RSM master alumni: entrepreneurs with impact
RSM alumni Emma Verhagen, who set up FlinderFly, and the co-founders of Airpaq, Michael Widmann and Adrian Goossens, outline how they came to make their business ideas a reality and the motivations that drive them.
Story by Lyn Drummond
As Emma Verhagen pondered a name for her company she likened its goal to the butterfly effect – a term coined by American meteorologist and mathematician Edward Norton Lorenz as an expression for chaos theory, in which small changes in one place can lead to large differences elsewhere in the system. And Emma's goal to have 10 per cent of Dutch people do 10 per cent of their shopping through her company FlinderFly is already having an impact.
‘Flinder is an old English word that means butterfly, and flinder also sounds the same as the Dutch word vlinder, which also means butterfly. As the Netherlands is my first market, this seemed very fitting,’ she said.
Customers at shops supporting FlinderFly can donate to a charity of their choice. After every purchase they receive Flinder coins, used to grow butterflies or flinders – each one representing an amount of money. Once the Flinder is fully grown the total amount goes to charity.
‘The greatest value I got from my RSM education was a business mindset and a “can do” mentality. It has taught me to always search for a win-win opportunity, which is exactly what FlinderFly offers. It’s a win for the user as they can have a positive impact on the world without any cost. It’s a win for the shops because it is proven that the loyalty of consumers increases when the company is committed to positive social changes. And it’s a win for the charities because they get more donations.’
There is nothing chaotic about Emma's accelerating career since arriving at RSM from Romania nine years ago and graduating with an MSc in Business Information Management in 2012. Her employer, Unilever, where she is a digital R&D manager, encouraged her idea to start FlinderFly in July 2017. Soon afterwards she was judged one of Memory Group’s top five Best Young Professionals under 33.
A Unilever workshop Discover your Purpose motivated Emma’s founding of FlinderFly. ‘I realised that I had two purposes. I wanted to wake up in the morning with the feeling that not only do I strive for excellence, but also for a higher purpose,’ she said.
Emma's biggest challenge as an entrepreneur is needing more time. ‘Perseverance helps me to keep going. Refusal and delay is difficult for me to accept. For instance, when we get a refusal from a shop, I remind myself that FlinderFly already has 40 different online shops that are part of my business, 30 of which are very well-known.’
Her husband Chris learned to programme the FlinderFly app with her. ‘He would always encourage me to choose the highest quality and not just quick results when I started out,’ Emma said.
How do you design upcycled backpacks that are durable enough to withstand extreme situations like car crashes? By foraging through the safety compartments of wrecked vehicles for seat belts, buckles and airbags, and learning to sew from YouTube tutorials.
The result is the company Airpaq, co-founded by Michael Widmann and Adrian Goossens in January 2017, some 16 months after the idea formed during the first course of their MSc in Strategic Entrepreneurship at RSM.
They created the company webshop with no experience of web design or coding, and its promotional content with the help of former school colleagues. Money was raised through a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. ‘Being an entrepreneur in this initial stage meant looking at what we have – knowledge, background, network, financial resources – and making the best out of it,’ they said.
Their master programme was flexible enough for them to continue developing Airpaq during several core and elective courses – the most important being Opportunity Creation, Entrepreneurial Bootstrapping, and the Entrepreneurial Lab. ‘We were able to apply Airpaq to several group projects throughout the year and to gather feedback from faculty members and fellow students. We contacted already successful entrepreneurs such as RSM alumnus Philip Hess.’ Hess is the entrepreneur and co-founder of Senz, the company that sells storm-proof umbrellas.
After failing in dozens of negotiations with scrapyard owners who saw Airpaq’s proposal only as a student project, the two men now partner with a few bigger companies that they are convinced have long-term worth to Airpaq. Along with their own belief that sustainable actions such as upcycling and recycling are ‘essential for our life on this planet’, they are fascinated by what they describe as the charm and singularity exhibited by upcycled products. ‘Our goal for Airpaq is to combine these motives with products that convince customers both ecologically and aesthetically.’
They manufacture at Michael’s father’s sewing factory in Romania, which has been operating for 22 years. ‘Romania represents the perfect production place for Airpaq, with its fair working conditions, high-quality standards and sustainable production,’ Michael said. As the two 27-year-olds spend three weeks a month in Romania, it is more of a home base than their respective native countries – Michael in Italy and Adrian in Germany.
They plan to change their webshop from accepting only pre-orders to providing regular, next-day shipment. They also plan to design and develop new products such as wallets, caps and sports bags using the same sturdy materials they use in the backpacks.