Michiel Muller is a serial entrepreneur. After his graduation from the Erasmus School of Economics and a career at ExxonMobil he co-founded several companies, including the unmanned petrol service station chain Tango and road assistance company Route Mobiel. In 2015, he co-founded online supermarket Picnic that delivers groceries at low prices to its customers’ homes.
Michiel supports the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship and the Amsterdam Center for Entrepreneurship to include entrepreneurship in the faculties’ curriculum. He is board member of the FD Mediagroup (Dutch Financial Times); member of the investment committee of regional development agency Innovation Quarter; and chairman of the largest university endowment fund in the Netherlands, the Erasmus Trustfund.
He’s the author of two books on entrepreneurship,'Ervaringen van een serial entrepreneur' ('Experiences of a serial entrepreneur'), voted best Dutch business book 2010/2011; and the highly-rated ‘Ondernemen is een ABC’tje’ (‘Business is as easy as ABC’) in 2015.
Michiel lives in Rotterdam, is married to Irene and has three children.
Michiel Muller: an interview with a serial entrepreneur
Q: How would you define ‘purpose’ in your life?
“I guess it has lots to do with using your talents to the max - and a big point for me is doing that in a sustainable way. In the consumer businesses we started (Tango and Picnic for example) we launched new formats, and new business models that challenged the market power of the incumbents and gave a lot of benefits to the average consumer, so that people are paying the right price and not the prices that might result from market domination by bigger, well-known players.
I think the most fun of doing business or any project, for me at least, is to understand whether you can make a new initiative happen. There’s this curiosity – is this plan going to work, yes or no; can we, together with others, make it happen? It’s not about being an entrepreneur to get rich – that’s not the way to start an initiative. It’s about the fun of making something happen, something that was a crazy idea in the beginning – and then hopefully success comes later.
So for me, purpose is more related to using the talents that everybody has to make the world a bit better, than anything else.”
Q: Where does your sense of purpose come from? Were you influenced by a role model, or a book or teacher in identifying your purpose?
“It’s more about a general sense of what is going on in the world. I am always really energised by things I read in the news. I have to think – why has everyone been complaining about this issue for 20 years and still nothing has happened? There must be something wrong in the market, or elements of companies having too much power or not enough innovation within the market itself, so purpose from a business sense starts as a kind of feeling that something is not working well in the market.
If you look at the businesses that I have been involved in, you see this thread. With Tango, the unmanned petrol stations – we saw incumbents with steady market shares over the years, but who were not innovating or adding new technology to serve customers better, and people were complaining about it. Similarly for the online grocery market space – the consumer wants their groceries delivered at home but says ‘while this is great, I don’t want hour-long delivery windows or to pay delivery fees’ – so there is a sense that there is a need in the market and the general public knows that, but has no tools to change it. In health care there are also many, many ideas how it can be better organised, and yet – it’s difficult to change habits or behaviour.”
Q: How does your personal sense of purpose connect to your purpose as a leader? How do you express it?
“Most of the time I have set up businesses in a B2C environment. And when you work to launch something new in B2C, you need to find a way that people start to change their behaviour – they have been used to a certain way of working for many years, and may be relatively satisfied. Your new product and/or service needs to really stand out to create the energy needed to get consumers to consider changing their way of ‘doing’.
Since I am motivated by imbalances in the market, and understand how the frustration around that works in the minds of people – well, this tells me something about what you need to focus on when explaining a new company or service to people. There are many examples of companies with superior products or services who simply cannot explain to consumers, clearly, why they should pick their brand. If you are motivated by the frustration of people in the market, it’s easier to find reasons for them to believe in your company; you understand why your company’s products or services are a better place to take consumers. If you ask people ‘are you happy with the current service or product?’ most people will say, ‘yeah it’s OK’. It’s only when you actually start to offer an alternative that they will say ‘yes, this is better’ – the old way was too cumbersome or expensive or whatever. You provide the alternative that starts people thinking, and they start changing.”
Q: Michiel, on Twitter you once shared a quote from Peter M. Senge: ‘People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.’ Change must be a constant state for a ‘serial entrepreneur’ in a fail-fast environment.
How important is a sense of purpose in accepting and dealing with change – and in acting as an inspirational leader during turbulent times?
“It’s a funny question because as an entrepreneur you sort of like change. Starting out a business, you never know how it will end … and entrepreneurs like that, they like being in places they haven’t been before to see things they haven’t seen before. It’s difficult to be a successful entrepreneur if you don’t have the ability to be very comfortable with uncertainty. Change happens, and the result is that you have to accept uncertainty and take action, and it’s going to be difficult if that comes hard to you. The environment is continually changing, and that realisation is core for any entrepreneur. If you have difficulty accepting uncertainty, either you will be very unhappy and stressed out, or you get blocked and won’t take action at all.
When you look at that quote from Senge it’s talking about employees if I remember correctly, but it is true for anybody: no one wants to be told ‘do this, do that, think this’. You need to have an internal sense of purpose.
Look at Picnic, which is made up of such a young group, with an average age of 27: the people who come to work with us have been to school and gotten their degree, and they definitely have a sense of purpose. They really want to do the things they believe in, not just what they should do. They have purpose - but you need to work with that purpose to make them happy to use their talents to the fullest, and to generate the cool new ideas that move things forward. And if you want to get the best from them, you have to make sure it’s their ideas and not just yours that come to the table.
As a leader, how do you unlock the energy people have inside of them? You have to find that secret source of energy, and it’s probably in their own purpose – if you find and connect with that, it’s unbeatable. Last week we had the two-day Picnic Summer Party, with about 800 people, so 400 each day. We got together on the beach. You have people of all backgrounds together, shoppers, runners, the central team, just a very mixed group. And in talking to them you discover they all have a kind of talent next to what they do at Picnic. They volunteer to help elderly people, they make art or music, they represent so many talents and purposes – and if you can sort of connect to that, then it is much more fun to work together, and it helps you in really getting to and unlocking that energy.”
Q: How do you keep your sense of purpose strong, particularly during difficult times?
“This is also about having confidence in the group itself, knowing that we can solve the problems we have together. With Picnic there are many, many bridges to cross right now, and a lot more to come. But every time we see a big wall in front of us, in two weeks’ time we get past it and say, it wasn’t such a big wall in the end – so trust in the people you have, trust in the power of the idea, and trust in your partners, because if you start to doubt everything it’s hard to stick to your purpose.
Some of that confidence comes from seeing that every time we have to do something for the first time it’s difficult – opening a new hub, a new city, a new country or distribution centre – but by the third time it’s become easier; so trust that your purpose can help you a lot in overcoming these difficulties in operations or other areas. As I said there is still a lot of work to come at Picnic, and I think we can stick to our purpose by using the talents of our people, making them successful, and contributing a bit to a more sustainable way of working. If you look at Picnic’s business purpose, you’ll see we apply this sustainable way of work. There is a lot broken in the world of supermarkets, not because of bad people but because it was invented 50 years ago, and the improvements have all been for the business owners and not so much for consumers or the environment. For example the fact that people drive their car to the supermarket for their groceries several times per week, the fact that a lot of smaller producers find it difficult to deal with big supermarket chains, or the amount of food waste in the supply chain – there are many such issues that have grown over time which new technology or a new business model can help to solve. This is what we try to do at Picnic. We would like to repair what is broken, or find something better to replace it, and this is the purpose you find in the young people we have on board. If you ask them ‘Do you want to work for a supermarket?’ the answer is probably not very positive. But if you ask if they want to work for a company that changes things for the better, they say yes.”