Origin Story Interview W/ Tim Steppich, ClimateU

Origin Story Interview W/ Tim Steppich, ClimateU

Brighter Future

 / 

Nov 29, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #climateaction #climatetech #greenimpact #climateinnovation #environmentalsolutions #climatechangeawareness

Brighter Future

We’re here with Tim Steppich, founder of ClimateU, an all-purpose resource for climate-focused businesses from employees to founders, investors, and really anyone interested in the climate space.

Thank you so much for being here, Tim. Do you think you could tell us a little about yourself and your company?

Of course! My name is Tim Steppich, and I’m the founder of ClimateU. In a nutshell, ClimateU is a one-stop shop for the climate(-tech) sector. We serve as a community and platform for climate enthusiasts around the world, with a current focus on Europe that is slowly spreading worldwide. We try to bring all parties within the ecosystem together— climate-focused organisations, investors, talents, corporates, service providers and more. We’re known for our weekly “Last Week in Climate” newsletter, our Slack community, and our Climate Country Hubs which all aim to bring people together and to provide them with relevant data on the sector.

What is your company's objective, and what makes it important?

Broadly speaking, we’re here to show you (U) how you can have a climate impact, no matter who you are and what you do for a living.

Many people have yet to learn what “working in climate” means, or what this industry is all about. Terms like “climate-tech” are often used as buzzwords that need a lot more clarification. ClimateU's overarching vision is to create a place that simplifies the fight against climate change for everyone.

Whether you're seeking a career transition, an investor looking to invest in this field, or want to learn about the current solutions being developed, ClimateU can help. It serves as a platform where anyone can come together and discover what actions they can take to combat climate change.

That sounds very useful. How far back does your interest in climate-focused business go?

Well, I don't know if it was specifically about the climate, but I studied business in Berlin, Argentina, Switzerland, and Brazil. Even though I studied in these four countries, nobody taught me how to use business as a force for good. My courses mostly focused on finance and strategy, and I had to study what made successful companies, but it was never really about understanding how businesses could affect the world around us and society as a whole, and none of the companies we studied made a difference— which bothered me quite a bit, seeing all these urgent issues we are facing around the world.

I had a project with the shoe brand Toms, where when you bought a pair of shoes, they would donate a pair of shoes in return. I found it fascinating, because it was someone doing things differently and trying to have a meaningful impact via CSR. It sparked my interest in social entrepreneurship after I read the founder’s book Start Something that Matters.

At a certain point, I realised that the main areas for businesses to do social good were healthcare, education, empowerment, and climate. I became excited about “climate” because it's a crisis everyone understands the urgency of, and it is the main challenge of the 21st century that threatens to worsen all other issues. From there, my passion for working on climate change only expanded.

How did your journey unfold after becoming aware of the need for action?

My revelation about social entrepreneurship occurred during my bachelor's degree in Argentina. The realisation prompted me to pursue a master's degree in Switzerland specifically because of that interest. I then became actively involved in various clubs, such as Oikos (an international student organisation focused on social entrepreneurship), and I started working at a foundation that supports people with disabilities. I also ran my own non-profit, where we raised ₣25,000 (Swiss francs) to build classrooms in Haiti.

I then pursued various job opportunities to get a better understanding of where I could get involved. First, I joined an incubator for social entrepreneurs, and following that, I became part of a venture builder that aimed to create companies at the intersection of AI and climate technology. Later, I joined a venture capital fund that had yet to invest in climate technology but expressed a strong interest in doing so, and I was the first guy to lead their efforts into climate-tech investing.

After these experiences, I realised I just had to build ClimateU, because there were no good resources for the climate ecosystem across Europe. I immediately jumped into building the platform and never looked back.

That’s great. Are you the sole founder?

Yes, I’m the only founder. Initially, I spent a while trying to determine whether this would evolve into a company, a non-profit, or an initiative. I had no idea at first, so I felt unable to identify the kind of person I would require by my side, even though I would have loved to have a constant brainstorming partner. The biggest bottleneck in building ClimateU, was that it was just me at the beginning; now it is evolving much faster with the team by my side.

What was your thought process when you tried to figure out what the organisation would be, and how big of a jump was it to say, “That’s it, I'm going to do something on my own”?

