Four Founders, One Company, and the Kiel Ecosystem

9 min read
11 Jun 2024

Interview with
Isabel von Blomberg,
Cofounder and Head of Business Development at PCT
Thomas Tucker,
Cofounder and Head of Sales at PCT

Not every founder hopes to start a business in the biggest or most popular startup hubs, such as Hamburg or Berlin. “You’re either a nobody in a big city, or you can be somebody in a smaller city,” says Isabel, who cofounded PCT digital along with Thomas Tucker, Pierre Nguyen and Colin Clausen. “In Berlin,” she says, “if you’re a founder, they always ask, how many millions did you raise? The same in Hamburg. It’s a totally different ecosystem here. We are mostly bootstrapped. We wanted a different vibe – the Northern vibe. We’ve never regretted it, and we’d always do it again.” 

Isabel and Thomas had been friends for five years before founding PCT digital, while Thomas, Pierre and Colin are childhood friends who, even while still in school in a small town one hour away from Kiel, always knew they wanted to start a company together. The four cofounders didn’t know what kind of business to start together, but they knew one thing: “We wanted it to be in the same region we had grown up,” says Thomas. However, since their hometown was so small, they chose Kiel – a city that’s not as large as Berlin or Hamburg but the biggest in the Schleswig-Holstein state. One of the cofounders, Pierre, had already moved there for university, so they had learned a lot about the startup ecosystem and the universities. “Those were very good points for us when starting a company,” says Thomas. “It also has a fast train connection to the rest of Germany.” 

During this time of research and contemplating ideas, Thomas went to the Waterkant festival, located near Kiel’s seaside, for the first time. The festival brings together the most exciting startups from Northern Europe as well as speakers from the fields of politics, business and science. “That event also influenced us to choose Kiel,” he says. “It felt like the right place, like home. The ecosystem, as well as the familiar coastline, made it easy to decide. Now, working here day by day, doing team events by the sea, it reminds us that we made a good choice. The people and the region are a good match for our company and for our values.”

Isabel von Blomberg and Thomas Tucker — Photo by Geraldine Hutt

It’s an incredible gift to be four founders. If someone is stressed, the others can intervene and help. That’s the best set up I could think of. — Isabel von Blomberg

Isabel, who grew up near Cologne and met Thomas while they were both in university, agreed that Kiel would be a good city to start their business. However, they still weren’t certain what that business would be. “Thomas’ first idea was a cashier system for a döner shop,” says Isabel. “He had all sorts of crazy ideas before it became more serious.” To brainstorm ideas, the four cofounders took a week away together as a business-related retreat. “We sat together and had a lot of touch points about the healthcare system, so that’s where we started,” she says. Since Colin is an expert software engineer, they came to the conclusion that they could design software. 

Along with the good chemistry among the cofounder team, the Kiel ecosystem was another strong foundation in their business development. The city has several institutions and organizations that support early founders, such as the Starterkitchen’s accelerator program, which PCT digital was part of. “In our first year, the Starterkitchen was crucial,” says Thomas. The ecosystem, which created the Waterkant Festival, is also home to the Starterkitchen, a 400 m2 innovation hub and coworking space that allows interdisciplinary collaboration between startups and makers in Kiel’s Science Park. “They run an extremely open space,” he says. “Any idea is a good idea. No one asks you where you’re from.… You’re a person and you have an idea, so you’re right. We set up our first office there, but Kiel has many other spaces and hubs where you can meet and connect with other founders. This is something that works very well here.” 

In their first five months in the Starterkitchen office, the cofounders connected to different mentors from different fields, developed their business model and attended workshops from basic marketing skills to solidifying their vision. PCT digital, a software-development company initially focused on healthcare services, was founded in 2019. Today, the team still uses some of the techniques they learned in the program, and one of the mentors from the program is now part of PCT’s advisory board.

Make sure your partners and your customers know what you’re interested in. Say it. When there’s a problem, talk to them. If you don’t say it, they don’t think about it. — Thomas Tucker

In the beginning, there were a lot of exchanges with various organizations. Thomas and Isabel began talking to people in hospitals or caretaking organizations to understand what their challenges were and what common problems they could solve with a scalable software solution. “We wanted to find solutions for real problems,” says Thomas. “When we discovered big problems in the German healthcare sector – especially in the areas of digitization or software, because there’s a lot of manual work, not to mention paperwork – we couldn’t sit still.” Eventually, they began to get their first requests for PCT digital’s specialized help. For example, a nursing service requested an app that would make it easier for employees to engage in shift planning without having to make phone calls. Together with the nursing staff, PCT digital worked out what would make this app the most intuitive for employees to use, and how to develop it so that everyone would use it independently, with the goal of reducing unnecessary phone calls. 

