Dear friends, customers and colleagues
2020 was a special year for all of us. It confronted us with unprecedented challenges that much is certain. But in every crisis there is always an opportunity - that is probably my greatest take away from this year.
Review, insights, outlook
I would like to invite you to review the year 2020 with me and to take up already known highlights and other perhaps still unknown topics for the new year.
A lot has changed for Kontist this year and Corona worked like an accelerator. In 2016 we started as the first neobank for freelancers and self-employed in Germany. In 2018, the aim was to combine banking and accounting to make real-time accounting possible for the first time. We were super proud when the German Handelsblatt in May this year voted our Duo product, combining the Kontist bank account and Lexoffice accounting solution, as the best business account for the self-employed.
So we had also finished this chapter successfully and could in spring of this year move on to the third chapter, when founding the Kontist Steuerberatungsgesellschaft, a challenger-tax consultancy for freelancers. With launching our new tax offering, we have again managed to create a completely new product category that combines banking, accounting and taxes in one app and offering, as was my vision from the beginning when I founded Kontist.
Corona and how helping makes you happy
Of course, we at Kontist had other plans for this year 2020. A large investment round was planned and we spoke with various banks about partnerships and international expansion, to name just a few topics.
Then March came and everything stood still for a moment. It was like seeing an explosion in slow motion. Back then, so many thoughts came to my mind, what would all this mean for our company and employees? Would this mean, that sales and customer intake would plummet and what would investors say?
The situation was completely unmanageable, but one thing was quickly clear to us: for our customers, for the self-employed, this pandemic was and is a disaster of unimagined proportions.
So while we switched the company over to “Remote First” within days, which luckily was quite easy because we are already very digital, we all realized that we had to do something to help our customers who were increasingly desperate.
Then something very special happened that I have never experienced in my life. People came to me from everywhere who wanted to help.
It wasn't about personal profit, it was simply about helping others self-employed and defending the lifestyle we have all been fighting for already long before the crisis.
Many of the people I spoke to told me that they felt almost euphoric finally getting the chance to help in a very unselfish way and to be able to personally contribute in this crisis. I noticed this feeling with our employees and also for myself. It was a good feeling that took us a long way.
So we started to mobilize all the forces we had at both Kontist and the Kontist Foundation, which we had founded to support freelancers. The energy and desire to help was overwhelming. Our employees worked late nights and weekends like I've never seen before.
We built tools to apply for Corona help and to defer taxes, set up a legal hotline, wrote help and FAQ articles, gave interviews, talked to politicians, organized webinars with up to 2000 participants almost on a daily basis, set up a Coronal help hotline and so much more.
I believe the possibility of helping others, without first thinking about your own benefit, being able to do something and not standing there paralized, has helped us as a team and company incredibly to overcome our own corona shock and turn the situation into a positive one for us.
The feedback and encouragement that we got back from customers and freelancers from all over Germany made up for all the efforts and sleepless nights.
And miraculously, our great commitment had a happy ending for Kontist too. We had more growth in customers and sales than expected and even got some fresh money. A big shout out to everyone who supported us this year, may it be freelancers, employees or customers - the joint effort has made it happen.
Germany's state religion is permanent employment - self employed requires a stronger voice
At Kontist, we have been supporting the self-employed and freelancers for years. With the Kontist Foundation, we want to give freelancers a home and fight together for the concept of a “freelance lifestyle”. I had feared that the German politicians would hold on to the “state religion of permanent employment” as Sascha Lobo recently aptly put it in Spiegel magazine.
But how big the failure would be in the crisis and how unfair it is to support employees with “Kurzarbeit” whereas self-employed have to ask for social benefits and Harz IV, I couldn't have imagined at the beginning of the year.
The Corona crisis made it clear again. In Germany, self-employment has a second class status apart from a few professional groups such as doctors and lawyers.
I am very grateful to my colleagues, especially Catharina Bruns from the Kontist Foundation, for tirelessly fighting during the crisis in interviews with the press and discussions with politicians, associations and trade unions, in webinars and petitions to ensure that freelancers and self-employed cease to be ignored and could also claim Corona aid. And the success at the end of the year has proven her right, even if you can always ask for more.
Corona - a huge opportunity to rethink how tax advisory is done in Germany
During the first lockdown in April, we set up a tax advisory hotline for Corona aid, which is actually the classic task of a tax advisor in Germany. For the second wave of Corona aids it is now even mandatory to ask your task advisor before filling it.
