Ursula Eysin is the founder and CEO of Red Swan, a Vienna-based consultancy applying future scenario thinking to help companies turn uncertainty into a competitive advantage. Her broad knowledge and experience enable her to not only develop insightful future scenarios but also create the right story, vision, and action steps around them.
She is a trained ballerina, plays the flute, speaks 7 languages, does maths, and reads chemistry books for fun.
She used to work as a production manager, moderator, and presenter in theatre, opera, and film before she became a passionate technology consultant and communication professional.
Besides that, she is a published columnist, a mentor to various Austrian and international startups, and gives lectures at five universities.
How did you transition from opera production to creating a business?
It was not a one-step journey. First I got disillusioned with the cultural business. The backstage is not as appealing as the front stage. That’s also true for the business behind opera and musical production. I experienced a lot of mismanagement and misappropriation of funds in it. So I decided to get out of it and took a 180-degree turn to technology consulting. During my work as a technology consultant, I finished my master’s in Sinology, Theater, Film-, and Media Sciences and another Masters in Public Communication and Public Relations.
I then joined Austria’s biggest and most influential Lobbying and Public Relations Agency. PricewaterhouseCoopers poached me from there in 2010. The same year, a former colleague from the Lobbying and PR agency asked me, if I would join him to build up a business together. I quit my “safe” job at PwC and put all my creative energy into our new venture. Unfortunately, he duped me and I left the company disappointedly to start my own business.
What skills did you use from your former job to create your company? How has that helped your current clients?
Communication is the most important and underrated skill I always profit from whatever I do. It may sound fluffy, but it’s not.
The most important aspect of communication is not to talk about yourself, but to listen as if your life depended on it.
Business is a very social expression of human creativity. You must connect with people in order to learn about their wants and needs, as well as whether they would be good business partners for you. Human wants, needs, and desires drive the creation of successful businesses. The person who is the best at identifying them will always be successful.
Do you think that being a woman entrepreneur is unique?
I don’t think it’s unique but I talk a lot with other women who tell me: “I could never do what you do. I couldn’t take the risk and the constant uncertainty of owning a business.” I need a secure job. “I think safety thinking and risk aversion are the issues that often keep women from starting their own business. To that, I would say: the biggest risk is not taking a risk at all.
I like to quote Jim Morrison in this context: “No one here gets out alive.” That may sound a bit morbid, but it’s also very comforting. What are we waiting for? For death to arrive safely? We are not here to live life safely. Taking risks is part of life. And there are no safe jobs anyway. Especially in times like these. It’s just a big illusion that people like to believe in. But they are fooling themselves.
Did you go through any challenges for being a woman entrepreneur?
I am definitely guilty of making common women’s mistakes. As I mentioned before, prior to launching my own company, Red Swan, in 2015, I assisted a former colleague in the development of another company beginning in 2010. When he poached me from PWC I told him clearly, “You know, I have strong entrepreneurial thinking, which means I want to own shares in the business I help build. He said: “Yes, of course. Now I have already founded the company as my own, but in two years I will give you your shares.” Of course, after two years, he pretended not to remember that.
When I discussed this incident with one of my former bosses he said: “That’s a typical woman’s mistake. A man would never have agreed to transfer the shares later but would have demanded immediate delivery.” It was only recently that I found out that he has sold the company for a lot of money. Guess how much I did see of that money? Zero.
The lessons I’ve learned: I didn’t fall for that kind of future faking again and developed a healthy distrust at the beginning of each business partnership.
Do you think female teams are better than male teams?
It is always good to have mixed teams. Female and male factors enrich businesses and organizations in general if they play beautifully together. It’s the CEO’s responsibility to create a nurturing ground for them to play together in a fruitful way.
Companies and organizations have to develop symbiotic and nurturing relationships with and among their employees in order to thrive now and in the future.
Did you have any help when you created your business?
