Marco Aarnink


Marco Aarnink


Informal investor

Founder grew into an organization with 150 employees and 26 million euros in sales. In 2014, the company was sold to US-based Vistaprint.

Did you start entrepreneurship at a young age?

As a twelve-year-old boy, I went to the market in Colmschate early in the morning before school to sell coffee and tea to the market vendors. That ran like crazy, because at that time there were no restaurants open. During school breaks, I helped take down the market stalls, earning five guilders. In the evenings, I went down the wells with my friends with rope and a magnet to fish up coins. That’s how I earned a pretty penny on the side. Later in life, I made money selling curtains at the market in Deventer at De Gordijnenman. The owner of the booth taught me that you should always strike up a conversation with people walking by. Because sooner or later they will come back to you when they need curtains. Then you are top-of-mind with consumers. That talking to your customers is an important lesson for me to this day.

At that time, my brother was building websites for companies. I could nicely copy that building of websites and so sell it to the market vendors. With that came frequent requests for business cards when the website was finished. It struck me that a small piece of paper cost a lot of money and with this you were also poorly served. Small customers did not seem to be of interest. That made me very insecure as an eighteen-year-old. Thus, the eureka moment came naturally. Business card printing, it had to be better and cheaper! A mega-market, because every business person in those days still had business cards.

When I sometimes give talks to students, I often get the question, “How do I come up with a good idea for a new business?” My answer then is always the same: “You just have to be bizarrely curious, always on. Then that idea will come naturally.

You have to be bizarrely curious, then a good idea will come naturally.

Three years after selling Printwerkdeal, you started again, with Why?

I wasn’t planning it at all. I had the opportunity to buy the URL I saw that primarily as a nice real estate investment, but digital real estate. Domain names, especially .com, are getting scarce. But I had no intention of re-entering the print market. There was no plan ready. Soon everyone started pulling at me. Old customers contacted me, former employees too. Then we invited a hundred customers to have dinner with us around Valentine’s Day; after all, we wanted to build a relationship. We did that on two days, both nights we invited fifty customers. For hours we sat at the table, with a chef in the kitchen. While enjoying a delicious meal, people told us in detail what they were missing in the market or what they valued. Then we started building what the customers were asking for. In doing so, we focused on things that were not yet there in the market. Once the customers started ordering as a result, we started adding what was already there in the market. In this way, we were able to grow solidly right from the start. We also defined the target market better than in my time at Drukwerkdeal. We now serve more of a niche in the market; it used to be more “mass is cash.”

Listening and cocreating, can you talk more about it?

It is my firm belief that you must listen carefully to the customer. You have to be really engaged with the customer. It seems like an open door, but it’s not. Look for the patterns in customer data, track them and zoom in on specific areas, but don’t forget to cite personal contact. My new company really came about through cocreation with the client. Based on what those hundred former customers then told us, was born. And for example, we chose to focus purely on graphic specialists, often resellers, using a closed portal (you have to log in for it) where no prices are publicly visible.

So what, in your view, determines the success of a start-up?

The entrepreneur must have guts. And wanting to put all his time and dedication into it. Especially in the beginning, you often go late into the night. That’s kind of part of it, pure passion and drive. And you have to gather good people around you. People who can think creatively.

Why do so many start-ups fail?

Disagreements often arise between the founders. Then there appear to be different expectations about money, level of commitment to the company and whether or not to pursue an exit. It is very important for the team to be stable. As an investor, then, I am interested in the expectations and drive of the founders. If they are only doing it for the money, then I certainly won’t get in.

Another reason is wrong timing. The momentum may not yet be there for an innovative idea. Then, as an entrepreneur, you have to make a pivot. You have to be able to do that. It is an innate quality, whether or not you have the aptitude to change, to think outside the box. There are sometimes unpleasant moments – and there always are in the life of the start-up – and then you have to dare and, above all, be able to change. Many entrepreneurs find this difficult, give up, dawdle too long, and then may even get burned out. A small business is often still fun and uncomplicated. As it gets bigger, responsibilities increase and perhaps debt is incurred or an outside venture capital (VC) fund steps in, it becomes too much for some entrepreneurs. Not everyone can handle that pressure.

It is an innate quality whether or not you are capable of change.

Another reason for failure is being late raising money. If you have a good plan and you can start scaling up, then you have to be willing to share, to give away some equity. A good VC also brings a lot. Such as a network and knowledge of internationalization and finance, not unimportant. Personally, I learned a lot from the due diligence period, the book examination. Only then did I become aware of the value of the business, the potential for optimization and what factors were important for its continued success.

Do you have any tips for budding entrepreneurs?

Start with a good team. The people around you should be diverse, not only in terms of knowledge and skills, but also in terms of gender, culture and drive. Then sufficient dynamism and creativity, a solid constituency and thus a stable foundation will emerge.

Also, start talking to other entrepreneurs a lot. Be curious, that’s where the most beautiful things come from. In doing so, not only the success stories are interesting. It is precisely from stories of failure that you can learn. You can read books, but better is to go talk to people and feel the energy of the entrepreneur.

Often, as an entrepreneur, you think you have a good idea. However, also try to play devil’s advocate. Talk to your customers, because they will critically examine your idea. Also continue to visit customers yourself. As an entrepreneur, you ask different questions, know exactly what you want to zoom in on, and learn a tremendous amount from your customers’ feedback.

Speed is your worst enemy. Quickly sending out a newsletter, quickly putting a new feature online, that’s when things often go wrong. Make sure the things you do are perfect; you often only get one chance from your customer.

Finally, as an entrepreneur, you often think three steps ahead. You do have to bring your people along and keep good communication internally. Make your employees feel like they are truly a part of your company and involve them in the business. Then you build a wonderful company.

Success factors of start-ups that emerge

  • Market demand and timing
  • Traction
  • Ambition and dedication
  • Team composition
  • Executive
  • Self-awareness and coachability