Dr. Nicolas Stephan is co-founder of the startup Sparrks, which he started with Jakob Hansen early 2021. With Sparrks, companies develop their talents and leaders effectively and with lasting impact across the board with premium 1:1 coaching by top executive coaches. The innovative, time- and cost-effective format allows companies to enrich their development programs, effectively onboard new hires and successfully navigate through times of change.
Prior to starting Sparrks, Nicolas was a Senior Manager at Bain & Company where he focused on consulting leading corporations in transformational situations as well as on corporate strategy and co-developed and conducted several trainings for consultants. He also co-founded the logistics unicorn sennder Technologies.
Nicolas studied medicine at the University of Munich and Harvard Medical School and obtained an MBA from INSEAD.
In his private time, Nicolas loves to go long-distance running, snowboarding, playing the piano and traveling the world. Together with his wife and son, he lives in Berlin, Germany.
Where did the idea for Sparrks come from?
My co-founder Jakob and I got to know each other at my former workplace, the global consulting firm Bain & Company, where both of us were Senior Managers. We had both been consulting on change implementations and had both developed trainings together. With deep exposure to personal development in the corporate world, we witnessed people become more effective leaders with the right coaching. In all our years of leadership development and consulting, we had personally experienced the upskilling and motivation surge that coaching can generate, particularly when working with some of the world’s finest systemic coaches on the executive floor. However, we also knew that business coaching in its traditional form was reserved for top management given its time- and financial cost.
During one of our bi-weekly Sunday brunches, it dawned on us: What if you could achieve in a few sessions much or more than you could in a classic string of 10+ sessions? We said ‘let’s try it out!’ and build an offering that improves leadership performance throughout all ranks, with minimum disruption to the working hours, but with immediate and long-lasting effect.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I typically get up at 5:15 am to go for a run, come back around at 7 am and make breakfast for my family. At around 8:30 am, after some family time, I make my way to the office, which is around the corner. I go through my digital kanban board, which I usually update the evening before, that helps me focus on what is most important during the day. At 9 am, my team and I kick off the day in a Scrum-style Morning Huddle: A 15-minute check-in that focuses on progress and that produces an actionable plan for the day of work. This creates focus, improves self-management and communication, identifies impediments, promotes quick decision-making, and consequently eliminates the need for a bunch of other meetings.
My day is quite full with client meetings and some internal meetings, which I try to limit as much as possible. In between, I try to work the tasks off of my list from top to bottom. Of course, during the day there is a lot of stuff that comes in from the left or right that was not planned for that day. So I follow the principles from the book “Getting things done” in order not to lose much time switching content (e.g. from replying to emails or ad hoc tasks). I know I have some room for further improvement here, so our Head of Marketing and I have a challenge on this topic. At around 6:30 p.m. I head back home from the office to spend time with my family, have dinner and bring my boy to bed at 8:30 p.m. Thereafter I briefly do the planning for the next day and finally spend some time with my wife.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Most things come out of initial ideas – I first brood about it myself at home, during a run or in the office and then discuss it relatively early on with someone else because I refine ideas by verbalizing them and through discussions. If it is something processual, a framework or something alike, I sketch it out on paper first. If it has to do with numbers, I play around in Excel.
What’s one trend that excites you?
People in our society tend to get more health-conscious and reduce or even eliminate their animal product intake. The rate of progress is not fast enough and the structural incentives are too little, however, it’s going in the right direction.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I think I am pretty disciplined and have good follow-through.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Learn fast as an employee in a demanding environment, but don’t spend too much there if you want to become self-employed. I think I could have done with a few years less in management consulting.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
When people say they are already at their maximum capacity, physically and/or mentally, they are at max 40% there. There is a lot of potential in all of us that is untapped and waiting to be unleashed.\
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Ask questions, write things down and be reliable.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Common wisdom: Ruthlessly put your clients first and exceed their expectations. Everything else will follow. This is one area where a small business has a structural advantage over a large business.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
There are many but not anticipated well enough how stiff the economic weather would be in 2022 and how long the sales for a B2B product like ours are. In retrospect, we overhired at the beginning of the year.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
A time- and cost-efficient system that manages kindergarten applications – at least in Berlin. Parents spend a lot of time applying for kindergarten for their kids. Many of them would be happy to give away a healthy amount of money to someone or a system that takes care of that for them (in fact there are people who write applications for others, but from what I have seen there is a large margin for improvement). I assume this challenge also exists in other places.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
It was not 100€ but 50€, to be honest. I recently gave 50€ away on my way home from work: The weather was bad, it was dark and cold and I was riding my bicycle. There was this street musician on the side of the street playing his piano and singing opera arias with a great voice and full of joy. So I passed by him to get home quickly, then I said to myself “No!” and turned around and gave him 50€. Why? He was passionate and created a fantastic atmosphere for the few who listened.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
That is Trello, the digital Kanban board.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Factfulness by Hans Rosling. It sets things into perspective, built on empirical data, and shows that not in every aspect things are developing as badly as often portrayed in the media.
What is your favorite quote?
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.”
- Ask questions, write things down and be reliable
- Be disciplined and have a strong follow-through
- Ruthlessly put your clients first and exceed their expectations. Everything else will follow.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.