My brother Johannes is a great sparring partner, and though he frequently says, “I didn’t do anything,” he was the one who helped me shape my business the most. He was also the one who came up with the beautiful name “Red Swan.”We often walk around downtown Vienna for hours and just talk. In the process, we also always discover new things. Whether it’s a lovely new pub, great architecture, or small winding paths that we had never noticed before. And on these paths, new project ideas and visions often emerge.
Let’s talk about your company,… How did you come up with the idea for the company?
When I first founded my company it felt like jumping off a bridge without the bungee cord. I could only hope to learn to fly before I smashed into the ground. As I hadn’t planned on leaving the company I co-developed with my former colleague and had put all my energy and creativity into HIS venture, I was not able to take any clients with me and definitely hadn’t had the time to build up the proverbial “side hustle”.
I ventured out with nothing but my brain and creativity.
Fortunately, I had the great opportunity to learn future scenario thinking, a great methodology to turn uncertainty into an advantage invented by the US Air Force and famously adapted by the oil company Royal Dutch Shell from one of the best: former chief strategist with Royal Dutch Shell, Karl Rose who happens to be an Austrian like myself and returned from 25 years at Shell to Austria in 2010.
When I ventured out to start my own business, I started by teaching this great methodology in a master class, and very soon interested clients came in. Since the pandemic started, my phone hasn’t stopped ringing. Many companies and organizations now want to think about the future, deal with uncertainty in a better way, and co-create the future.
The company name “Red Swan“ was inspired by Nassim Taleb’s famous strategy book „The Black Swan“. Black Swans are game-changers. At Red Swan, we want to change the game, too. And the red stands for the passion and creative energy we put into that change. That’s why we call ourselves creative strategists.
In what part of the business creation process do you apply this game-changing strategy?
We focus on developing innovative ideas and business models, technology for people, and empowering individuals, startups, established companies, and organizations to create something new and different. Red Swan accompanies clients from the development of new ideas through the search for cooperation partners up to market entry and commercialization.
How do you talk about the future in your assessments?
With passion and creativity. We never try to predict the future which in my opinion would be a very powerless proposition, our future scenario processes are about co-creating the future.
It’s our passion to bring the fascination and advantages of future scenario thinking to the people who will profit from it. I had the great opportunity to learn the scenario method from one of the best: former chief strategist with Royal Dutch Shell, Karl Rose.
In the Scenario Process, we face reality by diving deep into internal and external driving forces and learning about our true priorities and motivations. We also always dive deep into topics, motivations, and even the subconscious mind – the things we don’t know that we don’t know.
And that’s how we can turn uncertainty into a competitive advantage. But is it only for big organizations like the US Air Force or Shell? Not at all.
All sectors and business sizes can use the process. This applies to everyone, including people, small businesses, startups, major corporations, governmental institutions, and even governments, and conglomerates of states.
Scenario thinking looks fascinating! Can you tell me more about how it works at Red Swan?
First of all, it is important to formulate a clear question. What is the decision you have to make? Which product should we focus on? Which supplier or business partner should we choose? Which job should I take? Which career path should I follow? What is the right school for me? Should I marry this person? Then we gather all the influencing factors, drivers, and motivations for the question. This is followed by the analysis of these factors in an “impact uncertainty map”. The scenarios focus primarily on the uncertain factors that can still be shaped in the future.
Finally, two of the most significant critical uncertainties of the future form the basic structure of the scenarios, the “Scenario Cross”. Entrepreneurs then have to put themselves in these scenarios. This allows them to identify how to avoid unwanted outcomes through well-considered decisions in the here and now and allows them to take inspired action steps.
What does it do for companies?
Future Scenarios bring a company’s core principles to light which can guide you through every crisis like a beacon of light.
It makes them deal with uncertainty in a novel way, putting them far ahead of their competitors. People hate uncertainty, but for entrepreneurs, uncertainty is the realm of opportunity, and when we embrace it as such, we can step into our creative power and full human potential.
Uncertainty is at the very core of being human as it gives us freedom of choice. The choice to give our life and our business a unique meaning. And the future scenario thinking process enables companies to prosper and thrive now and in the future by stepping into this creative realm of uncertainty.