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5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started, with Matthias Treutwein

Managing expectations. Any founder becomes a person of public interest. Even if there were not many people who cared about what I did in the beginning, expectations arose that I was not aware of — from partners, clients, participants, and my own team. I struggled a lot with this fact, and some mentoring in regards to how to live up to these expectations without bending myself to try to please everyone would have been very helpful.

As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthias Treutwein. Matthias Treutwein is one of the Founders and Managing Directors of the German non-profit organization enpact e.V. It was founded in 2013 with the aim of empowering entrepreneurship in emerging and developing countries. The organization supports founders and startup ecosystems in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East through a set of programs in three business areas: entrepreneurial support, data lab and academy. Matthias holds a Master’s degree (M.A.) in Arabic, French and Spanish Literature from the University of Göttingen, and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from ESMT Berlin.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I had been working in intercultural management and international development for several years, canvassing and working for the usual suspects active in these areas. This allowed me to combine my passions: languages, intercultural exchange, travel, learning, and the creation of impact and change.

While there are many good people at international institutions and organizations, there are also way too many freeriders — at least in my humble understanding. At times, I encountered a fundamental mistake regarding the actual beneficiaries of all the programs implemented by international actors. The intended target groups did not seem to actually benefit all that much from what was — at least officially — intended by all the different programs. This led to quite a bit of frustration in previous assignments and roles I had.

When the opportunity arose to combine entrepreneurship with international development by building cross-continental mentoring relationships, it seemed too good to be true. What always interested me was an exchange on eye-level of different ideas and concepts, and the focus on change-making actors. There are enough good people and ideas — what was often lacking was access to knowledge, networks, expertise, and funding. Therefore, an approach that centered around providing this access to changemakers and risk-takers, who are already pulling up their sleeves to get things done, led me to co-found enpact.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

At the beginning, everything was difficult. The challenges ranged from convincing clients (startups, mentors, donors, partners) about the value of our product, or raising the required funds, to marketing or hiring, and keeping qualified people. We also encountered quite some difficulties in setting up the appropriate structures, developing mandates and processes among the founders and the team, or aligning our visions, goals, and expectations.

It also took me quite some time to become aware of my own strengths and weaknesses — in regards to my new role and the newly-required competencies and skills. It is actually a painful process to accept the fact that we are not as good as we think we are at many of the things that we do. But, if we are open to feedback and are able to focus on our strengths, we continuously get better.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

My co-founder, my wife, and my family. Some very good advice also came from some of the mentors who participated in our programs. Here, I particularly remember hearing to “lower the importance” or to try to find the good and value added in a painful or negative experience — even if that is a very difficult exercise at the very time you are in the grinder.

Still, taking a “helicopter view” and looking at yourself from the outside — like a case study — is very helpful to become aware of your own tunnel vision, or to reassess the actual relevance of a problem or challenge. In the end, we are all humans, and humans make mistakes. The question is: what do we learn from them for the future?

When I get too hung up on my personal train of thought, I also like to reflect on a sticker I once saw on a mirror in a public bathroom: Nobody is perfect — you are not nobody.

So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

We grew organically. We made mistakes. We learned from them. We celebrated successes. We stayed humble. We stopped many things. We started many new things. We pivoted a lot. We listened to a lot of advice. We ignored a lot of advice.

In the end, there is only one way, and that is your own. One of enpact’s key assets has always been the fact that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. By this I mean the interaction of the people and the often-controversial discussions regarding our strategy.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I made some embarrassing mistakes when I tried showing off language skills in public speeches. While I still consider it a great sign of respect and courtesy to address your target audience in their respective tongue, you absolutely need to practice any welcoming remarks well in advance and with honest people around to correct you. The lesson I drew from this is: Always over-prepare, especially when you are (over-)confident towards a supposed routine exercise. You are at a high risk of underperforming.

Also, there were some terrible mistakes in the first budgets and financial forecasts we made due to incorrect assumptions we had, and the lack of expert knowledge. It would have been very useful — and actually simple — to seek professional council. There is normally never harm in asking others for help. On the contrary — people are usually happy and willing to help. My advice to anyone is therefore: Always ask for second opinions and surround yourself with people who are smarter than yourself, and who can provide you with added value from the expertise they have in their respective fields.

