Learning from experience
Every student comes to RSM because they want to gain a solid business education. And many of those who sign up either already want, or are inspired during their student days, to apply their skills to running a business of their own. RSM Outlook talks to two alumni who are turning their entrepreneurial dreams into reality.
STORY BY TIM SKELTON
Ever wanted to own a unique painting but been scared off by the price tag? That’s where accessART can help. The company concept is simple: a web-based marketplace with two portals. One provides a shop window for artists from around the world; the second is a way in for young first-time art buyers looking for something unique yet affordable. But the most important factor is that all the art has a price tag of €1,000 or less.
The company founder is Amsterdam- based Sabrina Bos (pictured), an alumnus who followed RSM’s CEMS International Management programme. In January 2015 she decided to quit her job at a large IT consulting firm to become an entrepreneur.
So what was the inspiration behind accessART? ‘My friends were buying beautiful apartments,’ Sabrina explains. ‘They wanted to decorate them with art, but they didn’t know what to put on the wall, or else they knew what they wanted but found the galleries intimidating and expensive. So they either left their walls bare or used old prints from their student days.
‘At the same time I met artists who were looking for ways to make a living from their work, but they either didn’t know how to market themselves online, or they weren’t interested in doing so because they just wanted to make art. I thought to myself: there could be a business in this.’
But setting up any company is never easy, as Sabrina quickly discovered. ‘The first mistake I made was not being more careful when picking the company name. I found out there was already a dotcom called accessart, and a charity in the UK. So it took time to get our site to the top in Google searches.'
Another challenge was doing business internationally for the first time. ‘When we made our first overseas sale we had to learn very quickly about the legal and taxation side of things. It was a steep learning curve. Fortunately, we found a good legal firm that has helped us out since the beginning.’
Sabrina believes that her time at RSM helped her with this international element. ‘There was a great atmosphere on campus and I learned how to work with people from a range of other cultures,’ she says. ‘My international network not only helps me spread the word about my business, but it also allows me to get valuable feedback, such as from people in countries where the internet speed is much slower than in the Netherlands. Many companies that want to expand internationally underestimate this.’
Nevertheless, having a start-up can still be stressful, and there can be moments when you wonder whether you’ve made the right choice, as Sabrina readily admits. ‘There’s a graph online about the ups and downs in an entrepreneur’s day that always amuses me,’ she says. ‘One moment you feel on top of the world, like when I got my cofounders on board, and when we made our first sale. Then your website breaks down or a potential investor criticises you and you start to feel down. But it’s all a learning experience – you just have to keep motivated and see everything as a learning experience.’
Does being a young entrepreneur committed to their business make it hard for Sabrina to control her work/life balance? ‘When you start out you don’t have weekends any more,’ she admits. ‘You have to be there even if someone contacts you at 11pm on Saturday night.’ But it helped when she was joined by her co-founders. ‘It means you can have a holiday and there’s still someone there to look after the business.’
Sabrina and her team are currently finding new ways to develop the company. For example, they are launching a “crowdfund your art” facility. If you’re getting married or having a significant birthday, for example, you can choose a piece of art you’d like to receive as a gift, then friends and family can contribute whatever they want towards it, individually. ‘It means you get what you want, and makes it more affordable for everyone,’ she says. ‘Moreover, it means we can reach a lot more people with a single transaction.’
The team is also looking at how to bring the art world more online. ‘Many artists aren’t great at selling their own work,’ she says. ‘We offer them a photography service, and we’re focusing more on video, so every artist has a platform for telling their story.’
Where does accessART go from here? Sabrina’s ambitions are clear. ‘We want to develop our brand and become the number one in the Netherlands in 2016,’ she says. This, she explains, will mean growing the artist base and becoming a solid brand in the industry.
So what has Sabrina learned from her experiences with starting access- ART? ‘We are still a young company,’ she says. ‘In the beginning it’s all about creating goodwill. There are plenty of people willing to help you, but you’ve got to go out and find them.’
Visit accesART's website here
Booking accommodation shouldn’t be stressful, but it is for many people. HotelQuickly’s aim is to take the worry out of arranging a trip. It’s a mobile-only app covering destinations in 16 countries across the Asia-Pacific region, providing a simple platform for hotels to offer unoccupied rooms to visitors at unbeatable last-minute rates.
One of HotelQuickly’s four co-founders is entrepreneur Tomas Laboutka (pictured), who also followed the CEMS International Management programme at RSM. Originally from the Czech Republic, he currently describes himself as “based out of a suitcase”, flying regularly between Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Tokyo and Singapore.
What made him choose the Asia- Pacific region? ‘I’ve been eyeing it up for some years,’ he says. ‘The growth here is quite unparalleled, and it’s always intrigued me as a business opportunity.’ So when he got the chance to fly out he didn’t hesitate. ‘The area is really amazing, especially with communications technology. People go directly from having no phone at all to having a smartphone, without following the usual route.’
How did HotelQuickly come about? ‘I was talking with my close friend Chris who was living in the region and we came up with the idea together: a mobile-first hotel booking application to take away the pain of travel planning,’ Tomas says. Something similar was already available in the US and in Europe, he says, but there was nothing in the Far East. ‘There’s also a burgeoning middle class here and the area is booming. I fell in love with the concept right away.’
And RSM played an unknowing but vital role in this. ‘I met Chris – now one of HotelQuickly’s co-founders – while I was in Rotterdam. He’s another RSM alumnus. If we hadn’t met, the company might not exist. Instead, we now have 90 people working for us in 10 offices.’
Tomas says RSM’s international environment helped him in setting up the business, but the most important factor was the quality of the school’s network. ‘I’ve come across ten or more other people in the Asia-Pacific region who also studied at RSM. It helps us bond as we have a common experience.’
Like any entrepreneur, Tomas has faced his share of challenges, but he is quick to see the positive side. ‘If you don’t face challenges as an entrepreneur then you’re not learning and growing,’ he says. ‘At first you have to find investors and customers, then you have to respond to changes in your industry. The biggest threat comes if you start feeling settled. Then you get complacent.
‘I try to remain proactive. One of our core values is growing people. We want to offer something where people don’t have to think, but can still see new cultures and have new experiences. If you stay focused on the positives it helps to overcome any doubts.’
As someone who readily admits to living out of a suitcase, how does this affect Tomas’s work/life balance? ‘I don’t think of it as a work/life balance, as in something at the cost of something else,’ he says. ‘You have to invest time in what’s important, but if you stay active and healthy then you have more energy for doing everything. You have to block time for your loved ones. In the first nine months or so I spent a lot of time with the company, but that improves as you go on.’
Tomas says he has no plans to expand HotelQuickly beyond the Asia-Pacific region. ‘We’re going to stick here – it’s where our core competences lie. It’s a big market we’re building into, and we want to be number one. Our app has been downloaded by 2.5 million people so far. That sounds a lot, but when you consider how many people live here we’re just scratching the surface – there’s a long way to go.’
He may be building his company on the far side of the world, but Tomas has fond memories of his time at RSM. ‘Maybe it was the class, maybe it was the magic of Rotterdam, but we all formed a bond,’ he says. ‘That was eight or nine years ago, but after we all left 30 or 40 of our 50-strong class were still flying out for reunions. People have attended each other’s weddings. For me that time was very special.’
Is there any advice he’d give to other budding entrepreneurs? ‘The further you go down the road and the more times you change jobs in different companies, the harder it gets. I’d say, if you have the time and space, then the sooner you decide what you want to do, the better. Don’t wait.’
Visit HotelQuickly's website here.
This article was first published in RSM Outlook summer 2016. You can download RSM Outlook here.