It was mostly about building something that I wanted to use myself. I was looking into careers focused on climate change and became interested in climate startups from an investor perspective as well. I began building the platform just to build exactly what I wanted to use myself for my job hunt and my work as a venture capital investor. I felt a lack of options in the market, which made me realise that I needed to build them myself.

It felt somewhat unconventional because most people in the venture capital field, including my friends I had studied with, first worked at either one of the three huge consulting firms of McKinsey, Bain, and BCG— or big investment banks. I also studied in St. Gallen, where it was common for graduates to pursue corporate jobs and earn a lot of money— so in this environment, it felt a little counterintuitive to start a small bootstrapped company or initiative with barely any savings in the bank.

But in other ways it was a no-brainer because the importance of the climate sector was increasing rapidly, and the sense of urgency was there. I could also say I wasn't worried about finding another job if it all didn’t work out because I learned so much more every day than I would have if someone had been telling me what to do. Starting my own venture actually seemed better for my career, and the learning curve was steeper than if I had stayed in the venture capital industry.

That’s very interesting. What have been the biggest challenges since you started your own venture?

Work-life balance has been a significant challenge since I was doing this alone, at the beginning. It's like solving a complex puzzle with a vast amount of data. Gathering all the necessary data, reaching out to founders and recruiters, and bringing an entire continent together can easily consume multiple lifetimes, especially when I hadn’t defined the specific business case and focus yet.

On top of that, the smaller details come with being a first-time founder. The main pain points are deciding where to establish the company, how to set it up, handling payment processing, and dealing with the intricacies of building things without coding or being a techie.

People often assume that I'm coding extensively or developing complex technology, but in reality, I've learned how to build things without deeply understanding all those technical aspects. So, yes, it has been a somewhat inefficient process until, after months of effort, I’ve had a revelation and found a more efficient way to accomplish tasks. When you're just starting, you can't simply hire someone to handle these challenges, so you have to tackle them yourself. So that’s been difficult.

My final struggle was building something without knowing if it would eventually become a viable business model. I operated blindly, constantly improving and refining things without a clear vision of what I built it for. I was really focused on the needs that I learned about from the community, and not so focused on how to commercialise them and build it into something bigger. As you can imagine, this was a significant hurdle at the beginning. And the company is still fairly new— only about 2 years old.

Have you made any bigger mistakes? I know it hasn't been that long yet, but have you made any mistakes that felt like you learned something from them?

If I were to start this all over again, I would monetise from day one. When someone pays for something, you can understand their needs and tailor your solution accordingly. It helps you understand what creates the most value and what people are willing to pay for.

If you can't finance your business, the only option is to build a non-profit. Since I wanted to build a for-profit, I had to figure it out. I think we need to build for-profits that change the world to change how we do business globally. However, for the first eight or nine months, I ran everything entirely pro bono, trying to make everything perfect. Once I decided to monetise, things started moving much faster. I created a premium version overnight without advertising, and suddenly six companies signed up instantly. That's when I realised I needed to build it for real. So that was a big lesson, and the learning curve was much steeper once I made money.

Another thing that comes to mind is my tendency to pursue perfectionism, which I guess is a typical German character trait. I love puzzles and am a former chess player, so I always want to do things perfectly, have the perfect dataset, the perfect interface, a better UX, and so on, but that doesn't make sense because you can build forever before taking action and selling your product. Sometimes you need to sit down, make a structure, and think things through without stressing too much, and you just need to start selling from day one.

Have you experienced any significant “Aha!” moments that truly clicked and shaped your approach to work and life?

I consider myself a travel enthusiast, and during my studies, I had the opportunity to live in various parts of the world. My travels taught me that, in the end, it's all about people and human connection. It's about our impact on others and how we treat and collaborate with them. This understanding became a core principle for me personally and professionally. For instance, in my company, I recognise that our success depends on our ability to relate to and understand the needs of individuals, whether it's someone seeking employment through our platform or a startup seeking funding. The closer we can work with the climate community, the better we will understand their needs, and the more successful we will be.

Furthermore, travelling and studying in different locations and learning various languages helped me determine the type of company I aspire to lead. Drawing from my experiences, I have learned what I don't want my company to become and how crucial its values are to me. I value the flexibility in how I work, the absence of a co-founder, and the ability to operate from any location, such as a small town in Portugal one day, and then a buzzing impact co-working space in Barcelona in another moment.

