Young and old, is that compatible?
The co-founder of Wohnbuddy, Marlene Welzl, says yes – and this combination can do much more than “just” enable the exchange of experiences. With this social business model of Wohnbuddy, she provides young people with affordable housing and creates a connection between young and old, from which both sides benefit.
I’m really happy to be able to provide you with a green business interview with this extraordinary founder! I hope you enjoy reading and you know that we are always happy to receive comments and lively exchanges about your experiences!
Let’s go ☺
How and when did you come up with the idea of starting your own company?
The establishment of the company itself was never really the focus. It was simply the idea to bring young and old together and thereby create a win-win situation for both sides. We simply noticed that there are actually only very few points of contact between young and old in Vienna.
For me it was the case that I lived in an old apartment building in Vienna at the time, no elevator, 4 floors and an old lady on the 3rd floor, who of course I also helped with carrying the purchases up and down. Again and again I had a coffee with her, and it was actually the case that she lived alone in an 80m2 apartment with cheap rent. On the other hand, rental prices in Vienna are increasing and young people can hardly afford to move out.
Based on the two observations, the decision then came to look at how to bring the needs of these two together.
As a result, we naturally dealt with the idea a lot and saw that these concepts already exist in other countries. For example, in Germany, Switzerland or England – known as “home sharing”. This led us to think: “If it works somewhere else, why shouldn’t it work in Vienna?”
However, in order to have to remain an isolated solution with Wohnbuddy and to make it accessible to as many people as possible, it was necessary to put the concept on an entrepreneurial basis, e.g. to be able to apply for funding.
What was your motivation and vision back then?
The motivation was simply to bring young and old together. I myself am a person who feels comfortable around old people, because I always find it exciting when you are in a different world. With older people you talk about other things than you would probably do with people of the same age. You get out of your everyday life and it is the same for the elderly.
This is really broadening the horizon. I am a very curious and inquisitive person and the experience I have at Wohnbuddy is that many other young people are here just like me, see this as an enrichment and that is why we are contacting us.
Have there been any initial challenges?
Yes, for God’s sake. Getting the first flat share was a big challenge. The core challenge is still getting to the living space. Especially with the private ones it is a big step to take someone else into the house. Now we are lucky that we already have some living space controllers. However, we realize that the further we get from Vienna, the more difficult it will be. Of course, especially students want to live directly in Vienna, which I totally understand.
That’s why the placement sometimes takes a little longer. Getting to the people looking for a home was never difficult, and finding the right person was a little more difficult, of course – but still totally unproblematic. With our offer we attract a certain “kind” of people from both sides.
However, the legal aspect was also challenging and the funds received from subsidies also flow into it to work out contractual solutions for tenancy law. We want to make flexible and affordable living possible, and that was not so easy.
What does a typical day look like in your life today?
On the one hand, I am really in touch with our customers a lot. I receive an email about every registration and make sure that I contact the person as soon as possible. So I organize and manage a lot, but I also do a lot of network work e.g. at institutions of the city of Vienna to get strong partners such as the Caritas. Network maintenance and the further acquisition of partners is also a specific area of responsibility.
On the other hand, there are now submissions for certain grants on the program. I think that is the everyday life of every social entrepreneur.
In the past 2 years I have had a 40h + job and already see a clear difference to now. Back then, a lot of time was lost in meetings, discussions with colleagues and superiors, and now when I work, I really work through my to-do list and don’t postpone anything. It is more intense, but also less and the working time is shorter. I can also use my own highs and lows, I think everyone has them. So I’m more productive.
However, I want to separate work and leisure as much as possible, because this is particularly important as a young entrepreneur. You really have to protect yourself from the fact that work doesn’t get out of hand and you burn out. Family, friends and free time are part of this and respecting your own body and paying attention to what is possible and what is not possible every day is particularly important.
What are the most important skills and qualities to be successful in your industry?
For me it is certainly a very strong perseverance and self-discipline. Again and again I looked for tasks that required it. For example, I studied Chinese.
