I grew up in a small village with only 100 residents
About my childhood, oh wow, that’s 40 years ago! I grew up in a small village in the Northern part of the Netherlands, Baijum, with only 100 residents! I think there were only two or three kids my age. There was an elementary school in the next village, so, from a very young age, my mum put me on a bike to drop me off to school.
As I grew a bit older I started cycling with my older brother. Then, once I started high school, I met a couple of kids from a village nearby. Together we formed a small bicycle group: meeting up in a crossroad in the middle of nowhere every morning and riding those ten kilometres through the countryside. I would always be 30-60 mins early at the crossroad, just hanging around in the fields, losing my thoughts while watching the cows, the sunrise, and nature.
So I was a terrible kid, a rebel already since a pretty young age!
I did not have any role models in my mind and certainly did not think about entrepreneurship as something stylish. Actually, I always questioned everything. I was raised in a family where the life path was: “You work hard, you study hard, you make lots of money”. I never felt it, it never spoke to me. That could not be the only path. Again, I questioned everything, including that path. So I was a terrible kid, a rebel already since a pretty young age!
One day I met this kid who was into punk. He let me listen to some mixtapes he had and a couple of bands really grabbed my attention. I got into the punk lifestyle. I shaved my head mohawk style, put chains on my belt and studs in my jacket. I even did a big drawing on the back of that jacket too. I still remember coming home that day with my shaved head. My father saw me entering the village and got out to our porch: “Don’t step into my lawn, you’re not my son anymore!!” [laughing]. I was a rebel.
I was showing respect to my friends by listening to their life problems
However, I already had a trait that I think applies to entrepreneurs: lots of kids in high school would come to me if they had problems. And I don’t mean it in a problem-solving way. I was not Mr Wolf from Pulp Fiction, but I was really good at listening. I was showing them respect by listening to their life problems. A punk attitude of questioning everything is not incompatible with listening: you question things, you are curious, and then you listen. I think this has transpired to the values I think a small company needs to have to be able to move forward.
I also remember the very first time I actually did something, built something, for others to really experience. I met a kid who was a skater and was playing guitar. We got along and thought: why don’t we start a band together? And we did. We put a poster in school looking for a drummer and one week later we were rehearsing in a shed. I was the singer – or the shouter! We borrowed the gear we needed from neighbours and friends, it was lots of fun, but it also impacted me beyond my own experience: ever since that moment I realized there is something special from being on stage and the journey to get there. The reaction from the audience, the building up to the moment, the challenges…
If the cows are having fun in the fields, I thought, why not us!
I felt it was something unique, a place and role where I might belong. We played until I was in my late 20s. I even learned to play bass! The funny thing is, I never woke up thinking “we need to have a more entrepreneurial approach to this, guys! We need to be lean!” [laughing again]. It just happened. Put posters, rehearse, word of mouth, have fun on stage.
When promoting our shows, when actually setting them up… that’s when I discovered the fun and exciting side of productions. We even organized a small festival with all the local bands: a concert in the middle of the fields. If the cows are having fun in the fields, I thought, why not us! And again: it was really fun to actually create this show from scratch and see people having a blast the whole day!
At some point, I realized I had enough of that lifestyle
Another experience that had an impact on my life was when I was living in Amsterdam, I got a job in one of the bars and got to run the bar on Monday evenings. It was a dead shift. But hey, I started playing music, having fun, really running the whole place with energy. After a year, Monday nights were one of the most successful nights of the week. I turned it completely around. I did that on my own. Since that was actually a paid gig, I guess it could be a proto-entrepreneur experience!
At some point, I realized I had enough of that lifestyle and I decided to study “Theatre Engineering”, followed up with “Management and Communication in Arts, Culture and Media”. That included event production. After graduating we started a non-profit foundation to support a festival we were organizing but it was more like a collective of people, really relaxed. However, I guess the seed was planted in my mind: it might be funny to produce events!
I had done so many things but I did not own any of it
I found myself working as an event producer. I was building stuff from the ground up and never felt I had ownership. I had to abandon it at some point, move on with my life. There was nothing left. I had done so many things but I did not own any of it. That’s when I started thinking: “what if I start my own company and actually nurture projects and see them through in the long run?” It was not really about ownership really, but more about a new way to see the journey while still developing projects. Higher stakes, a more fulfilling way of working.