We were able to see from the first row how the tax consulting industry in Germany was overrun by Corona and how it was impossible to find help as a freelancer.
Although we started out as a neobank, the bank account and card are actually more of a means to an end. Freelancers don’t waste too much time on banking, but it is the perfect starting point for our business because all data is immediately available on the bank account in real-time. In addition, most customers use the bank account almost every day, which, compared to other solutions, makes it the perfect cockpit for controlling transactions, accounting, receipts and, last but not least, taxes.
The bank transaction data can then be used very easily to do fully automated accounting VAT return. Once you have come this far and therefore already have an API to the tax authorities, it is only a small step to then also file the annual financial statements and the income tax return.
A bank in Germany is not allowed to offer tax advisory services. So an independent Challenger-Tax Advisory was founded, so we could jointly serve the customer and offer this “tax advisor in your pocket solution”. And since the Kontist Steuerberatungsgesellschaft is a full-fledged tax consultancy, it can, of course, also give personal advice, support the customer on the phone and thus offer an all-round carefree package.
Founding the Kontist Steuerservice - the hottest ride of my startup life
While the world was standing still in the spring, we decided to accelerate our go-to market with Kontist Steuerervice, which was only planned for the end of this year at the earliest. I've founded 8 startups in my life, but I think that was the hottest ride I've had in my startup life so far. In less than 4 months from the first line of code to the first 200 paying customers, it was unbelievable. Today, only 4 months later, the Kontist Tas Advisory already has more customers than 3 average size tax firms in Germany. This is a record we will surely break more often in the next few years.
Although you were not allowed to see each other physically because of Corona, more than 20 new employees were hired, almost the entire product and development team built a new backend including automatic accounting and AI in just weeks. A new company was set up, a tax advisor was won as a partner, we negotiated countless contracts, recruited customers as beta testers, launched new websites and everything else that needs to be done when starting a completely new line of business.
I have seldom seen so much commitment and enthusiasm. Everyone at Kontist knows our mission and this year we were able to show everyone that we mean business. We stand for the freelancers and want to drastically simplify their life. Together, we want to rethink freelancing, whether it's banking, taxes or politics.
Corona threw a stick between the legs of many freelancers this year. I am proud of how our team at Kontist fought for 2020 to be a success anyway, for at least some freelancers and for Kontist as a company.
Goodbye and hello
With the major change in our strategic direction, there are of course often personnel changes coming along.
I would like to thank my colleague and Co-CEO Sibylle Strack, with whom I have built Kontist from 30 to almost 100 employees over the past two years. Sibylle's job was it to build up structures and processes in a fast-growing company and to consolidate banking, as we were still at Solarisbank and Wirecard Bank at the time.
I am very happy and grateful that I had Sibylle on board, especially when the Wirecard storm hit us this year, who knows where we would have ended up without her guidance, even if the switch from Wirecard to Solaris had been planned for two years. Now that the change has been completed and Kontist will fully concentrate on the subject of taxes, it was time for Sibylle with all her banking experience to move on. I will miss you.
Another farewell was with my friend, co-founder and CTO Sebastian Galonska, who founded Kontist with me almost 5 years ago in my living room. Without him, this trip would not have been possible. After 5 very intensive years, Sebastian wants more time for his family and travelling. Who wants to blame him but I will also miss him very much and his worlds, that we are a tech company, are tattooed firmly behind my ears.
When the curtain falls for one, it rises for someone else. I am very happy to welcome Zhao Lu as the new CTO. Zhao is originally from China, but has worked in Silicon Valley for a long time and has a lot of experience with companies in the growth phase. In addition, his expertise in AI and machine learning will certainly be of great use in the near future.
Last but not least, I am particularly pleased that I was able to convince an old friend and companion Benjamin Esser to lead Kontist together with me as the new Co-CEO. He was particularly impressed by our new tax advisory and rethinking of an industry. Benjamin has a lot of experience from his own startup Urbanara, but also from larger companies and consulting firms and will take over finance and marketing among other things at Kontist.
I am very much looking forward to next year to further expand our market leadership in banking for freelancers together with Benjamin and the Kontist team at my side. At the same time, we want to show and prove that if you completely rethink banking, accounting and taxes, the freelancer will finally get what we've all been dreaming of for a long time - an autopilot for his finances and taxes.
And of course that we finally overcome this pandemic and get back to the office and see you all in person at the Selbständigentag 2021.