A closer look at leaving the rat race and striking out on your own

For many Viennese, being your own boss is the dream of a lifetime. Yes, security matters, and steady employment is still often the ideal. But to some, the thrill of independence far outweighs the risks.

And their numbers are growing: New business startups have increased dramatically over the last 20 years. While there were only 4,800 new businesses registered in Vienna in 1996, by 2016 the figure had doubled to almost 9000. From restauranteurs and barkeepers, to programmers, publishers and performers of every stripe, new ventures have exploded onto the streets. This has not gone unnoticed by Austrian authorities, who are actively supporting them with subsidies, loans at below-market interest rates, free consulting and liability insurance, all geared to making it less risky to go out on your own.

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The Lucians left their former careers behind to reach second place at the World Championships of Magic. // © Martin Lifka

Use your illusion

For civil engineer Lucca Lucian, the decision to change careers came to him in 2007, during a lunch break. Just turning 30, he had already started several companies, from animal-themed greeting cards to opening the first local franchise of the British repair chain Chips Away, later developing his own smart repair system.

That day, mulling over next year’s marketing plan, he suddenly realized he was finished: “I felt cold shivers running down my back. My body told me physically that I didn’t want to do this anymore,” he remembered. “So I switched my mind to a magical problem, which was: How do I get a €10 bill into a bread roll without anybody noticing? And I suddenly felt happy.” Long an adored hobby, he had been practicing magic seriously for several years.

Now he’d see if he could do it for real. He started selling off his companies and offering performance concepts to hotels abroad. Friends advised him to take up a side job, but he decided against it. It would be sink or swim: He wanted to focus on making a living through magic.

He was also fortunate in his wife Anca. A Cambridge-educated business consultant with Wolf Theiss, she too was fascinated with magic and helped when she could after work.

Then, struggling with burnout, she decided she too needed a change. She began doing more shows with Lucca, finding more freedom on stage than in her corporate career. She adored the immediate feedback they got from the crowd, so unlike the delayed reaction of a business project. She decided to join him full time as his stage assistant and partner.

Today, Lucca and Anca have won the Austrian Championship in Mental Magic three times, as well as second place at the World Championships of Magic with their act The Mind Reading Revolution. They have become regulars at international hotels and corporate events and stake a million-dollar challenge to anyone who can prove they use electronic aids or plants in the audience. They also have a theatrical version of the show, which premiered in German last November at Muth and launches in English there on March 5.

Of wine and horses

For Andrea Dittrich, going into business for herself happened more as a side effect. A high-powered financial consultant for Raiffeisen bank, after a decade working abroad, she now also runs her own wine bar: Contor, on Karmelitermarkt in the 2nd district, not far from where she was born. Originally though, she didn’t own the place; she was a bartender, a job she took on one night a week to support her true passion: horseback riding. In Madrid, she had even thought about opening her own riding school but couldn’t find the right property.

After returning to Vienna she bought a horse. And then she had to support it. Only three minutes away from her apartment, Contor was the perfect solution – until the former owner had to withdraw for health issues and asked her to take over. At first, she was hesitant. Wasn’t this just more complications? But after a couple of months, she decided to go ahead: She had always wanted something to offset her daily life in finance.

“I just had to take over an already running business,” she remembers, “so I thought to myself: Maybe it’s Kismet.”

That was 2010; she has been running Contor ever since. Still at Raiffeisen, she checks in before and after work. The key, she says, is customer service, remembering guest preferences, names of spouses and children or what they have been up to.

“At least 70 percent of our customers are regulars that live in the area,” she says. “They drop by on their way home and appreciate us remembering what they prefer or ordered the last time. And I think that makes up a big part of why they keep coming back.”

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Robert Gruber started his own Third Wave Coffee place. // Courtesy of P.O.C.

The business of buzz

For others, it’s about the freedom to make your own choices. Robert Gruber came to Vienna after tourism school to be in the food service business, but after working at Le Méridien for one and a half years he decided against hotels, where customers often look down on service staff. He then worked at a cocktail bar in Amsterdam, where he found a more respectful customer relationship that focused on expert knowledge and skilled preparation – something that he could identify with far more. Later on, he went to New Zealand and discovered Third Wave Coffee – the beverage as an artisanal product rather than a commodity. He had found his niche.

Back in Vienna, he started brewing his own coffee and visiting conventions, learning alternative methods of roasting and preparing beans. But none of the Kaffeesieder – the brewers and coffeehouse owners – seemed interested; he couldn’t find a place where he could move past employee status and develop his own product.

And thus, P.O.C. was born: People On Caffeine, a small room on the side of a church at Schlösselgasse 21 in the 8th district, across from the Altes AKH. Business was tough at the beginning, which Gruber attributes to the Viennese mentality of slowly adapting to change.

“Trends don’t do well in Vienna. People walk past a place a hundred times before they give it a chance,” Gruber said. “But if they start to like a place for its quality, they will become regulars. And those businesses will stay.”

His brewing skills have already earned him awards as well. Gruber came in 1st at the Austrian Brewers Cup and 6th in the World Brewers Cup Championships in 2012. And quality speaks for itself: He has gradually built up a loyal base of coffee fiends that come regularly to try out new blends – and everything he sells, he made or chose himself.

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Vienna’s chapter of the international “FuckUp Nights” promotes treating failure as an essential part of succeeding, fomenting a healthier approach to business foundation. // © Kucera Conny

Triumph in failure

Until recently, business failures in Austria were a source of shame and bankruptcy difficult to recover from.

Today that’s beginning to change: Dejan Stojanovic and Salomé Wagner have started a project to help rethink the meaning of projects gone wrong. In 2014, they launched the Vienna chapter of the U.S.-based, international network called “FuckUp Nights,” to coach entrepreneurs on perceiving business failure as potential learning experiences.

An important initiative in spite of its unfortunate name, their events keeps growing: “Our audience plays a big part in establishing a productive culture of failing in Austria,” Stojanovic believes. “Because behind every failed business or project, there’s a lesson to be learned of how to do it better the next time. Failing is [often] an essential part of succeeding.”

Still, for Stojanovic there are wide differences in attitude between the U.S. and Austria. “Despite considerable efforts, Austria is unfortunately not a startup country yet. Starting your own business is still seen as a deviation from the norm. This can lead to prejudice that usually shows up when people fail.”

“In the U.S., people are also generally more open to something new. This means that bad business ideas or products are rejected faster. And that’s a good thing, because entrepreneurs get feedback earlier. And if they didn’t do it right, they can adapt and try again. And that’s a healthier approach for startups.”

No question, starting a business takes nerve and the risks are very real: Out of the 1900 bankruptcies in 2016, about 50 percent had been in business for less than 10 years. Still, to many, the allure of calling something their own is impossible to ignore. Lucca Lucian for one, couldn’t imagine it any other way:

“The only thing I regret,” he says, “is not doing it earlier.”