You switched from competitive rowing to Groupon. What was that like?
“It was a gradual thing. I started working to challenge my mind, alongside my rowing career. I worked at a publisher, but like the rest of the publishing industry, they were under a lot of pressure. At one point, I said to the CEO that things needed to change if we wanted to keep the company afloat. After our chat, he gave me more and more responsibilities. Which is how I started to think in terms of bottom line results for the entire business. Looking back, that's when I learned to think like an entrepreneur. In that same year, I met the founder of MyCityDeal, who convinced me to join them. That company grew really quickly and was taken over by Groupon. It was early stages when I joined, just before that period of rapid growth. It was very interesting. But that was also the moment when things took off and I truly became an entrepreneur.”
And you continued to row?
“Yes, in the beginning I tried to combine the two, but that was difficult. At Groupon, we grew from zero to 700 members of staff in a year. It was very intense. I did train twice a day, at 6 in the morning and sometimes even after midnight. But you know how it goes... after a while you're not invited to a training event and next thing you know the coach sits you down because you're not making any progress.”
Why choose to be an entrepreneur?
“New things are happening every day. In rowing you don’t get that. The big goal was rowing at the Olympics. Of course it’s amazing to work towards that. But when you're working, you reach new milestones almost daily. I was much more into my job than I was into rowing, so in the end it was a no-brainer.”
Do you ever regret it?
“Teun Kraaij, CSO at BuyBay always says: you have to look at the opportunity's costs. What could you have gotten out of one or the other? That's how he determines what's the right choice. I don’t define my life in terms of it being good or bad. It went the way it did, this is where it got me.”
You became CEO Goods (Benelux) at Groupon after just over a year of working there. How did you manage that so quickly?
“Groupon started out with deals for restaurants and beauty parlors. We developed from there. We set up offices and teams in new cities. At one point, Floris van Holten (now Business Developer at BuyBay) and I said we should sell products on a platform. It became a huge hit and was expanded globally by Groupon. I then set up Groupon Goods for the Benelux region.”
After that, you went to Istanbul for Groupon. How did you like going abroad for the business?
“That was great. It gave me the opportunity to travel a lot and experience many different cultures. I helped develop all Goods teams in the emerging markets. That got me to Poland, The Ukraine and Romania, but also to Russia, Turkey, Israel, the United Arabic Emirates and South Africa. There was nothing in place, not even a manual. That was the great thing about it. I really had a great time there. But eventually. I starting seeing things differently than the direction Groupon was headed. I was more of an entrepreneur so I decided to leave and set up on my own.”
You started BuyBay with your brother. How did you come up with the idea for BuyBay?
“Erik also worked for Groupon, in Russia. He worked the operational side of things and was responsible for the logistics in the same countries where I worked. So we talked to each other regularly. We saw how large suppliers were only able to trade on pallet-level, so in large quantities. Of course Groupon expected suppliers to provide an individual approach for each customer. But they weren't able to do that and made no progress. Yet there were all kinds of new opportunities for online sales. Erik and I decided to jump ship and make our move.”
What exactly did you end up doing?
“We started helping B2B companies to get into B2C. We provide a full-service solution: customer service, return service, VAT, the whole package. The business model evolved from there over the past 3 years. When dealing with returned goods, suppliers often said 'just throw it in the corner over there, someone is bound to show up.' And then no one did. Or they did, but they weren’t willing to pay for it. Or they just wanted the best products. The returns business is pretty shady. But I did see opportunities were up for grabs. Which is why we got in at full throttle and that resulted in very interesting and valuable solutions for a number of large e-tailers and retailers. That is how our specialized return service came into being.”
You grew very quickly. What's your strong suit?
“We could sell anything, but really, everything! Which is the tough part at the same time. Anyone can sell an iPhone. But sometimes, a returned batch includes a box of diapers. We’ve developed smart software with specific algorithms, which allows us to actually sell those diapers too. For every returned product, we devise a tailored strategy to optimize the residual value. We determine its worth, repair it if necessary and make sure our customers get the best price out there. Our software automatically determines the best possible price and the best platform to sell it on. We are able to garner a higher price than anyone out there, but at the same time we also offer a complete package: send us your returned goods and we’ll take care of it.”
Does the business model continue to develop?
“Yes, customers now ask us to help them get less products returned to them. Of course we're up to the task, with our knowledge and experience. By analyzing all of the returned products out there, we also have a great insight into why a product was returned. That information is valuable to our clients. We are becoming the go-to specialist out there when it comes to returned products.”
When did you know BuyBay could become a success?
“It all started with an idea of course. But pretty soon, we got our first revenue. Which is the basis for any company. That’s when we needed to make sure to double our turnover every week. Which it did, very soon. And that’s when you get the first questions: 'can someone be added to the team? I’m too busy.' It’s then that you know that it might actually fly.”
What has changed since the beginning?
“In the start-up phase, you have to do a lot and make decisions with an 80/20 mindset. Now, we’ve entered a new phase. We have been making calculations and optimizing. Karel Gonzalez Hulshof, our new CFO, and Teun are very good at that. They are very analytical and always make their decisions based on facts. I think we make a very strong team, which is well balanced.”
If you grow as fast as you did, it means there are many people being added to the team. What do you consider to be important traits for people joining your staff at BuyBay?
“I am big on intrinsic motivation. If you enter this place asking how much money you’ll be making, you better leave right away. Of course I understand you needn’t do it for free. But your decision to work here should not be driven by money. If I wake up in the morning, do I want to go to work? That’s what I admire about Teun. He left McKinsey for a start-up where not one day resembles the other. Over the past few months, he’s been through the ropes in no time, learning what entrepreneurship is all about. That’s why you should do it. And if you’re smart about it, the results will present themselves.”
With this process of scaling up, a lot is changing. Are there things that should or may stay the same?
“I think it’s important that we keep coming up with new ideas. Innovation cannot be found in a book. It’s not just driven by theory. Creativity often boils up when there is less pressure on the team. So we need to continue to make time for that.”
You are an entrepreneur, but at the same time you make the world a better place by offering a new spot for returned products. What’s most important to you?
“That we offer really good and valuable solutions to our clients and that we are considered a long-term partner, that’s what it’s about for me. And that we tackle waste at the same time, that’s right up my alley too.”
You will soon be moving to a new office on the NDSM-wharf. What are you hoping to encounter there a year from now?
“BuyBay will have grown. As an organization, we will have matured and will have strengthened the ties with our customers in the Netherlands. Moreover, we will have some big international clients. We’ve shown that our business model is working. Our funding is solid. So let’s bring the rest of Europe on board.” Text: Thijs de Boer
2014 – now
Founder & CEO, BuyBay
2012 – 2014
Regional Director EMA, Groupon
2011 – 2012
CEO Goods Benelux, Groupon
2010 – 2011
Head of Rotation, Groupon