VSF 10th Anniversary CEO Interview

16 December 2021 by Andrew Van Scoter, Christian Friede, D.K.

Dear Readers, Colleagues and Friends,

We at VSF are very proud to announce our company’s 10th anniversary!

Quite a ride it has been, from our beginnings as a moetly crew of freelance software engineers and designers with a good idea through the turbulent stages of start-up business to where we are today – a company grown alongside the challenges we have faced along the way, confidently rooted and established in the present and excitedly looking forward to whatever the future might send our way.

To match the occasion, we decided that getting some in-depth insights – a close look behind the scenes, if you will – into the past, present and future of VSF directly from the source, our CEOs, would be a fabulous way to set off the anniversary celebrations properly.

So here it is: a brief history of VSF and its founders, Andrew van Scoter and Christian Friede – deep insights, philosophy and first-hand accounts of attempts to define, tame and lead a mysterious creature with character and mind of its own – an IT Solution Company called VSF.

Please Enjoy!

Q: Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen. Welcome to another episode of The Andy and Chris Insights webcast. This is the last one for this year and today is kind of a special occasion because we at VSF are celebrating our 10th anniversary, as you might already be aware of.

Quite a ride it has been, from our beginnings as a moetly crew of freelance software engineers and designers with a good idea through the turbulent stages of start-up business to where we are today – a company grown alongside the challenges we have faced along the way, confidently rooted and established in the present and excitedly looking forward to whatever the future might send our way.

So as a first order of business, I want to congratulate our fearless leader's, founding fathers or dark overlords - depending on who you talk to - our CEO’s Chris and Andy. Congratulations, you guys! You made it! To honor the occasion, we decided that it might be a really good idea to pepper you guys with a couple of questions to get the back story and insights from you on the history of our company. So, thank you very much for your time and for agreeing to this little shindig. Let's just start at the beginning. How did you guys meet? How and where did it all start? Let's hear how you guys found each other.

So here it is: a brief history of VSF and its founders, Andrew van Scoter and Christian Friede – deep insights, philosophy and first-hand accounts of attempts to define, tame and lead a mysterious creature with character and mind of its own – an IT Solution Company called VSF.

Christian: Here’s the story: I met Andy for the first time… at our previous employer, I think. I was applying for an internship at that company, and he was, at the time, some sort of head of development at their European Office. We shared a friend and he brought me in because he also was a former employee and that's when I when I met Andrew for the first time.

Andrew: I think L. was still a contractor at that time and he was still in the company, but as a contractor. And L. basically came to me and D., who was my my boss back then and said “Hey, there's this great guy from Hamburg: You know… doesn't talk a lot, sitting in the corner over there, and he'd like to do an internship.” And I think that's how the whole thing started!

Christian: Yeah, and I think this was… I’m not entirely sure, but somewhere around 2004 I believe, or 2003. So, it's nearly 20 years already.

Andrew: Yeah! Somewhere around that!

Q: So VSF has been a long time in the making it seems!

Christian: Yeah, it was a process.

Andrew: But I think the story goes on. Basically, sometime after Christian graduated, he became a freelancer, working for the company. And then he convinced me at some point to become a freelancer too and we worked on projects together. I think that's how the whole thing started - that professionally we were making money by working together on the same projects, for the same company as freelancers. He was the one who actually convinced me to get out of this and start out on your own.

Q: Ok, so you're both freelancers - what happened then? What made you start a whole new business together when apparently being a freelancer is better than working in the confines of a company?

Christian: It wasn't really in a new business though. We just continued working on projects and the projects became bigger and bigger and so did the responsibilities for the people that we got involved. At that time there was a big project coming to our doorstep. It became clear that it's too much work for just us 2 freelancing developers. We couldn't handle that on our own. We we needed more - We needed developers. We needed engineers. We needed requirement engineers - because there’s a lot of stuff going on in a big project like this and we really wanted to do this. we decided that, if we want to be more professional and also kind of more secure and inspire our client to trust in our capabilities to deal with such a big project, we needed to found a company. That way we could prove ourselves, garner trust, show that we are a company with “real” people behind and not just a bunch of freelancers which are kind of a mess and probably wouldn't get the project done. We could have just taken on smaller projects and continued to work on our own just fine, but to get through to the “real” stuff and into the bigger projects we had to take that working mode to a more professional level.

