Basically you can conquer the world…
Interview with Janneke Niessen.
|Interview by:||Pricilla Weixler||Video by:||Birka Wolff||Edited by:||Valeria Pinto|
|Reading Time:||19 Min.||Date:||21.03.2019|
We had an inspiring chat with Janneke Niessen, the founder of two companies and business angel. She witnessed the evolution of the tech field first-hand since the web itself was not even accessible for mainstream use in her adolescent years. Convince yourself and get an insight into what it’s like to be her. Learn how she managed to pave her way into being a successful entrepreneur who also seeks to give back to the world. She critically introduced us to the misconceptions that come with the romanticism of entrepreneurship and weighs up the benefits as well as the disadvantages of the thriving failure culture. She explains the richness of diversity for the better performance of companies and – having done it twice – illustrated the challenges to be tackled as a founder. Janneke also pinpoints the issues of gender in the tech field. She offers sustainable solutions and ways to motivate young girls to find inspiration in that very field and explains the importance of the hiring process in all of this.
Q: Let’s dive right in. Did you see yourself in the position you are in today when you were a kid?
A: I have always told everybody that one day, I wanted to be an entrepreneur and I have no idea why I said that. Plus, when you have the opportunity to start you just simply do. When I started my first company 18 years ago, being an entrepreneur was not cool or sexy compared to today. Nowadays, it’s more fashionable and back then I really had to explain to people why I would give up my job to be an entrepreneur.
Q: What kind of entrepreneur? Did you see yourself as the tech entrepreneur that you are today?
A: No, no, no. When I was young – and now I sound really old – the Internet was not what it is today. It all started when I was in school, so I didn’t imagine myself to be a tech entrepreneur because tech wasn’t a thing. The web didn’t exist, at least not for mainstream use.
Tech is actually relevant, regardless of what they want to do later in life.
Q: You suppose that we lose girls at the age of 15 in the tech field?
A: Back in the day it depended a little bit on the country. Somewhere between the age of 10 and 15 is when we lose them. That’s the age in which they think that tech is boring or difficult, or worse: that they are not capable of it. Of course, it is all not true but it’s also that they have the wrong idea of what tech is. Ask them if they want to work in tech and they might say “no”. Ask them if they want to work at Instagram, they might say “yes” – and Instagram is also a tech company. You have to show them in a different way what technology is and what it means to work in tech. That it is not just the image of the coding guy with a pizza – that it is much more; that [tech] is actually relevant, regardless of what they want to do later in life. You need some level of digital skills for anything.
Q: You were not even able to go into that field when you were 15. What do you think attracted you and inspired you to stay there?
A: I sort of got into it by accident, it wasn’t on purpose. Then I just really loved it and I saw the opportunity. I’ve never been afraid to learn new things. I actually really like learning new stuff, so to me it wasn’t “I am not able to do this” but rather “this is new, this is cool”. I mainly saw all the opportunities. It was fun to work in an environment where everybody felt like everything is possible.
What I like most about being an entrepreneur is building something.
Q: What do you like about your current job/jobs?
A: When I started my companies I was always super focused on them. In the first years there is no room for anything else than your company and making sure that it becomes successful. Once your team grows there will be some room to also do some other things, to develop yourself. Also, a lot of the things I do are my way of giving back to the ecosystem. When you are successful it mostly has to do with your drive, your passion, your ideas but it was also made possible by the ecosystem which is made by other people. This means, it is also important to give back to the very same ecosystem. What I like most about being an entrepreneur is building something. Building a team, building a product, building a service, see your company grow, see the team work really well together – that’s what I really, really like.
Q: Did you experience it as an area in which anything is possible?
A: Yes, I think that of course there is also some backlash today but tech allows us so much. You can start a company and conquer the world basically. It’s so much easier than 20 or 30 years ago. Everything is possible – you just have to believe that you are the one capable of doing it. I think you have to think big and not limit yourself because once you start there will always be limitations, either money or something else. If you don’t have that big vision in mind you will for sure not get there. Having the right mindset and the big vision from day one I think is really important.
Everything is possible – you just have to believe that you are the one capable of doing it.
Q: I still wonder what drove you to build your first company in 2001?
A: Where I was working back then, a colleague and I, we noticed a certain element we thought we could do better. We saw growth and just decided on doing it. It might have been naïve but I think it was a good thing. If you look back and imagine you would’ve known all the problems you would run into upfront, then you probably wouldn’t have done it. You would only focus on the problems and not on all the fun stuff.
Q: In your Ted Talk you mentioned a time in your life which was pretty hard – what was this about?
