The early 2000s are best known as the dot-com bubble. Companies that promised to ‘change the world’ rose quickly, had crazy-high valuations yet were wildly unprofitable. Not all e-commerce companies, however, adhered to the same business model of ‘Get Big Fast’. Some chose a more rational and profitable route. They enjoyed slower but more sustainable growth. Mobiel.nl, the current Dutch e-commerce giant on the telecom market, is such a company. In an exclusive interview with B. amsterdam, CEO and Founder Thomas Borsboom shares his insights as an entrepreneur in a highly competitive business environment.
The idea for a smart online platform to choose your new phone and mobile subscription arose in the year 2000. Three students at the Technical University of Delft, the Netherlands, sat down to set up a platform for sim-only subscriptions by the suitable name ‘Studentmobiel’. Since then, the telecom industry changed drastically, whether it concerns the mobile devices themselves or the software which runs them. Students became full-time entrepreneurs and the name changed from Studentmobiel.nl into Mobiel.nl. The question, how Thomas and his companion were able to stay ahead of the competition may be simple, the answer is not. Even though in hindsight all seems so logical: technology is the future.
To start at the beginning, could you share some stories with us about the early days of Mobiel.nl?
When we started to draft our own company back in 2000, our ideas were partly fueled by family funding. Thanks to the support family and friends gave us, we were able to pre-finance the cashback that was actually the predecessor of what is now called sim-only subscriptions. The business model was thus clear to us, even though there wasn’t much e-commerce around at the time. The sales of subscriptions happened purely offline, in a retail shop like the store-chain BelCompany. To be honest, starting a retail shop never seemed attractive to me. There’s a scarce possibility to scale up and well, when you’re an upright Dutch merchant you know that growth is fun. With e-commerce, you do not merely serve a certain area of postal codes – you may potentially service all postal codes in a country. But how to redirect customers from the familiar retail shop to your webshop? We began with marketing targeted at students. We printed flyers and visited university campuses; made a front-page add on Metro and Spits, the two free dailies on all public transport; and probably broke all the rules that try to muzzle aggressive advertising.
In simple words, what is the telecom industry’s business model?
In a nutshell, leaving out a lot of complexity, there are the networks/providers like KPN and Vodafone which pay, let’s say, €300.00 commission for bringing in a new mobile subscriber which is going to pay 24 months a monthly fee of € 20.00, etc. The reseller (Mobiel.nl) buys a mobile phone for (example) € 250.00 and provides this for € 0.00 to the end-user, along with the subscription (the sim card). Thereby making a gross margin of € 50.00. That is the simple part. The difficulty kicks in when you realize you’re dependent on the waves of changes at the core of the telco sector: telephone operators and internet providers, their (sub)brands and constantly changing proposition structures, pricing, operational consequences, etc. Every tech or commercial innovation causes a wave – we left physical wires and went mobile, plain mobile phones became smartphones, e-commerce adoption exploded. The reason we caught the waves was through our affinity for tech. We automized time-consuming flows such as contract management and smartened the software of our online platform. Mobiel.nl thrives on new technologies – you might say, it makes our business model so flexible.
How important is your business companion in all these turbulent times?
We are very much used to each other and thus work like a perfectly attuned team. That doesn’t mean we don’t have our weaknesses. It’s not always easy to tell something that isn’t particularly nice – to give criticism my companion does not like to hear and vice versa. Yet, it needs to be said. Now that we’ve spent 20 years together, he feels like home to me. That means we can easily spend a weekend without talking about work. And without noticing that we don’t. Perhaps that’s an important success factor, don’t make work consume you as a person.
When you do some research about Mobiel.nl as a business, you easily bump into glorifications of a small start-up that now turned to a € 100-Mill. business. What are the sacrifices you had to make on that journey?
That’s a very good question… I never had to chance to study or live abroad for a while. I started as an entrepreneur when I was still an undergrad and finished my graduation thesis at TNO alongside building the company. Of course, partner companies took us out on extravagant trips to Japan and Tanzania and the like, but that does not replace the experience of living independently in another culture. Now that I have a family and bear the responsibility for my lovely children, it is out of the question. I don’t regret the choices I made cause it brought me where I am now, but the sacrifices you make keep things in perspective.
One last question, what do you do to take care of yourself and grow as a person?
For me, reading books is way more fun than watching series. There are numerous books I find inspiring, but if I have to name a few: I especially enjoyed Good to Great by Stanford business professor Jim Collins. Collins asks the question: why do some companies become great, particularly for a long period of time, while others languish at merely good? Is it random chance or does greatness have a structure? Another book that inspired me is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. For a completely different set of reasons, but it’s an impressive story about a town divided along both racial and moral lines. And about people stepping into others’ shoes and view the world from another’s perspective. It helps you to trust that gut instinct of right and wrong, which is different from just following the law.
We are moving towards an age of female empowerment and gender equality. However, the funding gap is an established fact. In the Netherlands, 1.6% of VC money goes to female entrepreneurs. While over 40% of entrepreneurs are now female. We spoke to Elisabeth Stevens, angel investor & startup mentor about her experiences in the funding world.