Andrew: This goes to showing that we were very optimistic back then - we were in the US, just me, Christian, and our Solution Architect R. who was on board as a freelancer already back then. Think about it, we have actually gotten a project approved and really just had three people for it. A project worth of 10 to 12k. I remember being in the hotel room with Christian somewhere in the US, paperbagging it like “Oh my gosh, where are we going to find people to do this now?”

Christian: Yep, wild times.

Q: I guess you also had to go with the „fake it until you make it flow” for a while?

Andrew: Oh yes!

Q: That sounds really exciting! Let's say you're back at the breakfast table that special morning when you knew „We have a new company, we call ourselves VSF. My name’s on the door. And today is my first workday.“ Imagine yourself sitting at that table, coffee in hand, Christian. What was your greatest hope that day

Christian: Honestly, I don't know because there was no first day. It was more like a transition. We just continued working on our stuff. So, it wasn’t like “Yeah ok, this is new.” not like that we didn’t know each other and had to come together in a new company and start working on something new. In that transition phase things didn’t change that much, they only really changed when we started to look for an office and a relative helped us out a little bit and we found a really crappy garage or “garage style” office in the backyard of an old house in Neckarau and that's when we started to buy some desks to have work places for people, but even that wasn’t really a “first day” per se. It was all more a slow transition and I can’t remember a kind of “event” like that.

Q: Well, the greatest and most successful IT companies famously started out in a in a garage so – that’s a good start, actually! I can see the similarities. but were you looking forward to something in general, something in the future of your company past the transition phase?

Christian: It was indeed exciting to say that we are now kind of an in group that’s bound together, and we have a commitment to our own company – that changed definitely. When you’re a freelancer, you're most likely only responsible for your own stuff and your own work, and you can decide quite easily when and where you want to work or not - depends how much money you need. But having this commitment to a company, the feeling of “Let's do this together“ that was kind of nice and an exciting anxiety at the same time. I loved it to share my thoughts with Andrew and work through all of this. We shared the same passion and that was lots of fun – also looking forward to finding fun projects ahead.

Andrew: I just have one thing to add to what Christian said as he forgot, probably. I remember that, on one of the first days he suddenly goes “Oh my gosh, how does accounting work actually?” And my neighbor gave us a book “First steps in accounting” and I think that's what you started to read.

Christian: You're right. There was a lot of stuff to learn, of course. We found ourselves running a company without actually knowing how to do it. We were software engineers. We knew how to build software, but we didn't really know how to run a company and that was something that we had to learn. Sometimes the hard way. Sometimes, it worked out well, but yeah.

Q: Would you say now that simply hopping into the deep end was your greatest fear when you started that day? If not, what was your greatest fear?

Andrew: I think my biggest fear… At that time, I just had my first child, and my wife was studying at University. So, my fear was “OK. Will I be able to feed my family” Yeah that was actually my biggest fear back then period, rather than the work project. But that actually encouraged me more. Sure, that fear was more on the private side then. Basically, this was the worst possible time to start a company.

Q: Well, it depends! If it immediately hits the mark and you take off to the moon the next month - that could be the best time ever, right? There’s this mind exercise: „Imagine yourself in 10 years. What would like to see?“ Given the occasion, I would like to turn this around and ask you both: Are you now, as CEOs of a company, where you imagined yourself to be 10 years ago?

Andrew: Personally, I would say yes. I think we’re more “senior” and there's nothing we haven't really experienced as managing directors. I mean any problems we had, actually have been solving themselves lately. The situation we went through recently, pushed us back a little from where I thought we as a company would be financially. But as people, individuals - I'm very surprised how much we have grown into our responsibilities and experience. Especially having opened a second branch in Poland getting to know all those people and taking responsibility for them - Yeah, that's something I think I wasn't really expecting when I started the company back then. But how about you, Christian?

Christian: Yeah, it's the same for me. I was not envisioning that we become a company of around 60 people in the end. It was not like we planned at all out, to grow that much and so on. We definitely hoped and planned for some growth but just in a moderate way - we wanted to grow just as much as we could handle while keeping control on the company as a whole. We didn’t want to become the next SAP or something like it, that was never our intention. Also keep in mind that we didn't create the company with an idea of a product or something else behind it, we were just founded the company because we thought we can provide better development services to our clients that way. That's not something revolutionary, right? It's just simple software service and tons of other companies were doing it at the time. We were just one among many. There was nothing like that cliché “big idea” saying “We have a startup idea, and we will become the biggest player in the market because we have a great idea so therefore, we cannot fail”. We didn’t envision some 10 years plan like “In 10 years we want to be like this” or “We want to have this market share” or whatever. So again, it was all kind of unspectacular to be honest, more like a vision, “We want to have fun and work.” We like to work together, with other people and if we can continue that for the next 10 years, then that's a great goal.

