2021 was a turbulent year. So much that it trickled over in 2022 and I had to do my review much later than I usually do. After all objective measures, it was very successful for me both personally and professionally. However, subjectively it doesn't feel like it. Probably because the year ended on a downer (more below).
Onwards and upwards!
My milestones are my big wins. The ones I feed off when I have a bad day. And the ones I want to improve upon in every year that comes. I try to see life as an infinite game where every year is just the foundation for what is to come. I care about the long-term, or at least I try to force myself to think that way the best I can.
Raised a 100 million dollars debt fund for Blair
When you are building a FinTech in a space adjacent to lending, you have to raise non-equity capital at some point. With Blair we offer outcome-based financing options to schools so students only have to pay if they have a job that is paying them enough after graduation. Having never raised any kind of non-equity capital before as well as being at least ten years younger than the average founder in our space, convincing major investors to give us a massive amount of capital was a steep climb at best. However, we did make it work and I managed to close a fairly big round in February. How did we do it? I think it was a mix of using our unique advantages of being able to build impressive tech products, adding the right expertise to our team and seeing every downer as an incentive to get it done instead of an incentive to throw the towel.
Raised a Seed Round led by Tiger Global and with participation from multiple Unicorn-founders
Since the party never stops, we had to shift from raising debt to almost immediately raising equity afterwards. After closing the debt fund in February 2021, I transitioned into raising equity in March and we got our first term sheet after three weeks of fundraising and closed the round in April. Raising equity is always stressful even if the round is going well since one of the inherent mechanics of equity rounds is the time that has passed since you started fundraising. What that means is that every day that you are without a term sheet lowers the chances of getting a term sheet all else being equal. Ultimately, we are very happy about the investors we added to the mix with both high-quality funds (Rainfall who invested early in Robinhood, 468 who are the most promising new fund in Europe) and some of the most impressive angel investors (Sam Hodges who IPOed his last FinTech, a couple of undisclosed Unicorn founders (for competitive dynamics in their markets) and some other great folks we are proud to have on board.
Scaled up business after a pandemic-driven pivot by more than 10x
Covid forced many businesses to shift their focus. At Blair we switched our focus from B2C to B2B. In hindsight this was the right decision but it was rough at the same time since the D2C model has started to show lots of promise before the virus hit. Since the debt markets were basically dead, we had to change our complete underwriting method and focus on building the most reliable servicing and school underwriting software in the market to convince debt investors.
I got my O-1 (Talent Visa for the US)
This was one of the best personal moments for me. Dealing with getting a Work Visa for the US is an administrative nightmare and it cost us a massive amount of time and a decent amount of money to sort this out. Finally I do not have to deal with that distraction anymore and can fully move to the US and build my business.
Every foreigner who wants to move to the States to work or build a business there can attest to the fact how much of a pain it is to get a work authorization. This is especially ironic in a case like ours where we employ US citizens and help US citizens to afford their education. But be that as it may, having the Visa in my passport feels great and traveling to the US has been much less of a hassle ever since despite covid travel restrictions.
One of my biggest problems and also greatest strengths is that I have the tendency to pick productive hobbies. So I started investing in startups last year, mostly based on the fact that many of my friends were building great companies and I wanted to be even closer to their learnings and be a resource when I can. So I ended up investing in 15 great companies led by founders I admire and respect. Additionally, I committed capital to 2 funds whose managing partners I know well. I will publish more content about my investing approach soon but the main take-away is that I invest in one out of two scenarios. Either, if I know the whole team well and trust them to outperform their competitors almost regardless of the market they are entering. For teams that I do not know well, I take a close look at their skill set, whether it is complementary and how I evaluate their cohesion. I also take a look at their problem space and love to think about the future defensibility of their business. The feedback cycles are very long but so far, I am happy with my choices. I see this as a very productive hobby of mine that enables me to spend even more of my time dealing with startups, just in a way more relaxed manner than working on your own company. Almost 100% of my dealflow is organic and I never go out searching for deals which cuts the time I need to commit significantly. My biggest sources are YC, friends and Discord communities I am a member of. According to my time tracker, I committed between an hour or two every week this year with some outliers. I usually co-invest with other founder-friends of mine to leverage the capital I can deploy. More on that soon.
I spent more time than usual with my family
While I was waiting for my US Visa, I was stuck in Germany, which allowed me to visit my grandma more often than in the past two years combined. I am very grateful for that. Also, I managed to spend a considerable amount of time with my parents and my brother which was one of the biggest highlights of the year. I would have never imagined to one day lead a company from my childhood bedroom.
Became reasonably good at Speedrunning
This area was not a goal I had originally planned, but as a hobby, I got into speedrunning and placed top 100 in different categories in two different games (Celeste and Mario Odyssey).
Overall, I feel as if I did not perform to my potential last year. This might sound weird based on all the highlights of last year. However, I had the feeling that many of the things happened to me despite my work instead of because of it. The headline says it, 2021 was a roughie, at least subjectively. Despite managing to get lots of wins, I had the feeling of moving too slow and not setting my goals high enough. You can see it as a team playing a solid season but not quite managing to promote into the highest league and the team wondering whether they worked hard or smart enough. There is a thin line between overworking and underperforming when you're a startup founder, and I think I've bounced around between those two lines multiple times. I have always been someone who performs at the absolute best level when it is most needed but who sometimes struggles with consistency. 2022 will be about finding a sustainable rhythm and more consistency without sacrificing my high peaks.
