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Straight from University into Management

An interview with Nicoline Janssen, alumna of Steinbeis University Berlin

In her main job, she is a specialist in labor law at the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart. But Nicoline Janssen is also a mother, a volunteer lifeguard for the DLRG, and part-time self-employed. She has been pursuing her latter profession of self-employment for more than a decade. It all started during her MBA studies at the School of International Business and Entrepreneurship (SIBE), at Steinbeis University Berlin. During her degree, she put theory into practice and co-founded the charitable limited company Menudos. Its specialty: childminding. In an interview with TRANSFER, Janssen talks about the challenges of self-employment.

Hello Ms. Janssen. Could we start by thinking about your original motivation for becoming self-employed while still studying? Setting up my own company was more of a challenge for me rather than a conscious decision – it was staring me in the face. I was studying for an MBA and working as an assistant to the plant managers at Bosch. While I was doing this, one of my responsibilities was to work on a parents’ initiative. The idea of the initiative was to solve an issue regarding the shortage of kindergarten places for employees with kids. It got two of my co-workers and myself thinking about preschool childcare arrangements. We went off on our own and started renting a house in Reutlingen. Thanks to the support of Bosch and countless volunteers, we then renovated the building and the entire plot of land. The yard was redesigned as part of an apprentice project at Bosch. Then in 2008, the “Spatzennest” – as it was called at the time – got up and running.

What was your motivation for taking on such a role for the initiative?

Our main motivation was that we wanted to take on a really magical project and be responsible for it ourselves. When you work for a big company, you only get to work on small parts of a project. We had to seize the opportunity. And for me, stopping was never an option. When you’ve planned everything from day one, you still want to stay tuned. My companion on the journey, Victoria Pérez-Solórzano, who also works on the project with me, sees it the same way.

What were or still are the biggest challenges associated with your task as an entrepreneur?

The biggest challenges at the beginning were the legal aspects of providing child care. Surprisingly, money wasn’t the biggest issue we had to deal with. One year we lost staff, for various reasons, from one day to the next, and another year we had just the right number of teachers, but there was so much construction work going on in the city, mainly for statutory reasons, that we didn’t have enough children to look after. At the moment everything’s going quite well, but with the situation in the job market and the increasing number of problems families face, we’re already being confronted by the next set of challenges. But often it’s those moments when you solve a problem that you realize what you’re really capable of, and it motivates you day after day!

How have things progressed for your business until now?

Two years after opening our doors we changed the format of our association and became a charitable limited company called Menudos. This allowed us to organize the project like an enterprise and not the way we had done until that point as an initiative. We count as a youth welfare organization, so we’re on an equal footing with municipal care institutions. It’s essential for our concept to work in close cooperation with the city authorities. Since 2014 we’ve also been responsible for a second care facility in Betzingen, which is also a part of Reutlingen. We now offer full-day preschool care to children under the age of three and we have ten employees at two facilities. Our aim is to offer a second place for children to call home and make it possible for parents to strike the right balance between their work life and family life. We’ve now managed to take on a supervisor, so we can take a step back from the front-line operational aspects of the business. Now we tend to stand more in the background and deal with things like staff planning and the finances, or training and legal changes. That’s totally all right with us because we’ve always focused more on the business administration side of things in parallel to our work commitments.

In what ways did studying at SIBE help with setting up the company?

My MBA at SIBE played a central role in the success we’ve now enjoyed. I’m a legal expert and my business partner is a physicist, so the business theory part of my degree gave us a solid foundation, especially at the beginning of our venture. I drafted the financial plan and balance sheet planning for the first 36 months of the company as part of my MBAstudies. Especially in the early days it was good to be able to refer to the teaching materials.