The entrepreneurs’ advisory council: A sounding board for prospective startups

Many graduates from Bucerius Law School go on to become company directors. Members of the entrepreneurs’ advisory council and student entrepreneurial initiatives, including former student and DailyDeal founder Fabian Heilemann, discuss how important law studies are in terms of becoming self-employed.

The Bucerius Law School has both an entrepreneurs’ advisory council and an entrepreneurial initiative. What’s the difference?

Alexander Focke (Member of the entrepreneurial initiative’s executive board): The initiative founded in 2007 is the student mouthpiece of the entrepreneurs’ advisory council. It is made up of undergraduates and postgraduates interested in starting up their own businesses.

Dr Fabian Heilemann (Former student, chairperson of the entrepreneurs’ advisory council, serial business founder, incl. DailyDeal, and early-stage VC investor): The advisory council has existed since November 2014, and comprises solely of Bucerius Law School alumni who run their own businesses. As it was formed by a group of former students, it has grown empirically.

Why does a law school like this need to provide support for entrepreneurs?

Dr Hariolf Wenzler (Managing director of the Bucerius Law School): Because there is a demand for it. The issue was first raised by a small but significant group of people who were studying law to learn how to think, structure and organise themselves, but who, after completing their studies, decided to pursue the aim of creating their own startup. Our alumni now include many entrepreneurs. As such, we came up with the idea of establishing an entrepreneurs’ advisory council, which simultaneously allows us to maintain ties with former students, who help us further develop this entrepreneurial element.

…and who also pass on useful expertise and valuable experience.

Hariolf Wenzler: That’s right. The graduates act as points of contact for current students. And they are role models. We have also included entrepreneurship as an area of specialisation in our Masters program. The Master of Law and Business prepares students to work in fields involving both business and law.

How many of your graduates have ventured into self-employment?

Hariolf Wenzler: It’s hard to say. Some work initially at law firms or companies, and only become self-employed a few years later. If we’re talking about pure entrepreneurs, not including those with their own law firms, it’s between five and ten graduates per class.

Fabian Heilemann: Yes, that’s perfectly correct. They don’t often start up their own businesses straight after graduation.

But isn’t it better to choose an actual business degree if I want to become self-employed in future?

Fabian Heilemann: Not necessarily. Degrees in business administration generally revolve around subject-specific skills. Students study management, and have expertise in marketing, sales and account balancing. Law degrees, on the other hand, revolve around methodological skills, which are very helpful when entering self-employment. But it of course takes longer to start up your own company with a law degree than with a business administration degree. I myself sat my first state examination in law, then pursued a doctorate. Granted, it’s a roundabout route, but one which also has many advantages.

Could you please elaborate?

Fabian Heilemann: Law studies help develop logical thinking skills.

Alexander Focke: You quickly learn how to find your footing in unknown territory, and systematically penetrate it.

Fabian Heilemann: Law degrees cultivate the notion of dissecting and discussing issues, which is precisely part of what entrepreneurship is about. As a legal specialist, you’ll be quicker at identifying and understanding the main subject matter. And you learn how to formulate things more concisely. That’s quite a USP. Working in law also requires focus. In some cases, you need to be able to sit still and work for five to ten hours a day. Another advantage is that you don’t need a lawyer for everything. I myself did a doctorate on limited liability companies, and can therefore attend to 80 percent of the legal issues myself.

Mr Heilemann, you’re an alumnus of the Bucerius Law School and a successful businessman, and your achievements have included establishing the DailyDeal voucher platform. How did you acquire your business acumen?

Fabian Heilemann: During my doctorate, I worked at a business consultancy firm. After that, everything I did at my company was pioneer work. I didn’t have any role models at that stage, but my brother, Ferry, general partner and co-founder of DailyDeal, studied at the WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management in Vallendar, majoring in entrepreneurship, marketing and finance, and he started gaining professional experience in industry and business consultancy during his actual studies.

In which industries do graduates of the Bucerius Law School start up their own businesses?

Fabian Heilemann: Primarily the digital industry. It’s easier to get a foot in on the Internet compared to in the production industry; you can start building something straight away.

How does the initiative support entrepreneurially inclined students?

Alexander Focke: The initiative primarily breaks down inhibitions about starting up a business in future, which is the most important factor. But a large number of students still finish their studies first. And we encourage this. Becoming self-employed is a huge risk. As a member of the entrepreneurs’ initiative, you not only go through classic legal training, but also expand your own horizons. This is also aided by the supervisory council, which has lots of expertise. I myself am currently in my fifth term, and am interested in business, so it was a no-brainer for me to join the entrepreneurial initiative. We’re members of the nationwide “Gründermagnet” network, which connects the startup scene with universities.

How do members of the entrepreneurs’ advisory council and initiative interact?

Fabian Heilemann: There are joint events like the kick-off last November. We have also set up a database with all council members, which is accessible to members of the student entrepreneurs’ initiative.

Hariolf Wenzler: The entrepreneurial initiative also invites speakers from the advisory council to discuss specific startup and business-related issues.

Sounds like a good knowledge transfer. What else does the entrepreneurs’ advisory council offer prospective start-ups or business-owners to prepare them for self-employment?

Fabian Heilemann: Apart from expertise, it’s the perfect way to start a career. The council can organise internships so that interested parties can even start developing their focus during their studies. We can also use the network to generate potential investors for startups.

Regardless of the help available, startup founders are not immune to stumbling blocks. What are some faced by young entrepreneurs, and how do you avoid them?

Fabian Heilemann: The biggest difficulty lies in implementation, not in the idea. That’s when it becomes clear whether the person has entrepreneurial DNA or not. During the first three years of self-employment, there are at least ten issues you need to face, and where you can potentially fail. One example is: You don’t get any funding. Another challenge: Getting your idea or product to “fit” the market. What do you do if the product is not well received, startup losses are higher than expected, or it takes longer than stated in the business plan? In this case, the product can’t be implemented as is; you need to extend deadlines or completely forget an idea. This trap needs to be avoided.

Alexander Focke: We students can contact experienced business owners from the entrepreneurs’ advisory council at any time, and they can apply their expertise to help us with any problems. This usually saves a lot of time and effort. The reputable council members can also always give valuable tips to prevent problems in the first place.

Dr Hariolf Wenzler (notes): I’m noting down the issue of stumbling block for our next meeting…

Do you help students implement their business idea?

Fabian Heilemann: No, we’re the sounding board for young entrepreneurs. That’s precisely what makes the entrepreneurs’ advisory council so valuable. It is visible and approachable for the students. We want it to result in real mentor relationships in the long run.  

Interview: Anja Reinbothe-Occhipinti

Hamburg