Markus Feigelbinder, founder and Managing Director of the traveltech startup Fineway, talks about his role models and why it’s so important to him to be open-minded as a founder. He also expertly responds to prejudices against startups. He founded the company, which has been financed with more than 20 million euros, in 2015 with Markus Bohl. An interview.
Munich Startup: Markus, what motivated you to found a company?
Markus Feigelbinder: The idea behind Fineway and our Instant Trip Planning arose from personal circumstances. Before every one of my vacations, we had long discussions about who should be in charge of planning the trip. That was when I realized that an excessive amount of time is spent on comparing offers, picking out options and the entire planning process in general. Booking vacations is tedious, time-consuming and aggravating — I often wished there was some kind of clever spirit that knew exactly what I wanted and could pick out the right trip from the millions of offers.
How wishing for a “clever spirit” motivated founding the company
The technology that could embody this kind of clever spirit already existed. And in truth, no one needs to be stressed out by having to look through travel platforms for hotels, flights or recreational activities for hours after working all day. Realizing that was what gave rise to Fineway.
Did you have role models when starting the company?
Everyone obviously admires stars like Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs who held on to their visions and, despite all kinds of resistance, still turned their ideas into successful companies that you might even call empires. Their enormous success is enough to be inspiring on its own.
“You can find role models everywhere”
I’ve noticed over time, however, that while it’s nice to read books about successful people, it’s always the people right around me who influence me in the end. You can find role models everywhere. That starts during college and continues with work colleagues, managers, partners, co-founders and investors. You just have to be open to seeing the strengths of the individuals around you and use them to your advantage. That defines your daily activities and motivation much more directly than abstract ‘role models’ whom you’ve never met before.
That’s why it’s paramount for a founder to establish a network of people that inspire them, act as role models and support them with good advice when in doubt. I think that’s much more important than falling for an entrepreneurial idol. That being said, those named at the beginning — Jobs and Bezos — are role models because they changed an industry and defined new ways of doing things. That is also ultimately Fineway’s vision. We want to turn the travel industry upside down.
When and where do you have the best ideas?
If only I could plan that. If I knew that flashes of genius regularly came to me while showering, that would be great and I would know what needed to be done. But I haven’t noticed any patterns of my own yet. Sometimes a brilliant idea comes when I’m not expecting it; while driving, on vacation or grocery shopping. Sometimes you need a more active environment where the pressure is really on or where we’re focusing on specific ideas in the team.
My general piece of advice is to have faith in yourself. When it comes to an important subject, I’ve never seen anyone just sit there — especially when it’s near and dear to them — without any ideas whatsoever. And should that happen, then people like colleagues or partners can really jump-start a good idea. You just have to be open to inspiration — no matter where it comes from.
Don’t let others put limits on you that don’t exist
Your greatest weakness?
Sometimes things that are perceived as weaknesses suddenly become a strength and talent in a different context. You might generally view thinking big and pursuing things that seem impossible as a weakness, because in a case of doubt that can keep you from taking immediate action and thinking in practical terms. As a founder, however, that really helps me to see a vision and get all kinds of people excited about it. So that’s why I’d call it a talent.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?
The biggest mistake was to not challenge common opinions, which means you’re putting limits on yourself that don’t actually exist. Just because “everyone” thinks something won’t work or isn’t feasible doesn’t mean it can’t actually work. It’s worth trying things out, because you can’t turn back the clock. The worst thing that can happen is that the others were right.
Be prepared to invest something
What’s your secret networking weapon?
There are entire books dedicated to the subject. In the end, it’s always about talking with other people. Even tips with the best of intentions can’t get around that fact. So getting out there and meeting people is the secret weapon. I also think the only way you can maintain a network is if you’re prepared to invest something. To think that talking to people is enough and then all you need to do is give them a call to solve your own problems is a misconception. In a network, I also pass on my own expertise and connections. You need to be ready to do that.
Do you think now is a good time to start a company? Why?
If you have a good idea that is begging to be implemented, then “now” is always a good time. Political, economic and social environments only change over the long term. That means you need to make the best of the current situation and look for ways to launch your company with the best possible prospects. And every industry is obviously different.
In general, there’s still work to be done on political conditions to make it possible to found more companies. But that shouldn’t keep anyone who feels the need to start their own company from taking action. For the use of artificial intelligence as is the case with Fineway, the time was definitely right.
Work-life balance versus social isolation
What are the three most offensive prejudices you’ve encountered in everyday startup life?
In Germany in particular, fixed ideas prevail about startups and their founders.
People often don’t make an effort to understand the topic. They would rather make sweeping statements about startups only using the “innovative” label because everyone is doing it too. However, most founders — as we do with Fineway — have aspirations to do something new, to think differently and change an industry. I think the prejudice that founders are just repackaging the same old thing and calling it innovative is just wrong. Fortunately, a growing number of people are open-minded and understand founders’ approaches.
Another prejudice concerns a founder’s personality and social environment. Why should a founder automatically not be able to have friends and family? That’s nonsense. The fact that founders have to make certain compromises to pursue their visions is logical. But that doing so inevitably leads to social isolation is a prejudice. Thinking in black and white terms doesn’t help anyone and, in the worst case, can even keep capable people from starting their own companies. And that’s just because they think it won’t be possible to start a family otherwise. But there are so many positive examples of a work-life balance in daily startup life.
And lastly, I think the assumption that all founders need to be extremely young is strange. The popular belief is that founders come together when they’re quite young and then tinker around on ideas that are more or less realistic. Who ever said you can’t found a company when you’re forty? With all of that experience and a big network, it’s not as absurd as is widely believed.
What’s on top of your desk at the moment?
A subject that is always on my desk is to get more fantastic employees on board. We’re fortunate enough to have a super motivated and talented team. But we’re growing and are still in need of more good people. They might be travel experts who are located in each country and know the countries inside out as a vacation destination or even AI experts or data scientists. In addition to professional expertise, personality and a passion for travel and AI are also important, which is why we pay close attention to details. That has worked well so far, but recruiting definitely does have a degree of priority.
Where’s your next vacation destination?
Northern destinations are very attractive to me. As coincidence will have it, my next stop will be British Columbia on the west coast of Canada. I’ve been putting it off for a long time, but Canada has been on my list of preferred destinations for quite some time. I find the area around Vancouver and the nearly untouched North fascinating. And we fortunately don’t have to deal with the stress of making any complicated trip reservations.
Have a great time on your next trip, and thank you for your candid answers Markus Feigelbinder!