Kick-Starting Our Dream – Anouk
There it was – the idea that enabled us to become our own bosses while offering something new and exciting to people. The idea to establish our own startup. My husband Joris van der Boor and I were sitting on the couch in the living room after a stressful day for both of us at work. I was working as the head of IT for a multinational cooperation and Joris was an award-winning chef at the Wolf-Atelier, one of Amsterdam’s most renowned restaurants. Although we liked our jobs and the advantages of having a stable income, I had felt the need for a significant change in my life and occupation throughout the previous months.
A day earlier, my friend Elle had told me that she was going to the opera and had trouble finding the right accessories for her new dress. She had looked in shops all over Amsterdam and even searched online but without luck. Nowhere had she found the desired ruby and gold colored bracelet, earrings, and necklace. This was the problem I had in mind right now. I took a sip of my Merlot.
“Do you remember that I told you about the tremendous advancement in 3D printing a subdivision of BRXQ is making at the moment?” I asked Joris. “It enables us to print everyday essentials, from toys to furniture, and in future possibly even human organs. This invention has the potential to become one of the most significant developments in modern history. There are all kinds of opportunities to satisfy customer demand with this technology as I noticed yesterday. More and more often people have a specific, fixed image in mind when they go shopping. Nevertheless, neither online nor offline shops are prepared for this huge wave of customization demand. They are not able offer the right products and in return lose their potential customers. This is exactly what happened to Elle yesterday. She had in mind a precise picture of jewelry, but none of the shops had the right accessories for her in their collection. We should create an online shop where people can design their own jewelry that we 3D print and send to their homes. We would solve problems like the one Elle had yesterday. Never again people would be struggling to find accessories in the right color or style because they could create their own the way they want it,” I said to Joris.
This was the start of our entrepreneurial dream and it led to endless research about forms of company and legislation in the Netherlands, and e-commerce in general. Networking at conferences for startups and those interested in founding followed. Of course, all this happened after our regular working hours and quite often until late at night. In these first months, we hardly met any of our friends and concentrated all our energy on the development of our business.
Thanks to my professional experience in the technological field, and some valuable connections, it only took a few weeks until I had created our website with the help of two of our friends and successfully set up the online shop including the necessary backend technology to process orders. While I was contacting marketing agencies and working on the technology, my husband bought materials to check if the 3D printing machines worked correctly and if there were restrictions to what we could offer. We got extremely excited when we saw how our idea developed and how it would soon become a reality.
After creating the brand name TreasurePrint and designing an eye-catching logo, we went everywhere proudly wearing our new company T-shirts. Everybody, whether they wanted or not, received information about us. All of this had still taken place in the evenings after our regular work. But after a few months, we noticed that we needed to quit our jobs and focus on the development of our startup. Otherwise, we would run the risk of a burnout by working too much for such a long time. When we made the decision, our families and close friends suddenly wanted to advise us. The opinions were opposing – some thought of it as a great undertaking whereas others felt that we had gone completely crazy: why should we quit our secure and well-paid jobs to work on something that could cost us all our savings and potentially leave us exposed with nothing in the end? Despite all the criticism which really piqued us, we quit our jobs. After all, it was our life.
Four months after that evening when the idea for our startup first evolved, Joris and I were once again sitting in our living room. A glass of Chardonnay in our hands, we reflected on the progress of our experiment and the outcomes of our decisions. We had launched the online shop for the Netherlands two months ago and orders kept increasing daily. That had forced us to work late hours in order to produce accessories and ship them to the customers on the next day. “We really need to start looking for experienced professionals to join our team,” I stressed in a worried tone. “People who support us in the daily operations and specific functions in the business. It will be hard to find somebody who wants to work for us when we can hardly pay them, but we need to try. Otherwise, I fear that both of us will collapse under the amount of work and that the company dies before it even had the opportunity to grow.”
The first step was to rent an office in a co-working space close to the city center. It provided a place where our startup could develop through the help of other employees. Then I started to write job descriptions and put them online on professional social networking platforms like LinkedIn and Graduateland. Although I had no particular experience in human resource management I knew which skills we needed and what applicants would fit the team. After reviewing loads of impressive, convincing, funny, and low quality, resumes and cover letters, and after sitting through four subsequent interviews with candidates, we decided to employ a marketing professional and an intern.
