In this month’s career transition interview, I’m speaking to Maja Schreiner, who I connected with on LinkedIn.
Having spent her career in corporate, Maja had long been attracted by the entrepreneurial world and, after a very brief stint of working in someone else’s startup, she decided to build her own.
We talked about our shared belief that employers should encourage, not hinder, their employees who want to pursue an interesting project alongside their work. This has benefits for the employee, for their job satisfaction and therefore retention, as well as having potential positive reverberations on the company and its work.
We also talked about the importance of working through any of those “what ifs” that we all have BEFORE we take the leap, ensuring that we have the support of our nearest and dearest, and getting expert guidance from a mentor or accelerator to get your business to where you want it to be.
Watch the full interview and read the transcript below.
Fearless Fridays: From corporate life to helping women in tech
Working in IT for 20 years, Maja initially left the corporate environment to work for a fast-paced startup. But that wasn’t enough to satisfy her long-standing entrepreneurial urge and, after only three months in the new role, she decided to quit to build her own business. Today, she is working towards her mission of enabling women in tech, and helping companies attract and retain more female talent.
1) At what moment did you decide it was time for a change?
Anna: Hello everybody! For this month’s Fearless Fridays, I’m here with Maja and Maja, why don’t you introduce yourself right away and let us know what you were doing before? And what are you doing today?
Maja: Yes. Thank you so much. Anna, and everybody for having me in this interview. My name is Maja Schreiner. I live here around Zurich in Switzerland and I work in the IT since almost 20 years now. I started a mix of computer science and business informatics and was a software developer for a long time and then turned actually software tester and HR coach and ultimately product manager. What I do now since a few months already is though I am setting up on my entrepreneurship path and journey. I am starting, I will be independent and will be running my own company.
Anna: Fantastic. Congratulations.
Maja: Thank you.
Anna: And so why don’t we start there? What made you decide to start on this new entrepreneurial path?
Maja: Well, I actually left my last corporate environment at the end of last year to work in a very fast paced startup as a product manager. But after a few months, I realised that my long year wish to be independent, to have my own company is even stronger than working for this nice, cool startup. I decided to quit my job because it wasn’t really possible to do everything at the same time. And I like to solve problems and I like to solve them on a very high quality level. And as mentioned, after all these years and different experiences in the IT, I know that now is finally the time to combine all these different experiences and insights to make something that also makes even more sense. My business is about empowering other women in tech and actually empowering mostly those who are unemployed or not happy in their current job and helping them achieve a more fulfilled job and let’s say dream career.
Anna: Amazing. That’s very much in line with the work I do. I really admire you for doing that. That’s exciting.
Maja: Thank you.
2) What was the biggest challenge you faced in making the change?
Anna: And it sounds very simple. You knew for a long time you wanted to do work for yourself. You have this mission, you have the skills and so on, but what have been some of the challenges so far? Has it been a difficult decision? Did you know right away what to do? Where have the challenges been in the process?
Maja: Well, the most important thing is to know that at the beginning, you might not be earning money with your business. You have to be quite clear what your budget is and for what time. And for me, luckily, that was already settled. I can say, let’s say for the next few more months, I can continue living on my savings, but that is very important for everybody to know that you need to be tight on your budget. And on the other side, you really need to focus full time on that. I don’t really believe in stories that you continue working in your corporate job and then only in the evening, in the night, do programming for your startup for either through the belief that that works.
And what it also turned out to be is it’s even more than the full-time job. It’s almost like a 24/7 job. I sometimes did end up working also on the weekend and preparing for the calls on Monday, et cetera. I actually feel almost like a real CEO. On the other side, I realise that it is not sustainable. That would be the first thing, finding a balance between working, achieving results and not interfering with your health and your well being, because this is also the…
Anna: Well Maja, I lost you there. Sorry, I lost you just for a moment. Yeah. You were saying health and wellbeing…
Maja: Yes. And then there is all other typical stuff in a startup. Achieving a proper product-market fit. We are still adjusting to that. We know that we, let’s say reached that, but it really needs to gain traction. We need to start earning money. There has to be an awesome team of very motivated and skilled people. And then we need to have of course more candidates in our pool, even more clients, et cetera, et cetera. It’s a lot of work. On the other side, it is super exciting because it is all different stuff you need to do. You need to do product development, business development, sales, marketing, even programming. You get to do everything if you want and if you can, of course. And I’m now of course building up on my team. We are splitting our duties and the tasks. Yeah, I would say again, four things, be clear about your budget, about your time, about your work-life balance and then be ready to do all those different things you might have not been doing full time before.
