Entrepreneurship – and all that jazz

Derek Roos, CEO of low-code app platform Mendix, talks about how he constantly reinvents himself as his entrepreneurial start-up grows, on democratising application development, and why it can feel like playing improvisational jazz in a band. He tells his story in RSM Outlook magazine by Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM).

Story by Bennett Voyles

In his last term at RSM back in 2005, Derek Roos (MBA 2003) had a side job working for a software development start-up that built applications for companies. They followed a traditional development process, and as delivery manager he found it very frustrating. It was slow, expensive, and the customer never got what he wanted in the end – which wasn’t really surprising because he often hadn’t known what he wanted from the start.

But the job did give Roos and his RSM alumnus co-worker, Derckjan Kruit (MScBA 2005), a big idea: what if software development could be simplified to the point that customers could snap together the applications they needed by themselves?

No regrets

Cooler heads usually advise working for someone else before starting off on your own, but Roos says he doesn’t regret what he did next: he took out a €30,000 loan his bank was offering to recent graduates who could show a diploma and a job contract, then he quit his job the next day to start a company with Kruit. In retrospect, Roos even considers their ignorance an advantage. ‘I think our naiveté in those days really helped us. I don’t think I would have started, had I known how hard it is,’ recalls Roos, now 38.

Ten years of seven-day working weeks later, his vision has grown into a 400-employee company with thousands of customers in 50 countries. Now based in Boston, USA, the firm he and Kruit built, Mendix, is a leading low-code development platform, a paradigm of emerging software manufacturing, which Forrester, the IT research firm, believes could be a US$ 15.5 billion industry by 2020.

Playing in key

Mendix may be big now, but Roos says his approach to business hasn’t really changed. An amateur guitarist, Roos says he thinks of business as being a lot like playing in a band. ‘You need to really be a team, right? You need to feel each other, without talking. And then, especially in jazz, because it’s mostly improvisation, you need to be extremely agile and responsive to inputs from others and play in harmony at the same time. You need to pick a key to start with, but then you don’t know where you’re going to go,’ he explains.

‘I’m very conscious of the fact that I don’t have all the answers. I try to surround myself with people who have either very different ideas or different experiences, and together, I think we come to the right outcome. Everybody has opinions, but nobody’s necessarily right. It’s in the team and the collaboration that I think the real magic happens. And that is true if you’re with five people or 500 people,’ Roos says.

Learning and reinventing

His own part keeps changing too. ‘I’m constantly learning and reinventing myself. In the early days you go from being the founder to being the sales guy to becoming a manager of people and taking on more of a CEO role,’ he says.

If he could do any part of his education over again, he says he wished he had studied more about operational management. ‘I left school with a pretty good foundation in strategy and problem-solving methodologies, but I could have used more management skills – how do you build a team, how do you create a great culture, how do you manage people, how do you run a cadence on a daily, weekly, monthly basis? These really important skills I had to learn myself and that would have been super-valuable.’

Looking ahead

Roos is confident that his and Kruit’s 2008 vision to democratise application development remains correct. ‘People are increasingly tech savvy,’ he explains. ‘They’re used to self-service. They don’t want to talk to support people. They don’t want to talk to salespeople. They want to be completely self-sufficient and independent. I think that’s a megatrend that’s going to change how companies work with technology and how people are going to work for the next few decades.’

But other factors are changing, he says, particularly voice-operated computing, the accelerating speed of business, and artificial intelligence. Of the three, AI he sees as the one with the greatest possibility of being disruptive. ‘It’s going to create a whole new set of rules that are hard to predict, including how to compete and what’s going to work going forward.’

Paradoxically, Roos argues, all these advances mean that technology will become a commodity, and no longer a source of competitive advantage for most companies. ‘The real differentiation will be how you take your data and domain knowledge and transform that into something of real business value,’ he says.

This article was first published in RSM Outlook summer 2018 – RSM’s alumni and corporate relations magazine. You can download RSM Outlook here.

More information

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

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