I had met Huong then (Huong is the co-founder of ROND Productions and ROND House, you can read her story here) and we were a bigger group of people unhappy about their jobs. We kept meeting up and plotting: “Ok, so, if we were on our own, what would we do differently? How would we do it?”. The thing with Huong is that she always wants to learn and explore new paths. That is really inspiring. Always wanting to grow.
We are both very curious people. We will dare to take a leap just because we are curious and we know we will figure things out as we go instead of sitting and planning forever. In the end, Huong really pushed and encouraged us all. She said: “Let’s go for it”. So we did! ROND Productions is the first official company that I started.
Want to change things? Change them!
We started ROND with some other awesome people (shout outs to Abby, Laura, Kasper)! We wanted to do events differently, explore different ways to bring people together. Focus a lot on dialogue and open discussion environments. Quite often the best discussions in an event happen during the coffee breaks so, why not try to replicate this feeling throughout an event?
A lot of our first events were about gathering people together from the same industry and creating a relaxed and open space for all parties to really open up and speak up their minds: the trends they saw, the problems they had, the possible solutions. And you could see the attendees, including the so-called “higher-ups” really get something out of those sessions. Again: it’s all based on talking and listening. We also had with us Dr Anne Stenros who was a massive source of inspiration when it came to radical thinking. Want to change things? Change them!
I hate pitching
Obstacles… Phew! The biggest one at the very beginning was that we actually had no idea how to actually start the business in Finland. We talked to advisors and we joined the accelerator from Helsinki Think Company. I basically saw an ad for Mutiny Accelerator in the metro. Mutiny? Yeah! That sounds like me. We joined. That was a key moment. It was both nerve-wracking, exciting, scary… going to the first workshops and training, pitching – I hate pitching – it was really intense, it was a challenge, and it confirmed that I wanted to do this.
I really got into it. I started reading a lot. I have always read a lot about the topics I like and I began studying, learning about what it actually means to run a business. You are never going to prevent obstacles on your path – nor should you even try to attempt that – but at least you can make sure you hurdle through the easy ones without wasting too much time.
We have the know-how, methodology and also crazy ideas, that makes the difference
The day I knew we were making it as a business and not only as an idea was RecoTech 2018. Before that we had done experimenting with formats, open space formats especially, within the Smart City sector in Helsinki. It was going well, it was fun. We started talking about it with people and, suddenly… We are closing a deal to provide production support for RecoTech. That felt amazing.
But let me tell you, before that moment we had a huge amount of crazy ideas for productions, formats, solutions and that process helped us define ourselves: we are event producers. Once we know who and what we are we can actually then really push the boundaries of what our clients might expect. Approaching them only with crazy ideas might have been not enough. But telling them: hey, we have the know-how, the methodology and also the crazy ideas, that makes the difference.
500 people waiting to enter on a cold November morning to an event you have put together. Man, that gives you goosebumps.
One year later we actually got to produce RecoTech 2019 from start to end. We took a risky choice of venue and went for the Train Factory, in Pasila. That was just kickass. Such a contrast. And it gave me one of the most satisfying moments since we started our journey with ROND: when we saw the lines of people wanting to enter, 500 people waiting to enter on a cold November morning in Helsinki to an event you have put together. Man, that gives you goosebumps.
During the event, people kept telling us how amazing and especially, how different this felt to other PropTech events. A very seasoned speaker and worldwide expert took me aside just to say it: “This is the best event I have ever been to”. Wow. Of course, some loved but also some hated it because they could not expect this event in a location and vibe like the one we had created. Overall, I am happy with that too. It is also part of the experience: even if it makes you uncomfortable, you will remember it and you will get a lot out of it. We had amazing keynotes, workshops, matchmaking… It was one of the absolute best PropTech events of the year in the world!
The two ingredients of success: team and attitude
To reach that kind of satisfaction and success, you need at the very least two ingredients: team and attitude. The team and people working on an event will reflect on the actual event. The audience will feel their mood, their engagement. Even if only one person from your crew transmits stress, it can affect a whole audience. For real. That’s why we aim at ensuring that everybody in our team always keeps a positive attitude and mindset. Don’t stress, it will be fine. Even if the whole room is on fire, it will be fine. We kept that mindset, worked with the belief that we will fix it, we will find a way. And we did! We always do!
Of course not always easy. Things don’t go as planned. Unexpected things happen, last minute or not. Just let it be. No need to stress about things out of your control. Just focus on what you can do to fix it. Relax. Stress won’t help you think better. Keep calm and others will be calm.
