Cofounder and CEO,
Alumnus since 2011
“I think entrepreneurship was always in the back of my mind,” says Paul Engelmann, the cofounder and CEO of Oceansapart. “It’s just one of those things you know will happen in your life, but you don’t know when. I knew I had a lot to learn first. I always say that there are times in life when you need to prioritize learning over earning. I think I took that from a book, and it’s true.”
Paul spent the early part of his career as a strategy consultant at Booz & Company (now Strategy&, part of the PwC network), where he says he learned quite a lot about business transformation and leadership in media, telecommunications, and logistics. From there, he moved on to nxt statista, and then worked as the director of business development at Hubert Burda Media for several years. Today, in partnership with his cofounder Susanna Wagner, he’s leading one of Europe’s fastest-growing activewear brands.
During a recent conversation from his office in Berlin, Paul reflected on his career path, the hyper-growth of his new startup, his passion for movement, and the importance of speaking your truth.
What were your early years like?
I grew up in the Frankfurt metropolitan region. It was a pretty picture-perfect childhood. No big adventures, but no downsides. The first student job I can remember was for our local newspaper company. I wrote articles, and I supported sales and marketing events for a few years while I studied business administration in Germany and Canada.
What drew you to consulting?
I’ve always been a curious person, and I was drawn to media and communications. But during university, consulting started appealing to me. It seemed like a great opportunity to get a lot of experience working with great people. I knew it was competitive. The year I was hired at Booz & Company [now Strategy&, part of the PwC network], in 2003, I think the firm only accepted a handful of interns and I was one of them. I remember being so grateful to get that job. I had the internship of my life.
It was obviously hard work, but I loved it. I focused on communications, mostly working with a German mobile company that first summer. And I knew quickly that I wanted to come back after graduating. I would not accept an offer from any other company after that internship because I knew that I could benefit so much from working with the people at Booz & Company.
What stands out from your time at the firm?
The team is always the star. That’s definitely something I learned during consulting. If you have the right people, you come together, you trust, you learn, you grow. I know I can still call at least 100 colleagues or alumni from Strategy& with a question, and they’ll answer the phone right away. In fact, [at Oceansapart] our chief data officer, Peter Barthel, is someone I met at Strategy&. Our company would not be the same without him, for sure not. Also, David Crusius, our chief of staff, who just joined recently, is a proud Strategy& alumnus.
How did the opportunity arise to start Oceansapart?
I knew I wanted to do more. I wanted to make a difference in the world, so I was looking for opportunities. I mentioned this during one of my calls with a friend, and former colleague, Stefan Behrens. He then said he wanted to introduce me to someone who was a fashion designer, looking to go out on her own and start a sportswear company. He thought the two of us should meet. I remember saying to Stefan, “OK, sure, but why me?” He said, “Paul, you bring a combination that’s very rare. You have the analytical mindset of a consultant, and you have proven to be successful in creative environments.” He became one of the first business angels at Oceansapart.
So what happened the first time you met your cofounder?
It was 2017. Susanna was in Berlin, I was in Munich, and our first conversation via video call was mostly about sports. She’s into yoga, Pilates, and running. And I had just run my first marathon. Very quickly in the conversation, we both realized we shared the same perspective on sports. For us, it was always less about winning and more about expressing yourself, loving yourself, loving others, loving the planet, being with the whole environment. So we realized that, together, we could create something for the younger generation that focused on those ideals.
So how has the journey been since you launched Oceansapart?
In the beginning, you just have to do everything yourself. Susanna did the designs and the sourcing. We were the customer service team. I was doing accounting, HR, and social media marketing. And pretty quickly, our hyper-growth started. After three months, actually, everything was sold out. So we told our customers that there would be a two-month wait for more products. Still, people continued buying. That made us very proud and we just kept going from there. By 2020, we felt like everything was on the right track. And then COVID hit.
What was the pandemic’s impact on your business?
We had about 60 people by then, and we obviously thought the pandemic would present a big risk to our business. But we were wrong. I think we were fortunate to have such a strong following on social media. So sales skyrocketed even more. And today, we have about 200 people being employed at the company, not counting the people at our partners like suppliers and fulfillment center. We were very fortunate to close a partnership with two private equity funds, Altor Equity Partners and Auster Capital, during the pandemic, which help us continue scaling, and I’m just really excited about the future.
What role did e-commerce and social media play in your growth?
We’re focused on online, direct-to-consumer business, and we have a very data-driven approach. From the beginning, we’ve been really focused on using social media to deliver value to our community —through both products and content. We reach millions of users every month on social media, and that’s helped our company flourish in Germany, France, Italy, and Poland. Further marketing and sales channels are built and will support our growth.
How would you describe yourself as a leader?
As a leader, I think you have to believe in impossible dreams. Then you have to connect the dots for others to make those dreams a reality. Ultimately, I think my job is to provide two things. First, direction—this is where we want to head, and these are the decisions we need to make to get there. Second, connection between humans, which really comes from communicating and having shared goals. It’s OK to fail. But I want to empower our people to all move forward together. We really focus on our values at the company, and on having one culture.
What do you love most about your work now?
It’s about a lifestyle, a feeling. I’m very passionate about movement and sports. So when I think about Oceansapart, I don’t think about it as just activewear or women’s wear. I think about it as a lifestyle. We’re here to encourage people to get out and get active. That’s what fills my heart when I see people wearing our clothes and enjoying being active.
What’s the best advice you can offer others?
Learn how to say yes to what is really relevant to fulfill your dream and no to everything else. Don’t try to fulfill other people’s expectations. I think that even when you’re young, you can be yourself and speak your truth. Think about where you feel you can have the most impact on the world. What are your values? What are you really interested in? And how are you going to shape that? It’s never a walk in the park when you do your own thing, but if you’re doing something you’re passionate about, sooner or later you will succeed, and you’ll be fulfilled.
As part of a series of interviews with alumni, this one was conducted and edited by Ina Fischer, Strategy& and Jen Swetzoff, founder of CLOSEUP, a creative studio in Brooklyn, New York. Jen was formerly the deputy managing editor at strategy+business magazine.