Over the past few years, we’ve seen a rise of freelancers, contractors, gig economy workers, and those who blend both employment and self-employment. As the future of work adapts quickly, politics and regulations around tax have some catching up to do.
In this episode of Disruption Talks, we spoke with the CEO of Kontist, Christopher Plantener, about Kontist, business, freelancing, and much more.
Banking services for freelancers
Tax and banking have always been a challenge for freelancers in many ways. Traditional banking and tax regulations were not built with freelancing in mind.
That’s why companies like Kontist are providing much-needed solutions that take the headache out of tax. Kontist’s banking and tax advisory for freelancers blends all a freelancer’s financial needs into one simple solution.
Filip Sobiecki: Could you give us a short personal introduction?
Christopher Plantener: Aside from the business side of things, I’m a dad of four daughters. I’ve also lived for about 20 years abroad, where I set up several companies. I only came back to Germany for Kontist.
My very first company was a cocktail bar in Berlin. We set it up as three guys in university and built everything ourselves. I was responsible for the accounting and finance side. However, we made a lot of mistakes and had a really painful tax audit at one point.
I’ve also always lived the freelance experience and understand all the challenges you have to deal with. This led me to build software tools to help, starting with an accounting system, a bank, a tax advisory service, and a bookkeeping tool.
What does a day in the life of a CEO at Kontist look like?
My day typically starts late. Everyone says successful CEOs need to be there at five in the morning, but I’m more like the guy who’s there at five because he’s still awake from the day before.
One of the biggest activities I do is talking to people. I do the classic walk and talk meeting, although that’s changed due to COVID.
Having been a serial entrepreneur, has that experience helped you with your current venture?
The point that Kontist is at right now is the furthest I’ve brought a company, so in a sense, I’m swimming in unknown territory. For me, starting a company, I don’t think there’s anything I love more than that. It’s just really fun.
I think what I’ve learned the most is to appreciate people much more, my staff especially. I want to make this the best start-up to work for in Berlin. I think you can be successful and create a culture which is, from a human perspective, very different. The better the culture in a company, the more successful you will be.
Starting lots of businesses must take some grit to keep going. How did you keep going?
First of all, I’m obsessed. I think you have to be as a founder. Secondly, it’s what I know best. I’m very good at starting businesses and it’s my passion. I also think the perception of failure is very subjective. It’s a learning experience. But most of the companies I’ve started are still going. They don’t always turn out how you imagine, but I learned something every time.
Did you treat each business as though it would become the next big thing?
Exactly. You can always dream, and you should write down a vision of what you want and where you want to go. But start-ups should also take it one step at a time.
We all know the start-ups that made it big, the Facebooks and Amazons out there. The truth is that most start-ups fail. I think after three years, four out of ten fail.
The important thing for me was to ask: What will my next year look like? How can I grow?
What was the most challenging decision you had to make?
My last exit was a company I helped to build, but I wasn’t the founder. It was about eight people doing a PE exit. We got everyone in a room with a nice brown envelope with an amount of money that would make us all happy. As we were almost leaving the room, they told us we needed to fire 30% of the staff people. The new owner didn’t want them.
I was like, this is so unfair. I wasn’t the founder, but I’d hired these people. I wasn't at all prepared for that kind of thing. That became the foundation of my philosophy of “giving back” in a start-up environment.
I cannot promise people what the future will bring, but I can promise that I can try to make this experience the best in your life.
Could you give an elevator pitch for Kontist?
Kontist is all for the freelancer. We started with a bank account, but from day one, we have been calculating taxes like VAT and income tax in real-time. As freelancers, we get money, but a couple of years later (in Germany’s case), the state wants a big chunk of it. You never know how much it’ll be.
We ventured into full tax declaration and now offer a tax advisory service. The latest thing we’ve launched is a completely automated bookkeeping tool as well. Everything goes through the bank account, and then you don’t have to take care of anything else. We do the rest for you.
How was 2020 and how is 2021 going so far?
2020 was, I think, the craziest time in my professional career. I had just ventured into this new tax service which was on the horizon a few years earlier but wasn’t planned for 2020. In 2020, the self-employed were hit extremely hard, so we wanted to build tools to help them get their government funding.
During COVID, we realized we needed to adapt our business model, so we completely changed our plans and worked with what we had. We had the first line of code in April and the first 200 paying customers by August, which was the fastest jump ever.
2021 has been amazing. We’re now doing a bit of work on the back end, but we have 70 people doing this, and we’re heavily investing in AI to help us scale fast.
If you’re looking to expand overseas, how do you plan to overcome the tax challenges for each country?
I’m very familiar with accounting in different European countries and in the US because I’ve sold accounting systems there before. I had a partnership with an Eastern European bank, so I went to the Czech Republic and Bulgaria to quickly analyze their challenges, which are different from Western Europe.
Long story short, international expansion is not on the roadmap right now. I’ve done it with four of my eight previous companies, but we’re looking just at the German market right now.
Is Kontist’s secret weapon its narrow focus on freelancers?
Somebody offering something for one target group can offer a much better, tailor-made service than someone who appeals to mass market. Mass market has its advantages as well. For example, N26 offers its account for free, which is easier if you have millions of customers.
An example in Germany is this bank that specializes in pharmacies and doctors. My dad and sisters are doctors, so they use it. They just know how to talk to doctors. They know their pain points, the need for financing, the challenges, and so on.
On Kontist’s website, we have hundreds of articles on the topic of freelancing. We have a knowledge base and a community around that. We also have offline events and webinars.
You can do this kind of thing if you serve one narrow group, and you really understand what their problems are.
What is your decision-making framework at Kontist?
I don't have a framework as such, but I have a controversial opinion that I mentioned in a recent LinkedIn post. In my professional life, I am a fan of consensus-driven decision-making. A lot of people in Germany don’t like that. They find it inefficient, but I really think you should take people along and share decisions.
If you had a magic wand and could give every 12-year-old in the world a new skill or piece of knowledge, what would it be?
As a father of four kids, I would make everyone in the world speak one language. It could be English or Esperanto. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is that it’s one common thing. I think a lot of problems in the world are down to a lack of understanding and communication. I think it would bring humanity to a completely different level.
This discussion is part of our Disruption Talks recordings, where we invite experts to share their insights on winning innovation strategies, the next generation of disruptors, and scaling digital products. To get unlimited access to this interview and many more, sign up here: www.netguru.com/disruption/talks