From Medical Doctor to Founder – Balancing Entrepreneurship, Product Development, and Being a Mom of Three
We talked to Dr. Michaela Hagemann, Founder of German Accelerator Alumni ‘das boep,’ about her experience of leaving the medical field to become a founder, how she lives by the mantra “in the end, everything has its purpose and will work out,” tips she would give young founders, and much more. We also wanted to know how they’ve been since the pandemic hit and what’s next for ‘das boep,’ and how she balances entrepreneurship and being a Mom of three.
Michaela, originally, you are a medical doctor – What made you decide to leave the medical field and start your company, ‘das boep’?
I was a med student in my final year, ready to start my career as a doctor at a hospital when my first daughter was born in 2014. She had very sensitive skin, so I started looking for baby care products with all-around good ingredients but realized that there weren’t any brands in the market that checked all the boxes. That’s when I had the idea to develop my very own baby oil, which is how my “babyoelprojekt,” short ‘boep,’ was born. Together with my brother Tilman, who has a finance background and is very into entrepreneurship, we founded the company in 2015, turning the vision into a business.
Do you miss your old job as a doctor sometimes? How did you know starting ‘das boep’ was the right move?
Yes, I miss it sometimes, but what is happening with my own company now is beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I never decided to leave the medical field on purpose. The idea to start ‘das boep’ came to me because I felt a need for my daughter… and I couldn’t let it go. After speaking to other moms and some of my friends, I felt empowered to take the chance, and I am happy I did.
Was there someone who supported or even pushed you strongly to take the jump and start your own company, and if so, who and how?
Everyone I talked to was super supportive, but no one pushed me. Honestly, I was very happy to have started my own company on the side while working part-time in the hospital, and I thought I had nothing to lose. So I jumped and luckily landed quite well.
You founded ‘das boep’ together with your brother, Tilman Kreuder. What prompted you to found your startup with your brother? What does the work-sibling-dynamic between the both of you look like and does it always work?
Tilman has been my sparring partner from day one. As we continued to talk about my idea and everything around it, we decided that it is easier and so much nicer to found a company together. Most of the time, our dynamic works quite well. We trust each other, and it is easy to communicate even when we don’t share the same opinion.
In terms of responsibilities, we have a clear split. My brother takes care of all things related to finance, controlling, and logistics while I develop the products and am responsible for sales, marketing, communication, and PR.
There are already many baby care products on the market. Was that a concern when you launched ‘das boep’? What makes your brand different from others?
Despite many new brands popping up over the last few years, I felt there was room left for innovation in the German baby care market. In the past, there were only three to four major brands, some of which have been around for 50+ years, so there haven’t been any changes.
Many products have questionable ingredients, such as silicones, parabens, and paraffin oils, and some of the old-fashioned brands are just missing a modern touch. Then there are natural cosmetic brands, which had a huge comeback over the last few years, with essential oils that are not compatible with all skin types. So I thought, why not combine the best of both worlds, nice-looking products with better ingredients – a new and good combination for the baby care sector. I believed that there was enough space for us to swoop in and bring some fresh products onto the shelves.
How has COVID-19 impacted your business? How has the company adjusted?
We have an omnichannel approach at das boep. So we have a strong online presence, but we also have a lot of products in retail stores such as dm-drugstore in Germany.
The lockdown was okay for us since drugstores remained open. However, we do have one product that helps drive our sales, which is our sunscreen. Since people weren’t going on vacations, sales dropped dramatically. Also, some of our products are only available online, so in the past, people who saw our products at the drugstore became aware of our brand and then were able to see and buy more products online. In times of the pandemic, people no longer wander around the store to look for new stuff. Instead, they want to go in and out as quickly as possible, which as a new brand obviously affects us.
But it could be worse. Some people really struggle. A friend of mine, for example, has two cafes that have been closed since November 1st, so it’s been really hard on her. I also have a couple of other friends that have stores that needed to be closed due to the lockdown. So it’s tough. Overall, we got through the year quite okay, and we also had growth, which is nice, but it wasn’t 100% as we had planned because obviously, we had planned our sales strategy before COVID-19.
Are all your employees currently working remotely now? How has working during a pandemic been?
We’ve always been somewhat remote because my brother and I don’t live in the same city. He lives in Düsseldorf, and I used to live in Munich, now I live in Mainz. Nonetheless, I always had a team and an office in the city that I lived in. Since COVID-19, we have been all working from home. It has worked pretty well as the entire team already used online-based tools. But I still miss the office, leaving the house, getting a break from home, and having lunch with my colleagues.
It’s just so different being home almost all the time, homeschooling the kids while working – all within the same four walls. We’re looking forward to when things go back to normal. We’ve recently started a rotation where everyone gets to spend one week in the office, which helps change things up a bit.
‘das boep’ was part of the LMU EC Accelerator in 2016 and virtually joined the German Accelerator program in 2020 to enter the U.S. market. Looking back, what were your biggest takeaways from the accelerator programs?
We participated in the LMU EC Accelerator, where we learned how to pitch. It was a great experience because we had two major pitching possibilities at the Leading Entrepreneurs event, where we had the chance to pitch in front of approximately 500 people. It was a huge learning experience, and I was very grateful for that. It was also nice to get in touch with other founders in the city to talk about obstacles and goals.