Andrew: Yeah, we're guys loving to solve problems. At the end of the day, if you see a problem, me and Christian have to always step away and hold ourselves back to not jump in and solve it because we just like a good problem to be solved.

Q: All but rubbing your hands and practicing your evil plan laughter.

Christian: Yes, get my hands dirty! Gimme!

Q: 10 years are quite a long time. Did you guys take any unexpected turns along the journey? For example: I personally was wondering at some point why you guys focused on IT solutions for the manufacturing industry since, from the outside at least, that‘s kind of an obscure topic. Did that come from your previous work? Or did you just run into some sort of random project that led you there by accident? Or, for that matter, did you take any other unexpected turns?

Andrew: We focused on manufacturing because that's where we mostly spent our time within projects and we learned exactly what manufacturers problems were. And with our strong analysis it was just obvious to stick around in that area. However, I think we collected many people around us who think and work the same way, so we could work ourselves into any areas’ problems - but it was the manufacturing thing that came first, and I think that's where the focus came later on.

Christian: It’s true that we know the manufacturing business well, through our customers too, of course, but at the core it's all driven by technology. We all are the most interested in technology and in solutions for tech-problems and the IT part of it. So, we know we do have a lot of domain knowledge through our previous projects, and we feel confident to consult our customers on those topics. But it's all because we are based in the technology behind it all - we know their domain through the technology and that's still our biggest strengths, that we can provide solutions to our customers that work because they solve their problems at the root. You need good domain knowledge for that. Of course, we are not “The Experts” to solve “all” problems for our customers, there’s other concerns who can do that better. But when it comes to technology and the right way to solve a problem from the “IT solution and technology” aspect we are experts.

Andrew: Yeah, when we had our first homepage, we still didn't consider ourselves like, a real “company” but I realized like “Oh… Christian, did you know people are actually buying houses and apartments and taking out loans and they really depend on us! Now we really need to start building a company, become serious about it!” That’s why I always say we didn't “start a company” from day one, but with version 2.0 of VSF - that's when we started to really build a company from the ground up. We grew into it, we accepted the challenge of starting a company and making everyone a part of it. And in version 3.0 we introduced the lean approach and gave away a lot of responsibility to the company and I remember a day when me and Christian were in the office - this was already in the new office - and we're just like “I hope everything goes OK. It’s not just all about us anymore” And that really made a difference.

Q: Since you brought up changes: What's the one thing - if there even is anything in the history of the company - that you would go back for and change if you could? Like giving away power or growing into accepting the challenge of building the company.

Christian: Yeah, so when it comes to the development of the company, there were definitely some points which, looking back from where we are, we should have put more focus on. Like bringing more diversity into our client base for instance. It’s our biggest hassle at the moment - it still affects us today and it’s the root of a lot of problems we have today. As a matter of fact, we were so drunk by the success in the early days by the growth of the company and the fact that we we’re so busy with handling all the projects that we have overseen a few things there, strategic work mostly, and focus on what comes next or the company will look like in five years. Those kinds of questions that you usually would consider if you’re working more strategically. So those are some mistakes that we definitely made, looking back on this but I would say there were no major missteps – at least I don't see any. Maybe you Andrew?

Q: Let's look at the positive side of things. What's your proudest moment in the history of VSF - to both of you?

Andrew: For me it's clear, I don't know about you, Christian?

Christian: You can start then, no problem.

Andrew: Hiring our first employees! Having people work for you on the same thing - that was, for me, the most amazing thing. And then… when you agree, and you pick them that they actually come! That’s great. It's fun to work with people and that was the biggest miracle to see for me.

Christian: Yeah, it’s a similar thing for me. When we have the Christmas events in those restaurants or the bigger events at the office when we are able to bring all the people that work for us together in one room and have a good time and good party. I like bringing people together in a group and see that all people are chatting and kind of become friends. Those are some sort of proud moments, seeing that we created kind of a space and environment where people like to stay and like to work and come together and share of some of their private time together. That makes me proud. The social aspect of it.

This concludes Part 1/3 of the VSF 10th Anniversary CEO Interview. Please look below to find the link to Parts 2 and 3!

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