Why did a startup studio not work for me? And how to fix this.

In September 2022, I joined a startup studio. They help find a co-founder, an idea, and funding. They provide a proven process and coaching. A startup studio should help hit the ground running and prevent running into the first brick wall on the way.

Reality started very promisingly. From 500 applicants, I was among 12 bright young folks selected. Although I am no longer young, I was sure that my experience and eagerness to learn would compensate for my incoming grey hairs. The program started with two workshops a day and a final presentation at the end of the week. I had fun, learned a ton, and the people were more than excellent.

The second week added a sense of urgency. Everything becomes fluid under pressure. I felt pressure to find my co-founder. Stat. That happened, and I was over the moon. Now that we had a team, we set out to find our idea in week three. What would our startup do? Week four revealed that our views of the world had little overlap; thus, we struggled to come up with the ‘What’ of our business. Facing reality, we split up, and I was back at square one. It is better to start again than to persevere into oblivion.

In week six, I looked at my cohort mates, saw who had teamed up and who was left, and concluded that I had to find my co-founder outside the program. In weeks 7 to 12, I met roughly 30 candidate co-founders. Some were awesome, but none were the match I was looking for.

Jim Collins wrote the book ‘Good to Great,’ in which he preaches: “First who, then what.” This mantra was ingrained in me, and I loved the idea that the co-founder is more important than the idea. I told myself: “It’s easy to pivot on the idea, but hard to pivot on the co-founder,” and “Great teams can be successful at anything.” This was also the premise of the startup studio: first team, then theme. Yet, I believe now that this mantra is false. At least for me, in my circumstance. I believe now that the idea matters, or in other words: “Start with why.”

I heard many ideas during my time at the startup studio and the subsequent journey through the US. Hundreds is not an exaggeration. Amongst them were excellent ideas, but none felt attractive to me. None of these ideas felt like they were my mission. I needed to feel more passion.

I wonder what would have happened if I had subdued to the pressure of week 2. Despite my lack of passion, I would have stuck to my co-founder and gone with a random idea. We would have created a stellar presentation, convinced the funding manager to fund us, and worked diligently for a year, perhaps two. But would I have been happy? Would my co-founder and investors be happy?

Everything becomes fluid under pressure. And also, things get rushed, panic replaces feeling with mere rationality, and people break down. If not now, then sometime in the future. In a post on LinkedIn, I wrote that I feel no need to rush and that time is my friend, not my enemy.

Perhaps, the ‘first who, then what’ model does not work for me. Perhaps, I need to figure out first what my true passion or purpose is. And in a true lean startup style, validate this by providing proof. For inspiration on how to do that, I turn to my wife.

When my wife wanted to pivot her business, I advised her to start interviewing people under the guise of writing a book. I reasoned that this would be an excellent way to build a network. Bright as she is, she turned the interviews into a series of podcasts (now coming up to episode 314). The podcasts not only grew her network but as corollary also her audience. She actually wrote the book, proving her passion for the theme. When the time came to create and sell her product, she had a network, an audience, and plenty of like-minded folks happy to collaborate.

So here I am with a new plan (for now):

  • Take my time.
  • Ponder my true purpose.
  • Research the topic.
  • Share my findings.
  • Connect to an audience
  • And then trust that finding a co-founder and funding is the easy part.

I acknowledge that this path may take many years, which is absolutely fine. I realize that this is the calm before the storm that I should enjoy while it lasts.

PS: Jim, I still love your book. Good to Great will always be a favorite!


US 2022 Inspiration trip

Yeeeah, I arrived in Washington, DC

The first hour into the trip is one big confirmation of why I’m here. I’m in search of the next business model for a new startup. And where better to look than outside my usual bubble?

Just a simple example: the unintelligible announcements in the airports, trains, and metro are baffling. To me, it’s a typically American phenomenon. And nobody sees anything wrong with it, as in, yeah, that’s how announcements work.

And I’m like: no, that’s how YOU think that’s the ONLY way announcements work. Nobody sees a problem because nobody can imagine a better alternative.

So, in short, I’m here to be shocked and baffled. To be inspired and challenged. To experience better solutions to my everyday Dutch bubble problems.

One of these ‘better’ solutions is the omnipresence of Amazon’s Alexa. Every American household seems to have one and my mind starts racing. Which applications can I transfer to Europe?

Anyway, this is just hour one. I’m sure the list of ideas will grow as the days pass and the number of people I speak increases. My first meetups are scheduled for Tuesday and Thursday. That gives me plenty time to overcome my jetlag. Which is indeed another note in my problem book: ‘solve jetlag’.

On a side note, I am immensely looking forward to meeting Doctor and Joe Biden! Chances of that happening are slim to nothing, but an entrepreneur can dream, right?!

What surprising boring businesses are out there?

