Building a diverse company from the ground up: Maria Meier

Posted: 19 February, 2021

As part of our Female Founder Friday series, Entrepreneur First hosted a discussion with Maria Meier, CTO and co-founder of Phantasma Labs. 

Joined by other current and aspiring female founders, Maria reflected on her experience building the company with co-founder Ramakrishna Nanjundaiah, how she’d overcome some of the core challenges both in business and as a woman in technology, and the insights she wanted to share with those on the same journey.

On becoming a founder

EF —

What fuelled your desire to become a co-founder?

Maria —

I was working before as a software engineer, but I didn’t feel fulfilled. 

I am a restless person and I get bored easily. I wanted to be involved in steering the ship and building a great team. But in my role, I wasn’t deciding the direction of the projects I was doing. I was just getting ticket after ticket. 

In my immediate network no-one just wanted to stop their jobs and join me in founding a company, and I wasn’t even sure yet what sort of company I wanted to start. That’s why I decided to found through Entrepreneur First – to meet a co-founder, and to build out that idea.

“We found we did well under pressure, and weren’t fighting all the time, which was a great way to discover we were a good team.”
EF —

What convinced you that Rama was the right co-founder?

Maria —

We actually didn’t meet until the very end of the team building process at EF. We sat down together, and had both decided that it probably wasn’t going to work for either of us. We were just talking and feeling sorry for ourselves, when Rama showed me this amazing simulation he had made in the past of the pilgrimage to Mecca.

I think because we had so little time and we had to work so quickly, we had to prove we were the right team match. We found we did well under pressure, and weren’t fighting all the time, which was a great way to discover we were a good team. We formed that trust very early on.

EF —

Looking back at all the experience you’ve had, what do you wish you’d known at the time?

Maria —

That I needed to have patience, and a bit more trust that eventually it would work out. It took a little bit longer than usual for us and we wouldn’t have been able to do it if we had just given up at the beginning or let our self-doubts overtake us.

On leading her company

EF —

What problem does your company Phantasma Labs solve?

Maria —

We simulate human motions in city contexts, for example with self-driving cars. 

Humans behave in many different ways in traffic –  they are irrational, and very erratic. This makes them hard to model and anticipate.

For instance, if someone on Halloween jumps out onto the road in a dark costume, a self-driving car has to recognise that person, and there are safety-critical implications if they don’t. In the simulations that are already out there, this kind of behaviour is not represented. However, Phantasma Labs accounts for this, and ensures that the models used for self-driving cars can predict this kind of unexpected behaviour.

“We want to prove to the world that you can build a different sort of team.”
EF —

What company culture are you building and what do you want your company to be known for?

Maria —

Our company values being an ambitious but kind team. 

We’re building something that isn’t really solved yet, so ambition is critical. We need to be unafraid that there isn’t a solution yet, and trust that we are working on it.

Diversity is very high up on the list. We want to prove to the world that you can build a different sort of team. This drives me particularly, having been the only woman in the room at many points before.

When you build a team, you need to make an effort to make sure it is diverse in many different dimensions. This is something you have to do very consciously –  otherwise the tech industry will look very skewed in the next 10 years. I hope we can change that.

EF —

How do you assess good investors?

Maria —

At EF, you get a lot of introductions. Without this it’s difficult – if you don’t have any significant founder friends then just writing to a VC will not work. You have to network.

Just try to get as many introductions as possible, and make them as strong as possible. You need someone who is another founder or in the portfolio of the investor, with a strong chain. Otherwise people will evaluate in a much lesser way.

EF —

What’s the biggest issue for your business right now?

Maria —

Right now, we are talking to a lot of R&D companies and many of them have slowed down to instead focus on selling cars.

But during pandemic times, lots of opportunities open up as well- people are interested in people movement because of the way that Covid spreads. 

When one door shuts another door opens.

EF —

How do you keep your passion and motivation burning during low moments?

Maria —

Rama does a lot of meditation and yoga. For me, I like to do my sport eat my favourite comfort food, go to bed and start afresh the next day.

We had two phases where we thought our company would run out of money. However, each time the next week we got interesting people reaching out to us, and the whole cycle started again.

You have to be stubborn, you have to take a long breath. I couldn’t do it by myself, so it’s definitely important to have someone supporting you.

“Well-performing teams need to have that concept of psychological security, so we are very open about how we are feeling and when we’ve had a bad day.”
EF —

Your story has a lot to do with resilience. What fuelled your resilience for EF and for your company?

Maria —

Definitely having a co-founder and having those hard conversations that EF encourages me. Well-performing teams need to have that concept of psychological security, so we are very open about how we are feeling and when we’ve had a bad day.

You have to eat well and you have to sleep well, otherwise it is not going to work. We rarely work on weekends and try to have a good work life balance. There is a lot of draining energy on you as a founder and I think it is important to relax sometimes as well.

EF —

What have you learnt from your failures?

Maria —

There is always growth involved. I’ve learned that one failure should not define you – you can bounce back. There’s a lot of strength you can gain when something doesn’t go right. 

When we were fundraising we got a lot of Nos. It’s important to remember that just because it’s a no this time, doesn’t mean it will be a no forever.

On being a female leader in technology

EF —

What did you consider the biggest challenge when you became a founder, and did you have any self-doubts when you joined the programme?

Maria —

Yes. All the time.

There are always a lot of doubts, but I think that’s the strength in having a co-founder and not doing this alone. When one person is down the other is there and keeps on pushing. 

Throughout my life I was always the only woman in any team I was a part of. I was the only woman in my Masters programme, I was the only woman in my backend engineering team. I remember on my internship it was the first time that someone had used the women’s toilet.

My co-founder is also a minority in Germany (he originally comes from India), so whenever we enter any room we look different to everyone else. I feel like when you’re a minority, you get underestimated a lot and sometimes you do have to work a little bit harder to get to where you want to.

The good thing is that everyone remembers us.

“Throughout my life I was always the only woman in any team I was a part of.”
EF —

How easy did you find it to discover your identity as a founder? Did you find having role models useful?

Maria —

It’s always better to have a reference and not to feel that everything is completely new and completely different. 

Out of 200 Series A funded companies in Europe, there was only one female CTO. Therefore, it’s sometimes good to look in different areas and think “okay, this is the kind of person I want to be and the management style I want to mirror.”

One thing I tried hard to reconcile is that I know I am a very emotional person, so I often wondered if it was okay to be a CTO and show this side of myself. I had concerns if it would even be possible for me to be a manager.

However, I thought about Jacinda Arden. There are a lot of great female leaders who aren’t open with their emotions in  public, but she shows how she feels – and large parts of her strength and skillset come from her empathy. When I consider this, I realise that often our greatest strengths can come from things we might at first consider weaknesses.

EF —

What advice would you give to women who want to enter into entrepreneurship?

Maria —

To have patience and take a long breath. Things won’t happen overnight.

You don’t have to listen to every piece of advice that you get given. There are a lot of people out there who think they know how start-ups work, but not all of that advice is valid.

Surround yourself with like-minded people. I joined a women’s CTO dinner which I went to once a month and talked to other female tech leaders about how they manage their companies. If you’re the only woman in the room, it’s important to find a community where you are not.