Entrepreneur, CEO, family businessman and assistant auditor at an auditing firm – Tom Teja Gothe certainly has a multifaceted CV, in which entrepreneurialism, family and friendships matter just as much as accuracy, structure and figures.
Since April 2014, Tom Gothe has been working for the Bochum-based auditing firm set up by his great-grandfather in 1936. He’s the fourth generation to follow in this family tradition. “At a very early stage, it was already clear to me that at some point, I would want to enter the family business. That’s why I worked as a student trainee at KPMG while studying for my Master’s degree at Frankfurt School, and why I did several internships with the Big Four before that,” explains Tom Gothe. He successfully completed his Master of Finance degree in 2011.
However, he didn’t just use his degree course to prepare for a career in auditing. Rather, he made the most of the opportunity to experience startup culture. At just 23 years old, Tom Teja Gothe became the cofounder and CEO of his own firm, art & friends GmbH & Co. KG. Under the trade name artistravel, the company organised holidays that included courses in art and photography. “My father had the idea at around the same time as I was starting at Frankfurt School. My family discussed whether such a business was feasible. My father took the view that as a student, I would have more time than he did, and if you were studying at a business school, then you should also be able to draw up a business plan and think through the theory,” says Tom Gothe.
Of course he had never drawn up a business plan before. But his course content helped – indeed, it had a direct influence on the artistravel project. “What legal issues should you keep in mind when starting a business; how do you draw up a budget income & expenditure account; what cost accounting tools make sense for startups? Of course, keeping accounts was important from the start, but only now have I fully realised just how complicated and difficult it all was. I was lucky enough to have professors who provided answers to some of my questions in their lectures, which we then used as the basis for our project,” he remembers.
In addition to Tom’s family, the team of founders included close friend Katja Siwek and another friend, Christoph Menke. “We’ve been good mates since our school days, and fortunately he’s not just an IT whizz kid, but also somebody who thinks in terms of solutions and often has brilliant ideas,” explains Tom Gothe. The student founders attached a high importance to IT systems from the start. “We always gave high priority to efficient management of data and customers, so we could build customer satisfaction while keeping our processes lean. We’ve benefited from these solid foundations ever since. In our first year, we booked 100 customers on our courses – today, well over 1,000 people take our holidays every year.”
But before they could acquire their first 100 customers, they had a lot to do. In 2009, Tom Gothe and his team finished their business plan and submitted it to various business startup competitions. Their hard-working weekend and overnight sessions paid off: in spring of 2010, artistravel came second in Germany’s “Senkrechtstarter” (Highflyers) competition.
“As well as helping with content, the structure of my course at Frankfurt School was also useful,” comments Tom Gothe. “We had to make a lot of presentations, and that’s great for learning how to put across your ideas clearly and convincingly. That was an important factor in the competition – as well as a set of reliable figures, of course.”
The seed money they won in the competition acted as a safety net and boosted their confidence. Initially they organised just a few holiday courses – as a kind of pilot project – but after these went well, they organised many more. Asked about the secret to his success, Tom Teja Gothe reflects for a moment. “There are lots of different things, of course, but if I had to name just one, it would be my outstanding team.”
He also used his final thesis to extend his knowledge and consolidate the model for his own business. “I wanted to work on a subject that I could relate to our business. And I found exactly what I needed in the Marketing department, with Professor Georgi (now at the University of Lucerne – Ed.). There I was able to research the ‘effectiveness of customer referral reward programmes’, based on our own data. And the result was actually quite surprising. Our customers didn’t find our bonus rewards for recruiting more customers in the least tempting – on the contrary, some of them were downright offended to be offered payment for recommending our holidays. So my Master’s thesis had a direct influence on our marketing strategy,” concludes Tom Gothe.
After finishing his Master of Finance degree at Frankfurt School, and as a young family startup entrepreneur, Tom then applied to join another, much larger company: Kamps. He was responsible for opening the bakery chain’s first overseas subsidiary, in London. “I worked there as executive assistant and as project manager in charge of opening two London branches. After all the years I’d spent on internships and as a student trainee at KPMG, I felt I needed some other kind of business experience.” Indeed, the experience he gained at Kamps was highly instructive – especially in terms of management skills. “Undoubtedly one of my biggest challenges was to convince a number of very different employees and business partners that changes to processes were a good thing. It’s all very well and good to think something over, work it all out and conclude the new way is better. But it only actually becomes effective once you persuade other people to implement it – no matter how difficult it may appear. At first I was definitely rather wet behind the ears there, but in the end it all worked,” he confesses.
Getting things done, admits Tom, is much faster in his small artistravel team. So after some years of valuable experience with Kamps, he decided to join the family firm full-time, as an assistant auditor in his great-grandfather’s auditing company, while continuing to perform his role as CEO of artistravel.
He does still visit Frankfurt occasionally. First, because his good friend and business partner Christoph Menke lives here. And second, because he likes to respond to proposals and requests from Frankfurt School’s Alumni Management team. He made the welcome speech at the last Bachelor Day, describing the start to his own career and the joys of self-employment. At FS President’s Night, he relished the opportunity to chat with faculty staff and other alumni, and has also taken part in a fundraiser for the new campus. “For me, alumni work is an opportunity to interact with exciting, clever people and expand my own horizons. What’s more, you can have so much fun with fellow Frankfurt Schoolers!”