Anna: And that’s great that you’re building a team. Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to build a big business and a team? Or was that something that you’ve realised with time now is necessary?
Maja: I’d rather say the second, yes. First I actually started with a very small idea, with coaching other candidates and helping them get a job. But since actually most of my clients on the candidate side are actually working part time and they already have problems achieving a fulfilled and relevant career while working part time. And by part time I mean, not necessarily 80 or 90%, but maybe 50, 60, 70% a week, that is much less than full time. Then I actually start exploring more on a model I know about from before, that is job sharing. And then I realised I need to match them to a job. I need the companies as well, of course. And then actually, I became a student at the startup incubator school there. The first thing they taught us was that we need to build a scalable business and that we need to build a business that runs from itself so that it can be even bootstrapped, of course.
Little by little, idea after idea, I iterated a lot. And also from the very first beginning, it was clear to me that I will be having colleagues because for example, for marketing and sales, these are not the things I was doing before a lot. It was clear from the beginning, I will need experts, but still it wasn’t clear that it will be on this scale. But on the other side, it is really super exciting. And as you see, I’m really happy and very passionate about this business.
Anna: Yes. And that’s great, as you say, it’s scalable and it’s something that you can build into something bigger and actually have a bigger impact than you planned. It’s an interesting point as well, that you made, it’s always the eternal debate, do we quit our job and so we can have the full time? As you said to do the business. Or do we stay in the business and try to do it alongside? I do know people who manage at least in the short term, at least as you say, the product-market fit research and trying to build a bit of an audience, but there is a point of which we have to go all in. And it’s great that you’ve been able to do that. Where would you say you got the support? How did you know what to do when you’re starting up? You mentioned a few ideas there, but how did you get the support you needed to get to where you are today?
3) Where did you get the support you needed to make it happen?
Maja: Yes. Actually this whole idea is what I did start last year already in my free time. And at that point, I remember last summer while I was in the corporation, I asked my boss at that time to reduce my workload, to be able to start working on my business. But then he said, no, because he knew how passionate I am about this other business as well and he was afraid that I won’t be able to do both. And that happens actually to a lot of other women I know, that they get this no. But if I may say, since this is a public interview, for all other bosses in the corporates, please do allow your ladies and your employees to do projects on the side because you never know how huge this project will get and what kind of impact they might even have on your enterprise, positive impact.
Anna: Do you know, I just stopped you there because I think that’s such an important point and I think it’s very ironic to stop you from working on it because he worried that you’d be too passionate because of course, what happened, you left the job entirely to do work on your passion. And actually I agree with you. It can really help you. It reinvigorates your energy in the existing job in terms of building the profile of the company and so on. And you’re bringing new skills. I think that’s such a shame. And hopefully thanks for calling that out. More and more employers are waking up to the fact that this is something they should be encouraging, of course, within the frame of still delivering on expectations within your work hours, but that’s a really important point so thank you for raising that.
Maja: Yes. Yes. I’m happy you agree. And again, I was never a fan of those departments in the large corporation that were called the innovation department or digital business unit. I would say, what about other departments? Shouldn’t other departments be innovative as well? Yes.
And then again, regarding your question about the help. I’m lucky enough that I already have a nice network, mostly in Switzerland and Germany, but then also just a bit abroad. And so I did reach out totally to my network. I first reached out to my very closest friends and colleagues and colleagues from colleagues. And then I started reaching out to people who I don’t even know. At some point you see now I have this interview with you so this is really awesome. And I am also very grateful to have received a lot of support, a lot of moral support and encouragement for what I do.
Almost everybody, females or males, told me how nice my idea is and that they really believe in the idea. And again, could we think of my job in the wake of the COVID, actually I did that exactly to earn this time, to use this time when everybody is a bit discouraged or even afraid of the future, to actually use this opportunity and this time to really focus on this work. Again, being connected in real communities, for example, women in AI global community, or some other women in tech communities or other communities like world communities, not only females, really helped me gain more traction, gain more interest and I am getting all different coachings, mentorings, most of them for free, luckily. And then again, I applied for the startup incubator, it is called Founder Institute. It is actually the world’s largest pre-seed startup incubator, where you really start with only an idea and validate an idea.
They do have a growth track for the startups they already exist, but I was in the beginners track and I will be finishing in a few weeks time in Zurich cohort. And that really gave me a real structure to really, you really need to do maximum of your maximum and do the homework and do your work together with your working groups. I would say, as you may also know about Y Combinator, but I would say Y Combinator and the Founder Institute are really the best accelerators that you might choose today.