Throughout the years, these small “Aha!” moments have integrated into my company's operations and my vision for its future. I envision assembling a small team of climate enthusiasts who can work flexibly from anywhere globally, make a difference, and have fun doing so.

I wondered how you ended up being based in Southern Europe. What made you choose it?

I never really saw myself living in Germany apart from Berlin, which is an amazing ecosystem. I spent a lot of time in Latin America and Brazil, so I speak Portuguese and Spanish. And I did want to stay in Europe because I'm building something focused on the European ecosystem. So I've been searching for a place that is multi-cultural, by the ocean, and has a thriving startup community.

I've always lived in big cities, but recently I've realised that I also need to be close to nature and the ocean. I studied in Buenos Aires, and lived in Rio de Janeiro and Berlin, thinking that those were the places for me. However, now I realise I truly enjoy the more laid-back vibe of small surfer towns like Ericeira, or smaller cities like Lisbon and Barcelona. Even while living in Ericeira for a few months, I met someone looking for a climate job while surfing, I helped a guy playing beach volleyball to find a climate job, and I met climate investors and angels at some random small events.

So, it's a combination of the language, the culture, and the recommendations from others that led me to Southern Europe: first to Portugal, then to Spain, at Barcelona’s Norrsken House. In some sense I just went for a week on a road trip during the summer, and then I decided to stay. The flexibility of not needing an office allows me to do that.

That sounds lovely. Speaking of the positive things, what would you say is the most fulfilling aspect of your work?

I find great joy and excitement whenever someone tells me they’ve received a job offer because of ClimateU, especially when they are friends of mine. Once, I got so excited about someone who got hired that I almost cried. It was the first time someone had written to me that they found a job on the platform, right at the beginning. I was initially unaware of how people were using the platform and whether they were truly benefiting from it, so that kind of feedback was incredibly satisfying for me.

So when someone does reach out, it becomes an incredibly emotional experience for me. It's like witnessing the fruits of my labour and realising that people are finding value in what I've created. It’s quite challenging to see the value you’ve created when you just see data points in your backend.

These moments of validation also occur when an investor or a startup signs up for our premium services and expresses genuine enthusiasm, giving us feedback, engaging with the community, and suggesting additional features. It's immensely gratifying to receive such validation because it reaffirms the importance of our work. Last year, I had the incredible opportunity to directly consult one of the largest and most prominent US venture capital funds on their global climate-tech strategy and to be able to influence these biggest players in the investment space is incredibly fulfilling to me.

The most satisfying part of my work, however, is when I get someone excited about the climate sector who hadn’t heard of “climate jobs,” “climate-tech,” etc. before. I really want to increase the size of the pie and make climate the new normal. Every person who joins this movement is such a great win for all of us.

When in your life's journey did you first feel this entrepreneurial spirit? Was it always ingrained in you, or was there a specific moment when you thought, "Yeah, I want to be a founder"?

I attended a course in St. Gallen with Joachim Schoss, the founder of the online real estate company Scout24, which focused on entrepreneurship, and it was really inspiring. He has an incredible story. I also worked for his foundation for people with disabilities, and that experience made me think, "Wow, okay, that's someone I would aspire to be."

But in my immediate environment, no one was starting companies. My family, including my dad, a teacher, and my mum, worked in IT, so no one talked about startups.

So, it was mainly the environment in St. Gallen that influenced me. Seeing startups while being involved in venture capital and realising the long-term benefits and freedom of running your own company played a significant role. That book, “Start Something that Matters”, and books like “The 100 Dollar Startup”, also played a big role. I’ve probably read every book on social entrepreneurship and many biographies, and they played a huge part in this journey.

I also had several internships (around six or seven) to figure out what I wanted to do. I always concluded that I didn't want to work for anyone else unless they truly inspired me with their work, but I hadn't found that inspiration in another company. So, having the freedom to build something myself became more appealing. It wasn't so much about wanting to build a massive company with huge profits to then exit it and become a millionaire, like many people in business schools; that was never my ambition. It was more about freedom, flexibility, and being able to define a company's values for myself— a company that inspires other people for reasons other than profit.

