This is the second in a new series of articles that will focus on the activities and accomplishments of the LaunchBase programme, an incubation platform of the Maastricht Centre for Entrepreneurship (MC4E). Composed out of two specific programmes, LaunchBase covers a comprehensive approach to business development. The next round of the programme begins 2 October. Registration is open until 20 September.
Benno Groosman, the Director of LaunchBase, started his entrepreneurial career ten years ago in the Netherlands. After visiting several countries to work in the field of entrepreneurship, his path led him to Maastricht. Working with the Base track of the LaunchBase programme, he now shares his experiences with rising entrepreneurs. He spoke with us about his road Maastricht and his passion for motivating and activating Limburg-based entrepreneurs.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your time before you came to Maastricht. What did you think you wanted to be when you “grew up”?
My career started as a student at Delft University of Technology. I thought I was interested in technology, but after a year I left—for me the progress in scientific technological research was not keeping the speed I would have liked. I went from there to Rotterdam to study business administration, which, by then, with a little tech-background, I found a bit boring as well.
When did you decide it was best to go your own way, start your own business?
I started my first company, Studiebegeleider.nl, in 2004. It was involved in the private tutoring business at home. The business was focused on high school students in the beginning and later on shifted toward adult education in the later years. To my delight, and with the help of Google Adword campaigns, this was quite a success—at one point, I had seven people working for me.
I decided to do my Masters in Entrepreneurship and New Business Venturing, and stayed in Rotterdam and focused on entrepreneurship and especially innovative and scalable businesses. One course I took inspired me to my start first tech-business, Salusion, which focused on severely incontinent people. The business was to help ensure adult diapers were changed at the right time with the help of an electronic chip that was placed in the diapers. We filed three different patents and had three different products on the market; it was going quiet smoothly. There was good cash flow and we were scaling up the businesses.
But I understand that Salusion is not operating anymore. What happened?
Suddenly, we had to file bankruptcy, because one of our suppliers withdrew his guarantee on our bank loan. This would have resulted in bankruptcy anyway, hence we filed for it ourselves around Christmas. Believe me, this was not the best Christmas I have had, but I took from it a lot of lessons, which I can now pass along to rising entrepreneurs.
What did you do next, and how did it lead to Maastricht?
Afterward I was invited to work for a new international accelerator in Brazil for a few months. I did that, and then I went to Budapest to write a recommendation for a new Cleantech incubator. I had been in the incubator of Delft myself with Salusion for years. The whole field of incubation and helping other start-ups with my experience and network became more and more interesting to me. I worked with several start-ups and did some pro-bono consulting. At some point, I realised that it was time for a bigger project, and I learned of the open position with the LaunchBase programme.
What was your motivation to work in Maastricht?
My main motivation was to work with people in their early stages of their careers and help them make decisions. I hoped, and hope, to even inspire them, but more important, to activate them. What I really like about my work is the fact that Base is a pre-incubation programme, that people can come to it without a specific idea or a team, and in a few months we help them to become entrepreneurs.
What purpose can the LaunchBase programme serve for the province of Limburg?
Of course, the region is interested in keeping the smart people here and providing them with the necessary resources to grow their businesses. What many people don’t realise is that, relative to the amount of start-ups in Limburg, there is an overload of money available that is given away by local or national governments. However, if you do not have peers or networks, other start-ups to share your ideas with, and benefit from this information exchange, entrepreneurs are less likely to stay in Maastricht. This is why the LaunchBase programme was founded, to provide a shared network and meeting points for young, talented entrepreneurs. LaunchBase was created to work on this environment and eco-system.
How does LaunchBase, and in particular the Base track of the programme, differ from the other entrepreneurial associations or clubs we have in Maastricht?
Ninety percent of Base participants are international students, of which half are women. These are two unique statistics when it comes to university-run incubation programmes.
However, in terms of the programme itself, a unique feature is that you can start the Base programme with maybe only a slight or even no idea for a start-up. And yet at the end of Base, you have a business plan; you can register your business and search for investors.