A: This was with the second company which we started in 2008. The year 2010/11 was a really tough one. When you read about entrepreneurship you mainly read about the success stories. This is not what being an entrepreneur mainly is about. It means really hard work and a lot of setbacks and you have to recover from those all the time. Of course, all the cool stuff also happens but that’s not the majority of things. Every entrepreneur goes through tough phases. We needed funding, we had to release a whole new platform, we had a huge lawsuit – there were so many things happening at the same time. You have to just go through it.
Q: Once you decided to found a company with your co-founder – how did your friends and family react to that decision?
A: They thought I was crazy because I had a mortgage and a job. They just didn’t understand why I would want to be an entrepreneur. Luckily, I also got some support from my now-husband and my family. It didn’t in that people responded negatively because I was convinced that this is what I wanted to do and had to do.
Q: How did they react when you decided to found a second company?
A: Oh, they knew me by then. They were not surprised. They only thing is that the expectations are high. When you have your first company nobody expects anything from you but once you’ve had a successful company everybody expects you to be successful again. They don’t realize that it is really difficult to be successful once let alone be successful twice.
I’ve always been driven by opportunity and not fear.
Q: What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
A: I think I have always done these things. I think I’ve never been driven by fear. It’s good to always be a little bit afraid because that will force you to work harder and to keep going but you can also stop doing anything when you are too afraid. However, I’ve always been driven by opportunity and not fear. I also think that if you are too afraid to start a company that’s fine and you don’t start one. Not everybody wants to be an entrepreneur not everybody wants to take all these risks and that’s fine. There are a lot of other things you can do as well.
Q: So you’ve lived all your fears already?
A: No, I mean there are always new things that I try and I force myself to constantly do things that I am also afraid of. Because I know when I do that there’s new things that happen, so I really try to push myself outside my comfort zone even though I am a little bit afraid.
Q: When did you start with that?
A: As soon as you discover that doing things actually results in a lot of cool, fun stuff. For instance, I had to speak in public quite often but I didn’t like it. I did it because it was important for the company but I would never voluntarily speak somewhere. Then, I decided I wanted to get better at it. Even though I was afraid – I think everyone is when they have to go on stage –I decided to hire a speaker coach and practice it. I applied to speak at events and it got easier and now I really enjoy it. I try to really push myself to do the things I am afraid of.
Q: So it is not about the adrenaline it is more about the opportunity?
A: Yeah but that is also adrenaline. I think that as an entrepreneur it’s the adrenaline that keeps you going. The moment I sold the company I suddenly realized it can’t go wrong anymore. Although nothing changed since we were still running the company I still felt differently and I couldn’t explain it to myself. It was the adrenaline that it could go wrong all the time. This is when I decided to do new things: it’s a little bit addictive but it’s a different kind of adrenaline compared to jumping out of a plane.
Q: Summed up – what motivates you?
A: Building awesome teams that create great companies. And all the other things that come along with building great teams and great companies, you just learn a lot. All these great things come from that basis.
Q: What would you say does it take to be you?
A: Well, I think perseverance is very important. First of all, you need to want to do it. Some people aim for a corporate career and that’s fine. You just need to want to do it and then you need perseverance: having the ability to go through with it, also when it’s really tough and bad. And then, you need a good idea because you need to work on something you believe in since that’s the only way to keep going. If it’s not and everything is fine, it may be okay but as soon as problems kick in it can be really tough if you don’t absolutely love what you do.
Q: Do you think it’s possible to teach these skills?
A: Perseverance – no. You can’t teach people that and neither drive nor passion. That doesn’t mean that there are not a lot of things you can learn about entrepreneurship, e.g. the problems you face, the things you run into, there’s a lot of things you can teach people. A lot of mistakes you make are very costly, such as hiring the wrong people. When you have a certain amount of investments you can only spend once and you could avoid a lot of costly mistakes by educating. However, I also think that entrepreneurs are really stubborn – you always think that that you’re situation is different, which isn’t the case – but some mistakes you just have to make on your own and find out.
Q: Today, if you face challenges regarding your company do you think you have gained a different perspective?
A: No because it will be a different type of problem. Most people will learn from their mistakes and, hopefully, I did. If you do new things constantly you will also run into new issues. The main thing I’ve learned from my first company is that there’s no point in thinking about problems too much ahead. They will be different than the ones you expected and you need to deal with them anyways. I am not afraid that much anymore of things that could go wrong, you just deal with them when they happen.
Q: Do you think there should be another way of communicating failure in society?
A: It is not really appreciated, and again, I also don’t think that we should romanticize failure but I think an honest story is important: that it’s not all great, that you don’t always start, grow and then have an exit. Though, we should still try to avoid mistakes after all. It is essential to realize that the difference between success and failure can be really, really small. You shouldn’t burn down people who fail because at least they’ve tried and you never know how close they were to being successful.