I was the leader of our team of four and introduced our new marketing and sales professional Milan de Vries to his tasks. Joris, as our manager of logistics, supervised the intern Lucas Janssen. The latter two were our company’s “Men Friday”: buying materials, printing jewelry, packaging and sending parcels, and being the first point of contact in case any problems arose. The hierarchy within the startup was flat and open communication was of major importance. Every member of the team should feel like a part of a small family striving for the same goal, being part of its achievements and not hesitating to discuss ideas and problems with others. Thanks to the leadership experience in my previous job, the team had the feeling that they were coordinated by a person with a clear vision and mission and a strategic plan in mind.
At lunchtime, the four of us would go out to eat together in the city center. To celebrate the birthday of one of us we would go out to have a beer together, leaving behind work and getting to know each other better from a non- professional perspective. As we needed a lot of specific knowledge and skills but had scarce resources to deploy we relied on the help of former colleagues and friends in addition. Nonetheless, there were still some activities like our finance and accounting which we decided to outsource to professionals. It was paramount to us that even the partners we worked with felt like a part of the team – the TreasurePrint family. Joris and I were certain that through the creation of a welcoming and open atmosphere we provided everybody – working for and with us – with a great work environment that motivated them. We considered the people in our organization to be the key to success, our competitive advantage, and noticed the need for investment in human capital.
Due to the great input Milan provided, our marketing and sales activities became increasingly effective. TreasurePrint recorded a high number of purchases leading to growing revenues. Joris and I were particularly glad about this development as our living depended on it. It also made us feel even more responsible for our two employees. Despite concerns in the beginning when the amount of work was overwhelming, our personal relationship remained stable. This was owed especially to the reduction of our work made possible by hiring two employees. At this point, our family and all our friends, including the ones who had been very skeptical, noticed that the business had a great potential for growth and that our initial idea was valuable.
“Our next step should be to grow our operations into new markets and develop an online shop for Belgium, France and the United Kingdom. We also need to invest our profits into the future of our organization by employing more people. At the same time we should foster innovation in order to raise the value of TreasurePrint,” I suggested to Joris.
After one and a half years, TreasurePrint reached break-even and started to be profitable. Now we could invest into growing our operations and bringing new employees on board. We wanted to keep promoting innovation and entrepreneurial actions of our team. At the same time, it was clear that a higher number of workers would require an explicit separation of tasks where it would no longer be possible for an employee to work in different departments simultaneously.
About A Rising Company And Personal Crises – Joris
While Anouk had always been the mastermind of our baby, I constantly tried my best to support her. I felt like it was my task to run the logistics of our business and be the comforting shoulder when things got tough for both of us. This was the case especially during the weeks where Anouk spent days and nights on planning the expansion to different markets. Even though she regularly stated that she could manage everything herself, I knew that it wasn’t doable for only one person. I concentrated on running the business as usual which became increasingly complicated and stressful. Orders were exploding and, in addition, people from Belgium discovered our website. As the website was in Dutch, luck was on my side and other countries did not get a chance to order with us at this point – but this should soon change.
We went to our favorite place – a little cafe called “De laatste Kruimel”. It had the smallest balcony in Amsterdam with only one table right above the Gracht. It was the perfect spot for privacy. After we had ordered delicious traditional quiches and taarten, Anouk started to explain why she had been hiding for weeks: she wanted to discuss with us her plan for the future of TreasurePrint. Anouk started an endless monologue about her decisions and how they were based on market research in the respective countries. TreasurePrint should expand to Belgium, France and the United Kingdom.
“Since we already address with our Dutch shop half of the Belgian population, we should also try to acquire the rest of all potential Belgian customers. This means that French and English language have to be added to our website.” I tried not to interrupt even though I had hundreds of questions on my mind.
