Claudia Langer, Founder & CEO, Utopia AG: Why Become an Entrepreneur If You're Not Independent & Free

Claudia Langer has been a serial entrepreneur since the age of 19. Well before she graduated from high school, she set up her first company, Avantgarde, which organized fashion shows, events and promotions and is currently ranked number two for live-communication in Germany.

In 1992, Claudia and her husband founded .start advertising, which soon turned into one of the leading creative advertising agencies. Looking for new challenges, she sold .start in 2004 and fully devoted herself to her family.

During the following sabbatical the idea of utopia surfaced. Utopia AG launched the website utopia.de in November 2007 and quickly evolved into the biggest and most influential community for sustainable lifestyle and strategic consumption. The Utopia Foundation is home of some of the best thinkers in science, public life and the green economy. Politicians, CEOs and the media seek insights into the needs and habits of consumers from Utopia.

We spoke to Claudia about entrepreneurs' responsibility to change the world; how Al Gore shaped her career; and the dangers of letting your heart rule your head.

TNW: What was the inspired moment that led you to launch Utopia AG?

CL: It was a mixture of inspiring moments and it probably started in the first seconds after I held my baby boy in my arms and promised him to take good care and always be there and make sure that he is safe.

A couple of years later, a couple of impressions including the very important film “An inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore helped me realize how serious the state of the world was and made me take action.
 

TNW: How important is technology to the success of your company?

CL: Well, as an internet portal it plays a vital role. Although I must admit that I am not really on top of all the developments. I’m still not the most digital person on the planet, I wish I was. But almost everybody at Utopia outsmarts me in the digital world.

TNW: What are your tips for business owners looking to create an online community?  

The first tip is certainly: Have a good business model first and don´t start your business and then start looking for the business model. That’s what we did. Big mistake!!!

Second: keep focused and keep it simple. We found the possibilities of an internet portal so tempting that we tried to add more and more bits and pieces to the puzzle and distract our users. And ourselves.

Third: never do anything without a great brand. With Utopia we certainly found a wonderful brand name which is a major differentiator in the World Wide Web. I always have a problem with all the fantasy names in the net you can’t really remember.

Fourth: Make yourself known in the offline world too.

TNW: What is next for Utopia AG? How do you see technology as a key growth driver?

CL: Well, first of all we are preparing for our 500th aniversary (Thomas Morus wrote Utopia in 1516). How often do you get the chance to celebrate a jubilee like that. Also we are working on the internationalization of Utopia.

And for myself – I am withdrawing from my CEO role and will be heading the supervisory board of Utopia and other companies and will be strengthening our consulting business.

TNW: Utopia AG is your third successful company. Which aspects of your launch strategy have you kept the same throughout all three companies and which have evolved over time?

CL: First of all I do believe in very strong brands. It makes life much easier. My first company was a strong brand and it is now the second biggest and the only major independent event marketing agency. My second one was one of the most prestigious boutique agencies. And I think the name Utopia in all its ambivalence makes up for a brand that you don’t easily forget.

Second: Strong PR. We always had something to say and we said it.

Third: we were always setting sail to become market leaders in interesting niches that interested us. With Utopia we are the number one. We have worked a lot on creating a sharp profile and a strong corporate culture.

Fourth: I totally believe in excellence. Before I do anything else, I’m trying to make my job right. For myself and for the company. If you produce utmost excellence, you will most certainly create an excellent company. I’ve always invested in quality much more than looking after a short time return on investment. For 20 years now once you invested in quality, you will become a very profitable company.

And most of all: People, people, people!!!!

One strategy that I forgot to keep is to look for a good business case with Utopia. I was so enthusiastic about the need to change the state of the world and I was so sure that everybody else would be as enthusiastic in engaging and investing that I took too many risks in the beginning.

That weakened our position and made Utopia and myself extremely vulnerable. I will never ever let my heart overtake my brain again. But still I’m happy, I did it (once).

TNW: Tell us a little about the decision to sell .start. How did you reach the decision to sell and then manage the exit process? How did it feel to walk away after over a decade at the helm?

CL: The decision to sell start came slowly. Actually over the 10 crazy years in the nineties it was real hard to keep a real work life balance. When I had my kids, I started wondering whether being an entrepreneur really meant to be driven by others, i.e. your customers. I wanted to become more independent and had a hard time to do that in a company that was exploding by that time. So the first part of the decision was, I wanted to spend more time with my kids and in fact also with myself as I had worked ever since I had been 18 without a major holiday.

