WorldLabs is an innovation platform born 3 years ago in a Cambridge University dorm room – just like in the movies – when co-founders Andreas, Flavio and Max started working together on an idea that is economically viable, while also making a positive impact on society.
With already thousands of users from around the globe and high-profile clients like Cambridge University, UCL and InnovateUK, WorldLabs has created a digital ecosystem to foster innovation by acting as a bridge-maker between academic, public and private industries.
We interviewed co-founders Andreas and Max to ask them a bit more about the story behind such a purpose-driven company.
What made you decide to become a founder?
Max: For a long time, I wanted to become either a medical doctor or a scientist. While I was working on my PhD in genetics, I realised that there was a big gap in the way innovation happens. It was then that I found out that my ambition was to change that by running my own business.
I like to be in charge of my own structure and challenges. Working for large companies gives you a lot of security but it doesn’t allow you to express yourself as much. That’s what’s exciting about being a founder.
I started playing with the concept behind WorldLabs about 3 years ago – I wanted to create something that could be a sustainable business while also having a positive impact on the world. Connecting innovators, people who have the skills, the passion and desire to make the world a better place, was something that could achieve that kind of purpose.
Andreas: What pushed me to become a founder was the challenge of bringing an exciting idea to life. One that can create value, accelerate innovation and benefit societies across the globe.
Max and I have been friends for quite a long time. One day, he came up to me with this grand idea – I immediately got very excited about it – and, we started working together from our dorm rooms at university. Little by little, we started growing. We raised half a million pounds from angels, teamed up with our third co-founder, Flavio, got our first office, and started turning our idea into reality!
What’s been your most bruising / character-forming experience as a Founder?
Andreas: It can take a while before you get to the stage where you see the fruit of your work. Before you do, there are large obstacles to overcome which make it extremely difficult to work non-stop at 150% of your capacity. It’s common to encounter criticism along the way, so it’s important to not get discouraged and find the motivation from within to work even harder to turn your vision into a sustainable product.
What were the lessons you took from this?
Max: Well, you come up with a disruptive concept that is not out there yet. You know deep down that it can make a huge difference, you fall in love with your creation but try to remain grounded with reality, so as to never lose perspective. Then, the real challenge lies in getting other people to not only believe in your vision but take part in it: the team, the clients, the investors… It’s easy to get discouraged when things don’t go perfectly from the get-go. Resilience is, ultimately, what I believe differentiates you from the people who make it and those who don’t. You have to keep your eyes on the target, and keep working until you reach your goals. Pivoting your model along the way is key but you have to stay connected to your vision, or else the passion is gone.
Andreas: I gained a lot of perseverance and learned that it is crucial to welcome negative feedback, filter out what is not useful, and implement the good parts into what we do but without changing the core vision of our company.
Out of your business achievements to date, what are you most proud of and why?
Andreas: We have thousands of users on our platform from over 170 countries, and counting, and we’ve just closed four paid partnerships this week alone! We’re on the right track, and it feels amazing to know that other businesses and people are excited about our platform and are buying into our vision.
Max: We have partnered with very large organisations that want our help to find solutions to world-leading problems: Innovate UK, Cambridge University, innovation service providers, big research centers, software development agencies… All different players within the innovation ecosystem coming to us for different reasons, but all with a strong need and desire to collaborate with innovators in a better way.
WorldLabs facilitates this interaction, and lets them tap into an international community. We launched new features just a few weeks ago, and we already sold these to major clients which are going to bring thousands of innovators and traffic to our growing community. This makes us very proud of our team, and we’re happy that our dream is growing and positively affecting so many lives around the world.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of becoming a Founder?
Andreas: Stay true to who you are and to what you want your business to be. You’ll get a lot of people telling you what to do and not to do. Listen to them, absorb what is useful, but never lose your vision along the way.
Max: Think about it long and hard. Can you see yourself spending day and night on your idea to nurture it, protect it, and grow it?
Sometimes you can get lucky, and things come really easily but that’s not always the case.
To me, it was a bit like when I got my PhD: you don’t have people who tell you what to do, some might even not know how they can help you achieve what you want but they claim they do. Most of the time, you have to be resourceful, figure it out by yourself. So, you need to find that strength to keep going and keep yourself motivated.
It’s also important to accept that you are going to be alone a lot of the time, and to find comfort in that. That’s why it’s so important to find the right team members: being able to trust your team makes the journey a lot easier – I didn’t realise this was so fundamental when I first started.
Andreas: I agree. I think our friendship facilitated things because we already trusted each other. Running a company requires a lot of trust. I also think that working together changed our friendship – spending a lot of time together brought us close, because we supported each other through difficult times.
If you could change anything to do with being a Founder, what would it be?
Andreas: I’d take more time off. But this is easier said than done.
Max: I think it’s very important to keep having a life aside from work, which I’m just starting to have again now. Partially because I was finishing my PhD and running a company at the same time, but even after I finished it, we’d often start at 7am and keep working until 11pm, trying to fit in a couple of meals in between. No weekends.
That rhythm can make you lose perspective. If possible, try to find a balance by establishing a good routine that includes breaks, exercise and social activities.
Paying yourself also helps… Money for the sake of it is not what motivates us: our main goal is growing our business and achieving our vision, but having a decent salary can help reduce external stress. If all you do is work, and you don’t have time or money to do anything else, that can end up creating more stress, and the business can suffer as a result.
What’s your top tip for being productive?
Andreas: I started doing sports before work. It’s a great way to get up early and start the day feeling refreshed and motivated. It’s also helpful during the day, or in the evening to clear your mind and get new inspiration or think about solutions to problems.
Max: I like to take frequent breaks to take my mind off of things and come back with a fresher perspective. Going on Netflix for 10 minutes to watch something funny really helps me switch off.
Apart from a smartphone, what piece of tech can’t you live without?
Andreas: I’m very old fashioned. I still carry my paper diary with me all the time, Max makes fun of me because of that! [both laugh]
Max: Netflix – as I mentioned – and also Spotify.
What do you do when you switch off from being a Founder?
Andreas: I think if you’re a true founder you never switch off. It’s always in the back of your mind. I always get inspirations, even when I’m doing something else: on the tube, while I’m doing sports, while I’m with friends. The tiniest thing can spark an idea, and then I’m like “I can do that with my business!”
Max: I can totally switch off… did I mention Netflix? [laughs] I also like Skyping my friends, going on a night out, doing meditation. Oh, and I love exercising with loud music!
Talent or Hunger?
Andreas: A healthy mix of both. I think it is important to be passionate and good at what you do. But you also need perseverance and hunger to make your vision happen.
Max: Both, absolutely. Hunger, ambition, drive are often even more important than talent. But you can’t have talent without ambition in a startup. It just wouldn’t work.