String chandeliers that look like giant hats hoover above yellow-grey furnished office space. A picture of Elmo is taped to one of the screens, the smell of crusty bread and melted cheese fills the air as do the voices and laughter of roughly twenty entrepreneurs and business founders. The first ‘founders meet-up’ in the Legal Tech Studio in B. Amsterdam, has a prestigious name yet, in essence, is a friendly get-together of like-minded spirits. Tonight’s guest is Thomas Borsboom, a seasoned entrepreneur with over 20 years of experience as founder and CEO of Mobiel.nl, one of the largest players in the Dutch telecom market.
The organizer of the meet-up is Richard Faas, head of the studio and director of Innovation at ARAG SE NL. Last year, Richard initiated a partnership between ARAG and B., with as result a 300m2 space that nurtures legal-tech talent. “Today I wish to try out something new”, Richard says while he points to the red furry tv-icon on the screen. “We all know that is Elmo, but tonight Elmo means: ‘enough, let’s move on’. Whenever you feel like moving on, point to Elmo.” The safety measure is needless. Until interrupted by the arrival of the evening cleaners, everyone hangs upon the words of tonight’s guest as he shares his secrets of entrepreneurship.
What started as a partly family-funded start-up in 2000 – with the sale of the first batch of mobile devices – grew over the years into a 100-million-euro enterprise. Back then, Thomas and his companions were still students with almost no e-commerce around. Merely a few mobile providers offered subscriptions, the sale of which happened mostly offline. In the retail shop on the main street. Although both the soft- and hardware of mobile phones changed drastically since then, Thomas’ mobiel.nl was able to stay ahead of the competition.
Focus to succeed…
“Why did you guys succeed”, one of the attendants asks, “while established online retailers such as Bol.com and Coolblue failed?” Patiently Thomas explains how complicated the telecom industry works. The playing field changes quickly as do licenses and providers. If telecom is not your core business, it is difficult to keep pace. “There were moments we feared to drown,” Thomas tells his audience, “and only survived thanks to our affinity for tech. At crucial moments, technology helped us buy time through automatization.” In a fit of creativity, Thomas compares the telecom market in 2000 with a blue ocean. There was few noteworthy competition whilst one enjoyed the unlimited potential for growth. Slowly but surely, the telecom business attracted more and more players. The competition grew more vehement and the ocean turned red as they started to eliminate one another.
Hence the most important lesson for the young entrepreneurs in the room: stay focused with enough time on your hands to do the things you like. As a founder, it is important to remind yourself about the core business of your startup. This means: stay close to your talents – that piece of you that is better in something than anyone else. “This is probably something you like doing,” Thomas tells us, “don’t feel bad to make it your priority. If your business expands and other areas need attention, find the right talent to help you buy time.” One of the legal tech founders responds and explains he found himself handling the mail and getting involved in customer service on Whatsapp last week. He laughs and agrees with Thomas that these are not tasks he should get involved in. You learn a lot by knowing your operational processes well and make sure you use this knowledge to constantly improve them. But as a founder, in the end, you should focus on building the company and outsource the operational as soon as possible to a carefully selected team.
…expand into other countries…
Thomas tells the group about his adventure of scaling his company internationally. His first try was an expansion in Belgium: “It was impossible to make deals with Belgians”, he shares with a sigh. “Whereas we have the merchant experience, our neighbors are more distrustful towards success and growth.” A valuable lesson Thomas learned, was to watch your product as you move abroad. What do you wish to export? Whereas Thomas failed to start a Mobiel.be-branch of his business, he was able to sell another part of his product: the software he developed for reference websites of mobile-phone offerings. This software is now used in multiple countries. The potential to scale up with a SaaS-business-model is unlimited, one of the main reasons Thomas himself joined the e-commerce industry twenty years ago.
…grow to disrupt.
It’s a message to the people in the room, each one of the leading or consulting startups in the legal-tech industry. Although many compare the lawyer’s practice rather with a grey river, to tech talents it is still a blue ocean. And they’re eager to learn from someone who experienced the same growth they wish to achieve. Time and again, however, Thomas reminds his audience that growth is an organic process. Yes, it is important to watch your timing and apply clever HR-hooks. But at times you need to take a step back and realize that your business depends on your self-care too. It’s a topic Thomas delves into in an exclusive interview with B. Amsterdam.