On my quest for a great business idea, I stumbled upon this gem of a presentation: ‘Never Let Anyone Own You’ by Codie A. Sanchezhttps://lnkd.in/dt7Av6_n

I love her confidence, and her message resonates with me. An investment opportunity does not have to be exciting to be good. She claims that the opposite is true: the more boring, the better.

In another video, Codie presents a cupcake vending machine. Awesome! Boring business, easy to operate. It works or not. And if not, move it somewhere else. Here is a link to the YouTube short: https://lnkd.in/dwz5tgUZ.

Now that I am on my US trip, I keep an eye out for vending machines that we don’t have in Europe. Well then… here is one: Copy any Key.

It is located inside a 7-Eleven. Next to this was an ATM, a sausage machine, a photo booth, a shoe polisher, and a slew of other machines that require no operator to work. Each of them is “a scalable business in a box.”

On the future of work

This week, I was honored to be a guest of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and Bruegel. My wife, Lisette Sutherland, is a member of their think tank on the future of work and her workgroup had an in-person meeting in Washington DC. I was a +1 for a part of the program. Special thanks to J. Scott MarcusAstrid Ziebarth and Katerina Geisler.

As a concerned citizen, it was interesting to see the differences and commonalities between the US and the EU. As an entrepreneur, I kept my ears open to spot opportunities for a startup idea. I am grateful to have had the chance to meet a group of such extraordinary and inspiring people.

Three ideas stood out: lifelong learning, platform workers, and the application of artificial intelligence.

** Lifelong learning
The highly educated are quick to move companies as soon as the grass is greener elsewhere. The more practically educated often get a short-term contract that is not always renewed. 

The short tenure of employees gives companies little incentive to invest in lifelong learning, with consequences for employees, employers, and society. There is a gap where nobody guides lifelong learning or pays for it. 

** Platform workers
Are Uber drivers entrepreneurs or employees? This is a question that the European Union struggles with more than the US. The EU tends to see these folks as employees, with possible consequences for the employers. The US has a more entrepreneurial mindset, for better or worse.

As a European, I saw platform workers as employees. Until it started raining. And when it rains in DC, it pours enough to triple the prices of an Uber. Just like that. Supply and demand.

This gave me the idea that as a platform worker, I want to know which gigs are in high demand: now and in the near future. Imagine a service where a worker can sign up for multiple platforms at once and be scheduled for various gigs based on personal preferences and money earned.

** Artificial Intelligence
The EU and US representatives were both concerned about the application of software and AI to monitor, reward, and punish workers. What happens when workers have to meet productivity standards that are set by an invisible artificial intelligence? Sounds scary, right?

I remember a time when I worked as a supervisor in a supermarket. My only ‘management instruments’ were walking around and ‘motivating’ people to work harder. Given my experience, we should be happy that productivity norms are independent of the manager’s mood.

The application of software, including artificial intelligence, can be fantastic. But how to prevent abuse, bias, and discrimination? Does the software make it too easy for management to distance themselves from workers? Can they easily pull a ‘Computer says no’ when it comes to someone’s income and well-being? How do we reap the benefits of automation without treating people like robots? There are massive opportunities to be explored.

I am driven by money

That realization hit home when I reflect on my energy consumption now that we are in the US.

In the Netherlands, my wife and I spent energy consciously. We do not want to fund the war in Ukraine or contribute to climate change. Nobel reason, but are they enough to change our behavior? 

In Europe, energy prices have skyrocketed. We immediately lowered the heating a few degrees, showered shorter, and invested in various energy-saving measures. An immediate problem drove change in behavior and a willingness to spend.

And we are not the only ones. In Europe, there is a trend to be energy conscious. Our behavior is not weird. It is logical. It is a safe bet. We proudly boast about our changes, and our friends and family applaud us.

Now that we are in the US, it is harder to uphold our good behavior. We rent an AirBnB, so costs don’t affect us. The apartment is poorly insulated, and the heating doesn’t work well. When we tell people about energy-saving efforts, they act like we are poor and feel sorry for us.

Apparently, for any change (or purchase) to happen, there needs to be 1) an immediate problem, 2) autonomy to take action, and 3) social pressure to change. I am taking these criteria into account while searching for a great startup idea.

I am going into space! 🚀

Literally to 10 kilometers altitude and virtually the stars are the limit.

We are catching an airplane to Seattle for an action packed three days. I will participate in a Techstars_ Startup Weekend. Special theme: Space! 🛰

It is my goal to connect with the very best mentors, investors, co-founders and sponsors. All while building a winning pitch for a space based startup.

Funnily enough, I’m writing this from the Colorado Springs Airport, which is home to the US Space Force. I’d say that the stars are aligned!