Finally, our marketer Milan managed to stop her. “Hold on one second, Anouk! It all sounds great so far, but how are we going to manage those three markets? I do not even speak French and our English is not on a native level either. Therefore, we need to employ more people, right? Can we even afford that? Especially for marketing activities, we would need natives to present our product correctly. I can only say that I’m not capable of handling four different countries on my own. “
My smart wife already had a plan – she just had not made the point yet. “The first step is to translate our website,” she said. “We are going to hire two people to translate the content into French and English. The procedure of production wouldn’t change if we produced for those markets. As you said, we need to be aware of problems that may arise in marketing and logistics. Since language barriers will be one main point, we will have to add a French and English speaking person to our marketing team who can handle smaller customer service tasks during the first months. After some time, when we are well established in the markets we will look for dedicated customer service agents for each individual country. Until then, the two new people should work as country managers who have an eye on the operations in their countries. I have already prepared the job description and requirement specifications. Since you are the marketing expert, I would like to go through it with you later on. I am also thinking of hiring a logistics professional who has experience in shipping to different markets within Europe, and in warehouse management.”
I thought I misheard! Was she trying to replace me? I held myself back even though I wanted to start discussing straight away. I decided that it would be smarter to wait until we were back home. Since three new people would not be sufficient to keep up with increasing orders, Anouk already had a plan in mind how to cope. “We should concentrate our search on people who are more interested in gaining experience than in achieving a higher fortune. We can form an army of interns who love Amsterdam. Since we won’t be able to pay them much, we provide free lunch, and on Fridays we could have free drinks,” my wife announced. Those last two parts could even convince me.
When we came home, smart as I was, I congratulated Anouk on the plan. Simultaneously, I explained that if she ever did this again, it would be necessary to think about the benefits every person could gain from those changes in advance. After complimenting her, I asked her about my future within the company. I had been running the logistics from the start and did not see the point in having an outsider taking over of the logistics department from me. I will spare you the details, but it was a long night of discussion. In the end, we decided that I would continue to lead operations and supply chain management for our Dutch customers. Our new top manager would be responsible for operations and supply chain within the new markets and for supervising the overall processes.
It didn’t take the external professionals long to translate the website into two other languages. The harder part was to convince two top managers to join despite the low financial benefits we were able to offer. Once again, we saw that all our time invested in workshops and training had been worth it. There, we had met an amazing all-round talent who had already helped well-known startups to gain a foothold in the international market. Luckily, Martijn was starting to get bored at the company he worked at – or maybe it was down to my wife’s persuasive power – and he decided in favor of TreasurePrint. The possibilities we offered were overwhelming since Martijn now was not only head of operations and supply chain, but also had a position that allowed him to decide on the strategy as our future COO.
Enjoying drinks after work at Waterkant – a vivid bar surrounded by the Grachten and packed with people as soon as the sun set – we bumped into my old friend Daan. His wife had recently given birth to their baby. Consequently, he was looking for a new job. He had gained profound knowledge in the financial sector, especially in the management of newly established businesses, during previous jobs. Daan was exactly what we were looking for. As he wanted to be able to spend more time with his newborn our flexible working hours convinced him and we were happy to name him our new CFO.
A few more steps had to be undertaken before we could finally launch the websites for Belgium, UK and France. Martijn and I focused on getting people on board who did not only meet our expectations regarding skills and motivation, but who also shared our vision and seemed to be a great fit for our team. We employed four interns for the different countries. In addition, Milan formed a marketing team of another four lovely and hardworking interns. Now, the team consisted of different nationalities that broadened our minds and made us experience working habits differently.
“The first of November looks like the right date to enter the three new markets,” I suggested in our next meeting. “With nearly two months left before Christmas, this could be the perfect timing for a rocket start in each of them.” I was right. The marketing strategy seemed to pay off. After a thorough sales training, our marketers were busy traveling from fair to fair in the respective countries to promote our name. By the end of December, we exceeded our goals. Customers not only knew our name already, but first investors also got in touch with us directly. This called for a celebration! We invited our team to a popular bar in the foodhallen to have the best gin tonics in Amsterdam. It ended up being a night to remember.
Even though I had always been part of the discussions with investors, others made the final decisions. Due to my lack of experience, I could not find the right arguments. However, I was okay with it as long as TreasurePrint was heading in the right direction. At the beginning of the next year, we received an investment from Rocket Internet that enabled us to start the project how to enter the Nordic countries. Within the next months, we started offering our service to Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Danish customers. Our teams were growing in size. Some of our interns got full time contracts and we promoted them to managers in their respective field. Due to the increasing number of employees, we needed to start looking for a new office. I inspected various office spaces in the heart of Amsterdam and in the end we rented our first own office at one of the most prestigious places. The office was located at Keizersgracht – right underneath the penthouse we had bought recently.