You have to get up again and again, because starting a business is not a mown meadow. It is also not a sprint, but rather a marathon. That’s why you really have to be 150% convinced of the idea. If this is not the case, you have to wait for the right idea.
If you are not completely convinced of your own company, you will not inspire and persevere anyone else for it, it is also much more difficult.
I think what makes me successful in what I do is authenticity, because people feel that too. That makes it “easy” for me to convince institutional cooperation partners. Our long run has paid off and now comes the harvest phase for us.
Do you have a secret to success?
In addition to staying power, it is essential to have a team that you can rely on. It doesn’t work without that. The right team, where people complement each other, is also not so easy to find. You often only notice a lot when you are already working together. I don’t think it’s a good thing to be too close either, but of course there has to be a basis of trust.
I am not a lone fighter and I would not want to do it all myself. The most important thing for me is the team with people you can rely on and bring in the skills and ideas that you don’t have yourself. Ultimately, investors also always invest in a team and take a good look at the members.
How do you / your company make money?
Through agency fees. At the moment, there is a one-time placement fee at Wohnbuddy, which we also adapt to the people and the period of stay for both parties. For example, Many Erasmus students are only looking for a place to stay for 2-6 months.
In the future there will be service packages on our platform. Everyone can register here and a pre-matching is already made based on the preferences and information entered, e.g. based on smokers / non smokers.
In the future, the housing providers can also choose how much we should be involved in the process, which of course would have to be paid. There are some who don’t need it at all, but some prefer help and advice here. The Wohnbuddy platform should, however, enable people to find each other without our intervention.
Is there anything that you think needs improvement in your industry?
To a certain extent, we are opening up a new industry, namely intergenerational living together. I would think it would be good if politicians looked even further and e.g. also advertises new construction projects that specifically support several generations. There we see our mission: to establish the living model of intergenerational living together with the use of existing living space and to become a brand with which the connection is made. The goal of Wohnbuddy is really to be a supplement on the housing market.
If you could start again, would you do something different?
- At the beginning we have e.g. no agency fees taken, which was a mistake in retrospect, I think. I think you have to test people’s willingness to pay as soon as possible and see where the limit is, so I think we started too late. We were just so busy doing the mediation that it went down at the time. The step to say: “Ok, now it also costs something” was therefore a big one for Wohnbuddy and for us and we had to test whether people are willing to pay anything.
In fact, it was also a tip from various trainers to me when starting a business that you should never ask too little. The price set at the beginning can no longer make big leaps in retrospect, which is why it should tend to be higher than too low and then simply tested.
- Something I’m very happy about is that we grew organically with Wohnbuddy. This enabled us to find out what our customers want and what is important to them. If we had started with a large financing and platform, it would not have worked so well, because the contact to the people would have been different.
The big investment for us, in contrast to many others, was time instead of money to develop a product or something similar. We offer a service and I think that organic growth was important for this, although we should have set prices right from the start.
It would also have been good to approach politics earlier. Getting to the right people is also a challenge.
- Another very important learning was that you should always talk to the decision-makers, not to anyone else. However, you don’t always get an appointment with them.
- And last but not least, I can also say that it always pays off to go to events or meetings where you might think “Why am I here?”. There are always new opportunities that you don’t expect. Even if you don’t see the meaning immediately, it is essential to perceive and see opportunities. This requires a lot of initiative, because nobody tells you what to do as a start-up.
What do you advise others about their lives and careers?
Listen to yourself and always create space and time for it. Follow your own heart and gut feeling, even if it doesn’t seem to be the right decision at first. If you get involved and do what the heart says – and that’s just my experience – the other things are all around.
Focus not on the dangers, but on the positive.
Of course there are phases in which fears and doubts arise. But then I just think to myself: “What is the worst thing that can happen?” – and in my case that would just be looking for a job again, so nothing really the worst in the world. It wouldn’t be tragic at all.
What I can advise is to be really true to yourself. As long as you can, it’s the right one.
And even if that doesn’t work with the company – who knows what that was good for or where it will lead you to?