4) What’s the best part of your lifestyle today?
Anna: Great. I love how you started with your immediate network and then have expanded. And then also that you recognise that you need help taking the idea to execution. And you’ve mentioned a couple of great incubators there. I know you said you’re really happy about the work you do now. What’s the best thing about your new way of doing business and your new lifestyle?
Maja: Well, for me, it’s the best contact with the candidates. Just this morning. One of my candidates was emailing me that she got invited to the first interview with this company where I actually created a contact for her. We actually, today you shouldn’t really just apply for the website, but you should first get informed about the company and about the department. This is what we did and had a very short few emails back and forth before she applied last week. In two days’ time, since last Thursday, I would say, she already got invited to the first video interview. And then she was calling me and then I already gave her a few more tips. I would say this constant iteration and working with my candidates, really coaching them how to give their best and how to excel in an interview and to get a job and later when they have a job, that truly is super fun for me.
And then I would say everything else regarding product development, even improving the design, getting all these different feedbacks and then last but not least making a decision because you might get all different feedbacks, regarding all different topics. And then as a CEO, as a founder, you really need to make your decision and to say, “That makes sense for me,” et cetera. I would say all these feedbacks are kind of either confirming what I already want to do or not. If not, I just say, “Okay.” And of course I quantify those feedbacks. If I get eight negative feedback out of 10, then of course I will think, why is that? But as long as I get a lot of traction and a lot of positive feedback, then I know it’s fine.
Anna: And out of curiosity, obviously you’ve left your job. And as you said, you had some savings and so on. Do you have a plan for when you need to replace your income entirely? What’s sort of the timeframe, I guess, for really having the business up and running fully?
Maja: Yes. Thank you for this question. That is completely correct. We, of course, one of the first things was to create a business and a finance plan. And actually we should be starting earning money already, because I say we. “We” means I have two potential co-founders, it’s not quite official so far. We are at the moment in the probation period, working with each other together and I will be also employing developers, designers, et cetera. I will be needed to start earning money through one or the other revenue model as soon as possible. If not, then the other options are to apply for some grants. And then later, as soon as we have a bit of revenue and more traction, then for example, next year, we might be thinking about applying for some venture capitalists investors. But that is some future story.
5) What one piece of advice would you give to someone who is considering making a big career or lifestyle change?
Anna: Yeah. Okay. That’s exciting. And you’ve already shared quite a bit of advice I’d say, but if you could give one piece of advice to somebody else who maybe like you has always wanted to work for themselves, they have this strong mission they want to follow, what advice would you give?
Maja: You really need to be honest with yourself to know if you’re really going to do that. If you start thinking, oh shall I do that? But what if? Then you should probably think again. And if those kinds of “what ifs” continue, then you should probably not do that if you are not courageous and secure enough. You really need self-assurance and self-awareness and a lot of courage. And of course you need the environment. For example, if you have a husband or a partner or boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever, family, even kids, of course, everything needs to be agreed upon. Everything. For example, I have a family and two school kids, so I might be spending just a bit less time with them at this moment, but that was discussed prior to this beginning. And again, courage, and self-awareness combined with your closest environment.
Anna: Great. I love that. And of course there will always be some “what ifs” and we always worry, there’s no right moment to take the leap. But as you said, if you still have those big doubts, I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done there. And absolutely, I hear again and again, having a supportive partner, having of course agreed that with older children perhaps, and knowing what is the worst-case scenario, I guess, and agreeing that. And that’s really good advice there. Where can we find out more about you? Where online can we read more about your business?
Maja: Yes, it is a sharingtribe.tech. I suppose you will also be putting a correct URL and my email address?
Anna: Yes, absolutely.
Maja: In together with this interview text. Thank you so much, Anna.
Anna: Thank you so much for your story. And it’s so exciting to hear and I love that you’re thinking much bigger. When I first quit my job, I was very much just trying to build a lifestyle business that would let me travel and have that flexibility. It’s really exciting to talk to people like you, who are thinking bigger, really scalable, having that big team and really solving a big problem that’s out there. Really exciting. And I wish you the best of luck. Maybe we can connect again in a couple of years when you’re further along, when you can tell us how things are going.
Maja: Very gladly or in a few months, as soon as I have more to tell, I’d be happy to write to you.
Anna: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Maja. Good luck.
Maja: Thank you so much, Anna, for having me. Thank you everybody for listening. Bye bye