The Student-Founder Dilemma: How This Young CEO Balances School & His Growing Startup

Maximilian Lehmann (center) pictured with his fainin co-founders Johann Lissner and Kevin Mattutat. fainin is a peer-to-peer renting and lending platform with a mission to reduce waste. Courtesy photo

Floating in the North Pacific Ocean, partway between Hawaii and California, is a heap of plastics, chemical sludge, and other debris so massive it’s been given its own acronym: GPGP — The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is one of several trash heaps drifting in oceans around the world and covers roughly 1.1 million square miles, larger than France, Spain, and Germany combined.

Inside the patch are the remains of things humans made, bought, and threw away.

“It is really frustrating to me that this is due to overconsumption and the inefficiencies of having 90% of our resources just laying in our homes. I think society is ready to share more with each other,” says Maximilian Lehmann, 28, co-founder and CEO of fainin, a peer-to-peer renting and lending platform that aims to reduce waste through sharing.

Think of the GoPro gathering dust in a drawer or the dress in your closet that you hardly wear. fainin connects you with someone who could use a GoPro for an upcoming adventure but doesn’t want to buy one brand new, or to a young woman who needs formal wear for a one-off event. Unlike so many other virtual marketplaces, fainin is designed top to bottom around trust – all renters and lenders are 100% ID verified and rented items are insured for $15,000 against loss and damage.

While Lehmann and his co-founders, Johann Lissner and Kevin Mattutat, have been thinking about fainin since 2018, they’ve really started to grow the platform over the last three years. They are now targeting universities in their home country of Germany to form micro communities on the fainting platform – allowing students to both save and make money while they reduce their own waste. They are now looking to expand into Europe and around the world, looking to double usership by the end of the year.

Throughout, Lehmann has juggled his duties as CEO with being a full-time student.

THE STUDENT-FOUNDER DILEMMA

Maximilian Lehmann’s advice for student founders: ‘Start now. Don’t wait for the perfect moment or the perfect idea.’

Lehmann now faces a dilemma confronting many student startup founders: Continue his education to gain skills that will help him lead and grow his business, or focus 100% of his attention to the startup at a crucial time in its development?

Lehmann earned a bachelor’s degree in international management from Germany’s International School of Management and just completed a bachelor’s in informatics at the University of Hamburg. He’s now considering a master’s in informatics.

Last year, he was selected to the inaugural class of beVisioneers, a fellowship funded by Mercedez-Benz to help young entrepreneurs ages 16 to 28 bring their planet-positive projects to life.

Poets&Quants For Undergrads recently talked with Lehmann about the sharing economy, managing school work while building a startup, and what comes next. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

P&Q: What is the inspiration for fainin?

Lehmann: The inspiration for creating fainin came from recognizing the inefficiencies and environmental impacts of overconsumption in the past few decades. You probably have heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and it is really frustrating to me that this is due to overconsumption and the inefficiencies of having 90% of our resources just laying in our homes. I think society is ready to share more with each other.
We have done studies ourselves, asking 3,000 students why people are not sharing with each other. Some told us they are sharing, but digging deeper, I realized those people are only sharing with their close friends.

At fainin, we aim to establish the necessary trust to have strangers share like friends. And the values are – most importantly – trust, community, and sustainability. We aim to create a culture where sharing is the norm, reducing waste and fostering stronger community bonds.

When did you start thinking that this could be a viable business?

We were thinking about it and prototyping since 2018, but it all started very slowly. I was personally thinking about it because I grew up in a very rural area, where people share a lot more with each other. And after moving in 2017 to a larger city, I realized these inefficiencies are much more prevalent in cities, because people trust each other a little bit less.

We spent a long time doing competitor research, interviewing students and so on. I did not at first think about creating a startup out of it, it was more a curiosity.

How does fainin work?

fainin is a secure peer-to-peer sharing platform that allows individuals to rent items from one another. Users can list items they are willing to rent out, and others can rent these items for a specified period. The platform ensures trust through 100% ID verification and insurance coverage for transactions.
We started as a public marketplace to allow individuals to rent items securely from one another. One of the first big challenges was to create this public marketplace with both the supply and the demand at the same time. I realized that if we did it in a smaller circle, for example my university, we would be able to concentrate the marketing efforts and people would identify more with the sharing economy community.

So, this is exactly what we have done: We started building exclusive marketplaces, like at a university for example, but with the same trust features as we have in the public marketplace. People that are on-boarded to the exclusive communities also have access to the items that are publicly available. So it’s kind of a win-win for everybody participating in the community.

