Interview

Marijn Pijnenborg

Founder auto.nl, funda.nl and angel investor


Asking Marijn if she has an entrepreneurial or a leader mindset is like asking a child if they want chocolate or vanilla ice cream. “Can I not have both?” she asserts. Throughout her career she has seen success as both a leader in companies and as a VC investing in startups and scaleups. And she has never been shy about not knowing something. “Seriously, I like to have the vision and the knowledge an entrepreneur needs, but if I don’t know how to do it then I am going to hire someone. That's when leadership comes into play.” Several successful companies and a multitude of successful investments and it appears as if that strategy has done her well. Marijn starts the first question off by giving some advice with an analogy ringing close to her Dutch roots.


Never start out building a Ferrari. Start by building a bicycle and see how it works.

What are the biggest lessons you have learned being an entrepreneur yourself

There we go, straight into it. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that you have to analyse quick and act fast, then analyse quick and act fast. If you have an idea, build it, act on it, and then try it out to see if it works, and build again. Never start out building a Ferrari. Start by building a bicycle and see how it works. Once it runs smoothly, then you can build your airplane. As an entrepreneur and an investor, I have seen that the product scaleups build changes and are never the same as when they first start out. So don’t be afraid to build a bicycle and change it to make your airplane.

What is good leadership? This is based on 3 attributes:

  1. You have the ability to bring structure to chaos.
  2. You need to be relaxed in your mind, but fast in your decision making. Stress is like a boomerang, it will always come back and hit you on the forehead. No good decision comes from stress.
  3. And, you need to have a strong vision that you believe in, not just hope that it will work out in the long run. Hope is not a strategy. If you don’t believe in it, no one else will. You have to be willing to sell your product to your parents, if you want others to buy it.

Marijn Pijnenborg

Founder of funda.nl

Founder of auto.nl

Founder of Solvo Group

Angel Investor at Boralis

Portfolio: IENS, Springest, Usabilla and Otrium.

Founder Winc Academy

Supervisory board at Nedap.

Soundbite

Marijn Pijnenborg has founded and exited three successful companies, has helped others grow by investing and has started her own coding academy.

From all this experience, what has been her biggest lesson learned as a leader?

As an investor, I always expect entrepreneurs to make a gap analysis. If you are missing one of the 3 mentioned leadership skills, you need to hire someone who will complement your skills. I also want to know if you own your strategy, love your people (employees, customers), understand finance and have no fear for technology. Besides this, don’t take yourself too seriously. Finally, I see that the best leaders always trust the people around them to the fullest extent. If you, for example, doubt your management team, even a little bit, you will stop listening and delegating. As a result, you will end up doing everything yourself and at some point you will be so busy that you lose your vision for the future. So fully trust your team or its time to go separate ways.

What topics should you own as a leader?

Always, with no exception, do you have to own the culture and strategy. Culture is something you need to live, show, and support even if you can't always be part of it. If you can’t make it to Friday drinks, pay for it anyways.

Strategy ownership is equally important as a CEO. It’s your mission and vision; it's you deciding why we are doing what we are doing. And that last bit is important. You should constantly be addressing what you are doing and why you are doing it, even if it gets repetitive. And the message should always be the same whether it be to the employees, customers, or the investors. This way the customers never get the wrong story, they get the same as everyone else.

What topics should you own as a Leader?

"Culture and Strategy"

Hypergrowth is more like rafting, whereas a crisis is like kayaking against the current.

How do you navigate extreme circumstances such as hypergrowth or a crisis?

It starts with the difference between the two. Hypergrowth is more like rafting, whereas a crisis is like kayaking against the current. Rafting (Hypergrowth) is very fast paced and repetitively involves new information and fast acting. It's a bit risky, but it is a lot of fun. Kayaking (crisis) against the current, on the other hand, is also hard work but in a different way. It takes a lot of effort, you have to make big decisions and then act on it. It's important to keep on rowing and try to find the wild water again. As far as communication goes in a crisis, just be open and transparent about it. Talk about the facts, the risks, the solutions, and the unknown. Be honest and humble.

What are some common mistakes you see leaders make?

I see leaders often act too fast or don’t act fast enough. If you have new information, then don’t be afraid to make a change. But if there is no new information, stick with your plan, even if you don’t see any initial success. Knowing when to stick to your plan or when to act and change makes you a strong leader.

You need to be relaxed in your mind, but fast in your decision making. Stress is like a boomerang, it will always come back and hit you on the forehead.

In start-ups I see launching fear, too much focus on the product and not enough on the customer. On the other hand, too much focus on the customer is not the best solution either. If you ask them what kind of features they need in order to buy it or to stay with you, they will always come up with an answer. But building the product they asked for is probably not the best solution. Be in touch with your customers, but breath your product. If the customer likes your product, they will buy it. It's that simple. However, when we talk about scaleups, do not get lost in all the operational issues. If you are leading a scaleup, you should invest your time in strategy, customers and growth. Otherwise, you will miss your window of opportunity for acceleration. It is in this moment that the leadership skills that you developed should come into practice.

What do you think leaders can learn from the COVID-19 crisis?

You see companies using this corona crisis as an excuse to do some spring cleaning, such as getting rid of products that are not succeeding or employees who are not performing. You should be doing your dirty work every year. If you are on top of it, it is easier to change.

Do you have any tips for leaders going forward?

Yes, if you want to describe your culture and values, first start working with the team for a year and then write down how you work together. This will give you an idea about your culture and if you need a change. The next one is to read one management book per year and act on it. Many people read a lot of management books, but don't put it into practice. If you love reading, read other books in addition to that to get inspiration, but put the lessons learned from that one book into practice.

Be in touch with your customers, but breath your product.

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