Felicia Schneiderhan is an economist and journalist. She has studied at Zeppelin University Friedrichshafen, Humboldt University Berlin and New York University (NYU) in New York. During her undergraduate studies, Felicia pursued internships in the German parliament (for the former Minister of Science and Education) and at the European Affairs Consulting Group in Brussels. Her career goals aligned with her studies: ultimately, Felicia hoped to work for the United Nations (or the European Union). Self-employment did not factor into her career plan.
Then entrepreneurship accidentally fell in her lap, starting in 2013.
Back in 2013 Felicia invented a new hair styling tool that part hair accessory and part curling device. It literally solves her own problem: her invention takes flat hair and turns into salon-worthy volume curls without the need of a trip to the salon.
"I do belong to the category of people who hate spending time on things like hair styling. The little tool I had crafted was extremely practical as it took literally no effort to make a decent-looking hairstyle. I used it every day for almost two years. Funny thing is, during those two-years, it never even crossed my mind to make a product or a company out of it." - Felicia Schneiderhan
In 2011, Felicia was sitting at the breakfast table at a friend's house with her "invention" on her head (she had forgotten to take it out from the night before). The friend's mother, an amazingly elegant and always perfectly dressed businesswoman, greeted Felicia with a puzzled expression (while pointing out the 'weird thing' on Felicia's head). More than slightly embarrassed, Felicia immediately began extolling the virtues (the ease and functionality, that is) of her invention. Listening politely, the friend's mother advised Felicia "to make a product out of it" then headed out of the door. That briefest of breakfast table conversations sparked a mindset shift for the unsuspecting entrepreneur, and Felicia's first venture, Blackbun was launched.
Six months after the embarrassing breakfast table conversation, Felicia was sourcing product in Turkey, Lithuania and Italy. It took her a year to develop the Blackbun (as it is today)-- and no, she had not yet given up her pursuit of a college degree or her dream of working for the United Nations. She found a small family business in Lithuania willing to take on the risk of codeveloping a new product, before she moved on to tackle the challenges of sourcing materials and production (these challenges she proceeded to solve during on a college-budget road-trip from Berlin, through Poland and onto Lithuania).
Blackbun officially launched in December 2013. Since then, Felicia has never had a second thought again about working for the United Nations.
"Creating Blackbun was so difficult and so much fun at the same time that I never thought about doing anything else except for starting up companies." - Felicia Schneiderhan
She had not however, fully given up on her studies. In the summer of 2013, Felicia arrived in New York City in pursuit of her Masters degree and once again the visiting scholar felt the bite of entrepreneurship, She entered then won NYU's Inno/Vention competition in the Spring of 2014 with PeekBite, a restaurant app. The app allowed patrons to pull up a picture menu on their mobile phone from which they could order and pay for their meals. Along with winning the NYU Inno/Vention competition, Felicia and her co-founders were accepted into the NYU Summer Launchpad accelerator program.
With that promising start to her next venture, what could possibly go wrong? Product market fit, that's what. Felicia and her co-founders were determined to make PeekBite work but after several months of extensive customer development (they spoke to approximately 200 restaurant owners and managers) they were no closer to solving the productmarketfit challenge (let alone discovering a sustainable revenue model). Mounting frustration (and rejections) led them eight-months later, to say good-bye to PeekBite as well as New York City; Felicia moved back to Europe to finish her Masters degree and grow the Blackbun business--or so it appeared.
In April of 2015, Felicia's PeekBite co-founder Riccardo Vittoria tried to book a multi-destination flight in Asia, which turned into a lengthy, online nightmare. Knowing Felicia was an avid traveler, Riccardo called her to vent his frustration and instead, the two brainstormed a new venture: Claire, the first artificially intelligent travel assistant.
Riccardo immediately began to code a basic prototype of Claire (he is a mechanical and industrial engineer and studied at Sapienza University Rome, SUTD Singapore and NYU) and Felicia began designing the product roadmap and outlining a business model. Less than three months later, Felicia and Riccardo were back in the U.S. living the lean-startup dream: sleeping on bunk-beds in Brooklyn and working day and night in an incubator in the city. Within a short period of time, the team had hustled a working prototype as well as partnerships, waitlisted customers, industry advisors and a network of potential investors.
All rainbows and unicorns, right?
Alas, not this time (again). The challenge Felicia and Riccardo are currently facing is typical (and predictable) for a company at their very early stage: recruiting a strong team of talented engineers to build Claire. What sets this founding team apart is that they have chosen to solve the talent challenge in a global way. True to their startup's vision (and their travel-bug DNA), Felicia and Riccardo jumped on a plane to Thailand at the end of October, determined to build the entire Claire engineering team with talent working in Bangkok. There's no certainty that they'll find the talent they need, but then again, taking on interesting challenges appears to be something Felicia excels at.
Then there's that thorny issue of culture when you're building a company that will literally span the globe. The engineering talent may well be living in Bangkok, but Claire's target customers are small and medium-sized business operating primarily in the U.S. And don't forget about the VC and angel investor relationships Felicia and Riccardo have begun to cultivate. To take Claire forward, they will need to secure funding and those investors will want to have the founding team nearby, not 8,000+ miles away.
Talent and budget realities for this particular startup may however, actually prove out the global promise of tech: with the right vision and team, a startup can be built anywhere there is an Internet connection. Promising to send updates on their (ad)venture, Felicia emailed to me before her flight departed JFK: "we decided to build a team in Bangkok to keep our burn rate low while hiring top talent. We have already started to build relationships with Thai developers and entrepreneurs--seems like the Asia-Pacific startup community is as interesting as it is different from New York City."
Stay tuned, as there will undoubtedly be more twists to this startup story.