"Our academic education has given us a valuable store of experience"
FrachtPilot – a digital end-to-end solution for direct selling in agriculture – is the first product launched by the FlexFleet Solutions start-up. This year, the three-man team who set up the business have already won the Start-Up Prize of the International Green Week in Berlin, as well as winning an award for innovative agricultural informatics by the Society for Information Technology in Agriculture, Forestry and the Food Industry. Founder Dr. Sebastian Terlunen studied Business Information Systems at the University of Münster, where he also wrote his PhD in the subject. In this interview with Kathrin Nolte he talks about the advantages of an academic education for someone setting up a business, and about the path from the initial idea to starting up a business and what support Münster University offered in the process.
What role has your academic education played for you in setting up a company?
That’s not an easy question to answer. As a business information specialist with a PhD in the field of logistics, it’s been an advantage so far when reaching out to new customers. People always trusted me from the beginning – not only because I can develop software, but also because I know the ins and outs of the logistics context. Also, my academic education has given me a valuable store of experience in how to approach and solve problems in a structured way. But in business you need more to survive in the real world – and that’s something that university doesn’t prepare you for. Business operates differently and customers think differently from what you learn in theory. In setting up a business, especially, there are lots of challenges. You have to keep developing your product. The subject of entrepreneurship is important, as is how you handle your so-called business angels – the experienced entrepreneurs who provide support when you’re setting up your business. The financial presentation of a start-up is important, too. Customers need to be convinced by your product. You’re jumping in at the deep end.
How would you describe the path from the initial idea to starting up your own business?
The idea for FrachtPiloten came from the fact that I grew up in the countryside. As a sideline, I also live on a farm. When choosing a career, however, I decided not to go into farming, but to study Business Information Systems at Münster University. After I’d completed my PhD I was able to combine the two. During my time at the Department of Information Systems I noticed that route optimisation for products from farms wasn’t widespread and that there was room for improvement. Route optimisation is just one problem, though. What our analysis also showed us was that the entire field of direct selling in agriculture needed to be covered by software providing end-to-end solutions – which was something that didn’t exist on the market and would be a unique selling proposition. After a lot of discussions, in particular with Prof. Stephan Meisel, our mentor at the Department of Business Systems, the next step was to apply for an EXIST start-up grant. In Jan-Hendrik Fischer, who also studied Business Information Systems and is currently writing his PhD, and Dr. Stefan Fleischer, a former fellow student, I have a highly professional team which works very well together. As part of the EXIST start-up grant, which runs for one year, we began developing FrachtPilot in October 2018 in collaboration with four farmers. We launched the software on the market on 1 October 2019 and used it with our four customers. In November 2019 we set up our company, FlexFleet Solutions GmbH. As at February 2020, we have already handled 55,000 orders with FrachtPiloten.
How do you rate the support provided by Münster University?
We appreciate especially the University’s infrastructure, which is available for us to use. For the duration of the EXIST start-up grant, for example, we were given two offices on the Leonardo Campus. Making contact with new assistants also happens very fast – they are all students at Münster University. We submitted our application for the EXIST start-up grant through the University’s Innovation Office (AFO), where Janita Tönnissen provided help. Working with her was very helpful, as she was always the person we could contact if we had questions or problems.
Do University and start-ups go together well in your view?
Yes, absolutely! I think it makes a lot of sense to have a university background. During your studies you learn to approach and solve non-trivial issues and problems in a structured way. That’s an enormous advantage.
What tips can you give anyone who wants to set up their own business?
“Just do it” is one good tip. Of course, at the beginning you have a lot of doubts because setting up your own company is always a risk. But all that can happen is that you fail. Then you end the project and have had a steep learning curve. But there are two caveats to saying “Just do it”: firstly, everyone should think very carefully whether they’re prepared to accept that there will be lean periods. Not every day is a success. And secondly, you need a well thought-out business plan. It won’t get you anywhere just to have a quick idea. What is decisive – whether you’re successful or not – is that you need to think about everything that can happen. When you’ve drawn up such a master plan, you should then put it into practice.