“Work on the culture early”, With Douglas Brown and Anna Alex of Planetly

Work on the culture early. I mentioned before how bad of an experience we had when hiring the wrong person from a cultural perspective. Company culture is key to its success. If your team does not feel like being part of an amazing company, they will not give their very best. The very best comes […]

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Work on the culture early. I mentioned before how bad of an experience we had when hiring the wrong person from a cultural perspective. Company culture is key to its success. If your team does not feel like being part of an amazing company, they will not give their very best. The very best comes from feeling part of something bigger. That is what company culture can do.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anna Alex.

Anna Alex is founder and CCO (Chief Customer Officer) of Planetly, a climate-tech company developing a Carbon Intelligence Platform enabling companies to analyze, reduce and compensate for their CO2 emissions.

In 2012, she co-founded and successfully built OUTFITTERY, Europe’s leading personal shopping service for men. By the end of 2018, Anna retired from operative business, but she continues to support the company as a board member.

Anna studied economics, sociology and psychology in Freiburg and Paris and began her career with startup incubator Rocket Internet. During her career, she has been chosen to be among Europe’s “Inspiring Fifty,” “The Most Inspiring Women in Tech” and “Young Elite — Top 40 under 40”. She is also a member of YPO, the global leadership community of extraordinary chief executives. Anna is co-author of the Spiegel Bestselling Book, “Zukunftsrepublik” (“Republic of the Future”).

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I began my professional career at startup incubator Rocket Internet in Berlin at a time when the startup scene in Germany was very young. It was an exciting time, and I knew early on that I wanted to build my own business. In 2012, as previously mentioned, I co-founded Outfittery, a personal shopping service for men. In late 2018, I left the operational business but continue to support the company as a board member. By that time, Outfittery had one million happy customers in eight countries. I knew the company could run without me, and I wanted to build something new. Because that is what I am really good at — building businesses from scratch.

Before I withdrew from Outfittery’s operational business, I was looking to calculate our corporate carbon footprint and I realized it was a very complex and manual process. A consultant came to our office, with an Excel spreadsheet, and asked for a lot of numbers and stats. After a few weeks, he handed us a report and left. This was the first time I encountered the challenge for businesses to deal with the climate crisis.

My second encounter was during summer 2019. I joined “Leaders for Climate Action,” a climate protection initiative launched by more than 100 digital entrepreneurs in Germany. After speaking to different members of the initiative, I realized that a missing element in fighting the climate crisis is the lack of data and the necessary tools within companies.

A few weeks later I met with Benedikt Franke, an entrepreneur whom I have known since we both worked at Rocket Internet. It was around the time when Australia was burning, and we were discussing this natural disaster. It did not take long until we were crystal clear that the climate crisis is the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced. As entrepreneurs, our natural reaction to a problem is not to donate money. Our natural reaction is to found a company. And that is what we did. We believe that with our entrepreneurial know-how, we need to invest our skills to work on the largest challenge we currently face — building tools to fight climate change.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

There are two that come to my mind. When I think about my company that is just one and a half years old, I am completely in awe when looking at my team. We have so many inspiring people who previously worked in companies such as BCG, McKinsey or Volkswagen — all globally known brands — and now work at Planetly. Our Head of Carbon Intelligence is a renowned climate expert and is contributing to writing the climate norm. This is, to be honest, what excites me most since we started. Every Monday in our all-hands meeting, it hits me how fortunate we are to call these amazing people our team.

I’d like to share another moment. When Benedikt and I started talking about our new business idea, we had a vision of software that could enable companies to analyze and track their carbon footprint. We had to somehow give it an “industry frame” so we called it climate tech. By now, this is an established term but in fall 2019, you would rarely read or hear about it.

At the time, we spoke to many people from our network, including investors, to get their feedback. They shared their thoughts, but most importantly, they invested, and we raised a $5.2 million seed round. I remembered this saying: Ask for money, you get feedback. Ask for feedback, you get money.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

A few months after founding Planetly, we brought in a member to the leadership team who was such a good fit professionally but not culturally. I was blinded by the professional side, and in hindsight, that was a big mistake. Culture eats strategy for breakfast. You must pay attention to the cultural fit of a team member, especially when he or she joins in a leading function. For me, this was one of the hardest times of probably my entire entrepreneurial journey.

Giving up, however, is not an option. Climate change is the most pressing crisis on our planet, and we need all hands-on deck to tackle it. I can never give up this endeavor.

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 about that?

My dear husband, who takes over the majority of childcare. I can never thank him enough for it.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I am very pragmatic in many ways, and one of my favorite quotes is: “Move your a** and your mind will follow.” Just do it. Don’t overthink it.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

Climate change is one of the, if not the greatest, threats of modern times. It is the biggest challenge for mankind and has at the same time become a great opportunity for businesses to tackle. The Paris Agreement has set a global framework to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. It also aims to strengthen countries’ abilities to deal with the impacts of climate change and support them in their efforts.

