German small and medium-sized businesses generate more than one out of every two euros and provide well over half of all jobs in the country. It is estimated that these enterprises have created over one million jobsduring the past two years.
In honor of Global Entrepreneurship Week, we sat down with some of the most inspiring small businesses we work with across the globe to hear how they got started, what obstacles they’ve had to overcome and what advice they have for other aspiring entrepreneurs.
For the fifth in our series celebrating entrepreneurs and small businesses, we spoke with Kay Kaniewski, the founder and team captain of Faltrad XXS, a German folding bike business.
Bill Ready: How did you come up with the idea for your business?
Kay Kaniewski: Twenty years ago, folding bikes were essentially accessories on boats or in caravans. When folding bikes first came out, I was the owner of a camping and boat shop called Marine-Sales.de. But soon after, I realized a market was opening for people who didn’t have a car, for example, and could ride a folding bike to get to local transportation or to work. Along the way, the folding bike became a trend for a broader audience. Now we see business travelers carry folding bikes in their trunks in order to take a ride on their bikes after work. In fact, many of our customers don't have a car. They will come to us by train from Cologne to our shop in Marl and then ride the folding bike back home.
Over the past decade, we’ve become a leading dealer for folding bikes in Europe, and are known worldwide. You won't find a folding bike store as big as ours anywhere in the world.
BR: Did you ever imagine you would be an entrepreneur and run your own business?
KK: I was actually born into an entrepreneurial family and had little to no choice! But, I’m sure I would have pursued this path regardless of my family’s background. Of course, growing up in an entrepreneurial family made the choice and this path easier for me.
BR: What is the biggest challenge your business currently faces?
KK: Customer satisfaction, particularly fulfilling customer satisfaction through a remote, online business. It’s much more difficult than in-store. For example, if I sell a folding bike to a customer in Madrid and there is a problem with it, I have to invest much more time engaging with the customer to keep them satisfied. Customer satisfaction in internet retail is an ongoing process and a daily challenge. This is actually one area where PayPal has helped our business.
The other challenge is constant change. You constantly have to reinvent yourself and adapt to the market. When it comes to folding bikes, I describe it as, "having my ear on the track so that I can hear when the train comes.”
BR: You mentioned how PayPal has helped your business. Can you expand on that?
KK: As a newcomer to ecommerce, the question of credibility and trust is essential. PayPal has been an important part in building customer trust in our online shop, which we would one hundred percent be missing otherwise. I wouldn't open an online shop without PayPal today. And I really mean that - I don´t say it just because I´m talking to you. Of course, there are alternatives in the market, but when PayPal was asked to reinvent themselves for their customers and merchants, they did. For example, they provide new payment solutions, like payment upon invoice or installments. PayPal does its homework for businesses just like I do for mine. I am a very happy PayPal customer.
BR: Speaking of doing your homework, what are some things you do to keep on top of the industry changes?
KK: I visit trade shows, read magazines and listen very intently to what customers tell me, which is most important. I just came back from the Taipei Cycle Show in Taiwan, where I analyzed the market, maintained business relationships and had direct contact with the manufacturers, and in turn told manufacturers what I hear from my customers.
Traveling such long distances always pays off for me. And because I import a lot of folding bikes from Taipei, this most recent trip made sense. You see different trends and you can react. I have direct contact to the end consumer and can tell the CEO of a manufacturer exactly what the customer wants - skipping the entire hierarchy. For example, I spoke directly with Joshua Hon, the inventor of Tern folding bikes. That would never have worked via phone.
BR: What surprised you most about starting and running your own business?
KK: From a negative standpoint, the bureaucracy was a huge hurdle, and specifically the headwind you get from banks. At first, I felt that nobody took me seriously, despite coming from a company with 100 employees. Setting up a company is an uncanny bureaucratic effort, which also comes with unexpected costs and a lot of time. But that shouldn’t deter anyone from building a company. From a positive standpoint, I didn't have too many expectations. I set myself small goals, which I was able to quickly achieve. These achievements, in turn, surprised me and gave me strength to carry on.
BR: What advice do you have for other aspiring entrepreneurs?
KK: Having a "just do it" mentality is essential. Be brave and get started! If you fall, get up and keep moving. Success isn't immediate, and being an entrepreneur means exercising initiative by starting your own venture. But the most important thing is to find the courage to be self-employed. Everyone who becomes self-employed has a certain entrepreneurial blood.
BR: Any lessons you’ve learned or tips you can share with other small businesses?
KK: In Germany, we have a saying for entrepreneurs: “Self-employed means working by yourself and constantly,” which is true. As an entrepreneur, you always have to stay tuned into your business and keep working constantly. Only if you stay in touch with your customers, are you able to hear and understand innovations and new ideas.
You can read more entrepreneur stories this Global Entrepreneurship Week from PayPal Stories here.