After a few years of developing software for the healthcare industry, PCT digital started branching out and doing more projects with renewable energy companies, a growing sector in Germany and particularly in Kiel. Projects include supporting the growth of its customers with modern app technology, like rebuilding a native app that could no longer be updated or released and adding additional functions to it. PCT digital also supports the Schleswig-Holstein government in advancing research and networking in the area of energy transition with a region-wide database. 

Having four cofounders means it is vitally important to keep the communication streamlined so the group can make decisions together. PCT digital’s secret to managing this seamlessly is to meet up for a few days every quarter, keeping the formula of their original brainstorming session that created the company. “We have families now,” says Isabel, “so we had to change the format somewhat, but we still meet to discuss the business and brainstorm ideas.” 

Because the team is made up of cofounders who studied engineering, software engineering, business administration and economics, they all tend to have logical mindsets that work well together, and the brainstorming sessions feel natural and are smooth flowing. “We have discussions with arguments, not with feelings,” Thomas says. “We’ve all had good training on how to make discussions work. It’s something we recognized from the very start. We always let people finish their sentences. This discipline helps us to be successful when there’s an eventual misunderstanding.”

Thomas and Isabel agree that the four personalities complement each other, even though they are quite different. “But knowing that we’re different makes us stronger,” says Isabel. “We don’t get carried away by one thought; it’s not like everyone jumps on it. Everything is challenged. In fact, everything is challenged three times and viewed from four different angles. We really appreciate that. It’s what makes our company thrive and gives us so many ideas to develop.”

Isabel von Blomberg and Thomas Tucker — Photo by Geraldine Hutt

Their long-earned trust as friends is the special seasoning of their founding team. “I sometimes feel sorry for people who come to me and say, ‘I’m looking for a cofounder,’” Thomas says. “And I think oh, you need time to get to know each other, because the pieces must match. The situation we have is such a luxury.” Still, because of their friendship, they’ve come up with special rules to follow so the business and friendship layers don’t mix. “We’re celebrating five years at PCT in 2024, so I think we found a system that works,” Thomas says. 

Thomas also thanks the Kiel ecosystem for helping to nurture the company. “It helped us to keep going even when the money was running short and the customers weren’t as many as we would have wanted,” he says. “That’s how we kept motivated and never doubted that we could be – and would be – successful.”

On the financial side, the founders didn’t find a lot of support from the local banks, given the banks’ conservative nature mixed with being a startup with little track record. However, they did find a partner in the MBG-Schleswig-Holstein, a financing public player with branches in most German states, who lends money to founders often with better conditions than banks.

Larger startups, however, won’t find the same kind of investor ecosystem that has already developed in hubs like Berlin and Hamburg. In Kiel, “we have a solid ecosystem, but we need more investors,” says Thomas. While most startups really don’t want to leave Kiel, sometimes they have no choice but to leave and follow the big money. According to Thomas and Isabel, the city needs to work more on attracting investors and providing funding. With well-promoted and well-attended events like the Waterkant Festival, the region could not only attract people from across Germany but also discuss ways to bring more investment streams into the region. “Every startup in Kiel will struggle after an angel or seed investment,” he says. But for him, that’s a wake up call. “Focusing on investors is an opportunity for everyone who wants to support startups. We already know that this is a good place where founders can come and find the support and motivation they need to get started.”

[Flash Q & A]

What’s your favorite podcast?
Isabel: Alles gesagt? from the Zeit magazine.
Thomas: I’m not really into podcasts, but I listen to an independent German radio called Deutschlandfunk. They report neutrally and from all perspectives.

What’s your most used app?
Thomas: Instagram is winning right now.
Isabel: WhatsApp.

What do you do to prepare for work every day?
Isabel: Organize the kids, then a good coffee and I am ready to start! 
Thomas: We’re the kickstarters, up and ready to work. But I try to do two things: check my calendar and the project management app.

‍[City Recommendations]

Favorite restaurant:
Thomas: Mamajun is really nice.
Isabel: Medea, a Georgian restaurant, is also amazing.

Local food recommendations:
Thomas: Local craft beer. Lille Bier is the most famous one. Czernys is excellent too, although not very popular. 

One thing you’ve always wanted to do in the city, but haven’t done yet:
Thomas: We have a big defense company in Kiel. They build submarines. I would love to go on a tour of their shipyard. 
Isabel: I’d love to go to the Kunsthalle Kiel.