I am not at all a micro-manager, quite the opposite, but I for sure want to have an environment where teams, clients and also audiences are stress-free. A relaxed mindset allows room for open thinking and open discussion. Don’t hold back on ideas, don’t be tense about someone snapping at you, it won’t happen with us: we will listen. We find solutions because everybody feels they can share their thoughts.
I don’t want to reach the top alone and I don’t want to only move forward with my vision
Collaboration is one of our most important values. We have had very tough moments. You are starting, you are a small team and realize you have committed to a lot of work and are running out of sleeping hours. We had stretches where we pulled through and I am not actually sure how, but I know we did. I give all credit to the team – to have created a culture where we know we must stay calm, positive, help each other, speak up and move forward.
My leadership style is… I don’t really lead. I encourage people to find their own way. You can ask me, of course, but I won’t take you by the hand. I can show how I would do it, sure but again: you are you, you do you, and we move forward together. This leadership style can be a problem if a person needs lots of clarity just to get started but it comes down to the same keyword again: team.
I don’t want to reach the top alone and I don’t want to only move forward with my vision. I want to bring everybody along with me. I am very quick to tell someone: join, let’s try it out. Then we will see if it turns right or wrong. But I am curious, are you too? Then let’s try. I don’t care about skillset: I care about mindset and attitude.
Be playful while you solve problems
One thing that I believe is super important to become a successful entrepreneur – or at least to be happy during your journey – is to be playful while you solve problems. I guess for me that has been very easy to apply to real-life since I have always liked games and solving puzzles.
When I was six my parents got their first computer from my dad’s work. The first PC we got at home: 8088XT, one the first IBM home computer. And he also got hold of some bootleg disks (I wonder how many readers will know what we are talking about) with games on it. I dived into them: Qbert, Commander Keen, Duke Nukem 2D… I loved it. Since then, I have always been passionate about games. Not only about playing: how they work, how to fix them – going into the code and trying to find why it was crashing – but also exploring…
Games have just taken massive leaps forward in terms of going way beyond the missions
With some of those games you had to mess around in DOS to get them to work, going really to the starting sequence of the computer and, well, not always being able to boot the whole thing again – dad was not happy. It was always good fun. Then I got my first Playstation, then the second, and suddenly you could connect with other people online!
Games have just taken massive leaps forward in terms of going way beyond the missions or goals themselves: you can explore, navigate, get lost, discover and even when realism isn’t at the top, who cares, you are still immersed in a brand new parallel world where you are solving problems and having a blast. The character in the game has a goal, for sure, but the game itself has a bigger purpose. You get way more than what you think.
We want to wow you, we want you to come back for more fun, we want to disrupt the ordinary of virtual meetups
A lot of this is reflected in our very new ROND Virtual platform, which we are launching this autumn. We have really focused not only on the teleconference side of things – to see others, good sound, share things, etc. – but in the gamified and exploring aspect: we want to wow you, we want you to come back. How many online events do you really think people would crave to revisit? Well, we are going to provide such a different experience than it will really change the perception – and the outcome – of all virtual meetups: events, conferences, seminars, anything, it’s gonna be awesome.
Plus, in a context where we have been locked down, quarantined and even starting to be scared to be around others, games provide you with a unique safe meeting environment: hang out, talk, laugh. You are not alone or isolated anymore. Companies are actually organizing meetups and conferences in Minecraft, Fortnight, hell, even in Red Dead Redemption! The six-year-old kid who was messing around with floppy disks would be proud to know that not only I am still a gamer, but I am actually integrating games into my working life, events, and inviting others to have an awesome fun time and experience.
The startup mindset feels fake
I never feel like an entrepreneur as the way many people understand the word nowadays. It seems to be too associated only with certain startup entrepreneurship stories and culture. I almost dislike the term. I don’t feel I fit in that box. And the startup mindset… something feels fake in that bubble.
Startups are meant to be unpredictable, exciting, surprising but in the end, the so-called startup ecosystem feels predictable. Of course, we work with startups and it can be lots of fun but if you ask me about how I identify myself, no thanks. No box for me.
Yes, technically, I am an entrepreneur but the truth is, I don’t care, I don’t feel like it: I am just a guy trying to get things done. That’s also the reason I don’t like titles either. I am me, Sjoerd. Mindset, attitude, experience, work… that’s what matters. What you do. We signed a new employee this week and her title is: “All-Rounder”. She loved it. Let’s go.
