Born and raised in Germany, Mike Mahlkow’s journey from a childhood devoted to Olympic handball to becoming an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley is a testament to the resilience required to navigate the unpredictable terrain of entrepreneurship.
Mike’s story is about adaptability and the pursuit of new passions. As he continues to build and innovate in the tech industry, his experiences serve as a source of inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs worldwide.
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A Childhood Focused on Discipline and Teamwork
Growing up in Germany, Mike’s childhood was marked by a deep involvement in sports, particularly Olympic handball. His dedication and discipline, honed through rigorous training six times a week for nine years, laid the foundation for crucial skills that would later shape his entrepreneurial journey.
“The number one skill I learned was discipline – sticking to the plan and grinding. Number two was teamwork, crucial in a team sport like handball. The last was having a competitive mindset – wanting to win and bouncing back from losses,” reflects Mike.
His handball background instilled in him a drive for leadership and the ability to adapt to different roles within a team, skills that would prove invaluable as an entrepreneur.
From Sports to Startups: A Shift in Obsession
After an injury redirected his focus from handball, Mike found a new obsession – competitive video games. However, it was the world of startups that captured his long-term interest. Recognizing the potential to make a lasting impact, Mike delved into the startup ecosystem, drawn by the dynamic pace and opportunities it offered.
“The idea of startups resonated with me; I saw it as something I could do my whole life,” says Mike.
His transition from sports to startups was seamless, with the lessons learned in discipline, teamwork, and a competitive mindset seamlessly transferring to the entrepreneurial arena.
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Cultural Shift: Relocating to the U.S.
While Mike cherished his upbringing in Germany, he couldn’t ignore the allure of the United States, where he perceived a faster-moving landscape, especially in the startup scene.
“The U.S. was like the land of opportunity, startups left and right, much more advanced than Europe,” he notes.
Mike’s initial exposure to the U.S. was through an internship at a Silicon Valley startup in the middle of Palo Alto, followed by a study abroad experience in Los Angeles. He acknowledges that the dynamic startup landscape came as a culture shock since it was a stark contrast to the more laidback approach in Europe.
It was during this time that he met a co-founder who shared his passion for startups, eventually leading them to launch their own venture.
Stripes and Pivots: Lessons from Corporate Giants
Mike’s journey took an intriguing turn when he joined Stripe, a company that was, and still is, at the forefront of financial technology. Working at Stripe was pivotal for Mike, providing exposure to a high-growth environment and the opportunity to contribute to the company’s expansion into Eastern Europe.
“Stripe was life-changing. The density of smart people was unmatched, and the transparent internal structure allowed me to learn what a great company should look like,” Mike reflects.
Mike remembers joining the 950-strong Stripe team sometime in 2018. He was also impressed by the complete transparency in the internal structure and being in on all the important decisions being taken. Mike focused on reading and absorbing all the information he could.
Although Mike spent most of his time in Berlin, he also traveled between San Francisco and Dublin. His role was about building startup partnerships in the German-speaking market and helping with the Eastern Europe expansion.
Mike’s experience at Stripe also played a crucial role in shaping his understanding of fundraising and navigating the intricate processes of both equity and debt financing.
Building Blair: Disrupting Student Financing
Mike, along with his co-founders, embarked on their entrepreneurial venture with Blair, aiming to revolutionize the flawed U.S. student financing system. They introduced income share agreements, aligning the incentives of financiers, students, and universities.
Blair operates on an income share agreements model where a student repays the money they receive only if they earn more than a certain income threshold. For instance, if they earned less than $60000, they need not repay anything in that given year.
Mike and his co-founders raised money at first from high net with individuals and then gave it to the students. They underwrote the loans based on an algorithm and students could pledge a percentage of their income for a certain time after they graduated.
However, the journey was not without challenges. The regulatory landscape, coupled with strong opposition from traditional student loan entities, led Blair to adapt its business model. Mike and his co-founders rebuilt the platform and started selling it as a SaaS product to schools directly
Mike remembers taking the company through the Y Combinator where he learned valuable fundraising lessons. Before YC they participated in an immigrant accelerator, which helped change the trajectory of the company. Their first investors were high net with individuals, family offices, and big Wall Street firms like asset managers and hedge funds.
Down the line, Mike also got proficient at raising debt. The team successfully raised $7M in an equity round and another $100M debt fund. Eventually, they decided to pivot and sell the assets of the company, taking the hard-earned lessons into their next venture.
Fastgen: A New Beginning in Low-Code Backend
Undeterred by the challenges faced with Blair, Mike and his co-founders ventured into their next endeavor – Fastgen. Recognizing a gap in the low-code space for back-end development, they set out to build the best low-code backend tool.
Mike and his team raised a Pre-Seed round that has not yet been announced for Fastgen. This software aims to empower developers to streamline backend development through a visual drag-and-drop environment, similar to what tools like Webflow offer for the front end.
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With a team that includes the initial software engineers from Blair and a commitment to building long-term relationships with investors, Fastgen represents a fresh start and a focused approach to addressing the needs of developers.
Reflections and Advice for the Younger Self
Looking back at his journey, Mike acknowledges that being overly frugal in the early days of Blair might not have been the best decision. He advises his younger self to strike a balance between being cost-conscious and ensuring a conducive work environment for the team.
Additionally, Mike highlights the importance of choosing a market where regulations are clear and not heavily influenced by powerful incumbents. Learning from the challenges faced in the student financing space, Mike emphasizes the need to assess the regulatory landscape carefully when entering a new industry.
Listen in to the full podcast episode to learn more, including:
- A childhood in Olympic handball instilled invaluable skills of discipline, teamwork, and a competitive mindset, shaping his approach to leadership in the entrepreneurial world.
- The transition from competitive sports to startups allowed for the seamless application of the lessons of discipline and teamwork, proving the universality of these skills in the dynamic landscape of entrepreneurship.
- The move from Germany to Silicon Valley was motivated by the dynamic startup ecosystem, representing a cultural shift that fueled his passion for innovation and growth.
- Working at Stripe provided invaluable insights into a high-growth environment, offering lessons in company structure, fundraising, and the importance of surrounding oneself with brilliant minds.
- Blair’s attempt to disrupt student financing faced regulatory challenges and opposition, leading to a pivot and sale. The experience taught crucial lessons about adapting business models and the importance of regulatory assessment.
- The latest venture, Fastgen, addresses a gap in the low-code space for back-end development, aiming to empower developers with a visual drag-and-drop environment for streamlined backend creation.
- Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is to find a balance between frugality and providing a conducive work environment. The stress is on the importance of carefully assessing regulatory landscapes to navigate challenges effectively when entering new industries.