Anja Schirwinski went from shy in Central America to confident CEO
March 15, 2017
Entrepreneur Snapshot
  • Founder: Anja Schirwinski
  • Company: undpaul GmbH
  • From: Erfurt, Germany
  • Expat in: Guatemala
  • Key Travel Experiences: Guatemala, United States
  • Current location: Hannover, Germany
  • Recommended reading: The Beach

Key takeaway: It could be an interesting discussion with a stranger or seeing an active volcano for the first time. These things can help change your perspective and have an impact on what you do - even years later.

From Central America to self-taught CEO – Anja Schirwinski

Jess Ainlay: Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview! Let’s start off with how you became an expat in the first place.

Anja Schirwinski: At age 19 I went abroad for 2 and a half years. Most of that was spent in Antigua, Guatemala. I spent about 6 months in the United States, too.

Jess Ainlay: Of all the places you saw during that time, what places affected you the most?

Anja Schirwinski: Everywhere I went in Central America had an effect: Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Costa Rica. But what affected me above all else were the very poor areas in all these locations. I came from a pretty low-income family in the former East Germany, but even still, we had enough to pay for my first 3-week-trip to Guatemala.

Seeing how much happiness people with so little could show, gives me perspective about my #firstworldproblems every day.

Jess Ainlay: What sparked your desire to move abroad?

Anja Schirwinski: In 2001, I was 19 and had just graduated from business college with a degree as an Administrative Assistant. I had no desire to start working right away. I went on a trip planned by my Spanish teacher, and fell in love with Antigua, Guatemala. I went home, saved for a few months and bought a ticket to stay for six months. I ended up staying abroad for two and a half years.

Jess Ainlay: Did your time abroad play a role in your becoming an entrepreneur?

Anja Schirwinski: I never really thought of it like that, but yes, it did. When I was there, I worked in different bars and restaurants. I really enjoyed it. I started to think about opening up my own place, actually, but the pay was so low in Guatemala. I was so young and broke when I got there, I didn’t have the capital to start much of anything. But it was fun to dream about.

Jess Ainlay: Looking back now, how did that time abroad change the trajectory of your life?

Anja Schirwinski In every possible way. I used to be very shy, poorly-educated and, honestly, I was pretty unmotivated. Where I’m from, there wasn’t always a lot of opportunity, and I was on track to have a boring job with a low salary.

My time abroad taught me how lucky I was in life and I also learned two languages fluently. Plus, I discovered black refried beans.

Beth Santos jumped at the chance to teach on the island of Sao Tome. It changed her life forever.

Meet Beth

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.

"My time abroad taught me how lucky I was in life and I also learned two languages fluently." Plus, I discovered black refried beans.

Jess Ainlay: Does someone have to live abroad or travel abroad for a certain amount of time to feel that way?

Anja Schirwinski: I don’t think it matters how long you stay. A few weeks can be enough to come across something that impacts your mind and lifestyle.

Jess Ainlay: What does that impact look like for you?

Anja Schirwinski: It could be anything, like an interesting discussion with a stranger or seeing an active volcano for the first time. These things can help change your perspective and have an impact on what you do - even years later.

Jess Ainlay: For me, it was about really getting to know a place, beyond being a tourist who only gets to have a shallow experience and is more likely to remain safely in their own culture. Living abroad allowed me to expand and add parts to myself in a new culture.

Jess Ainlay: What is the most challenging thing you experienced when living abroad?

Anja Schirwinski: The most challenging for me would be always being a stranger wherever I went, and then even feeling like a stranger when I would go back ‘home’. Honestly, that was so difficult for me that I ended up staying in Germany because I didn’t want to go through the acclimatization again.

Jess Ainlay: What future plans do you have for undpaul?

Anja Schirwinski: We have no plans to grow the team much right now. We like being small and effective. I do not want to be the head of a company that is too big for me to remember everyone’s name. We constantly improve our standards and tools, so that we can continue to deliver the best work for our clients and enable them to have the most successful web projects.

Jess Ainlay: Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview! Welcome to the #Postnomadic tribe.

You can connect with Anja at undpaul.de, @undpaul on Twitter and @undpaul on Instagram.

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