If you do your hiring right you have a massive advantage towards your competitors.
Q: What was your biggest failure?
A: So many – but of course, in the bigger picture, everything went well. However, we’ve done a lot of things wrong, such as hiring the wrong people. I am a glass-half-full-person and I guess you should involve a glass-half-empty-person in your hiring process. When you hire somebody you need to know potential reasons why it would not work. Everybody has something and it’s no reason to not hire somebody but it’s good to know what it is. If there is somebody like me who only looks at why it will work it’s not ideal for hiring. It’s a field in which you can make such expensive mistakes and the impact of a wrong hire is really big. If you do your hiring right you have a massive advantage towards your competitors.
Q: You are suggesting that the mentality of an entrepreneur and the mentality of the person hired in best case are contradictory?
A: You can have both, there are glass-half-empty entrepreneurs as well but I think generally, they are very opportunity driven. You can have entrepreneurial teams, I also had a co-founder.
Q: How do you choose your co-founder?
A: You don’t really choose one, you just run into people and then it happens. I didn’t start a search or anything, it just happened to go that way. If you share the same values and have the same ideas a lot is possible. As co-founders it is important that you strongly work together. As long as you are open with one another about how you feel and how you see things then it shouldn’t end up badly but it’s definitely possible. I hear more and more entrepreneurs doing mediation pre-emptive – that is to say, before there are any issues, they speak to one another with an external person present once every year or six months to avoid getting into critical situations. It’s similar to counseling or partner therapy.
Q: What do you do in terms of that?
A: I try to stay open in my communication and I think it is really important that you keep remembering that nobody’s perfect. You’re not perfect either and somebody’s good things also come with bad things. Plus, it is not always bad if somebody is different. Me, I am a black and white person and I am really structured and determined and for me that works very well. If you are the opposite it might appear to you as not flexible. Thus, there are two sides to everything and this is what you need to remember once you are annoyed by something. You need to accept others as their full package.
Q: How would you describe the tech universe in three words only?
A: opportunity, future, male
Q: You see it as a male dominant field?
A: I don’t see it like that, it is like that. The numbers are not really optimistic.
If you can see it you can be it.
Q: How do you think this can be changed?
A: I really believe in role models, if you can see it you can be it. I think it is important that you can see what is possible within tech. There are a million things that need to happen. It should go away from the impression that tech is mainly for men – it is for everybody. All companies already are or will be tech companies in the future. For the financial independence of women, it is important that they start looking at tech in a different way and embrace it because that’s where all the jobs will be. You need role models for people to perceive tech differently. If you only see Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg as an example, then that’s what think you should be like if you start working in tech. If you see a lot of other people as well except for the white male, then its (Tech’s) notion may change. It already starts really early at home, the way you speak to your kids. Boys are often told that they are smart and girls are told they are pretty. That seems like a small thing but its impact is quite big. Girls are more often discouraged to do certain things whereas boys are being encouraged to choose maths, to take the better, stem related subjects. It’s important to be aware of that and the role you have as a parent into changing that. Of course, teachers at school also play a role and the media as well. It is all these things together that need to change the stereotypes. If you always see that women cook and clean then you start thinking that that’s it. Thus, you need to see other things.
Q: I’ve seen that you cited some research in your TedTalk about how women in leading positions affect the company in a positive way. Could you give an example of that?
A: This is a difficult one because there is not really a domain. Research proves the positive impact when you have diverse teams – and that’s not just gender, it is all the element of diversity. When you have a diverse team, your financial performance can be up to 15 percent better. Despite all the numbers nothing really changes. I don’t think there is more proof to be provided because everybody knows it. In the end, we are humans and humans tend to hire people that look like them. You need to change the way you hire and you need to be aware of how you do that and how you look at people and then try to eliminate the bias from the process.
Q: Do you have a solution in mind how this could work in the future?
A: I think when you look at things more data-driven, you take out that emotion and people need to be made people aware of it. They need to understand why it is nice to have a diverse team and instead of looking for culture fit I think people should look for culture add. What does somebody add to the team? If you look for culture fit you very often hire people who are exactly the same.
Q: Where do you see yourself in seven years from now?
A: I am working on something new, which is still not officially launched. I think this will be really big and really successful.
Q: One of your goals was to found one of the fortune 500 companies? Is this the one?
A: Yes, but I’m still young, I have time.
Q: Is there anything you want to add?
A: If the entrepreneurship route is the right route for you then go for it. It’s really amazing despite all the difficulties and the setbacks it’s still the coolest thing you can do. Of course it’s perfectly fine if you want to do something else.