Agnès Petit, Catarina Dahlin and Sophia Borowka are three Swiss founders.

“Starting your own business is a crazy journey”

At the end of August 2020, Agnès Petit (Mobbot SA), Catarina Dahlin (Dagsmejan Ventures AG) and Sophia Borowka (Caressoma) will present their innovative business models at the Female Innovation Forum. All three start-up entrepreneurs are supported by Innosuisse. In a discussion together, they talk about taking the plunge, power games with male CEOs and why founding a start-up is like giving birth.

What was your inspiration for starting up your own business?

Agnès Petit: Actually, I wanted to found a start-up right after graduation. But as I had limited experience of the business world, I looked for a job. After 13 years in the construction industry, I founded Mobbot in 2018. I wanted to be my own boss and at the same time grow my company. At the moment, I have 11 employees.

Sophia Borowka: I did my second post-doctorate and worked as a scientist for seven years in total. But I felt an urge to do more for society. For me, science was too far removed from what the market needs. Furthermore, the prospect of independence, more freedom and the feeling of creating something myself seemed very tempting. At the end of 2018, I founded the start-up Caressoma.

Catarina Dahlin: My life partner and I founded our start-up Dagsmejan in 2016. I had already been mulling over the idea of becoming an entrepreneur for ten years. We both like to play sports and wanted to do something in this field first. But then we realised how important it is to sleep well, especially for active people. So we took the plunge. Back then, neither I nor my partner had any experience of the textile industry. Until then, I had mainly worked in the cosmetics and wellness industry. But that’s the beauty of starting up your own business: there are so many opportunities if you just keep your eyes peeled.

Sophia: Exactly, that’s very important: if you are open to opportunities, life has some pleasant surprises in store for you.

Agnès: But I think you also need to have a feeling for when the stars are aligned. It’s also always a matter of getting the timing right.

What are the biggest challenges when you start up your own company?

Agnès: It’s not difficult to found a start-up. You simply register your company and sign, that’s it. The biggest challenge is growing your company beyond the first two years and making it profitable.

Sophia: As a scientist, I have always interacted with similar people, lots of things were predictable. As a start-up entrepreneur, however, I often face new challenges. In the beginning, I was around 90% outside my comfort zone. But this percentage is getting ever smaller now. In essence, I like to move out of my comfort zone – it’s great to learn lots of new things and broaden your horizons. But on the other hand, I took a big risk with the start-up: I invested a large chunk of my savings. I was always aware that I could lose a lot if I didn’t do things right.

Agnès: But it’s just your savings that you lose if something goes wrong, isn’t it? You learn so much as an entrepreneur. And I think it’s worth it for that reason.

Sophia: I think you’re right in that respect. But in industry I had the prospect of a very good salary. The decision to earn a lot less over the next few years was not an easy one for me. Although I knew that I would learn a lot, I didn’t want my decision to haunt me for ten years.

Catarina: I know what you mean, Sophia. Starting your own business is a crazy journey: sometimes you are euphoric, then you think again that you may have to sleep under a bridge in the future. This exceptional situation can be really stressful. We have now reached a point where we can say that our company has a promising future. But last year and the year before last, there were moments when I thought: “Just what have we got ourselves into here?”. I’m over 40 years old, I’ve saved quite a bit. What if it’s all gone now? On the other hand, I find it hard to imagine working in a large company again. All the unproductive meetings and politics, the lack of decisions. As an entrepreneur, I have the freedom to sail the ship myself to where I want to go. It’s hard to give that up.

Sophia: The pressure isn’t just bad – it also boosts productivity and spurs you on.

Agnès: I’ve had three lives so far: life as a scientist, life in the private sector, where I flew business class, sat on the executive committee and had a lot of responsibility. And my current life as an entrepreneur. My husband and I have two children. When I decided to start up my own company, money was not my primary motivation. I also ploughed a lot of savings into it and did not pay myself a salary for over a year. For us, it was much more a question of what impact the founding of a company would have on our family – not just for a few years, but for the next decade. Back then, my children were only four and six years old. It was a tough decision to give up holidays and other activities in the future. And just after founding Mobbot, my husband became unemployed.

Sophia: Wow, you’re impressive.

Agnès: When other people tell me that things could get worse, I think the worst is already behind me. Founding the company and the first two years were hard. Unlike you, Sophia, I didn’t pay myself a salary in the first year, but hired employees instead. When you reach the point where you make money, that’s a beautiful moment. I bear a great responsibility for my employees – and for my children. They definitely don’t see me as much as other kids see their parents.

Catarina: On the other hand, your children will see a woman shaping her own future and destiny. And that’s a great inspiration.

Agnès: Embarking on this path was not just my own decision, but a family decision. My husband had his own architectural practice at that time. I said to him: “You’ve had ten years, now it’s time for my ten years.” We spent an entire summer discussing the consequences of not being able to take a holiday, for example.

Catarina: I didn’t pay myself a salary to start with either, and after a few months just about a fifth of my previous salary. I’ve noticed that it really isn’t difficult to go without certain material things.

You all work in a male-dominated industry. As a woman, do you notice certain disadvantages or is your gender completely irrelevant?