It's interesting how much you highlight freedom and flexibility, but the reality is that some people truly have to make compromises and sacrifices in their entrepreneurial journey. Have you ever felt the need to make such compromises?

I would love to spend my evenings watching sunsets, playing beach volleyball, hanging out with my friends and family, and learning languages. But that's not the current reality. My work involves long hours and late nights. My work and the vision I have for ClimateU has become my main priority in life and my close friends and family know that I am giving this my all and that I won’t always be the most present friend, brother, or son. The long-term goal, though, is to establish a structure, build a team, delegate tasks, and eventually not have such a demanding lifestyle forever. So, there are many sacrifices, including financial ones. I've invested all my money and time into this venture, and it took around 9-10 months to finance its basic operations. So there have been numerous sacrifices and compromises along the way, but I know they will pay back long-term, and then I will make up for lost time with loved ones.

But you know, in the end, there are benefits too. For instance, if I feel tired of Spain and want to take a summer break, I can simply go anywhere and work from there. It's a balance where you must compromise, but you can still shape your desired life.

You have a very positive outlook on life and entrepreneurship. How do you prioritise your mental health? Specifically, how do you navigate through challenging times?

When I started the company, I worked long hours and neglected my physical and mental well-being. I began building in Colombia and Brazil without knowing anyone there. I would spend most of my time at home, working extensively and occasionally going out. Eventually, I realised that this lifestyle was unsustainable in the long run and would lead to excessive stress. I'm a big people person, and I understood the importance of being in an environment where I could switch off from work, engage in sports, and socialise with others. That's why I decided to move to Portugal for a while and then later to Barcelona, and I spend a lot of time in Berlin. I’m now working from a co-working house for climate-tech startups in Barcelona, surrounded by 600 changemakers who are in similar situations. We hold each other accountable to go out, play volleyball, take breaks, etc.

These activities are crucial for me to disconnect from work and maintain a healthy mental state. Additionally, I appreciate that someone is always available for meaningful conversations about life and other topics. This support system has been incredibly beneficial.

I believe the idea that successful companies can only be built by isolating oneself in a basement for five years and working 16-hour days is unrealistic. It may work for a few individuals, but it is not a sustainable approach for most. I learned this through my own journey. I have always been a hard worker, but starting a company made me realise the importance of setting limits and considering long-term well-being. In a sense, living close to nature in places like Portugal and Spain has become my primary solution for boosting my mental and physical health.

Did you ever experience a time when you did something completely different from what you had planned?

Yeah, many times. I'm very spontaneous. Even the company I worked for was spontaneous. I was working at a VC until December 2021. During that time, I frequently spoke with the team about starting something like ClimateU and the opinions about that idea varied widely. Despite that hesitation, I thought, "Ah, screw it. Let's just build it."

Moving to Portugal and then to Spain were also spontaneous decisions for me. I often trust my instincts and the people I meet. For example, a friend called me and said, "I have some weeks off. You said you always wanted to go to Colombia. Let me show you Colombia. Just come over." I took up the offer and ended up staying in Colombia for a few months and built the MVP for ClimateU from there.

I make many decisions spontaneously based on what feels right at the moment. I only learned about the master's program in Sankt Gallen because I met a Swiss guy while studying in Buenos Aires. We were having drinks, and he told me about the program, emphasising how great it would be if I managed to get in. So many things in my life have happened spontaneously, without much planning. I'm not very German in that sense.

So yeah, throughout my life, I've experienced many things, from studying business to internships, all because of meeting the right people and engaging in meaningful conversations without necessarily having a concrete plan behind them.

Where do you find your inspiration?

Initially, my inspiration came from the founder of Toms, which ignited my interest in social entrepreneurship. Subsequently, I read books about the Grameen Bank and Muhammad Yunus over in Bangladesh, Shai Agassi and the journey of Better Place, and many more. These experiences served as significant sources of inspiration for me. I’ve also encountered numerous individuals who have deeply inspired me through their passion and remarkable achievements.

My dad has also always been someone who's been doing a lot of things; he's always been quiet against the mainstream and has just done whatever he felt was right or he was interested in. I draw a lot of inspiration from my dad’s authenticity and his passion for many different things. My mom on the other hand has a huge heart and is a big people person, she’s the reason I’m this very smiley, optimistic and outgoing person I am today. Both of my parents and the contrasting personalities that they have inspired me in many subtle ways which have made me who I am today.

