Investors care a lot about “stories”. When I started pitching to investors, I only gradually learned that it is important to package your pitch nicely with storytelling to grab the investors’ attention. In my early pitches, I sacrificed many opportunities to get attention because I focused only on the basic idea and how it would make money. Only later, I realized that investors often only start to listen when they hear a personal spin to the pitch. As a very rational and factual person, I am still working on my storytelling!
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Roland Polzin, co-founder and the CMO of Wing AI, and a 2020 MBA of the Paul Merage School of Business at UC Irvine. Before his business career, he served as an officer in the German military for 12 years where he held several leadership positions such as Chief PR Officer for the German Army and Chief Communications Officer for the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission MINUSMA in Mali.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
People have told me that my career path is pretty atypical: Having served for 12 years as an officer in the German Army, there are not many entrepreneurs like me in the US! When I joined the military, I was driven by the urge to be part of something bigger than myself and to fight for the good cause. After I completed my 12-year commitment, I felt the desire to start something new and decided to pursue a business career, starting off with an MBA in the United States. Soon after starting my classes, I met my co-founders Martin and Karan, and decided to join Wing AI to create the life-changing mobile app we are still working on — the Wing Assistant. Again, my urge to be part of something bigger than myself and to change people’s lives for the better brought me to a place where I can work with passion.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
Coming from a very established organization and work environment, I found the biggest challenge in my startup to be the absence of processes. While this may seem trivial, it is a great challenge to build up processes that are truly effective, efficient, and reliable — especially because outcomes may not yet be well-defined or because goals may change rapidly. My biggest learning from encountering this challenge was a shift in mindset from relying on the structure of my organization to focusing more on team responsibilities. Contrary to an established organization, a small startup depends much more on the output the core team can produce, so being proactive about changing structure and processes with my team has become an essential part of who I am as a leader.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
To me, there are three main factors that lead to success:
- Perseverance: You have to have thick skin and a good amount of grit to keep working on a new idea. There will always be people telling you that your idea won’t work and why they don’t believe in it. The challenge is to not be discouraged and overcome the inner frustration that you may feel.
- Flexibility: Although you want to be resilient to discouraging feedback, you have to constantly take tough feedback into consideration and, whenever possible, evaluate it with hard data. Only if you are willing to change your mind when you gain new insights, you will be able to adjust your ideas so that they work out in reality.
- Work smart: While working hard is important to get the vast amount of tasks done that you are facing as an entrepreneur, it will all be in vain if you don’t focus on the right things. Hence, identify what’s really essential and work on it while sacrificing less central things. It may feel tough to let go of certain things, but the overall impact will be greater in the end.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Co-founder”? Please share a story or example for each.
- Everything will take longer than you expect.
Since in a startup you constantly encounter genuinely new challenges, realistic estimates on deadlines are not readily available. Consequently, our human propensity to make optimistic estimates often leads to inaccurate timelines — like when I estimated to craft a new business plan in 5 days and ended up working on it for more than a month. Having a good understanding of this phenomenon can help you add an appropriate buffer to your estimates to reduce the number of negative surprises regarding meeting deadlines.
2. It’s not about the idea but about the execution.
I have learned that virtually no idea is valuable in itself — it is about how it is put into action that makes it valuable. Many entrepreneurs in their early stages believe that they cannot tell other people about their business idea to prevent other people from stealing it. When I was secretive about my early ideas, all that did was prevent myself from making valuable connections to get feedback as well as getting new team members and investors onboard. Don’t hide your basic idea — promote it! Only keep the details of how you do it to yourself.
3. Investors care a lot about “stories”
When I started pitching to investors, I only gradually learned that it is important to package your pitch nicely with storytelling to grab the investors’ attention. In my early pitches, I sacrificed many opportunities to get attention because I focused only on the basic idea and how it would make money. Only later, I realized that investors often only start to listen when they hear a personal spin to the pitch. As a very rational and factual person, I am still working on my storytelling!
4. Very few people see the value in what you’re doing
When I first heard about Wing from my co-founders Karan and Martin, I was instantly amazed by both the value we can bring to people as well as by Wing’s business potential. Although the benefits were so clear to me, I had a very hard time explaining them and making other people see these benefits as well. To make outsiders excited, you should take a step back from the idea that you are in love with and find the elements in your value proposition that people truly care about: I don’t tell people what an amazing service we have, but I tell them that it can give them an additional hour with their family!
5. Most people are not entrepreneurial
“Being entrepreneurial” is fashionable, so almost anyone will tell you that they are entrepreneurs at heart. However, working over hours with little to no monetary compensation only for the outlook of an uncertain outcome is something that almost no one is willing to go through. To me, it is obvious that high returns only come at high stakes. However, most people will prefer a secure 9-to-5 position over a wild startup job. Keep that in mind when you interview people to become team members and remind them that all the opportunities they will have will come at a price.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
- You are what you eat, so eat as healthy as you can (and drink half a gallon of water per day). This will keep your energy levels high and make you feel well.
- Exercise daily for 45 minutes minimum — you gotta sweat! It will help you relax your mind and make it easier to focus longer.
- Get sufficient sleep (7–9 hours). Only with enough sleep, your mind will work at its peak. If you sacrifice sleep, you ultimately sacrifice mental power.
- Do some fun stuff and relax (watch a movie, go on a hike, read a book, …). If you give your mind (and soul) a break from time to time, you will perform better and achieve greater outcomes overall!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
One of the most important people in my life is my former German Literature high school teacher. Not only did he happen to teach a subject I really enjoyed, but he also served as a role model for analyzing and understanding complex issues by leveraging deep thinking. Even after I graduated from high school, he continued to offer his advice during my academic studies for me to excel in my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. I am sure that, without his guidance, I would not have been able to be as successful as I have been so far, and I know that my future success only builds on the basics I learned from him as a young adult.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
The top two items on my professional bucket list are leading my startup to an IPO on the stock market, and to be the CEO of a nonprofit later in my life. Personally, I want to build a huge self-sustaining house in a secluded area in California. I also want to do a road trip around the world!
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I would love to help people to be more efficient and save resources so that we can be a more sustainable society. With Wing, we are taking an important step in this direction by employing Artificial Intelligence to save people’s time and enable them to spend it more meaningfully. Down the line, I hope to bring this idea of efficiently using resources to other aspects of people’s lives as well to leave a lasting positive impact on our planet.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I would love to increase the sense of responsibility people have. We live in a great country where there are many institutions (think democracy and government, schools and universities, businesses and nonprofits, etc.) that help us in countless ways to live a great life. In the end, however, these institutions all depend on us as the people who run them — they are only as good as the people who work for them.
I would like to promote a better understanding of the society as a whole with all its institutions along with the sense that the actions of every one of us matter. If people realize that they all play an important part, our world will be a better place.
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