Founder Gomibo Group
Founder Verifai (SaaS company).
Belsimpel is an online store in cell phones and subscriptions. The company operates in fifteen countries, has seven hundred employees and achieved sales of €424 million in 2021.
Can you describe the beginning of Belsimpel.com?
I was twenty-one and studying medicine in Groningen. Together with roommate and namesake Jeroen (law and philosophy student), we started selling internet dongles through the website Metjelaptoponline.nl with €1000 cash each in 2006. Dongles were small devices that allowed you to connect a laptop to mobile Internet back then. We were both still students, had lots of time and energy and no commitments yet. Three years later, we were the largest in mobile Internet for laptops. The target audience ranged from vacationers who wanted to email home to business users.
Why we had started doing business? We had time to spare and were entrepreneurial. And we thought it was cool to do something together, the doctor and the lawyer, how nice is that. We didn’t have so much of a financial motivation. I think it is a risk if you go into business with the goal of getting rich. That is not the right motivation. Because you have to work very hard to achieve something. I see it around me, entrepreneurs are just working really hard. My associate and I had a lot of fun doing what we did. We had fun together, were and still are true friends. I advise all entrepreneurs to join the other founders in going out to dinner, skiing or doing something else regularly. It’s good to step back and look at your business with fresh eyes. Then you come to new insights.
We complement each other well as entrepreneurs. My associate is more short-term focused, operationally and commercially strategically strong, I am more long-term focused, strategy, new business, ICT and finance.
Entrepreneurship to get rich is not the right motivation.
What made you become successful with Belsimpel?
Frankly, success depends in part on chance. You have to have a certain amount of luck. So it was a coincidence that we complement each other so well, that we are complementary. But a few factors can be pointed out. Thus, we have always developed all the software ourselves.
We have a certain curiosity and drive to solve problems. You must want to explore new things and perhaps be a tad stubborn. When a problem arises in our business, which happens continuously, I start thinking how best to solve this problem. For that, I take inspiration from the best companies in the world. For example, I learned a lot from reading management literature. One book I can recommend is Work rules by Laszlo Bock. There is a solution to every problem. The information is there for the taking. Therefore, read many (management) books.
A second book I can recommend is High output management by Andrew Grove.
A key success factor is our drive to want to continuously improve. We think it’s cool to keep reinventing our company and ourselves. It gives a thrill when you get positive feedback from employees and customers when you have found a new solution. It gives us a lot of energy to solve problems.
We think it's cool to keep reinventing our company and ourselves.
From selling dongles, we have evolved into a complete, independent web store for cell phones and subscriptions. First only online, later also through seven of its own physical stores. Originally, we developed all the software ourselves, purely for our own use. At some point we saw the added value of this software for other companies as well. For example, we launched two new SaaS companies to make the developed software also available to third parties (Verifai in 2017, which provides software for customer verification, and Gomibo in 2022, which provides a SaaS solution).
The idea for setting up separate SaaS companies came from looking closely at other successful companies. Amazon was ironclad in hosting and put the service in a separate company to make it available to other companies. Thus was born Amazon Web Services (AWS), now accounting for billions in sales. It inspired us to do something similar with our own software.
A next phase in our business was ushered in as we started selling internationally. And now we are transitioning from a retailer to an online store with a marketplace for telecom connectivity and products in the broadest sense.
Another success factor focuses on actively soliciting feedback. At Belsimpel, we find the opinions and insights of customers and employees extremely interesting. They offer the key to reinventing ourselves. We organize regular participation and improvement sessions. To do this, we first create a safe environment for people. These meetings are a gold mine and help us develop further as a company.
Improvement sessions are a gold mine and help us develop further as a company.
As you get bigger, how do you keep growing and avoid bureaucratic traits?
As you grow as a start-up, at some point you will have to explain more, facilitate more. In the beginning, creating a culture comes naturally. Colleagues are close to the founders and so naturally get the core values and the way we work. But at some point, every company, every start-up, becomes more bureaucratic. We strive for minimum viable bureaucracy. We learned that from Spotify.
We strive for minimum viable bureaucracy.
Every company, every start-up, needs policy, organization and structure, but not too much. We believe in self-directed teams. From a clearly communicated business goal, you can set team goals. From those goals, you choose projects, which you keep track of in a project list. Then you can give the team a lot of autonomy in the execution of the projects.
What we do record is the meeting schedule to create rhythm and keep track of project progress. With us, a meeting always has a clear agenda, a chairman, a note-taker and a clear structure. Consultations generally last no longer than thirty minutes. Within Belsimpel, a key performance indicator is minimizing the number of meeting hours per employee. Among executives, a meeting time of four to a maximum of eight hours per week is common. I see a lot of value in organizing the work well within our company, it is incredibly important as you get bigger as a start-up (towards scale-up). As directors, we facilitate that teams stay in touch with each other and organize meetings between them. We think carefully about that. I dare say that Belsimpel has developed its own and unique way of working, which has made us successful. Also with seven hundred employees.
We train all employees in how to work smart. Many (young) people struggle with this. How can you be effective? How can you best work together? Many people work “from the mailbox.” We help our employees structure their work: working with action lists, turning off stimuli (phone on silent, no whatsapp, all notifications off, no email).
It’s a nice paradox, though: Belsimpel sells distractions (cell phones), but we ourselves are extremely focused. We are very fanatical about that. We also see smart work training as good employment practice. Because lack of an overview of what needs to be done creates stress and is demotivating.
We train all employees in how to work smart.
Do you have any tips for budding entrepreneurs?
Don’t be afraid that things will go wrong. What would you lose? Much more interesting is to take a close look at where the market is going and continually reinvent the business and keep developing it. Entrepreneurship is not static. Create a culture of continuous improvement. Don’t look backwards too much. Don’t dwell too much on past mistakes. This is meaningless. Celebrate your successes, throw a party now and then. Undertake activities that make your people do something fun together. That creates a bond. Make sure you have fun with your team; it makes entrepreneurship the greatest thing there is.
Success factors of start-ups that emerge
- Ambition and dedication
- Self-awareness and coachability
- Team composition
- Innovative capability
- Distinctive product