Someone has to step forward and say, “let’s go that way” with enough pull to have the team rally behind
The fact I do not call myself an entrepreneur or a CEO, or the fact I want my team to enjoy an unusual amount of freedom to fulfil their tasks and I’m always open to dialogue does not mean I will not make decisions. In a company, you do need to have decision making. That is a part of leadership I understand falls on my shoulders, especially when we do not seem to reach consensus.
Small teams might sometimes not dare to appoint a clear decision-maker, or a tiebreaker, so to speak, but you ought to have someone who can step forward and say, “let’s go that way” with enough pull to have the team rally behind.
I am not immune to be responsible for other people’s stability
Starting a company has affected my life, of course. It is a ride. My girlfriend has been super supportive and always encouraged me to try it and pursue it. However, I am not immune to the stress of running a business and being responsible for other people’s stability. Some obstacles are very big and some weeks are really packed.
Having your company is something that is going to enhance your emotional reach in daily life: higher highs, lower lows. When you are happy, you are going to be crazy high, but when you are down, it can be pretty dark and lonely.
Rest, reset, remember you have a team to help you out and keep moving forward
It can affect your personal life and the ones closest to you. When you have been working non-stop and putting off fires since it is your company, it does affect you in a deeper way than when you just take a salary: the worry, the tiredness, it really follows you home. You might have moments where you might feel lonely, insecure, you might even wonder “why did I even start this?”.
Whenever that happens, I take some time for myself, find some minutes to contemplate the views from my apartment, and I revisit the kid who used to gaze at the sky in the middle of the fields. And then I just pick myself up, rest, reset, remember I have a team to help me out and keep moving forward!
This society shaping a pressure to always show your best version of yourself
Also, don’t let perception or “peer pressure” get to you. During your working life, you come across a lot of fake people. People that are not the same whether you meet them at work or outside of work. There is this tendency, this society shaping a pressure to always show your best version of yourself: “I am the best, I am successful, I am perfect”. You can’t show flaws or weaknesses. However, once the suit comes off, you might become a completely different person.
The need to compete and to be better perceived is something that I have always rebelled against. Personally, yes, I want to improve and learn. It’s self-imposed pressure. And even then, not driven by shallow success but by the satisfaction of learning and seeing how I move forward.
I show emotions and I try to stay as true to myself as possible.
But pretending to be always perfect, awesome… I am not like that, I don’t conform to it. With me, what you see is what you get. I am open, honest and do not pretend. If I don’t know something, I am not afraid to say this openly. I show emotions and I try to stay as true to myself as possible. There is already enough fakery in this world and what we need now is real, real people, real feelings and real connections. Don’t be afraid to show your personality to anyone. If people like you they will buy from you and the only way to become likeable is to be yourself.
I guess this is connected to whom you meet and how you build your network. Doing business is all about having a network. I was lucky enough when I moved to Finland to start as an event producer for a startup hub that helped me get to know a lot of people. And some of those people are still with us until this day.
They are really hard workers, fun, and they certainly come as they are, no hidden agendas. It’s not about how much you know but who you know. Helsinki is an easy city to network. There are so many events, meetups, the startup community is insane in that regard. And the city is behind it – see Maria01 – which makes creating connections and getting to know new people way easier. That allows for faster personal and business integration.
Even though a lot of advice might feel off, others’ opinions do matter
Three top skills? Listening, empathy and a dash of rebellion. Dare to listen, and read a lot. Never stop learning, engaging in conversations and really listening: to your clients, partners, advisors, friends… Even though a lot of advice might feel off, their opinions do matter. Stay humble: listen.
Then, there is this general impression that entrepreneurship is cool, startups are cool. Guess what? It’s not! It’s freaking hard, you are going to lose friends along the way and all you can do and think about is business. Whenever you start a conversation you automatically switch to pitching mode. Your social media account is boring and all about subliminally selling your product or services. At a party, you are probably one of the most boring people in the room or you are too tired to even go to a party.
Only crazy and stupid people start companies
And then what are you doing this for? To become mildly successful, freedom, money, a greater cause? You probably won’t achieve any of those things and you are an idiot for thinking you might. Only crazy and stupid people start companies.
If after reading this you still think, wow that sounds amazing then I would say you are ready to get started. I don’t do pitching 24/7, I want to have conversations and know when to stop… And when the day is done, the day is done. Step away from work. Do something else: watch a movie, go for a walk or stand in the fields contemplating the cows – or if you are in Helsinki, go to a park at dusk and try to count the bunnies.
