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Media Lab Bayern Newsletter
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08. February 2021
Start up Knowledge
Starting a business in the midst of a pandemic

Starting a business in the midst of a pandemic

Starting a company despite pandemic uncertainty is a risky business. We've still managed to make the most of some unexpected opportunities. ROKIN developed a digital engineer during the Media Startup Fellowship.

Is it still possible to meet up, hold meetings or even participate in a workshop for several days? These questions were the starting point for our introduction to Media Startup Fellowship batch 7 and our Welcome Camp shortly before the first lockdown in March 2020. A truly inopportune point in time for a program which strongly relies on networking, exchanges and personal interactions. Luckily, the initial meet-ups with all teams and the getting to know each other took place in person. Despite the majority of communication taking place online, this initial phase made a major contribution to building a community (especially the duels at the ping-pong table). It truly emphasized the importance of personal contact in times where the digital world is often the first resort.

Just as we got the wheels in motion at Media Lab Bayern, the first lockdown hit. Large swathes of the economy went into shutdown mode and companies in our industry heavily relied on furlough. In spite of all this, we stepped up to the mark with ROKIN to develop the ‘Digital Engineer’. We started ROKIN GmbH in April 2020.

What exactly is the digital engineer?

The digital engineer can be compared to a take on Siri or Google Assistant designed for engineers. We use artificial intelligence to help engineers source suitable specialist information, allowing them to quickly find a solution to their technical issues. These issues primarily concern new future topics such as augmented reality in production, 3D printing for component manufacturing or automated logistic systems. Needless to say, in the midst of a lockdown with a looming recession, it proved challenging to get companies on board with future topics. In this sense, the environment wasn’t ideal for our entry into the Media Startup Fellowship. With this backdrop, the Media Lab provided us with invaluable initial help, as ROKIN may not have made it to the end of 2020 without the opportunity to get involved in sponsoring programs, coaching and exchanges within the startup network among like-minded people.

Unexpected company growth

Luckily for us, in every risk, there is an opportunity. The lockdown had some surprisingly positive turns in store for us: Due to the fact that the majority of companies put a halt to recruitment and universities were closed, a large number of students were looking for internships or places to write their theses. All of a sudden, our two-man startup had transformed into a team of over 20 employees. Due to the current lack of interest and inquiries from the industry, we were able to use the initial stage of the Media Startup Fellowship to focus on developing one of our core strengths: our AI algorithms.

This led to the inevitable question: How do we handle a team of this size, how do we organize it, how do we work together efficiently? Companies that have been around a while are already versed in these processes, have all the required software and established team structures. Our interns may have been highly motivated and smart, but they weren't yet experts on one topic that we were yet to define in specific terms. Thanks to many coaching sessions, an open dialog with Media Lab and the community, we were able to develop a growing number of structures and create a functioning team from nothing (with a healthy dose of trial and error along the way) that supports us in our daily work.

The all-important prototype

The largest question looming over us during the fellowship period was without a doubt whether we would be able to successfully monetize our services. The initial assumptions about our customer base and expectations in terms of the capabilities and design of the AI were a steep learning curve at first. Numerous feedback discussions and customer interviews during our time at Media Lab helped us to find the answers to many questions and to heighten our understanding for our potential business model. Something important that we learned during this journey of discovery was that it’s hard to receive insightful responses from customers on a purely hypothetical basis (without a functioning prototype). We were acutely aware of the crucial importance of capable IT developers who had the power to quickly push ahead with a project in an early phase.

An investor's mindset

This is closely linked to a glimpse into the world of investors. Fellow breakfasts and fireside chats gave us extremely valuable opportunities to receive feedback. Perhaps most importantly, the knowledge that it would be a long but feasible path, filled with numerous meetings, due diligence and negotiating terms.   

Discovering new target audiences

Close contact to the media industry allowed us to gain an entirely new image of a customer group that we didn’t initially have in mind. Over the course of several discussions, we became increasingly knowledgeable on how the industry—the trade press—that delivers the majority of information engineers use in their daily work ticks. It became clear that our AI would perhaps be profitable in this field.

The fitting toolbox

After nine months of the fellowship, we finally had our first prototype, which we tested with 50 customers by the end of 2020 and will be released on the market as a product this year. However, the times we’re currently in remain plagued by uncertainty and countless unanswered questions, like how will we be able to convert our current test customers into paying subscribers? We also need to determine which product features resulting from the test phase are truly essential, and what is the ultimate price of acquiring new customers? Is it still worth pursuing our business model? The Media Lab Fellowship has given us the right tools in our box and the right network to face all of these challenges. Thanks Media Lab!

Get involved in the Media Startup Fellowship

Do you want to enjoy similar success to ROKIN? Apply now for the next batch of the Media Startup Fellowship. You can find all you need to know here. Apply now and get a flying start!

Text: Thomas Kinkeldei/ ROKIN