The two founders of Socialbnb sitting side by side with their laptops

Socialbnb is an innovative online platform that aims to manage tourism in a way that benefits everyone. Travellers can book accommodation with local charities and have the opportunity to experience the country and people at close range. The organisations use the opportunity to make themselves independent of donations.


Nils Lohmann

#NeueGründerzeit Nordrhein-Westfalen spoke to Nils Lohmann, co-founder and director of Socialbnb, about values, wishes and knowledge transfer for budding entrepreneurs.

Nils Lohmann: The idea for Socialbnb came from noticing when we were travelling that it can be difficult to experience a country, its culture and people close up. On the flip side, we saw the need for social and environmental charities to obtain sustainable finance for their projects.

Based on our own observations, we noticed that charities can often offer local contact with the general public, as they work closely with people on site – and at the same time have a lot of free rooms. So why not offer these free rooms to travellers as a form of sustainable finance? So, for example, accommodation can be offered to young travellers who, like us, want to have more contact with local people and who are seeking an authentic travel experience. Naturally, we are serving a niche market. However, my first tip for anyone who wants to set up their own business, is: limit your business to a specific target group and a specific market segment. This is a huge help when it comes to keeping your focus.

The founders of Socialbnb standing at a desk, next to them a world map

Motivation and ‘Keep going’.

Nils Lohmann: It is hugely rewarding to work on something that adds value to society. Motivation is very important for establishing a business. So, my second tip: you need to be fired up about your own ideas. But you also need to make sure that you don’t burn out.

This is a big problem, particularly with social organisations, because many founders are absolutely convinced by their vision. Creating added value for society should not be at the cost of your own health. Alexander and I founded the business while we were studying. In that phase, we had to manage our time carefully. For two years, our business was part of the Cologne student initiative, Enactus. Enactus supports the sustainable enterprise of students through their own project work. We were awarded the Enactus Germany National Cup 2020 for our project. The support from Enactus was fantastic in helping us to achieve our initial results. However, over time we have come to realise that it’s a full-time job for us to move the project forward.

„You need to be fired up about your own ideas. But you also need to make sure that you don’t burn out.“
Nils Lohmann, co-founder and director of Socialbnb

Expertise – it’s impossible to know everything and be able to do everything yourself

Nils Lohmann: New issues that need to be dealt with are a daily feature in the day-to-day life of a start-up. You have to be very willing to learn and become acquainted with new things time and time again.

No one person can know everything, but you need to be open to learning and also recognising your own shortcomings. You don’t necessarily need a university degree for that. My background is in business administration, and that definitely helped me. However, subjects such as bookkeeping, tax, business development, contracts, are not ones that were covered in my studies, even though I need to know them now. You learn a lot from practical experience and day-to-day work. The various accelerators in North Rhine-Westphalia in particular provided us with the knowledge and expertise that we needed. Gateway, the University of Cologne's start-up service, was one of the services that supported us. The University of Cologne's Exzellenz Start-up Center.NRW also gave us valuable assistance.

And so, to my third tip: one thing that helps more than anything else is networking! Talking about your own ideas and the problems you are facing with lots of different people really does add a lot of value. Because outsiders have new approaches or perspectives that do not occur to you, because you are so bogged down in the operational day-to-day business, and so consumed with your ideas that you can become a little blinkered. There are also co-working spaces and there are always start-ups with accelerators that are already ahead of you. That’s why this network is particularly valuable. In general, we find that everyone in the start-up community is very willing to help each other.

Socialbnb founders sitting at desks with their laptops

And that’s the reason for social enterprise!

Nils Lohmann: We believe that every business needs to be aware of its social responsibility and its responsibility to society. This is not just a trend, it’s an essential development that businesses need to undergo whatever their size. Which brings me to my fourth tip: you need to be aware at an early stage of what the purpose of your business is and thus what you want to achieve. Incidentally, this is what helps you to keep your eye on the ball and stay motivated.

Naturally, it is also important that your business model eventually works and generates enough income for you to live on. Grants, such as the Gründerstipendium.NRW start-up grant, are helping us at the moment. We are firmly convinced that society and entrepreneurship are not mutually exclusive, but that they can and should co-exist in harmony.

„We are firmly convinced that society and entrepreneurship are not mutually exclusive, but that they can and should co-exist in harmony.“
Nils Lohmann, co-founder and director of Socialbnb

Your own curiosity is as important as your resilience

Nils Lohmann: Anyone setting up their own business – and thus an entrepreneur – needs to be curious. They also need to be buzzing enthusiastically with ideas and have a high degree of resilience. It’s true, there will always be setbacks. You need to learn how to deal with them.

Empathy is also important – for customers as well as employees. I have to be a team player, and at the same time I have to want to take responsibility and be the boss, despite the flat hierarchy. My fifth tip: do your homework. By that, I mean learn about business, marketing and sales. Accelerators help, but it would of course be great if the state of North Rhine-Westphalia could provide support with more long-term services. Spending an hour talking with experts is often all you need to move your own initiatives forward by yourself.

Want more? You can have it...

Nils Lohmann: As an employer, I want to keep bureaucracy to a minimum – for example, accessing funding, that’s a good mantra and my sixth tip to all the people involved in designing funding programmes: funding applications from different sectors should not compete with each other. I notice that the ones often referenced are those with an innovative high-tech nature, unlike our business with its commitment to social responsibility and sustainability. It may help to have more dedicated funding and offers for social entrepreneurship.

For Socialbnb, we are planning to extend our offer and improve our technical solution. We want to increase booking figures, but in doing this, we also want to keep processes as innovative, lean and cost-effective as possible. Not only does this include the user experience for our customers, it also means for ourselves: we have the huge challenge that reviewing the quality of local charities is complex. We want to use digital means to make that easier, to save time, but also to be able to offer comparable and higher quality. We want to offer sustainable travel in every respect: from the aeroplane, to transport to the resort, accommodation, of course, and even experiences, e.g. such as a cookery course or event. But we are starting with accommodation. So, for anyone who is likely to be seeking a sustainable, unique experience away from mass tourism, take a look at our travel destinations and be part of tourism that benefits everyone.

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