Despite the fact that I liked my job, I felt like I needed a break to clear my mind and decide on what part I wanted to play in the company. I wanted to base this decision solely on my personal desires. It felt weird. I had founded the company together with Anouk, but when she started to plan the expansion, I did not seem to be involved as much as before. As hard as I had tried, it had always been Martijn and her making the final decisions.
During my annual skiing trip with my friend Tim to the Austrian Alps, I illustrated my dilemma. Tim’s answer was short and simple. “Instead of complaining to me, you should take charge and talk to your wife about it. Try to acquire the skills you are missing and you will soon be her number one again, I am sure.” He was right. Even though I had always tried to stay calm, I felt cheated. The only way I could solve the situation was by gaining expertise in my professional field. Within that week, I enrolled in an evening course for international logistics and strategic management. I broke the news to Anouk when I got home. She did not quite understand why I had to do this, but she tried to look happy for me. I hoped that it would solve my personal crisis.
A Baby, SEO And Sunglasses – Anouk
“This guy is driving me completely crazy. He keeps nagging about how I planned the company’s supply chain including the handling of our suppliers and inventory, and how I supervise the warehouse staff. After all, I’m the logistics manager for the Netherlands. I pictured Martijn’s role in the team differently when I agreed to take that step with you. We founded our startup together. Now he coordinates all of my work although he joined us only recently and never worked as hard as I did for the development of TreasurePrint. You are satisfied and happy because you are still your own boss and the head of the organization. With your specific business and management knowledge and the leadership skills you gained in previous jobs, you’re the best CEO our company could get. There is no doubt about it. I do not have this expertise in business administration, but I have already learned a lot since we started and certainly have worked as much as you did. I do not consider it fair, and I cannot cope with it, that the new top managers put their oar in everything even when I am trying to do my best.”
These were the words of my husband and I had just quoted them to my best friend from high school. Elle and I were sitting in Winkel 43, with the best coffee in town and a delicious apple pie on the table in front of me. After an extremely stressful period with Joris, it had been time to meet again with Elle. I wanted to hear an independent opinion from someone how was not directly involved in our everyday conflicts. Elle was not only a good friend of mine but also knew Joris well as the two of them had grown up together in the same neighborhood of Helwijk.
“You should give Joris his own department again that he can lead by himself with nobody except you telling him what to do,” Elle said. “Joris has always hated to be coordinated by others, even when we were scouts at the age of 12. You are one of the very few people he respects highly enough to follow without hesitation most of the time. With others, I reckon that he lacks this respect and does not understand why they should take the lead. Especially, if he invested more time and effort into the development of the company than they did. I assume that he will do a very good job once you hand over the responsibility to him. I am also certain that in a lot of cases motivation can be more relevant for a successful completion of tasks than skills.” Elle looked at me optimistically.
“You hit the nail on the head,” I replied after taking a sip of coffee. “The work has gone to my head during the last months and I did not really take care of what Joris wanted. He has done amazing work for TreasurePrint and he is the co-founder. Therefore, he should always be the first person I contact before I make decisions. Joris has learned a lot about business so far and he has always managed new tasks extremely quickly. He even decided to get specific knowledge to be able to support the company and took a business course in international logistics and strategic management at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. This occupies three evenings of his week after work and I cannot imagine how exhausting this must be. Thanks a lot for your wake-up call. I guess this process would have taken much longer without you.” I returned a grateful smile to Elle.
Then our conversation took another turn with Elle chatting about her new winter coat from Tommy Hilfiger, a new handbag from Versace and her wish list for Christmas that she had handed over to her husband Dennis. She asked me about my plans for Christmas and the New Year. Then, all of a sudden, she revealed the news: she was pregnant and expected a little gilr! At first, I was dumbfounded. When I realized what my best friend had just told me I stood up and hugged her expressing my heartfelt congratulations.
After a while, we went back to talk about TreasurePrint and I described the recent development and plans for the future. “Within the next months, I want to grow the current team of 40 employees by at least 30. In my view, this will be necessary, because TreasurePrint needs a human resource management department to attract and hire skilled employees, and to train the current workforce. I want our company to be valued for its sustainable business practices. Consequently, this means that I need to employ people with a special education in this field. I hope that this will not only promote our image with consumers, but also help us to win new qualified workers. As our investors expect ever increasing sales we intend to grow in new markets and to create a department that handles search engine optimization which is an extremely important tool today,” I explained.