What future do you hope to create with ClimateU?

I envision a world where people from all backgrounds, whether they're seeking employment, investing, or starting a company, understand that they can do so in a way that benefits the climate and the people around them. Currently, many people believe they need to have a background in sustainability or be scientists to make a difference, but truly anyone can help drive the climate sector forward.

My dream is to create a movement where individuals currently pursuing careers in consulting or venture capital start questioning why they wouldn't choose a job at a company that has a positive impact. This would generate momentum and force other corporations to wake up, as talented individuals would gravitate towards organisations that are more aligned with their values. We can see this happening to some extent now, with people quitting their jobs after the pandemic and looking for a more meaningful role.

Even within the startup world, I have noticed that many of my former colleagues from fintech companies and my time in IT consulting come to me seeking job recommendations in impact-focused roles. They express interest in finding work that aligns with their backgrounds and passions. At some point, everyone contemplates whether it is worthwhile to devote their time to a job that doesn’t serve a bigger purpose that profits.

My greatest aspiration, then, is for everyone to realise they can pursue their passions and simultaneously have a positive impact. These goals are not mutually exclusive; they reinforce each other. Ultimately, my dream is for all organisations worldwide to wake up and do their part to contribute to fighting the climate and biodiversity crisis.

For those who have the desire to create a business in the climate sector, do you have any advice for them?

It's important to talk to as many people as possible who are either involved in the climate tech industry or work in the industry you're passionate about. Passion is the most important factor. Many people start companies nowadays because they see it as an opportunity in the market rather than being genuinely excited about the field. I wouldn’t be able to put in so much work for something I am not 100% aligned with and excited about.

So, when considering your career path or looking at potential companies to work for, always think about what truly excites you and how you can build something in that area. Then, try to connect with as many people as possible in that field and gain insights to help you figure things out because you won't be able to find the best company to build just by Googling it.

I realised that climate tech would be significant because it was a major topic in every job I had, even though many people didn't fully understand it. So, I engaged with those individuals, including some very smart people who had no clue about it, and that made me realise the need for something in that space.

Generally, it's just important to figure out what you want to do and determine what you don't want to do. Internships can play a significant role in this process because they help you identify the aspects of your career and industries you wouldn't want to be involved in. So try out various things before starting your own company.

But some people tend to overthink and never take action on what they want to do. In my case, I had no idea what I would build at first, but I decided to take the leap and start something and then see where it goes.

Interestingly, once you begin a venture, having the title of a “founder” in your profile attracts a lot of attention. I had to limit my number of calls because everyone in the field, including investors, wanted to chat with me. These conversations taught me a great deal. Starting something opens up more opportunities; you can always pivot if needed.

It's important to note that most investors invest in you and your team rather than just your idea. You can't go wrong if you have the right mindset, network, and passion.

Finally, the most valuable lesson I've learned this year is not to take myself too seriously. Don't overthink everything, including monetisation, business models, and pleasing investors. So many factors can drive you crazy. Ultimately, it's about having fun and being able to laugh at your mistakes. I make plenty of mistakes myself; you can’t take everything too seriously.

That’s very positive. If there were one lasting message that could reach everyone on this planet, what would that be?

It would be a message that aligns with the company: "You can work on climate change." But the most important thing is to pursue whatever truly inspires you and ignites your passion, stepping out of your comfort zone as much as possible.

Of course, I am in a privileged position to say this, considering where I come from and the opportunities available to me. Unfortunately, not everyone has the same privileges.

Nevertheless, everyone still has the power to make choices that push them out of their comfort zones and to engage in activities that are unconventional or discouraged by others. While it's important to seek advice from others, it's crucial to remember that they can also offer terrible guidance. Ultimately, your instincts and passions are the ones that can guide you in the right direction. So pursue what feels right, even if it means failing miserably or achieving great success. You don't have much to lose, in the end: pursuing your passions can lead to other amazing things.

We think that’s excellent advice, Tim. Thank you so much for spending some time with us; we wish you nothing but the greatest success with your organisation’s efforts.

To learn more about ClimateU, please see www.climateu.earth.

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