The universities love to promote us because it’s a sustainable measurement, and also because it is economically sustainable for the students.

fainin creates exclusive communities and universities, workplaces, and other communities to help users share and rent items from their peers. The company strives to meet UN’s Sustainable Development Goals 11 and 12: Sustainable Cities and Communities and Responsible Consumption and Production.

What university did this start in?

We started at three different universities because it was very hard to find one university to sign up. It took nine months, honestly, until they said yes. Even my own university, University of Hamburg, which is a very large university, was very slow in the decision making. We started with a university in Berlin first, then Christian-Albrechts-Universität in Kiel, Germany, and then Hamburg.

And how many users do you have in these university communities?

At the moment, we have about 10,000 users. We have a potential reach at just four active universities of roughly 100,000 users. So, we are aiming to get to 20% (about 20,000 active users) by the end of the year.

Are you hoping to get more universities to form communities? Is that part of your growth strategy?

Honestly, it’s more the students that support us with the growth. In all of these universities, we cooperate with the green and sustainability offices and they always have some students that are very dedicated to the sustainability strategy of the university. It’s actually quite easy to convince them to help us make this big for the university because they are intrinsically motivated to establish more sustainable practices. We are basically just providing the tool for that.

How has your education, both in business and informatics, aided in your entrepreneurial pursuit?

I cannot say that one course of study has helped me more. I think it is the combination of the technical expertise and the business expertise in specifically running a tech startup. Our software is solely based on the code that we write. So in the end, it was super important for me to get both understandings.

I would say the studies have helped me tremendously just to get that entrepreneurial style of thinking and to understand the problems holistically. For example trust: This framework could only be established on the business side, but how to integrate that into an application and establish a design for trust was something that came from the business informatics side. This interdisciplinary knowledge has been crucial in developing a platform like fainin.

How do you manage running a growing company while being a student?

Balancing academics with running a company requires efficient time management and prioritization. I ensure that both my studies and my business receive the attention they need by setting clear goals and maintaining a structured schedule. I can highly recommend time-boxing to keep a focus on the right thing.

For me, I also think it’s having best friends as co-founders and having a friendly environment where, even though sometimes things get stressful, you have somebody on your side. A team that compliments you is really beneficial to the whole journey. Without my team and my co-founders, I would have never been able to get to where we are at the moment.

At fainin, people can rent or lend a variety of items including cameras, drones, clothes, outdoor gear, party supplies, and more. Trust is built into the platform with exclusive communities, 100% ID verification, and insured transactions.

How supportive have your professors and schools been in building your business?

They are very supportive. Whenever we have questions, they are very helpful.

I also have to say the accelerator programs are very helpful. It’s not just the mentorship and the resources you get, but also the opportunities to evolve personally. The combination of the whole environment, I wasn’t equipped like that before I got into the accelerator program.

You were selected into the inaugural class of beVisioneers: The Mercedes-Benz Fellowship – the biggest fellowship in the world for young-eco innovators. Tell us about that.

beVisioneers is an accelerator program for planet positive projects that aim to make the world a better or more sustainable place. It is not just a fellowship that provides mentorship, resources, and networking opportunities; What makes it truly unique and personally significant to me is its holistic focus on personal sustainability and authentic leadership. The program emphasizes the importance of being a well-rounded, responsible leader, which goes beyond the traditional scope of venture and eco-learning.

Moreover, what sets this fellowship apart is the incredible community of fellows. The learning exchange and the relationships I have built with other participants are invaluable. Engaging with like-minded individuals who are equally passionate about making a positive impact has been both inspiring and motivating. The support and insights from my peers have enriched my experience and growth far beyond what any standard mentorship could offer. This sense of community and shared purpose is what makes beVisioneers truly special to me.

What kind of mentorship and resources does the fellowship provide?

The fellowship supports us with mentorship and with experts in multiple areas. I was matched with a personal mentor whose career is 15 or 20 years longer than mine, and we met at least once a month to discuss next steps, personal development, project challenges and strategic approaches. It was a safe space that enabled me to build a relationship with somebody I probably wouldn’t have met in university.

There are experts in the fellowship from multiple different fields. In the very beginning, we focused on values and vision, and then we learned about prototyping and the product , then going on to strategic enrollment or go-to-market strategy. And we always worked with peers in smaller circles. Sometimes, in universities, you feel like you’re just one out of 100 students. In the fellowship program, it’s like we were one group, and we were solving our problems together and supporting each other.

Are you still in the fellowship or have you completed that?