In comparison, I see the Founders Club more on an inspirational level. Then there is “Inspiratiehuis” (House of Inspiration), which focuses more on local people who are on average a little older. Lastly, we have Common Knowledge that focuses on the support of creative entrepreneurs. I see all those programmes blending with each other and it helps to grow the entrepreneurial scene in Maastricht and Limburg. However, the Base programme also offers a nice co-working space at the Tapijnkazerne that every participant can use to work, network or brainstorm.
What are the challenges and the benefits of having such an international mix of participants?
We help all participants with the practical things, such as understanding Dutch tax law and how to register a business in the Netherlands. In the most recent Base programme, we invited for example people from the Chamber of Commerce to help our students.
Another challenge is that often, if you start your own business in Limburg, your first customers will be Dutch. Hence, you have to reach out to the Dutch society and understand their needs. To overcome these potential obstacles, there are possibilities to team up with Dutch participants or get a Dutch advisor to help you.
The benefits of course outweigh any challenges, and include the diversity of the group, the strength of the network and the experience all our participants from other countries bring to the table. I personally grew my network in many countries, and so did other participants. Within Base, you have very good options to scale up your business due to the network strengths.
Can you tell us about a few success stories from the Base programme?
Success at this stage is about how the programme is developing. It’s too soon to know real, long-term outcomes. But we see people and teams making amazing progress. People who did not know each other before have formed successful teams—so much so that it appears to mentors that they have known each other for years. It is great to see this development without any pressure from our side; it is happening naturally. In addition, we have people who are generating “outside-the-box” ideas, beyond just opening an online shop. And, of course, people in our programme sometimes also find out the entrepreneurship is not their passion; this is of course not the original purpose of LaunchBase, but it is a good thing to learn early on without struggling for years first.
What are other ways you support the participants?
In addition to all the workshops we give to all participants, we have tailored mentor meetings in which we advise our entrepreneurs personally and help with our network. Also, we have external entrepreneurs, some from my personal network, who are interested in some of our start-ups and invest their time and come to Maastricht to help our entrepreneurs. I am also organizing workshops run by prestigious entrepreneurs who come and present their stories. And we have company visits planned. We are a very practical programme. We have a hands-on mentality and talk openly about the mistakes we might have made in the past and try to share them with participants.
As a last question, how many participants do you accept to the Base programme, and who are you looking for? And of course, what is the application deadline?
For the next round of Base, registration closes 20 September. We will take about 30 students for the next round. We have to draw a line somewhere to allow us to have this personal focus we offer at the moment.
We select participants based on motivation and entrepreneurial spirit. We look for people who are willing to put time into the programme, but mainly in themselves and their start-ups. The minimum time commitment per week is around five hours, which basically means participating in our events in the evenings on Mondays (4pm) and Wednesdays (5pm). In addition, we want to see that you are willing to start a company and not just see it as an educational side project. If we see this ambition in individuals or groups, we are happy to have these people in our programme.
What else would you like people to know about LaunchBase?
We are an honest programme and do not celebrate entrepreneurship as the greatest thing on the world. Entrepreneurship is hard; we want to guide you in learning to walk, but sometimes you have to make the first steps yourself. However, we do not say that if you join is, your life will be perfect. This is not the case—entrepreneurship is a hard thing, sometimes painful, but it can also be worth it at the end. I believe we are very practical and honest in this and hope to guide you through the process.
Jonas Heller has been passionate about the entrepreneurship world since working in Berlin for Zalando, one of the fastest growing start-ups in Europe. He earned his Bachelor’s degree from the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics (SBE) in 2012, and after 18 months in Berlin, he decided to follow an academic career and return to Maastricht for a Master’s degree in International Business, after which he hopes to pursue an academic career in the field of disruptive technologies. Still keeping abreast with all things entrepreneurial, Jonas writes and tweets frequently on the subject. You can follow him at Twitter.