Businesses can contribute to reducing climate change if they focus on collecting and analyzing data. Using data to fight climate change and fuel a public discussion is nothing new. However, the process of calculating a company’s carbon footprint is a complex and manual process. We believe that technology can make a great difference, but obviously, we need to develop technology that can be implemented and used by companies, no matter their size or resources. Analytics tools, Big Data technologies and machine learning will play a significant role in the future of climate change. This is where we come in. We are building Google Analytics for Carbon Emissions.

When looking at climate, especially carbon management, it becomes clear that we need a simpler solution, and we need it fast. Companies should not have to worry about the process; they should only be taking care of the result, their carbon footprint.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We believe in co-creation, and we actually started working on our software together with different pilot clients. I believe this makes us stand out. We did not lock ourselves into a room and create software we believe the market needs. We created software we know our clients need because we integrated them into the product creation process.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Planetly is still young, only a year and a half old, and we are fully focused on building the best technology.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Absolutely not. From a founder’s perspective, we need more female investors to make sure that female founders have access to the same amount of venture capital as male founders. We all know that due to unconscious bias, women receive far fewer investments than men. We need to close that gap. Having more female investors on partner level would make a huge difference.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

My focus is on entrepreneurship, and for many women, children are an obstacle. In Germany, only 24 percent of female entrepreneurs lived in a partnership with a child under 18 at the time of founding, but 32 percent of male founders did. Conversely, 57 percent of all women were in a childless partnership at the time of founding, but only 51 percent of men. This may reveal a societal role model that mothers as entrepreneurs still do not quite fit into.

The question of how to reconcile family and business is only ever posed to women, never to men. I think it’s important to talk about this. But men and women should be asked about it equally.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

A fresh perspective is important for any business. Usually, businesses grow faster than people, and founders also need to be aware of that. A founder starts with a vision and brings people on board who share this vision. Together, they build the company, and founders need to be able to ask themselves at any given time: Do I still bring added value to the business? Or is it time for me to step back and hand over leadership to someone else?

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

Co-creation is a rather new but, in my opinion, very promising field. We have had great experience with it because while you are building the product you continuously get the feedback from your clients — basically in real time — and you can implement their feedback along the way. It is customer-centric, and it helps you to create a product your clients need.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

  1. Do not treat customer service like a nuisance but make it an integral part of your business. This may sound strange to readers from the US, for example, but in Germany, customer service is often being treated like an unwanted part of the company. And unfortunately, customers notice that.
  2. Ask questions. Always ask questions. Maybe your customer established new needs along the way, and you need to adapt your product to these needs. You won’t find out about it if you don’t ask.
  3. Make sure your leadership team spends time with your customers and continuously checks whether all communication lines are established in a customer-centric way.
  4. Product management should not be a collection of wishes from your management team, but it should be a collection of wishes from your customers. Make sure to include your customers in your product design process — they are the ones using the product you create. Let them tell you what they are looking for in your product.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

Always put the customer in the focus of all your business activities. For us at Planetly, this means we don’t just look at customer transactions, but we also try to establish a climate community. This is also beneficial for our customers as they get access to this community for exchanging information and ideas on how to push carbon reduction.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Get a coach. My co-founder and I started working with a coach from the moment we decided to start a company together. As co-founders we spend a lot of time together, and we need to be able to always see things clearly. Our coach helps us on a continual basis to do so.
  2. Work on the culture early. I mentioned before how bad of an experience we had when hiring the wrong person from a cultural perspective. Company culture is key to its success. If your team does not feel like being part of an amazing company, they will not give their very best. The very best comes from feeling part of something bigger. That is what company culture can do.
  3. Don’t forget the brand. Personally, I started working on the Planetly brand the moment we started operating. If a brand shines from the get-go, it makes everything easier along the way.
  4. Pick a strong purpose and people will follow. I am constantly in awe of what an amazing team we have at Planetly. Many joined us because they believe in our purpose, and they want to contribute. It’s an amazing draw.
  5. Stay humble.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

A climate movement. When I started Planetly, one of the challenges I saw — and still see — is that people do not have enough climate knowledge. If I ask you for the price of your favorite chocolate, you can surely tell me what it costs. Maybe you can also tell me how many calories that chocolate has. But could you tell me its carbon footprint?

Climate know-how is not common knowledge, which is why we don’t talk about it enough. That is what I am trying to change by sharing news and information around climate topics — mostly on my LinkedIn channel. And I do this from an entrepreneurial perspective, not a scientific one, so everybody can understand and relate to it.

Every Friday, I share positive news from the climate sector we find throughout the week. There is so much negative news out there, I want to make sure we look at all the amazing things that are already happening. I get a lot of positive feedback for that.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would really like to meet Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO of SpaceX. She manages the operations of the commercial space exploration company founded by Elon Musk, and I admire her for taking on this incredibly visionary work. Can you imagine going to and living in space?

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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