Enterprising alumni: Ellie Karssemaker’s Wanderwatch
Everyone who studies at RSM is of course looking for a sound business education. But many take it a stage further and are inspired to live their entrepreneurial dreams. Here RSM Outlook talks to alumna Ellie Karssemakers who launched Wanderwatch.
Story by Tim Skelton
Every parent knows the problem. You want your kids to get fresh air and exercise, but persuading them to leave their computer screens and get off the sofa isn’t easy. One new start-up, however, thinks it may have found the solution.
Wanderwatch was co-founded by four young people, three of whom met while studying at RSM. Their idea is a gaming device worn on the player’s wrist and designed for use outdoors. The devices interact with one another so children can play in groups. Moreover, they have a built-in GPS that means parents can keep track of their little ones.
Getting kids off the couch
All four founders have families of their own who provided inspiration. ‘When we were young we played outside all the time. Nowadays many kids stay indoors and there’s a tendency towards obesity and inactivity,’ co-founder and RSM alumnus Ellie Karssemakers (OneMBA 2007) explains. Her mission is to get kids off the couch and outdoors again. ‘It’s scientifically proven that it makes kids smarter and helps develop their creativity skills,’ she says.
The problem the team faced was that the available toys, such as bicycles or footballs, had changed little in decades, and didn’t engage today’s switched-on youngsters. ‘When children are indoors, all their toys and gadgets have batteries, and they make sounds and are interactive,’ Ellie says. ‘Kids are attracted by interactivity, so we wanted to make something that could be used outdoors.’
The seeds of the company were sown in 2015, nine years after the team left RSM. ‘We’d kept in touch after graduating,’ Ellie says. ‘But it was only last year when we were discussing business ideas that the concept came up. We were so excited by it we founded the start-up.’
Wanderwatch was able to get two loans within a few weeks, faster than most start-ups. Ellie puts this down to the way RSM helped them be professionally organised. ‘RSM’s international network also taught us to think globally and learn about other cultures. And we’re already an international business because two of us are in the Netherlands and two live in Chicago,’ she says.
Understanding other cultures is vital for Wanderwatch as the team source their hardware from China. ‘RSM helped us understand that you have to build relationships to do business there. We need to make sure that the right quality assurance is in place and the product is suitable for sale in other countries,’ Ellie says. ‘It was a challenge with many ups and downs, but we managed it,’ she adds proudly. ‘I really enjoyed working with global cultures at RSM. And now it’s something that I apply every day.’
This international perspective was also inspirational to co-founders and fellow alumni Jurriën van den Akker and Anton de Nijs (both EMBA 2006). Both say it was a study trip to Japan that remains their fondest memory of the school.
A bumpy ride
The first test Wanderwatch prototype has now been developed and the team have a patent pending. They are now looking for an ‘angel investor’ to help with next year’s planned launch. ‘That’s also difficult,’ Ellie admits. ‘It takes time to find the right person. But RSM helped us to think big, which is why we’re launching on two continents. And we already have our first retail store interested.’
While the current company focus is on one product, Ellie says she sees other opportunities in future. ‘We’re thinking of something similar for older people,’ she hints. ‘The basic technology is the same, but we’ll need a different approach.’
And Ellie admits that setting up a business has been a bumpy ride. ‘Coming from corporate backgrounds gives us the energy we need. But we have to arrange everything ourselves. We don’t have the luxury of a secretary or back office,’ she says. ‘And we gave up nice salaries, so now we’re reliant on the support and belief of our families.’
Part of the family
Balancing work and family life can be tough, but it helps when you’re developing a product for kids, as Ellie explains. ‘When you’re working from home on a conference call, people don’t find it strange when they hear a child’s voice in the background!’ she says. ‘Even so, you have to take every opportunity you can for Facebook or email. My children talk about Wanderwatch as if it’s part of the family. And it is in a way.’
So what has surprised the team most since they set out along the entrepreneurial road? ‘We were all used to working in big groups,’ Ellie says. ‘What we’ve found amazing is what we’ve been able to achieve in a small team. We’ve had so much help from the networks we built up at RSM and more recently. We have no money to pay them, but what we’ve seen is that your friends are there to help you when you need them.’