Condom-entrepreneur Waldemar Zeiler, the bearded founder of Berlin-based Einhorn Kondome, recently dressed up as a giant vulva to announce his company’s next goal to “unfuck menstruation”.
It was a high-impact stunt which has become characteristic of the 35-year-old as he takes Einhorn — which has been making vegan, sustainable and fair-trade condoms since 2015 — into the business of selling menstrual hygiene products.
When Einhorn first launched, attempting to make buying condoms cool and fun, it promised “up to 21 orgasms” from a pack of seven condoms. Customers seemed to like the idea, even if the German courts forced them to retract the actual claim.
Einhorn has been one of a range of startups using bold marketing to enter into the direct-to-consumer sector — the most successful of which was the Dollar Shave Club company in the US selling razors straight to consumers online.
Others in Europe include Simris and Vitoo in the supplements market, Tediber and Casper in mattresses, Bloom and Wild in flowers and companies such as Organic Basics and Sezane in fashion. Sustain and L Condom are also in the ethical condom market.
Einhorn, founded by Zeiler and Philip Siefer, had revenues of €2.5m in 2018 and has successfully got their product in Germany’s biggest drugstore, dm.
But Einhorn wants to be known for more than just their colourfully designed packages: they strive to be role models for young founders by adopting a company model of self-ownership — a relatively new concept in Berlin, where entrepreneurs are always hungry for investment.
Sifted met up with Zeiler in Berlin to talk about transparent supply chains, self-ownership and his dream of a new economy.
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Einhorn is in the process of becoming a self-owned company, what does that mean?
Self-ownership means that shares cannot be sold or owned by people outside the company and no profits can be taken out of the company. First, we will make the company unsellable and then slowly transfer voting rights from the founders to all employees. We are working with the Swiss Purpose Foundation to implement this relatively unexplored business model for startups.
This sounds like a bad idea to most traditional business people. Why would someone start a company if they cannot sell it or take money out of it?
I think we can grow big because what we gain is freedom from investors. We can focus on product development rather than presentations for our shareholders.
Also, the company is independent of us founders. If we have a mid-life crisis at 40, we cannot put Einhorn on the line and so it is protected against our own human weakness.
What does self-ownership mean if I’m an Einhorn employee?
You will go to work knowing that we do not want to make any investor rich. You can have a say in decisions and you do not have to worry about us suddenly running out of money. This also means more friction in the team when discussing things, but retention is higher.
Einhorn is known for having little hierarchy. Does a company not need a boss?
I do not believe that leadership is unnecessary. Leadership has to change depending on who is best placed to lead in a particular topic. We regularly run workshops in non-violent communication for our corporate culture, and Philip and I did couples therapy before starting the company.
You are only 35-years-old and have failed with seven of the eight companies you’ve founded. What's your experience when working with venture capital?
The business model of investors is clear: make ten Euros out of one. Founders want to make a difference and change things in the world. Often these two models clash.
Investors have a lot of power, especially in Germany. They put growth over profitability, so you have to spend the money that they give you. It's like a drug, you need more and more in this model and you can never say: "Now it's enough, now I can stand on my own two feet". Sometimes this game works and you make an IPO or an exit, but many companies die in the process.
Young founders do not know what they are giving up by accepting venture capital. I always say: "Do not celebrate your investment rounds but critically scrutinise how much equity, how much of your dream did you have to give up, at what price was the investment?" We always tell young founders to try and make it on their own.
Your battle cry is to “unfuck the economy”. What do you mean by that?
To unfuck means to change the way you do business. Do I treat the people I work with fairly, do I harm the environment, do I make my supply chain transparent?
We believe that today's economy is responsible for where we are at the moment: social inequality, littering, climate crisis, etc. All that counts is to make shareholders happy, and environmental damage is a byproduct.
We find that uncool, but we are fans of the economy because we are entrepreneurs. There has to be a different way and we want to show that you can make everyday products like condoms and tampons can be fair and sustainable, even as a small company.
And what do you do to achieve this goal?
We have published the coordinates of the rubber plantation in Malaysia where our condoms are made and want to disclose exactly how the working conditions are. We also reinvest half of our profits in social projects, such as sexual education for young people and the fair payment of the rubber farmers.
You renounce being boss, taking out profits and making an exit? What drives you?
When I was young I wanted to be a millionaire at 30, that was the currency for success and recognition. At some point, I asked myself: "Why do I need so much money? For freedom?" That's when I noticed that I already had it with Einhorn. Since I'm no longer a classic boss, I no longer have to sign off on vacations and negotiate salaries. I can freely develop ideas with my team and work whenever I want. And I'm free because I'm independent of investors. This is a dream. It would be foolish to sell it.