I have started the second year now. As we are the pioneer class, I wasn’t 100% sure, but it feels like the fellowship is not going to stop. We will continue with less time commitment.

What is the next big milestone for fainin?

I believe the sharing economy market will grow and peer-to-peer sharing will become more and more important in society, not only ecologically but also economically. With that, I believe fainin will also evolve and become a bigger piece of the overall sharing economy. We want to close the gap between neighborhood marketplaces and hyper-commercial rental shops.

I believe since both markets are growing, fainin will play a crucial role by providing a secure and efficient platform that fosters trust and encourages widespread participation. We aim to expand our exclusive communities, particularly within universities, to drive this growth.

How many people are on your team right now?

We have three founders, one working student and four interns.

What are some of the biggest challenges you were able to overcome as a student founder?

One of the biggest challenges was overcoming the trust barrier in peer-to-peer sharing. Many people are hesitant to share their possessions with strangers. We addressed this by implementing rigorous ID verification and insurance policies to ensure secure transactions.

I have to admit, it was such a long journey with prototyping. We realized that we needed to be the most secure platform, but finding an insurance solution specifically for the platform’s rental and sharing process was extremely hard. I had dozens of meetings with people that said, “Okay, nice idea. Come back in two or three more years.” We knew from the interviews we did that there was no sense in starting without the designed trust, and having it really specified, because there are already solutions that are out there without that trust value proposition that we are providing.

It was a typical chicken-and-egg problem: We weren’t able to build a community without the design for trust, and the insurance company wanted to see first-user rentals and transaction flows. I didn’t want to take the risk of losing trust by starting with a half done project. That’s why it was so helpful to start during university because, otherwise, I wouldn’t have had the time to talk to fellow students about the platform while also finding the insurance solution as one of the main value propositions.

Another challenge was building a user base from scratch without a significant marketing spend. That’s why we are focused on growing with exclusive communities for universities while targeting one institution at a time. Realizing that exclusive communities would be the leverage for growth was one of our aha moments. It was such a simple idea in the end to build communities within the larger community, because it increases the identification of each user within his community, which also builds trust.

Where are you in your studies right now? Will you be going on to graduate school?

I’m done with my Bachelor of Science in International Management and currently preparing for my Master’s degree in Informatics. This is mainly to equip me with a blend of business acumen and technical expertise. This dual perspective has been instrumental in developing and scaling our peer-to-peer sharing community.

At University of Hamburg, I studied business informatics with a strong focus on the IT side. This complements my entrepreneurial efforts, focusing on areas that enhance my understanding of business and technology.

I may be starting my master’s very soon, in the winter semester next year. I’m honestly not 100% sure if I will do that because fainin is just getting more and more important. If things evolve as quickly as I’m planning, I’m not sure whether I will drop out of university and fully focus on the startup.

That’s an interesting and real dilemma for a lot of student founders, I think. At what point do you continue to learn and take advantage of all the resources of a university community, or commit fully to your venture? What considerations are you mulling over in making that decision?

I think as long as it works and as long as you can do both, it’s very important to do both. But I’m at a point where I’m done with my undergraduate program, and since this dream and the startup is fulfilling me so much, I am not sure what I will do yet. fainin pays a living – at the moment it’s not really enough, but I think it’s at a crucial point where it could if I focused on it..

For me, we’ve been doing this three years now already, and I am very confident now that this really is my dream and it is not just a side project or a hobby.

I think it really depends on the founder’s point of view. I would never suggest that very young people who are just starting out with their project drop out of school. But if you are a couple of years in, you’ve got good market fit, you realize that people are paying on a recurring basis for your product, and customers are telling you that you are solving a real life problem for them, it might be the moment for students to fully focus on the startup. Because doing two things at a time always means that you have to take some resources from one or the other.

What advice do you have for business students who have an idea brewing and want to at least try to turn into something, but aren’t ready to commit fully to the venture?

In short, start now. Don’t wait for the perfect moment or the perfect idea.

Start small, test your ideas, learn from failures, and iterate – just like doing baby-steps. In our case, we spent one and a half years interviewing people, finding out about the competition, prototyping, testing, and asking people if they would use something like fainin, when was the last time they rented something or lent something. Really take the time to try to understand the problem that you want to solve.

During your journey, you will have the opportunity to build a strong network, seek mentorship, and stay committed to your vision. Remember, persistence and adaptability are key to entrepreneurial success.

Lastly, align your business with values that matter to you and to the world; this will give you purpose and drive beyond just profit.

If you are interested in forming a fainin sharing economy community at your university or business school, email Max@fainin.com.

 

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