How My J-1 Experience Shaped My Entrepreneurship

Filed in Exchange Visitor Reflections by on May 15, 2015 0 Comments


By Loet Rammelsberg, CEO of Vicancy.

While sitting in a high-speed train between Amsterdam and Berlin–on my way to an investors pitch–I’m reflecting on my time in the U.S. a couple of years ago.

I was a student of Tropical Agriculture in Wageningen, a town in the central Netherlands, and launched (sort of by coincidence) a small business growing edible flowers for high end restaurants.

Yes, indeed, edible flowers.

At the end of 2010, the Dutch government selected me for an entrepreneurial scholarship at the Kauffman Foundation. The Kauffman Foundation partnered with the American Immigration Council to sponsor this J internship program to learn how to grow and accelerate businesses on the other side of the ocean. The goal of the program is to train student entrepreneurs from the Netherlands in the U.S. so they can start fast growing ventures in the Netherlands. For 6 months we attended courses at Harvard, Stanford, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

I worked with a fast growing tech startup in San Francisco and learned that my edible flower business was probably not as achievable as I thought…

What did we learn?

After putting some thought into this question, I concluded that most of what I learned through the entrepreneurial scholarship was actually translated into the key values of my current startup, Vicancy.

Back in April 2014, my co­founder and I decided that we would to establish key beliefs on which to base our judgements. After looking at mission statements of companies that inspired us (including 37signals, Amazon, Google, Facebook), we developed a list of five key values. I’d like to share these values with you because it helped us to make key decisions on a daily and monthly. We encourage everyone who works at Vicancy to follow these values and judge others–including ourselves–on it.

1. Get off the beaten path

Be different, so it’s easier to stand out and innovate. Last September, we moved our product development team, including co­founder Pieter, to Bali (Indonesia). This was with the main aim to attract two of the most talented developers to join our company.

By standing out and offering developers a place to live in Bali, we got off the beaten path and generated over 130 qualified developers within a week’s time, something of which IT recruiters can only dream.

2. Less is more

We believe that in a world of globalization, technology will continue to play a major role. Because of this, we think that fast learning and being flexible in “place” and “time” will become one of the most important assets a company can have. Therefore, we aim to build a small and flexible core team of less than 20 people tailored towards learning and focusing on operating as efficient as possible without necessarily sitting at the same desk, or working in the same time zone.

3. Start doing

We encourage people to start working at new ideas, then build something that works, test it with our customers and see if they want to pay for it. Failing tells us what not to do and brings us faster to a viable product market fit.

4. Do one thing really, really well

Almost every successful person tells you: “in order to succeed make sure you do one thing really, really well.” Here’s why this is a key piece of advice:

A) It’s easier to keep track of your thoughts.
B) At some point work is finished, and you don’t have 10 other to­do’s.
C) The quality of work goes up drastically.

Doing one thing only seems rather simple, but those who’ve ever started a business, wrote a book or composed a song, know how hard it is to say “no” to other distractions.

5. What’s life without a little risk?

Just before my grandfather died, he told me a story about a sailing trip he made around 1950 with a friend. At the time, they ended up in a storm on the Baltic Sea and were very lucky to survive. After he told me the story, he said he was sad to see “taking risks” has almost disappeared nowadays (at least in Europe). Doing things of which you can later look back and think: “Yes! That was exciting.”

We’re not suggesting to our employees to take these kinds of extraordinary risks. But we do however believe that you should not be afraid to be bold. Not only will this help you learn faster–as you’re going to make mistakes–but it will also bring this type of excitement back into life.

Moving half of our company to Bali is a perfect example of this. You can watch videos on how we run our business from Bali and what we’ve learned from it here.