Following this, we joined the German Accelerator virtually. Here we had some excellent lessons on pitching in the U.S., which is very different from pitching in Germany. I think the Americans have outstanding sales skills because they learn to present early on, which seems to be ingrained in their education. We definitely learned a lot from the German Accelerator program experience, and we’re thankful that it all was possible, even in light of the pandemic.
What made you decide to join the German Accelerator program in the U.S.?
I think there’s an enormous potential for German brands to enter the U.S. market because people look for trustworthy brands, and the “made in Germany”-label embodies that. Baby care products are part of a niche industry. Still, many families in the U.S. consider buying products with natural, high-quality ingredients that are responsibly sourced, and they trust products coming from Germany. We thought it’s worth a shot. But unfortunately, that didn’t work out, or I should say it had to be paused for the moment.
Was that slowed down due to COVID-19 and are you still planning to go to the U.S.?
We were really curious how the political situation would play out. That on top of the pandemic, we realized that we couldn’t focus on both the health of the team and the expansion. Our focus was to get through the pandemic first. We weren’t sure how everything was going to develop, what the unemployment rate was going to be, whether or not there would be a massive financial crisis, and so on. We decided it’s probably best not to enter the market at this point. However, an expansion to the U.S. is still on our minds.
You left your job as a doctor behind to become an entrepreneur – Were there people who thought it would be crazy to pursue your own company?
Yes, of course. My first child was born when I was 24, so people were already calling me crazy for that. And then they were calling me crazy for founding my own company at the age of 25. So, I think I was beyond crazy at that point.
It’s funny because now when I meet these people, they always congratulate me and tell me I’m doing the right thing. They always mention working at the hospital is extremely hard, and they wish they would have done something similar to what I did. It’s amusing to me because back in the days, they were like, “oh my God, what’s she doing?” So it’s kind of nice to now stand in front of them and to see that they are proud of what I achieved.
Being a female founder, have you experienced social stigma and if so, how did you overcome it?
When meeting with investors, they always want to talk to me about the products and the brand. And when it comes to financial stuff, they always turn to my brother because they think I cannot answer those questions, when in fact, I can. I laugh about it, but if you think about it, it’s kind of weird. We only spoke to male investors, so maybe that was the problem. But yes, there is so much stigma. Those investors also always ask me if I am working full-time on this project. I reply by saying yes, I am working full-time, but I am also a mom. However, the investors always have different visions of what it means to be a mom and how to handle your work-life with all the other responsibilities. They would never ask these questions to my husband, for example.
On the other hand, I think being a female founder in Germany also has its positive sides. The press and media are always encouraging stories from female founders, and it’s easy to sell your story to the media. This was beneficial for us, especially because we have a mixed team with a female founder and a male founder. It also makes our brand so much more authentic than if it was just my brother.
How do you manage? How do you achieve a work-life balance? Do you and your husband split roles and responsibilities 50/ 50? How do you make it work?
To be honest, I don’t know how we make it work. But I do have lots of support from my family. This is also the reason why we moved from Munich to Mainz. My family lives 30 minutes from here and my sister recently moved to Mainz as well.
However, this was all prior to the pandemic, so it has gotten more challenging since. Before the pandemic, my husband and I split roles probably 60/40. For example, I was dropping off the kids Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and he was doing the same on Tuesdays and Fridays. Since the beginning of the pandemic, he has to be at the hospital at all times, so I am staying home with the kids.
On top of that, I was pregnant and our baby came at the end of September. Since then, it feels more like 90/10. This is my third child as an entrepreneur, and it’s not getting any easier. My only “me-time” is my 10-minute shower in the morning. I’m not sure I can recommend it. As an entrepreneur, you can’t take maternity leave like other women do. It’s your company and your company is your baby too. This past year was extremely difficult to balance it all, but I just go with it and things change once the baby is a bit older and we’re past the pandemic.
Are there tips you would give to younger founders? Something you would want to get passed on?
As hard as this might sound, don’t try to plan everything in advance. I think women (including me) always want to know what the future holds. I want to know, is this going to work? What is it going to look like? And then I try to foresee all the obstacles and all the things that could happen. But sometimes, you have to roll with it and do things to make things happen.
When I founded my company, I couldn’t think everything through ahead of time. It was just an idea that I thought could be successful. Others were encouraging and told me to go for it. I thought “why not, what’s there to lose?” I had a good education and I knew I could always go back to the medical field. That part was not difficult, it’s harder to start a company. Being a doctor is something I can always return to, but founding my own company is something that I will probably do only once in my life. So I thought I just had to try it and I think I made the right choice.
In your view, what makes an entrepreneur?
To me an entrepreneur is someone who has thick skin and someone who is capable of pivoting their business model when needed.
Are there any platforms or places where you like to stay in touch with other entrepreneurs in the community?
I am part of a great female founders network in Berlin. They have been very supportive, but I haven’t seen them in a long time because there haven’t been any events. We try to stay in touch via social media, but it is not the same. I really miss those networking events for founders, where you can meet other people and talk in person.
In Mainz, we also have a little network with about 15 female entrepreneurs, which is also very nice. Last summer, we got to meet on our office terrace and everyone was really looking forward to getting together, because we have all been home for such a long time.
And last but not least, what is planned for 2021? What can we expect to see from ‘das boep’?
To grow and enter new markets. We still want to go to the U.S. We started to focus on solid products. We just got our first solid shampoo on the market. This is great for the environment, because it doesn’t require any plastic packaging. We also have a new sunscreen coming out with a higher SPF. And, I want to move into medical skincare, for example for children with eczema. So many and exciting new things to come!