Semir Chouaibi, Founder of ITR8

How I built a start-up based on trust and parenthood learnings…

Starting a company in an entrepreneurial city like Berlin can be exciting, challenging and downright frustrating at times.

We talked to one person who has lived to tell the tale — Semir Chouaibi, Founder of digital product agency ITR8. Read how he used trust and parenthood learnings to build a company from the ground up.

1. What was the driving force to create your own start-up?

I was at a tipping point in my career, ready to leave my previous company and one month before the birth of my second daughter, when I realised that I needed to make some big changes. For me there were two possible options. One was to return to a product manager role in a company, while the other was to create a new company and be self-employed.

I knew if I got a new job, I would be working 10-hour days and having to prove myself in a new team and company, all right before my baby was about to be born. I wouldn’t have had time for my own projects.

The other option gave me the flexibility to be there for my family and to be my own boss. I figured both ways would be exhausting so I took a chance to be self-employed and then I ended up creating this company.

2. In a city like Berlin, how did you stand out in a sea of start-ups?

In my opinion, the key for ITR8 lies in authenticity and an actual background in the product industry. Unlike traditional agencies, we work in mixed teams with our clients, so we recruit our staff from the industry. This way we have the knowledge and experience to best serve our clients.

We make a big effort to put the team culture at the centre of our work, because when people really love what they do, this has a huge impact on client projects. They come to work to exchange ideas and are willing to put in extra effort to make things happen. At ITR8 we give people the freedom and space to fail, but we also ensure there is continuous feedback so we can avoid making the same mistakes. It’s an environment that will make us stand out.

3. How did you choose the right people to work with?

When we started, I chose people that I trusted, people that I knew. Our Business Controller Dan went to school with my wife, and I studied with Judith, our Program Manager. They’re both close friends. I always talked about building a company and Judith would say, ‘Just do it, I’ll come work with you’. So I did.

The foundations were built on mutual trust. This is one of the reasons it developed organically, because I trusted my team would be doing their best. I never had to check up on them.

When it came to hiring the rest of the team, I would tell candidates:

‘We’re a small company, so there are many things which don’t have existing processes. If you want to define the ITR8 way of doing things, great. If you appreciate the convenience of existing structures and the security of other departments solving problems, and want to continue doing things that way, then you’d be better suited to a big company.’

Generally, I would say it’s much more important to me that someone is really excited about growing this company, than being a veteran in the discipline. It’s not about one person going up the ranks, it’s about working together to lift the platform so that everyone has the opportunity to grow together.

Semir Chouaibi and Judith Nguyen Thanh, Founder and Program Manager at ITR8

4. Founding a company with two kids under five? Please explain.

After my first daughter was born, I became much more calm in the workplace. When colleagues would get into arguments over project details, I would be thinking of my daughter at home who was completely dependent on me. This perspective made me much more focused and better at time management because I knew I had to leave on time to look after her.

I used to say, every problem that came up at work was ‘just a catastrophe’. It wasn’t life-threatening — we’d get over it. Having kids makes you grow up.

I knew I would work really hard in a start-up. But for me, I can almost work whenever and however I want. I know I can leave at 6pm, be home to my family and then carry on working. It’s up to me to create a schedule that works. If you create your own company, then it doesn’t always feel like work. If I go to a party, there’s a 75% chance there will be business talk. People will ask me about my business and tell me about friends’ businesses. Where does it start and stop? I don’t know!

5. Top tips for work/life balance?

For me, it feels like I’m past work/life balance. I’m trying to make our work situation so enjoyable that we don’t need a ‘balance’. For me personally, my workplace shouldn’t be somewhere that I want to avoid. I want to have fun and enjoy myself whether I’m at the office or not.

On an average work day I have 12 hours of work. My lunch break is never a break, I’m always discussing work projects or ideas. Evening calls and discussing ideas at parties, it all adds up. It could be seen as a crazy amount of hours, but I’m not sitting in front of a desk.

And for me, it’s fun, it’s awesome! I love what I do.

6. Advice for future start-up founders?

Just do it. There are parallels to becoming a parent, because there is lots of talk beforehand, and then when it happens, you’re amazed by the reality shock. In both good and bad ways.

Try and create a situation where your business makes sense, where you really believe you can be successful. It’s never going to be the right time, it’s going to be a ton of work and you might not get a Euro out of it. But you will learn so many things.

Just do it, it’s the best thing you can do.


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