LOW: Why did you set up your company?
A: When I was 19 and just out of school I decided to take a year off and I became a fisherman on a small Greek island. That is where I found the time to think about what to do with my life. There I realised that the best way to fulfil my dreams and live a meaningful life was to become an entrepreneur. So the reason to set up my company was to fulfill my dreams and be able to make a difference by developing sustainable product innovations.
LOW: When did you set up your business, and how long did it take?
A: I started with my first quest in the autumn of 1989 when I was 22 years old. I embarked on my first big adventure and that was to create a natural, safe and effective alternative to antibiotics. As you will understand, this is a long journey and along that journey I started other companies to be able to finance that quest (and also my life). But I succeeded in my quest and my first company called BioClin - that is now a cornerstone of my group and active in over 6o countries - took about 7 years to start to make some revenues.
LOW: Did you have a ‘lightbulb moment’ (i.e. which led to you starting your business, or which triggered a change in the way you did things)?
A: Absolutely. I actually had two such moments.
The first moment was in a little bay on the Greek island of Paros, alone by a campfire thinking again about what to do with my life, when it suddenly struck me that it was not ‘what’ you choose but ‘how’ you chose your destiny. That it should be in line with your passions, your dreams and your true self. A completely authentic choice that is free of the opinion of others. That is what made me start as an entrepreneur.
The second moment of revelation was much later when already I had fulfilled many of my dreams and my companies kept on growing that I realized that everything always seems to be focussed on ‘growth’ but that growth itself means nothing without ‘flourishing’. That is when I started to develop the Grow and Flourish concept. This really has proven to be the main force behind the success of my group and now and I often give lectures on this concept.
LOW: Where did you source funding to set up your business?
A: My own money at first and in a later stage some small loans of business angels and later also by setting up other business that were less demanding on cash. In phases of rapid growth, we also had some bank loans.
LOW: Were there any EU, national, regional or local business support services, programmes or funding initiatives that helped you set up or grow?
A: Absolutely. My Orange Pearl Innovation Group focuses on sustainable product innovations that make this world a better place. Often, the risks linked to innovations are rather high and there are many uncertainties. The Netherlands has an excellent fiscal tool called WBSO that allows for a reduction on employee taxes on the hours spent on developing innovations. This supported us. Also, we have set up foreign ventures with a special government program to support investments in developing countries such as Thailand and South Africa that have been successful. In the early days of our international expansion we also got some small subsidies for exploring foreign markets that were quite useful.
I think such programs, when organised with a pragmatic approach, are crucial tools for stimulating innovations and for helping entrepreneurs to scale up their business. I am not in big favour of subsidies but a strong believer in pragmatic stimulation programs.
LOW: With hindsight, which would have been the single most valuable skill to have before setting up your business?
A: You ask for a ‘skill’ and I think communication is the most important skill because it is crucial in all the relationships you build when building a business. You can learn and improve communication as you develop yourself and therefore I see it as a skill.
When you would ask me for a character trait – something you are born with and cannot learn – I would say ‘determination’ is crucial.
LOW: What is the single best piece of advice you have received along the way?
A: The famous Dutch entrepreneur Marcel Boekhoorn advised me to get a Personal Assistant as soon as possible to handle my agenda, de-hassle my life and free me from all the little things that keep me from focusing on my key tasks and talents. My PA Ria Rohling has been a true Mother Teresa to the company and a great support in the hectic road to success ever since.
LOW: Who or what are you inspired by?
A: I am inspired by people with a truly free spirit.
LOW: What is the USP that distinguishes your product or service from its competitors?
A: Within my group we offer various products in our different companies. We always sell our products through distribution partners that we build a long-lasting relationship with. In the end our innovations each have their own USP’s but when I look at my business as a whole, the true difference we make by our main core value: ”Fair Partnerships in Friendship”.
I think people like to work with us because we truly try to be a great partner and we only do business with people we really like on a personal basis.
LOW: How would you describe your progress so far? Are there any significant challenges you have had to overcome?
A: The biggest challenge is in the management of the group. No entrepreneur starts a company to become a manager and deal with the day-to-day operations of the company. Still, as your company grows and needs more and more people and becomes more and more complex, that is where most entrepreneurs get stuck and overloaded. The company and the entrepreneur can only move forward and grow when this issue is dealt with properly.
I made the huge mistake - that actually I have seen go wrong with quite a few other entrepreneurs since then - to hire a ‘top-manager’ with a corporate background. An outsider that had never worked in an SME company and understood very little about a true entrepreneurial spirit but had a CV full of management experience. This soon proved to be a disaster and it took me quite some time and energy to repair the organisation and get the business back on track. My final solution that has proven to work was to really take the time to help the right people already in my companies to grow to the needed level of management.
LOW: How are you planning to grow your business?
A: First and foremost by offering more good products and opportunities to our existing partners and our existing client base all over the world.
LOW: If you were in charge of the government ministry for SMEs and start-ups, what would be the three most important changes you would make to help them grow?
A:The number one thing I would do and the most important advice to all people in the governments of the EU countries would be: STOP thinking that all ‘companies’ are big corporate organisations and stop making rules and regulations according to that false image. The fact is that the majority of the jobs, the largest part of the tax money and the biggest economic driver of each country comes out of SME companies. So, focus your efforts on SMEs rather than on larger corporations. Get rid of all the rules and regulations based on that ‘corporate idea’ that are unfair to SME companies and only cause a lot of time, work, money and hassle and that slow down economic growth.
The second thing I would do is to make it more flexible for SME companies to ‘hire and fire’ their employees. In my opinion, it is absolutely crucial for SME companies to get the right people in the company. But in the meantime an SME can develop fast and circumstances can change rapidly so that an SME needs to be flexible and able to adapt to such changes. That is where the power of the SME company is based. The people in the company need to adapt with it and that is not always easy. People are often averse to change and the profile of people in an SME can change much faster than in a larger corporation.
I am convinced that we would create much stronger companies, more economic growth and many more jobs if we would offer more flexible employee laws aimed at SME business.
The third thing I would do is to minimize the legal barrier.
It seems an unavoidable fact that there are more and more legal issues that slow down the development of SME business. But in many countries, certainly here in the Netherlands, the legal system has become overloaded. I have experienced this also in other countries. The time that legal procedures take is often unreasonable and the costs of legal procedures are often way too high; this combination creates huge uncertainties that can be disastrous to the development of an SME company. Mediation has many limitations and often does not offer a solution. All of this can result in unfair situations for SME companies with a big impact on their development. Governments should make arrangements for special SME procedures.
LOW The best thing about being an entrepreneur is…?
A: Experiencing how your dreams and visions become reality.
LOW: What do you see as the key trends/disruptions for 2017 relevant to entrepreneurs?
A: The major trend that I am looking at is the integration of on-line and off-line business.
I see that in the past years ‘off-line business’ and ‘on-line business’ were more or less separate worlds with different sales, marketing and distribution models. Now I see them coming together and I see also opportunities for synergy in an integrated approach.
LOW: If you could go back to when you were about to start your company and give yourself a single message or piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Always focus on the best people with the best character. They can always learn skills but character is a born characteristic. Get the best people in your company. Make sure you create a network of really good people to help you with their advice and only do business with good people.