“What is this search engine optimization,” Elle asked curiously. “That’s what Zalando does to make sure you see their shop first when you look for the next set of Burberry sunglasses at the beginning of May,” I explained with a chuckle. “Speaking of it, I started thinking about offering customers the possibility to design sunglasses that are sent to their doorstep. It looks like there are at least as many people out there who cannot find the right sunglasses to their outfit than there are people like you who experience a problem with jewelry,” I pointed out. “What I still have to get used to is that the company is a lot more structured now. With other managers working by my side, there is an obvious hierarchy. Some employees already complained about the regular reviews of their work, something that didn’t exist when the company was smaller. I do not know how we could track performances differently to ensure that everything works out and no major problems arise. Now that TreasurePrint is a bigger organization than in the beginning when I used to talk to everybody on a daily basis, I am also afraid that our employees will feel less important and hesitate to add their ideas. What do you think about this?” I wanted to know from Elle.
“It is really a challenge. I can only tell you what my boss did at a similar time. We restructured the whole company. Instead of a large hierarchy, we formed teams for different countries or product groups that collaborated and exchanged ideas on a regular basis. Then there were program and project managers who communicated these ideas to the top management. I am also convinced that special events we had at occasions like Christmas and Easter, or before the beginning of summer, helped foster the internal team spirit and made everybody feel like a part of a big family,” Elle answered. Thoughtful, I finished my apple pie and paid the bill. Then, we went to the Bijenkorf department store to look for some Christmas presents for our loved ones.
Baby Boom And Change – Joris
After I had been too busy to socialize in the last months, I finally found time to meet my friends again. We went to our favorite rooftop bar at the harbor and enjoyed the sun as it set like a golden ball behind the city. “I think these were the toughest months of my life,” I sighed. “In the past half of the year, I worked five days a week, had evening courses three times a week and additional training on the weekends. I felt like someone kept jumping on my head and I got smaller by the day”, I told them. Now that time was over and it seemed like I was at a turning point where I could start to grow again and enjoy evenings like these.
By the end of the year, another investment followed. When we entered the German, Austrian and Swiss markets, the company structure changed slightly. Finally, I was able to put my newly acquired knowledge to use. “It could be more profitable for all of us if we reorganized the company structure into a hybrid one and divided it into country cells,” I recommended. “Otherwise we might soon end up with a structure that is too hierarchic and rugged. In country cells, you will not find many people of one respective field. Therefore, the exchange of ideas between different departments will be encouraged.” The management board agreed and instead of having teams of one specific expertise, the teams were divided in country cells. That way, our employees could profit from seeing their work from a different perspective. When Anouk told me that Martijn would remain the COO and I would take over the position of a country manager of the Dutch team, I felt like she had hit me right into my face. After the previous months, I did not have energy left to discuss or fight with her and simply tried to accept it. Our working relationship had a strong effect on our private life and thus the decision should be best for of all of us.
“How are we supposed to conduct the change for our teams?” Daan wanted to know. As always, Anouk instantly had a perfect answer. “I know that all of you are convinced that this change will lead into the right direction and will be beneficial for both the company and yourself. Therefore, we are the perfect messengers. We will inform our teams individually and at that point let’s remember: if you convince one of your team members they will convince at least one of their co-workers. And that is exactly the start we need!” Martijn had fallen silent in the past weeks. Even though he worked as hard as always, we hardly heard any suggestions from him. In this meeting, he finally broke the news. “Guys, I have to tell you something. It has been great fun to work with you. But my personal circumstances are changing and I am looking for a more secure position. I will not leave before the end of this year and I would be honored to train someone internally so you can replace me.” His proposal sounded weird to me. Was he trying to play nice now? Nevertheless, it seemed like the chance I had been waiting for in the past weeks!
As soon as we got home, I started to convince Anouk that there was be no better candidate than me to take over Martijns position. While Martijn had always been a rather strict manager who kept a tight rein, I wanted to revive the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of our employees by focusing on teamwork and collaboration. Anouk was skeptical since I had never held such a position or been responsible for so many employees, but I knew that this was my ultimate goal and I would do anything to reach it. “If you think that this is what you should be doing then go for it! I am just afraid that you do not know what you are getting yourself into,” was the assuring answer of my wife. When it came to business, she could be as hard as a rock.
