During the Let's Gro festival last Friday, we talked about the past accomplishments and future potential of Groningen, with a very special edition of Founder Talks, to celebrate our 5-year anniversary! And to do that in style, we looked at the past, present and future, with Klippa co-founder Yeelen Knegtering, Ancora Health co-founder Rahul Gannamani and renowned international investor Marnix van der Ploeg, who was also instrumental in the rapid worldwide growth of Booking.com.
How can Groningen take things to the next level as an ecosystem? How do you grow from a local startup to an international scale-up? What’s it like to get in on the ground floor of a future unicorn? And what’s an investor’s biggest turnoff? Check out the highlights of an all new Founder Talks.
Taking things to the next level
Groningen’s own poet laureate Myron Hamming kicks things off in style with an ode to the city. Serial entrepreneur, investor and online business coach Alex van Ginneken, who’s also on Founded in Groningen’s Advisory Board, starts off on the same note, but also looks to the future and how we can take things to the next level: “As entrepreneurs, we’re far more connected today than we were a couple of years ago.” But there’s also plenty of room for improvement of course, like better pitch decks and more international ambitions.
Another thing Alex points out, is the emphasis on an exit: “Rather than working towards selling your company, why not focus on growth and adopt a buy & build strategy. Because when you think about it, what is real success? Is it being bought by an international company? Or is real success being able to buy an international company? We need to let go of that modesty we tend to have here and also actively start looking at international connections.”
International scale-up, promising startup
Founder Talks wouldn’t be Founder Talks if we didn’t have entrepreneurs sharing their journey. Sitting down for a double interview, Klippa co-founder Yeelen Knegtering talks about operating worldwide as a fast growing IT scale-up, and Ancora Health co-founder Rahul Gannamani shares the big ambitions of his startup.
So how does one become a fast growing, international scale-up, working with the likes of companies like Madison Square Garden in New York? “Just by doing it and taking small, organic steps”, Yeelen explains. “From the get go, we offered our content in different languages and started in 5 different countries, figuring out what worked and what didn’t. But that doesn’t mean it’s been smooth sailing from the start. We pivoted a couple of times and I think the real secret is actually listening to your customers. Don’t assume anything, don’t be married to your solution. Be married to their problem, that’s the key.”
Prevention is the best medicine
Founded in 2018, Ancora Health is a startup with big ambitions. “From the start, our ambitions have always been bigger than our bank account, in fact”, Rahul adds with a smile. “We’ve raised a few million already, but we’re looking to raise another 5 to 10 million euros next year and get at least a million users on our platform in the coming years.”
So what is it exactly that they do? “We look at thousands of important data points from your body, lifestyle and DNA, to reveal what is driving your current and future health”, Rahul explains. “And with that, we provide people with actionable nutrition and lifestyle guidance, based on scientific evidence. In other words, we motivate people to make healthy choices, based on their genetic risks and current lifestyle, to prevent health problems down the line.”
Rahul is also still working on getting his PhD/MD at the University of Groningen and specializes in using big data in the fields of genetics and neurology. Developing Ancora has helped him make a few lifestyle changes as well. “I’m Indian, which means I’m genetically more predisposed to diabetes. The algorithm we developed gives me personalized options like switching to brown rice instead of white and including more iodine in my diet.”
Success goes hand in hand with failure, so what are the biggest lessons learned for the two entrepreneurs? “Persistence for one”, Yeelen says. “It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s what you learn from it. I lost a potential customer once because I didn’t do my homework enough. It sucks, but you learn from that. And it’s also about how you deal with that as a team. Pointing fingers or focusing on the negative gets you nowhere, because it only makes things more charged and puts extra pressure on the next meeting with a potential client. Mistakes sometimes happen. And another key thing is we made an effort to have an international team. We have a vast talent pool of international students and expats here in Groningen and they’re often overlooked, while we should really focus on keeping them here.”
Rahul says Ancora’s biggest challenge was positioning the product and finding the right market. “Prevention is not very tangible and most medtech startups and in fact much of the industry is focused on reactionary healthcare. You treat people once they’re sick. That’s where all the capital and money is, too. But if there’s one thing that the pandemic made painfully clear, preventative healthcare is absolutely necessary. Especially when people are getting older and the healthcare system is overburdened, how do you keep things affordable?”
Witnessing the birth of a unicorn
Marnix van der Ploeg got his big start as the tenth employee of Booking.com. “It was really not much more than a couple of desks crammed together with old computers and fax machines”, Marnix laughs. “Back then, hotels usually didn’t have any internet, so we faxed them the bookings and sat there waiting for confirmation, which we then emailed to our customers.”
Marnix was put in charge of overseeing the company’s international expansion and saw the company grow from a dozen employees into many thousands. “We were really ambitious from the start and everything we did was designed to be scalable. So when we were optimized for dealing with a few hundred reservations per day, we were already thinking about ways to optimize for a million per day. To build a huge company like that, it’s the greatest thing there is.”
Going to Brazil
After some 12 years at the fast growing company, Marnix took the plunge and set up an investment fund with former Booking.com CEO Kees Koolen, focusing on Brazilian startups. “We saw a lot of opportunity there, but it’s far from easy to get a foot in the door there as an investor. When we worked at Booking.com, out of all the countries we expanded to, Brazil was by far the hardest. But we had the contacts and the experience, other investors didn’t. We were able to invest in startups like Gympass, which is now valued over a billion dollars.
The deadly sin of mentioning an exit
Marnix is also the Head of Global Rollout at EQT Ventures, a large fund from Sweden. “The thing I love most as an investor is working with startups and building companies, in good times and bad times. You’re partners, you’re in it together. I also think that, as a startup, finding the right investor is crucial. A lot of startups tend to go for the people with the biggest wallet, while they should be looking for someone who shares their vision. It’s just like selecting your romantic partner, where how rich they are is not their most important quality, right?”
Just like Alex van Ginneken, Marnix feels young entrepreneurs tend to focus too much on an exit: “It’s a result, it’s not a goal. It can happen at some point when you’re successful. If founders mention an early exit during their first meeting with me, well, it’s usually a hard pass. It’s deadly. That’s because it tells me they’re not committed to really growing their company and put in the work.”
Some final tips
Marnix offers a couple of last tips to startups and starting entrepreneurs: “You need to be ambitious, totally committed and willing to try things over and over again. It’s not a hobby or a nice side hustle, it’s really hard work, especially during the first couple of years. And think internationally, right from the start. Don’t limit yourself by operating in one country. Cross borders, because it really is the coolest experience ever. Make sure everything you do is designed to scale. And make sure you have a diverse, international team, because that will give you a broader perspective and global vision.”
But of course there are pitfalls, as Marnix points out: “Some startups make the mistake of focusing on the US market too early. It’s the lion’s cage and if you go in there without enough experience and money, you’ll be eaten alive. It’s better to start in smaller countries, figure things out through trial and error and work your way up to the bigger markets.”
But what if you can’t find experienced people or your startup isn’t located in the hot and happening city where all the VCs are? “Don’t worry too much about that”, Marnix says. “I had a background in accounting and finance when I started at Booking.com. I didn’t know anything about global expansion, haha. If you can find talented, ambitious people who are willing to learn, you can create your own experts. And as for location, it really doesn’t matter. If you have a promising company, investors will come. That's why we went to Brazil in the first place.”