The second part of the decision came, when I realized that my learning curve had reached its end.

The briefings were getting ever more similar and I realized that I kept repeating myself. I think that’s highly dangerous. If you become too sure that you know how to do “it” then you become lazy.

There was not enough excitement anymore and I felt that I needed to find things that were more stimulating. In marketing communications and advertising I felt I had done almost everything I could, had worked for the most exciting clients and was not happy to repeat myself.

We decided to sell start 30 minutes before my assistant ran into my room pale, saying “you have to turn on television, something unreal has happened”. It was 9/11/2001. So much for the decision part.

The decision was one thing, to tell your people and to walk away was a whole different thing. A thing that almost broke my heart.

When we told our people I could not stop crying. And I have never ever since my last day and my big good-bye party managed to go back through the door. Actually for a year I couldn’t even drive by the building without severe heartaches. It felt like I had torn out a part of me.

TNW: Do you believe that entrepreneurs carry extra responsibility for the future of the planet? Which environmental issues would you like to see entrepreneurs address in the next five years?

CL: Yes, I absolutely do! First, we are most certainly opinion leaders within our company and the outside world. Second: If you become an entrepreneur that’s because you see something that you think that you can do better than anybody else and that needs to be changed. The state of the planet needs to be changed more than anything else in the world unless we want to sacrifice our children. I cannot accept that. So I reach out to all my fellow CEOs and people in media and communications to make a change. I think that we’ve seen that politics will not be able to fix the problem so it is really and totally up to us.

Everybody who runs a company can make decisions much faster than any political leader. The 500 biggest multinational corporations in the world control 53,8% of the world gross domestic product.

And thus are actually pretty much the “masters of the universe”. If only one of this corporation changes a little bit, the change is massive. And I don’t think of environmental issues alone, I really think in terms of sustainability, corporations have a lot of social issues to address and they better should because the customers expect that.

The major issues I see is obviously to do everything to reduce carbon and slow down climate change. An issue that makes me stay awake at night.

TNW: Did you find that a sabbatical changed the way you approach running a company? Was it a help or a hindrance to have a break and some distance from working life?

CL: Yes and no. Yes in the way that the first year after the sabbatical was still a time when I was deeply relaxed and very playful. But my true character of someone who gets obsessed with work, gained more and more weight. So basically after a year I was pretty much back where I started. Only one really important difference: I can still reconnect to that feeling of absolute attentiveness and no one will ever be able to take the time with my kids away from me. This time was precious and very important. It was difficult and exhausting for me to start again from 0 to 1000 and now I want to use my entrepreneurial freedom again to have more space for my power field which is definitely my family.

TNW: If your children expressed an interest in becoming entrepreneurs, what advice would you give them to help ensure their happiness and success?

CL: If my children would want to become entrepreneurs, it would make me very happy as this would show me that they grew up believing that they can make a difference, that they have something unique about them and that they can shape the world around them.

Most certainly the only advice I would give them is to never forget your work-life-balance. For me it has been an ongoing battle and really not easy. But why become an entrepreneur if you are not independent and free.
 

TNW: How has Dell or the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network enabled you to grow your business? What do you see as the benefits of all-women networks such as DWEN?

CL: The Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network has not enabled me to grow my business. It has done something entirely different. It was my first conference among women and the truthfullness, the warmth and the feeling that I could get direct to the point, say what I need and feel accepted, was a very comforting place. The atmosphere you have created, is one of empathy and openness and it was eye and heart opening to see what women can achieve together. So I guess it helped myself grow, more than my business. But that was very important!!!

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with our community?

CL: Thank you Dell for having created this wonderful and powerful network. I’m afraid I won’t be in Delhi this year, but I hope to see everybody soon again.

The Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network (DWEN) celebrates the wonderful accomplishments of women in business, whilst looking forward at how we can progress and learn from each other. Natural networkers and relationship builders, women have innate flair for entrepreneurship. With DWEN, Dell is helping women in business to expand their networks while offering technology capabilities designed to help them innovate and grow their businesses.

The NextWomen is in partnership with DWEN to bring you a series of 40 interviews with the world's most influential female founders, investors and decision makers: The NextWomen DWEN Interview Series.

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