When I had worked with Martijn for a while, he was convinced that I would be a good replacement for him. Despite my presumption, he was a great teacher who made you learn from your own mistakes. He was both insistent and open to your suggestions regarding his field of expertise. During this time, I probably learned more than before in my career and I finally saw how hard and full of obstacles his role within the organization was.
One of the first tasks I delegated was a new market research that considered all departments and concentrated on the countries in which we operated. I had overheard my wife telling someone about her idea of producing sunglasses to complement our jewelry. Our SEO team confirmed customer demand: more often now, people searched Google for jewelry that fit with sunglasses. The keywords were good for all of our target countries. Within the next quarter, we started to offer matching sunglasses to customers of individually designed necklaces, rings and earrings. In addition, there was the possibility to design only sunglasses according to one’s preferences.
The toughest decision was related to our activities in the United Kingdom. The market had always been stable, but the Brits did not seem to like the combination of jewelry and sunglasses. The competition had been rather low in Great Britain, but now new competitors entered the market and that reduced our sales even further. In order to stay profitable and secure capital from investors we had to take action. Even though our UK elves worked as hard as ever and the country had been one of the first ones we had expanded to, and most of these team members had been with the company for a significant time, we had to shut down operations. Understandably, this led to insecurity among our other employees, a notion that radiated throughout the whole company. In order to ensure everyone felt safe we established monthly company presentations. There, we updated our TreasurePrint family on the current state of affairs and gave everyone the chance to gain insight into different activities.
In the following months, we felt like we were close to reaching the ultimate goal. Then, in the last quarter, we got the impression that the business was running independently of us. Previously it had always been necessary for one of us, or Martijn, to be present at the company. Now people knew their tasks and positions and could help each other. It seemed like our baby had reached maturity even though it was not grown up yet.
I expressed my thought to Anouk and could not believe her answer. “This has always been my dream,” she said. “To establish a company that maintains stability without us having to solve every single problem. Maybe we could cut hours?” I could not remember the last time I felt as relieved as back then, but the best was yet to come. “What would you say about going through all of this again?” she asked after a short thoughtful break. I was too shocked to respond. Anouk felt my astonishment. “But this time with a real baby,” she quickly added. I could not believe my ears! This had to be the feeling when all your dreams and everything you ever wished for came true. It seemed like the hard times paid off in the end. All my doubts were suddenly blown away.
Summary of the scientific part
Human capital management practices are regarded a major competitive advantage and success factor for organizations today. As companies develop and grow their structure, these changes also need to be reflected in their human resource management practices. While the need for administration is predominant in the majority of large organizations, small companies benefit from being able to utilize different management concepts. This outlines that change in organizations is ubiquitous and the correct handling is significant.
Working on this paper was a new and great experience for the students. It enabled them to intensify their knowledge and memorize it to be able to use it later on throughout their lives. The reviewed literature about the entrepreneurial stage conformed to the personal experience when completing internships in startups and this was especially interesting. Additionally, the students obtained a deeper understanding of the current organizational structure and the possible future development of the companies they had worked for.
At the beginning, it was necessary to do a thorough literature review and get an overview of available sources on the topic in order to be able to imagine a practical application. After integrating the theory into the story, the students understood the topic in a more practical way. They were able to see it from another perspective. This will help them to remember the topic for a longer time in the future than if only learned from theory. Writing the theoretical part of the paper was relatively easy as it meant reading many scientific papers and then reviewing the acquired knowledge in a manner learned at university in research seminars before. Writing the story was an entirely different experience. When the students were in a highly creative phase following the storyline was easy. But an interruption during that phase could result in lack of ideas and pose a challenge on carrying on with the story. Sometimes, paragraphs were written, and deleted again, to be replaced by different ones. On the one hand, working on the paper as a pair was sometimes difficult because administrative issues including time management and division of tasks had to be handled. On the other hand, the joint development resulted in of a lot of creative ideas for the story, something that would probably not have happened when working individually. Finally, the students learned that change in an organization is ubiquitous and can cause problems. However, it also helps to keep the organization modern, innovative and responsive to the developments of our time.