My social life was very limited last year
This was mostly pandemic-induced and also based on the fact that I was sometimes too tired to add additional meetings after 14 hour zoom days. I did meet some new people I have grown to cherish but way fewer than in an average year, and in addition, I spent less time with my closest friends than I wished. This was partly due to everyone being very involved in their work and Covid severely limiting the types of journeys that could be planned in a risk-reduced manner.
My messaging apps were flooded
I was sometimes very slow with answering people I like. On an average day, I receive 100+ emails and messages from ~40 different people on WhatsApp. Many of those WhatsApp messages are people I know personally who want a professional favor from me. There were times this year during which I was highly overwhelmed with work and other things going down, causing me to be very slow with replies (if I replied at all). I have always been proud of my quick response time, but I realized that my system needs to change since there is an increasing number of people and a lower number of available hours every day. One of the changes for 2022 is that I will hire someone who helps me manage my communication. I will pay for that myself since I think that it will improve both my happiness and my mental wellbeing significantly. I also need to get better at saying no.
Had a couple of small hick-ups with my health
I had a bit of a streak of bad luck with my health that caused me to lose some time and energy. I caught Covid right before Christmas and had a concussion because I ran into a beam earlier in the year. Overall, I had nothing massive and I feel great right now but during the time they were very distracting.
What does all of that mean for 2022?
First of all, it meant that I tried to focus on recharging during the Holidays. Christmas is always the calmest time of the year for me and this year was no different (especially since I had to quarantine for 14 days and my family and I celebrated Christmas on New Year's Eve instead. I'm very thankful that they waited for me).
I also just moved to New York City and have started to set up the most productive environment I have ever lived in. I planned my desk setup and the surrounding gadgets and processes meticulously, and so far, I am happy with it, despite not even being 50% finished with everything. I am looking forward to spending most of my time in one place and not having to deal with constant travel. I hope that the new environment is conducive to me achieving my goals this year and implementing my systems effectively. Here is a quick look at the unfinished setup.
I expect some of my goals and systems to shift over the year but last year roughly 80% stayed the same. I also have a couple more private goals that I am not publishing, relating to personal finance and specific relationships — everything else you can find below.
My Career goals and systems
For my main job, being the co-founder and CEO of a startup there is only one goal this year.
Find real PMF
Some things are very simple. If I do not manage to find real Product-Market-Fit, nothing else than I am doing in the business matters (other than if we go bankrupt or commit illegal acts). So I decided to keep my startup-related goals straightforward. I am confident that most things beyond finding real PMF are craft; I can do that. Finding real PMF is a mix of craft and art. So I will get the art done and go on from there. “Real” PMF, for me, incorporates the situation where customers are demanding your product more quickly than you can ship it. We're not there yet, and it will be my main obsession to get there. I have daily reminders set up, and my Chief of Staff has the job to tell me whenever I get distracted by things that are not contributing to the overarching goal.
Publish content on a regular basis
I love publishing content, whether it is in written or in audio form. It helps me keep my ideas flowing and enables me to practice my structured thinking and public speaking skills.
- I want to publish at least one high-quality article every month. I will count this one as number one.
- Publish 25 podcast episodes with Max in one of our podcasts. If you want to listen, you can do so here or here. Our podcast isn't big but we do have a solid core of loyal listeners that are complaining whenever we don't stick to our schedule. We promise to be better at it this year.
Writing is a form of meditation for me that enables me to go extremely deep into a topic or dissect them in many different forms. Podcasting is more spontaneous and helps me to stay quick on my feet and also learn interesting things from other people in real-time.
Make at least 12 startup investments
Investing in and helping other startups is probably my favorite thing in the world, right after building my own startup. I get massive enjoyment from it and I have already learned many things from the founders I have supported.
- I want to stick to investing opportunistically in companies I like and do it together with my friends. I will stick to my own lightweight decision process based on my understanding of successful companies. More on that soon.
I want to be very helpful to every company I invest in, but I also do not want to be distracted from my main job too much. So I have started adding leverage to my own value as well as automating some of the value-adds that I can provide. One example is that I built a first version of automating investor intros so that I can go through my exhaustive list of investors I know well, send them relevant intros and not spend hours in my email inbox for all of it.
My Health goals and systems
Growing up, I was an athlete. Sports was everything to me. When I am not physically active and fit, I feel bad. Therefore, having a solid workout routine is very important to me. My goals are fairly simple since most of the details have become muscle memory.
- Work out 5 times a week on average
- Do all recommended preventive health checks
- Track my food on at least 300 days a year
My relationship goals and systems
- Call my grandma and my parents once a week
- Have my brother visit me in the States
- Events with closest friends
Create an immensely productive and cozy apartment
I just moved to New York in February. This is my first permanent apartment ever. I have always lived in sublets, Airbnbs, or hotels since I moved out of my parents’ home in 2014. This was mostly since I never knew where I would be three months from now. Some of my close friends and I have decided to move to New York and meet there to build a creative and productive environment for all of us to thrive in. I have already planned how my apartment should be set up, with a big focus on my desk setup. I will post an elaborate update on that once it is finished and I am very excited about it.
By far the biggest chunk of my net worth is tied up in shares of my company. The more valuable the company, the higher my net worth will be. Therefore, the biggest contribution to that goal will be to build a fast-growing company. However, it helps to ease the mind if other things are working for you as well. The specific goals for my personal portfolio I will leave out for now but I'm happy to chat about it in private.
Well, this is it. I'm excited for what 2022 has to offer and am very optimistic about it being a fruitful year for me and everyone in my inner circle. If you think there’s any way I can help you improve your 2022, feel free to reach out. I am beyond motivated for life to return to a new normal and to find the consistency of getting closer to my ultimate goals, day by day. Until then, happy building.