Benjamin Conard was a US Ambassador for the 33rd Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange 2016-’17. The Department of State awarded Ben ‘Fellow of the Month’ in April 2017 for his commitment to Entrepreneurship in Germany.
Like all good recent college grads, I was a bit lost. Should I take a risk? Build something new? Find a job? Travel the world? Weeks before graduation, these questions literally kept me up at night. Luckily, I got to answer ‘yes’ to all of them.
I never really thought I had what it took to move to another country. (You know, the really adventurous world-traveler types?) But with some encouragement from my German professor, I applied for a year-long fellowship in Germany. And with even more encouragement from my entrepreneurship professor, I accepted the offer. (Thanks, you two.)
I lived with host families in Cologne and Münster in Western Germany. I did intensive language training for two months, studied a semester at the Fachhochschule Münster, and found a 6-month internship in my field. I experienced culture shock, felt homesick, and even got a ticket from the police while riding my bike (oops).
Just two months before my departure, I founded Five North Chocolate. 9 in 10 start-ups fail – so I figured, ‘why not?’ Well, the soft-launch went well and I fell in love. I was sad to put things on hold, but do I regret it? Not for 1 second. My year in Germany proved to be invaluable and the skills I left with instrumental in making me a better entrepreneur.
Here are 5 things I learned while living in Germany that made me a better entrepreneur:
- You are your best investment
Throughout the year I always questioned if I was wasting my time away from home. But soon realized that I was learning invaluable skills in communication, global understanding, empathy, and emotional intelligence.
At the early stages of any company, it is rarely the idea that is good enough to bring success. The entrepreneur executing the idea plays a much bigger role. Don’t be afraid to spend time on learning new skills that will help you execute your ideas better. YOU are your best investment.
- It’s okay to be embarrassed
On my birthday, my host mom bought me a gift. I was surprised and very thankful, so I told her it was “unnötig” (useless). When I really meant to say “nicht nötig” (not necessary!) She was initially shocked I would say something so offensive… but she quickly realized what I meant and corrected me. I can promise you I’ll never make that mistake again 😉 There were countless situations where I couldn’t properly express myself, but I made mistakes, learned from them, and got better. Was it embarrassing to speak broken German? Yes. But was it the best way to learn? Also yes.
You will never jump into something new as a pro. You will make mistakes, you will fail, and you will learn from them. Sure, it might be embarrassing from time to time, but these moments make you stronger and smarter.
- Listening is more valuable than talking
During my beginning months in Germany, I spent many conversations just nodding along trying to keep up. But it became a great exercise in active listening, a skill every entrepreneur needs.
When you’re the new kid on the block (literally) and can’t quite say what you want to say, how you want to say it, and when you want to say it, you feel pretty unintelligent. But it gives you plenty of time to quiet down, engage, and listen to others.
- It’s okay to ask for help (but first, learn how)
Walking up to a customer service desk isn’t enough to receive help in Germany. You have to actually ask for it. It took me a little while to muster up the courage to demand help when I needed it, but after weeks of bank and cell phone issues, I had no choice. Instead of asking “Können Sie mir bitten helfen?” (Can you please help me?) I finally learned the phrase “Ich brauche Ihre Hilfe” (I need your help.) And it made a world of a difference.
Know where you fall short and know what you can’t accomplish alone. There’s nothing shameful in asking for help when you need it. Just be polite, be direct, and you might just get the helping hand you need.
- Being (and staying) happy is important (and up to you)
As I settled into my new city in Germany, the holidays were quickly gone and the gloomy winter months came rolling in. I knew I had to keep myself happy and healthy. So I joined a gym and rode my bike to and from work every day (about 1 hour). I volunteered at a local fair trade shop and regularly traveled and met with friends. None of these things directly contributed to the development of my business, but they directly contributed to my well-being (see #1).
Your health is your first priority. Without you, there’s nothing. It’s easy to let your mental and physical health get away from you. But if you do, it’ll catch up and zap your energy, creativity, and productivity.
The moral of the story?
Invest in yourself, be vulnerable, listen, ask for help, and stay healthy.
What valuable lessons have you learned from taking big risks?
Let me know in the comments!