Catarina: I used to work in companies where lots of women were employed. But I was often the only woman at executive committee level. It was a more aggressive prevailing mood, which means I am used to a tougher environment. I have no problem with being one of just a handful of women. Especially now that I am older and more confident.

Sophia: I almost feel bad saying that I don’t feel any difference being a woman. I’ve worked with a lot of men for a long time. But every start-up faces the same challenges: the people you work for – i.e. your customers – must be interested in what you do. But for me it’s also difficult to compare how a male start-up founder would feel. We receive a lot of support, including very critical feedback, but that spurs us on. I assume it’s the same for men.

Agnès: My experiences are similar to Sophia’s. As a woman, I was in the minority from the beginning at university, but I never felt any difference. The challenges are the same for men and women.

Catarina: When I first started out on my own, I sometimes sensed a difference in the way I was treated. For example, when the CEO of a supplier entered the room, he didn’t even look at me. But in that kind of situation, I always tell myself it’s not my problem. If he has a problem with me being a woman, that’s his decision. I simply ignored him too. Sometimes you have to get into these power games. But maybe it wasn’t because I was a woman, but because he is generally a rude person.

If it makes no difference whether you’re a man or a woman, are events such as the Female Innovation Forum, where you can present your business idea and get input, actually necessary?

Sophia: Yes, I think we need such occasions – to make female role models more visible. There are very impressive women out there and we all need to get to know them. It’s important to focus on the positive aspects and not always only on the problems that women face.

Catarina: There are now fewer women in management positions or in start-ups. And that is exactly why it is important to show others that it is also possible to get there as a woman. Women, young or not so young, need to see that they can take their career in a new direction at any time.

So why do you think that fewer women found start-ups?

Agnès: Start-ups are usually companies with a technological background. As fewer women study technical subjects, there are of course also fewer female start-ups. But it’s also a question of proportionality. If we look at the liberal and independent professions, such as hairdressing, I think there is a higher proportion of female entrepreneurs.

Catarina: As a native Swede, I have my own theory as to why there are fewer women starting up businesses in Switzerland. I admire Agnès for her ability to strike a balance between family and business life. Because, compared with Sweden, it’s very difficult to reconcile work and family life in Switzerland – if only because of the irregular school schedule and the high costs of external childcare. If society wants more women entrepreneurs, then we must also look at how to better combine family and work.

Sophia: Yesterday I read an article about motherhood in Switzerland: According to the author, in this country the mother is like a kind of goddess for children, i.e. the person to whom they relate most closely. Many women feel the pressure to live up to this myth, to perform this role. When I look at my friends, some want children, but not the big, stressful career. Others want to have a career. It’s all a question of establishing priorities. I suppose men are less concerned with the notion of having to be a perfect parent.

Agnès: I don’t think it’s a question of mentality. It’s society that exerts this pressure on women. At the same time, however, there is also pressure on men to work flat out and bring the money home. Fortunately, this is slowly changing. My children see their father and mother on the same level. It’s a decision that my husband and I have made: how do we want to bring up our children? We both work flat-out, often at night too, so that we can spend an afternoon with the children. It’s also about who you marry. If women want to stay at home, fine. If it’s their choice, that is. But if it’s the choice of society, I don’t feel comfortable with it.

Catarina: I believe that the issue reflects society and its rules. None of my friends in Scandinavia stay at home when they become mothers. But in Sweden there is also parental leave, which means that both parents can take turns staying at home for the first year. If men don’t stay at home for at least a few weeks during this time, they are looked at askance. If someone in Sweden gets up at a meeting at 4.30 p.m. and says they have to pick up their child from nursery, then nobody bats an eyelid. There is a completely different understanding and an acceptance that you work and have a family at the same time. It’s a different mentality.

Agnès: I’d say it’s a different culture. My parents came from Poland, which was still communist at the time. My mother was the main breadwinner. The culture of working and bringing up children was different under communism. There was no difference between men and women.

What is your advice for other women starting up companies?

Sophia: Be persistent. Carry on. Never give up. There’s always a way. If you reach a dead-end, take a side street. This might take you in an entirely new direction.

Agnès: Do things your own way! I like to compare the founding of a start-up with giving birth. With the first child, I was nervous — one nurse said this, the other said that, they even contradicted each other. The experience is the same when you start up a company – there is a lot of advice, from all directions, some of which is also contradictory. That’s why you need to do it your way. Just follow your instincts and you’ll be fine.

Catarina: It’s important not to be afraid of making mistakes. With every little mistake you learn, you develop, your business develops. Avoid the big mistakes, but if you don’t make any errors, you risk too little. As Sophia said, you need to be persistent and show perseverance. Every time you fall, dust yourself down and get up again. Only then will you make progress.

Last modification 06.05.2022

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Agnès Petit, CEO and founder of Mobbot. This start-up develops 3D printers that produce bespoke concrete structures.

Catarina Dahlin, co-founder and CEO of Dagsmejan Ventures AG. This high-tex company from St. Gallen develops functional sleepwear that cools or warms – depending on the wearer’s current needs.

Sophia Borowka, CEO and co-founder of Caressoma. This start-up is developing a diagnostic device for detecting and monitoring injuries and diseases of the musculoskeletal system, especially in soft tissue such as muscles or tendons.