Co-founder and CEO Co-founder Qlayers
Qlayers is a company that can coat surfaces automatically (robotized) without wasting paint (overspray). The coatings can be applied to large industrial surfaces, such as storage tanks, ships and wind turbines. As a hardware supplier, the company owns patented technology and operates in Europe, North America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. The company has forty employees. In 2022, Josefien was voted EY Emerging Entrepreneur of the year.
How can you explain the success of Qlayers?
We were developing technology to print microstructures that we could use to make the industry more sustainable. In the process, we discovered that the professional paint industry has hardly changed in the last hundred years. Painting large areas is still done with spray guns that create a lot of “overspray,” paint that does not end up on the surface, but in the air. We saw an opportunity to develop technology that allows you to apply paint in a super accurate robotic way.
Storage tanks and ships need to be protected from corrosion. We devised an automated process that requires 50 percent less paint to achieve the same result as the traditional way of applying paint.
We came up with an automated process that requires 50 percent less paint.
The success is explained first of all by our perseverance. I could grow a thousand other businesses. The industry you operate in and the product you develop don’t matter much. I still think it’s all too slow, it’s a slow industry in which we operate. Which also turns out to be capital-intensive. There is also a lot of backlash from the industry itself, which sometimes sees us as threatening.
It is our mindset of perseverance that explains success. And continuously looking at the opportunities that are out there. You don’t necessarily have to work sixty hours a week; I believe in quality rather than quantity of work.
But a challenge it was. We are a hardware start-up, operating from the Netherlands with complex technology that requires a lot of capital. We used a lot of non-dilutive funding, or we raised capital without giving away shares. Possibilities include bank loans, prize money and grants. I myself am mainly the commercial person within the company. My business partner, Ruben Geutjens, is more the technical brain.
We always entered the market as quickly as possible. Usually together with a launching customer, a first-time buyer. We sold a prototype and were able to make money with just half a product. We wouldn’t have gotten this far if we hadn’t handled it this way. For example, we launched a product together with a wind turbine manufacturer. The product was not yet fully developed and we did not make a profit on the deal, but this way we created traction and the ball could start rolling.
We always entered the market as quickly as possible, together with a launching customer.
This is also how we came into contact with a Dutch tube coater. This company became our launching customer for that segment. The owner saw merit in automating the painting process. Together we arranged a €200,000 grant that allowed us to develop the technology. So we got money AND a customer immediately. We drew up a cooperation agreement. If usable technology emerged from the collaboration that would provide some savings, the partner would commit to purchasing some. The partner received exclusivity in exchange for a minimum order per year. We took a super commercial approach. At the same time, this first buyer ran minimal risk: he would pay only if we could deliver a certain output according to agreed specifications.
We did something similar with the company Van der Ende, one of the largest Dutch specialists in protecting steel from corrosion. Call it an industrial painting company. We supplied the machines, trained the customer to operate the robot, and provided service and maintenance. We did ask for a pre-payment to get commitment. The deal was that as soon as we could provide certain specifications, Van der Ende was guaranteed to place an order.
You must have experienced something that didn't go well, how did you handle it?
Yeah, what not, haha. We raised a lot of money and went to market very quickly. Not always was the product we delivered fully tested and working properly. We have faced many challenges as a result. But it does make where we are today. Otherwise, it certainly would not have succeeded. It was getting to market quickly, testing in the field and learning from the feedback of the first customers. I am grateful for the trust of these clients. Because they were willing to take risk, we were able to grow.
I established intensive collaborations with corporates. Working with large, established companies proved difficult in implementation. We want to go fast and take risk, while many large companies are conservative and avoid risk. In the end, the corporate collaborations helped us get a good position in the market and brought us a lot. At the same time, I am glad that we are now increasingly standing on our own two feet and conquering the market on our own.
We always wanted to go fast, launch our product quickly, along with a paying customer. This allowed us to learn a lot with customer feedback. That works great. This kept us ahead of our competitors. No, I wouldn’t do things differently now if we were starting over.
For now, we have at least three years of competitive advantage.
The patented technology – we have three patents – also helps. For now, we have at least three years of competitive advantage. If another party were to start, they would need a few years to get to where we are now.
Is there anything else on the program?
Definitely! By the end of 2022, we will enter the maritime industry. This is a ten times larger market than that of tank storage. That’s going to be booming.
Do you have any tips for budding entrepreneurs?
Google is your best friend. When you start out in business, you know nothing. Take an employment contract draft for your first employee…just google it until you can pay an expensive lawyer to put everything down right.
We also set up an advisory board fairly quickly – again, googled: how do you set up an advisory board? We pulled together four people to assist us unpaid – though a bottle of wine at Christmas and the occasional dinner. Importantly, they must be able to add value and be entrepreneurial people who can think big and turn risk into opportunity.
Find an advisory board with entrepreneurial people who can think big and turn risk into opportunity.
And don’t forget to develop personally in addition to professionally. Each stage in the enterprise requires different things of you. Self-development should not be forgotten. For me, meditating works very well. To be able to zoom out for a moment, to step away from the daily worries.
Be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. Find people who eliminate your weaknesses. Stand ego-less in the game. Having certain weaknesses is not a bad thing at all. As long as you are aware of it.
Stand ego-less in the game. It is not at all bad if you have certain weaknesses. As long as you are aware of it.
For example, I’m pretty impulsive myself. The next phase of Qlayers will likely require a different CEO. And that’s not a bad thing, either. Financial auditing and making risk assessments, I don’t have a lot to do with that. That is also why I have a rock-solid CFO and financial controller on board, who enjoys that very thing. Unbelievable, right?
As an entrepreneur, you have so much going for you. I sometimes compare it to boxing. You have to collect a lot, especially if you want to go fast. Therefore, you will have to continuously grow yourself as a person and an entrepreneur. Sometimes you need to zoom out, reflect and certainly put things in perspective.
Success factors of start-ups that emerge
- Purpose driven
- Market demand and timing
- Competitive Advantage
- Self-awareness and coachability