The good, the bad and the ugly of entrepreneurship

MaastrichtMBA alumnus Harm de Laat always knew that he wanted to become an entrepreneur. That his company would have ‘something’ to do with computers was a given too. “From an early age, I was trying to figure out how computers work. My father’s Commodore 64 was my favourite ‘toy’.” Together with partner Ralph Deguelle, Harm founded Kabisa fifteen years ago. He shares his experiences during the corporate lecture in the educational week ‘Entrepreneurship and News Business Development’. It turns out to be a captivating story with students hanging on his every word and asking many questions.

 

Harm studied Computer Science at Fontys University of Applied Sciences in Eindhoven and worked for several years as a system integrator at a large IT consulting firm. “Looking back, the job was fun and frustrating at the same time. Many projects failed, the main reason being that the teams had no connection at all with the day to day business. Nobody had even heard of agile working or Scrum! But then we discovered Ruby on Rails; a new technique offering the possibility to quickly develop, while constantly integrating feedback. Our boss however, didn’t see the added value. So that was mine and Ralphs’ signal to quit our jobs and start Kabisa.”

Giving up was not in our DNA

“Our first customer was a bummer; he didn’t pay his invoices and went bankrupt. We decided we needed more trustworthy clients and launched a website that made us look big and reliable. Out of the blue, Philips called, asking if we could provide a Ruby on Rails team asap. Of course, we could! The only problem was, that it was still just Ralph and me. We badly needed employees. We bought two tickets for an IT conference in Belgium and armed with 10 bottles of rum and lots of plastic cups, we presented ourselves during the breaks. Many probably thought we were a bunch of idiots, but we did go home with our first employee. As of that moment the company started to grow and it hasn’t stopped growing since. A few years ago, we won the Gazellen Award (Financieele Dagblad) for start-ups growing 20% or more annually.”

Only the best

Today, Kabisa has over 70 employees, two spin-offs and three offices in Weert, Eindhoven and Amsterdam. The company works for big clients like Google, Philips and ASML. Students ask Harm what is the secret of Kabisa’s success. “Always deliver the best product”, Harm answers. “For that, you need to get the right people on board. To attract and keep only the best, we have set up a sophisticated recruitment and selection process. In addition, we invest in our people. We don’t have an assessment system, but we do talk to everyone five or six times a year on the basis of what we call ‘the five finger questions’. What are you good at (thumb), what direction do you want to go (index finger), what do you hate (middle finger), what are you loyal to (ring finger) and in what area do you feel small (little finger)? These conversations give us good insight into what goes on in our people’s minds, both privately and professionally. If people want to develop themselves, we offer the possibilities. Staff turnover is very low and several times we have been voted best employer in the Netherlands.”

 

Why MaastrichtMBA?

Why did Harm do MaastrichtMBA and what did it bring him? “I don’t have a business background. When we started Kabisa, everything was new. I had never read a business case for instance, let alone written one. I didn’t know much about leadership and many other aspects of running a business. Every day I profit from the knowledge I gained during MaastrichtMBA and I am still friends with my studying group. Some of them even worked at Kabisa for some time.”

Dynamic, energizing and fun

Harm describes entrepreneurship as the good, the bad and the ugly. What does he mean by this? “Being an entrepreneur is good because it offers me a lot of freedom, it’s in my blood and it’s an adventure I wouldn’t have missed for the world; it’s dynamic, energising and fun. The fact that Kabisa is a success is, of course, a big bonus. The other side of the coin (the bad) is as a boss, you are responsible for everything. Everyone looks at Ralph and me when (tough) decisions have to be made. With 70 families depending on us, a lot of responsibility rests on our shoulders. Entrepreneurship can also have an ugly side sometimes. Customers who don’t pay, for example. But the greatest impact on me was the death of two colleagues. At such a time, you really value the strong family culture in the company.”

BHAG

How do you maintain a good relationship with your business partner? “We are good at different things and complement each other well. The most important thing is that we allow each other space to develop ourselves but also to make mistakes. That’s crucial.” How does Harm look to the future? “Very positive. We survived COVID-19 well. COVID turned out to have a very positive instead of the anticipated negative effect. Our ambition is to keep growing! Our BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) is that by 2030 we will have 100 applications that we are proud of! To achieve that goal, we need to grow to at least 300 people. We are working hard to achieve that and I am sure we will.”

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