Learn to relax: you need to enjoy the journey, you need to stay positive, calm. You need to learn from the tough days. Appreciate the journey with a smile on your face even when the wind is slowing you down. Don’t kid yourself: that’s why you become an entrepreneur in the first place! And if you have this attitude: you will not lose friends along the way, you will not be 24/7 in pitching mode, and you will still enjoy all things that are non-work related.
Money is a massive source of stress
In the startup world, there is this failure mantra: high 90% of the companies will fail. I think a lot of those come from a lack of adaptability and, ironically, too much focus on raising funds. Money is a massive source of stress and there is a misconception that all startups need funding rounds straight away. In my mind that is not true.
You can build your company by finding your own path and moving forward. It ain’t easy, but nothing is! And you will be in full control of your next steps, which allows you to be flexible. I feel the lack of flexibility or adaptability is a big source of failure.
Too many companies want to force their product onto their customers
It’s nothing to do with a startup’s product or solution. If the product fails, you can change it. You can still be successful. Don’t give up. Interview your potential customers, give them time to talk, find out what they actually need and want, listen to them. Only then you will be able to sell them the solution they actually need and want.
Too many companies want to force their product onto their customers. Guess what? In the early stage, especially when you don’t have a name yet behind you, there might be a very limited number of buyers for a rigid product, no matter how good it is. But a flexible product – and mindset – can adapt to various needs, even keeping its essence, so you are better off truly listening to the client who gives you a bit of his/her time.
We decided to become not only event producers but virtual world builders
This literally happened to us this year. We were selling event production services but then COVID happens. We could have tried to continue selling physical events but it was obviously not gonna work. So what? What do we do? We adapt. What do they need? What do they look for?
They look for online events, they are looking for something that is going to be more attractive and fun than webinars and zoom calls and events. They want to go online but still have unique experiences. That’s what we did. We decided to become not only event producers but virtual world builders.
Why wouldn’t you be able to play games while being in a conference?
We have been working really hard and in very little time. We combined our passion from gaming and events to provide full virtual experiences where you can explore, meet people, talk, learn, attend events but still feel free to move and navigate a brand new space.
Why wouldn’t you be able to play games while being in a conference? Why not video chat with your peers while logged into a futuristic virtual space? And I say futuristic but we are designing all types of spaces: a cabin in the woods, a space station, a pioneer outpost in the middle of the mountains,…
People crave meaningful experiences
Our drive is our core belief – people crave meaningful experiences and being together, going through new journeys and meeting new people along the way. Online meetings have so far been too stalled, too focused on the content but not on the experience.
We turned it around: with us, you get a full new world experience while you also attend an event, whatever it might be. We can build any virtual world from scratch to meet the event, party, conference, seminar, or simply a casual get-together. Want to know more? Want to explore something new? Get in touch!
I don’t think you as a foreigner would live here if you don’t love the country and the people
People ask me quite often what the impact of having a core and founding team comprised only by foreigners. First of all, that’s just the way it happened. All of us have lots of Finnish friends, advisors, relatives even, but when we started the journey we happened to be a melting pot of immigrants.
We all love Finland. Since the weather is so extreme, I don’t think you as a foreigner – assuming you have a life situation where you can choose – live here if you don’t love the country and the people. That said, yes, none of our core people grew up here, therefore, we are dealing with the fact that we are adapting to a different country and also building a company.
We don’t expect a welfare network to save us
Some would see this as a disadvantage, we think it’s an opportunity. We have different cultural backgrounds but are all very resilient, stubborn – maybe being a migrant is part of that. You are in a new environment and you have to toughen up a bit, or a lot.
Because of all that, we don’t wait and see what others do, we don’t expect a welfare network to save us. We don’t overthink about consequences. We’re not reckless, we’re just brave. We have had to integrate and adapt – and Finland is a lovely country to do so – both socially and professionally while at the same time daring to be different. Granted, it’s not always easy but it’s a fascinating journey.
No fear to stand out, no fear to change what’s established or expected
You can be a happy and successful foreigner employee in Finland just by landing the first job and then keeping a low profile. Good salary, stability. But if you want to be happy and succeed as a foreigner entrepreneur in Finland, you better be radically different. No fear to stand out, no fear to change what’s established or expected.
We often get this conservative reaction: “it’s not possible”, “it’s not gonna happen in Finland”, “it’s not how things work here”. Well, we’re gonna make it happen. And we keep going. We are not bound by history with this country: we are not prejudiced, we are not fighting against a cultural upbringing here. We might as well bring our own prejudices and cultural biases, throw them in the mix and see what happens. Thanks for the welcome, Finland, but are you ready for us? We think you are!