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

I truly believe that enpact is at the cutting edge of a new way of thinking and a fundamental change in the way international development is thought about and implemented. When we initially knocked on doors to persuade business owners, donors, startups, and partners to believe and participate in our pro bono mentoring approach, many doors were slammed in our faces.

Today, our ideas and products are being copied, and some of our employees are being headhunted by exactly those who doubted us back then. This shows that our initial tackle on things cannot have been that bad. Also, some of the feedback and testimonials we receive from participants include sentences like “this has been life-changing” or “this has been the best program I have ever attended.” This is perfect evidence that we are doing something right, and of course it fills my heart with joy — and a little bit of pride. Maybe there is something outstanding about the way we offer a platform that fosters the relationships among startups, mentors, and entrepreneurial ecosystem actors, allowing them to build the required trust and personal bonds that outlast the actual duration of our programs.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Always consider “no” as possible answer you could and should give when the conditions or values of a potential partner do not align with your own. Choose partners and donors/investors wisely and with care, even if the financial support they offer is very tempting. A tainted relationship can turn your life upside down, and makes your venture very difficult to maneuver.

Another point I learned the hard way is the abuse of trust. While I will continue to trust people, it is always a good idea to have a written note or contract following up on any oral agreement. It makes everyone’s life a lot easier and provides the necessary legal basis — should this ever become necessary.

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?

There are many individuals who would deserve to be mentioned. We strongly benefited from the upfront trust that we were given from our main donor in the early years, the Federal Foreign Office, or the responsible leader network from the BMW Foundation. Also, many of the pro bono mentors supported us a lot with their critical feedback and the simultaneous faith in our endeavor.

Instead of mentioning one individual, I would like to use the opportunity to thank everyone who joined a program of ours. enpact is only providing the hardware. The software and the essence of everything we do are the people who participate! I also personally learned a lot over the past years, thanks to many conversations I had with founders and mentors. The final anecdote here is that the best advice often comes from the places and people you would least expect it from…

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I try to connect people, matching mutually-required skills and competencies, and to rethink the way international development is being implemented. I try to offer advice and I am always happy to contribute and consult.

I think that enpact, with our organic growth and development of products and services over the last years, is enabling people at all stages of their entrepreneurial journey. Here, we also try to make people aware of the core values that enpact believes in: trust, co-creation, integrity, appreciation, empowerment, and adaptability.

The credit for improving livelihoods in the countries we are active in goes to the participants of our programs. If we have been able to support them in becoming better (socially responsible) leaders, this would be an achievement I might consider as an answer to this question.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

Leadership styles. I failed terribly in managing our team — especially in North Africa — by assuming that my preferred style of being led also applies to everyone else. It is crucial to understand what your colleagues and employees expect from you, and which style you need to apply to best lead them.

Managing expectations. Any founder becomes a person of public interest. Even if there were not many people who cared about what I did in the beginning, expectations arose that I was not aware of — from partners, clients, participants, and my own team. I struggled a lot with this fact, and some mentoring in regards to how to live up to these expectations without bending myself to try to please everyone would have been very helpful.

Set-up. While it seems to be superfluous with only three people working with and for you, I wish I would have set up properly and defined the individual roles, mandates, structures, feedback-loops, and processes. The lack of these resulted in high costs: in terms of time, well-being, and also financially.

Consider “no” as an answer. If you are not feeling good about someone or something, (re-)consider alternatives. Fortunately, only very few relationships with partners became difficult — but sometimes we already know in our gut, and should listen to this intuition.

Even in hard times, try to laugh about yourself and the problems you encounter, and have fun. Otherwise, life becomes unbearable.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. :-)

I strongly believe in empowerment, flexibility, trust, and life-long learning. I also believe in the potential good of every human being. A movement I dream of would be to completely rethink the way we approach work and life. We should try to put the human and their well-being at the center. Education — from as early of an age on as possible — should focus on the specific and unique competencies and skills of every individual, encouraging them to use them to create value for themselves, their direct surroundings, and society as a whole.

I think that new technologies and our ever-more connected world will no longer require the concept of work that we had over the last centuries. Therefore, I suggest combining an unconditional basic income with assessing and developing the competencies and skills of people that they are interested in. With some mentoring and training, the outcome could be a brave new world

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I am not the most active person on social media, so my personal threads are probably not the best vehicle. The impact that some of the things I try to initiate with enpact can best be accessed via enpact’s official channels.

Thank you for all of these great insights!



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