Some quick takeaways from the Techstars Startup Weekend

* It is really easy to come up with an idea and then the next day think ‘meh’. It’s like going to the gym. The initial enthusiasm is there, but sticking with it is hard.
* Ideating feels good. It creates energy and enthusiasm. But how much is needed?
* Startups are about building healthy businesses. It’s a marathon, and you need a healthy spirit from the get-go. Resting well is essential. Some people have kids; realistically, everyone has something
* For a teacher, it is easy to see how you bring value to the world. It can be hard for a startup founder to connect the dots and see how day-to-day work improves the world.
* There is comfort in being at rock bottom because it literally cannot get worse. It will always get better.
* Write down why you want to start a company and what your values are. Someone else will dictate it for you if you don’t.
* Space startups are for fun and profit.

We build a startup with 8 co-founders. It lasted 54 hours. Here is what happened.

Last weekend, I participated in Techstars Startup Weekend Space Seattle. On Friday night, ideas were generated, and I joined a group that was a whopping 8 people big. A saying came to mind: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” I was excited to see “how far” we could get, if we “go together”.

The whole experience reminded me of a group vacation. I have organized several group trips and recognized the challenges and opportunities.

Set the destination first, then invite everyone to contribute. The fewer people set the destination, the better. This prevents compromise and design by committee. After the destination is set, everyone is welcome to contribute. This means you will attract like-minded people and exclude people who want to go elsewhere. And that is OK. 

Large groups are about effectiveness, not efficiency. A group of 8 can hike more combined kilometers than an individual, but not 8 times as many. There will be inefficiencies, coordination problems, and contradictions. It’s just not funny anymore if you get stressed about it. Keep your eye on the goal: with a bigger team, you get more done, and sometimes that’s what counts.

Groups create more exposure. After money, employees, and software, audience is the 4th type of modern leverage. It is almost impossible for a large group to be a wall flower. People are naturally drawn to crowds, which makes it easier to get that flywheel of attention spinning. 

Special shout-out to the GeoHero team, who helped win the Galactic Impact award.

Thank you Sean and all volunteers for making this weekend happen. I can’t imagine how much dedication was needed to bring this event together at such a high level. 🙏

It was a great joy to attend this action-packed weekend. Special shout-out to Nigel Sharp for being such a phenomenal host for this event.

Seattle was a blast

The past weeks were more productive than spending months at home.

This visit reminded me of my 2008 study trip. I then joined a group of entrepreneurs and scholars from Delft to visit Silicon Valley. We saw the local ecosystems and recognized the power of leveraging each other’s network when meeting regularly. And that’s precisely what I experienced. 

By consistently going to events and meeting the same people over and over, I quickly became part of a network of like-minded spirits. They connected me to new ideas and inspiration for the year to come.

Thank you for energizing me, Seattle. And a special shout out to some wonderful folks who made me feel so welcome. 

The last stop on our trip was in Phoenix

Here I got to visit Carvana, an online used car retailer.

Carvana is fascinating to me because in only 9 years they

🏢 became a Fortune 500 company
🦄 reached unicorn status
🏛️ are a publicly traded company
💵 with a market cap of 70 billion dollars

📉 AND crashed in an unprecedented way

I visited Carvana in 2019, right before the COVID pandemic. At that time, the company was already growing like crazy. Their headquarters looked like a people factory with endless rows of desks in a big open space, spread over two floors.

Like many online companies, the pandemic accelerated Carvana’s growth. Instantly, they became the only way to buy a used car without contacting another person.

Now in 2022, as the pandemic is mostly behind us, the hype is gone too. The stock price is literally decimated, from once 370$ to now 4$.

My takeaways:

🤧 Don’t build a lasting company on temporary circumstances
📡 A highly automated business is NOT a
technology company/provider
🌵 It is possible to start a company anywhere, even in the middle of the desert
🌟 Build on what you got

“Did you find your inspiration?” my neighbor asks

Well, it depends. My trip to the US was inspirational, but I have not found that ONE thing that interests me deeply.

After having dozens of meetings (large and small) and meeting countless people (I added 80 LinkedIn connections), I learned a lot.
It is tempting to list how the US differs from Europe, but there are enough comparisons on the internet. Instead, I will share four personal insights.

1. It is no wonder that US startups can attract more capital. Of course, the willingness to make personal sacrifices for work is undoubtedly greater. But more importantly, investing is in their nature: the US is the land of Return On Investment and marginal thinking. For better or worse.

2. Getting a lay of the land of a completely unfamiliar industry (Aerospace) took me a mere week. I can and should dip my toe in other industries as well.

3. I saw plenty of services that only work in the US. Restaurants and the labor market, for example, work differently. It is good to keep cultural differences in mind when ideating and not assume that a problem scales globally.

4. Location matters, a bit. Seattle is a great startup hub, but Phoenix works well too. I am equally convinced that Amsterdam is a better location than Delft, but it is far from the defining factor for success.

Startups are often described as whirlwinds. All things considered, I feel no need to rush to dive head-first into a new venture. Time is my friend, not my enemy.