and my relationship with Engagement Migros has changed. I have more confidence in our cooperation and believe we meet on equal footing.
Samira Lütscher: It was clear to me that this decision was not taken lightly. In such a situation, openness and honesty are particularly important to us. As a development fund, we are not involved in day-to-day business and do not immediately notice difficulties within teams. That is why we trust that our project partners will approach us directly with their problems. Seraina and Mirjam announced the change of leadership thoughtfully and professionally. The fact that they continued to respect each other in this difficult situation, working together constructively right up to the end, was exemplary. They acted in the interest of the project and made a clean handover possible.
“Doing away with taboos on this topic would help.”
What would you advise other founders to do, so they can master the challenging start-up phase?
S. Sol.: No matter how good your relationship is at the beginning, I would advise every startup to take advantage of coaching in the beginning. Top athletes need a physiotherapist almost every day. Why shouldn’t self-employed people or teams under a lot of pressure get support from time to time?
I also call for openness. Within the start-up environment, it is important to always be perfect and not make mistakes. Doing away with this taboo would help. I also found it difficult to talk about in the beginning. How should I explain Mirjam’s leaving to people? I was afraid of reactions. And was surprised when most people reacted with a lot of understanding.
M. W.: When I looked for advice myself, I realised that other founders feel the same way as I do, but they don’t dare talk about it openly.
S. L.: The tough competition among startup founders undoubtedly plays a role here. But personal self-protection does as well. Instead of hiding and walling off the spoiled land, it is better in the end to plough the soil over so that something new can grow again. Building a constructive culture of error is also a challenge for Engagement Migros.
How great is the pressure when you are supported by a development fund with a substantial sum of money?
M. W.: I never really felt pressure from Engagement Migros. We made it ourselves. We wanted to be perfect. The launch had to happen quickly and we also had to meet the expectations of SINGA Germany and SINGA France.
S. L.: As supporters, we are currently very involved in the initial phase, working intensively on a joint agreement of objectives. Substantial support and a close advisory capacity naturally bring with them a certain expectation – but I would find it unfortunate if this came across as pressure from above. Instead, it should support the projects’ own energy in a powerful way.
“I would advise every startup to take advantage of coaching in the beginning.”
What lessons has Engagement Migros learned?
S. L.: It is important to us that there be a strong fundamental trust on both sides. In the future, we will also address interpersonal issues more frequently. High speed means momentum, but it can also knock you to the ground – a difficult balancing act. Too often only hard factors such as output and performance are in the foreground when a project is being set up; soft factors such as teambuilding and personal resources are neglected. This is often clearer with hindsight, so we believe it is important for our projects to benefit from the experience of others. Whoever dares to take on something new faces comparable challenges – that’s why we want to network our pioneering projects even better in the future.