Jess Ainlay: So you returned to Germany at 22 years old? Did you start your company, undpaul, right away?
Anja Schirwinski: No way, I had a long road to travel, figuratively, before I could do that. When I came back from Guatemala in 2003, it turned out that getting a job in my city, with my degree, wasn’t as easy as I thought. Unlike in America - where you’re rewarded for being different - in Germany at that time, success meant a chronological line through a resume. I ended up having to take whatever came my way. First, I had a night job working from home, answering the phone for an online travel agency over night.
During the day I started learning HTML and CSS. I had a real curiosity for how the internet worked - this thing I was using every day but had no idea how ‘stuff got on there’.
I went from learning HTML and CSS to learning simple content management systems. I registered a business so I could officially work on this, and in 2004 I made my first 400 Euros building a website for a company that sold helicopter round-trips in Hamburg. That website was up for 8 years.
Jess Ainlay: When did you become a developer full time?
Anja Schirwinski: Well, shortly after my first website, I got a much better job as an Administrative Assistant (what I studied for in school), and so I wasn’t in it for the money. I just continued to learn, and because I was a language person already, coding came naturally to me.
I kept learning and building websites on the side until 2007, when I went from being a secretary to building the company’s websites.
It was during this time that I met the people who I eventually founded undpaul with. I had become so good at one specific content management system - Drupal - that I was doing a lot of freelance jobs on the side. In 2009, my company had to let me go and I was going to be unemployed as of December. Instead of looking for another permanent position, I took the chance and became a full-time freelancer instead.
Jess Ainlay: How is being a freelancer in Germany different to that life in the US?
Anja Schirwinski: You get such strong support from the German government when you are unemployed wiht intent to build your own company. For a year, the government paid a good portion of my last salary, so that I had a regular income in addition to the side jobs.
That way, I minimized my risks and it took away a lot of pressure. I did that for one whole year, a year in which I felt very free to do what I wanted. In December 2010, we founded a GmbH (the German equivalent to an LLC) and we went from being a loose group of freelancers to a company united under one name - undpaul. Because of the specialization, the jobs started to find us.
Jess Ainlay: What would you say is your biggest failure?
Anja Schirwinski: Our riskiest time was when we were almost out of cash and it looked like we couldn’t pay our bills and might have to shut down. It ended up being pretty good for us because we figured out a way to save ourselves and got more serious about monitoring our numbers, so that out of a crisis came some positive. I guess that really wasn’t a failure.
Jess Ainlay: What is your biggest success to date?
Anja Schirwinski: We work with really interesting and well-known companies, and I actually co-wrote a book! But, in all honesty, the real success is being able to work with awesome people every day, and to have a company where everyone enjoys the work that they do.
Jess Ainlay: Do you think that your time abroad made you more willing to take risks
Anja Schirwinski: Probably, yes.