Pond pumps, conquering Europe and predicting hit songs with A.I. Together with local TV station RTV Noord, Founded in Groningen organized the fourth edition of Founder Talks, where two remarkable entrepreneurs share their equally remarkable stories, combined with an in-depth interview and questions from the audience.
For this edition, RTV Noord journalist Bart Breij interviewed Benjamin Derksen, the man behind Frank, formerly known as Experty, and Ard Boer, serial music and tech entrepreneur.
From Experty to Frank
This year is going to be an important year for Frank. The company, consisting of about 450 different webshops and active in 8 different countries, is going to expand on the one hand, to other to a whopping 27 countries, but as one giant webshop, going up against giants like Coolblue in the Netherlands, and Amazon abroad.
The company started out selling graduation gifts for students, like globes, telescopes and old city maps. “You know, niche things that are hard to come by in regular shops”, Benjamin explains. “There was a real demand for that, and we started to sell different types of niche products on different websites, which is how Experty was born.”
Experty grew explosively over the next couple of years, going from a few niche webshops to a total of 450. How do you get to such a whopping amount? “Simple”, Benjamin says. “We basically look for search volume and competition. If loads of people google a certain product, there’s a demand for it. And if there’s not too much competition, we go for it. A lot of competition, means razor thin profit margins, like you get with electronics workshops.”
Last year they changed the company name from Experty to Frank. “Frank means open, honest and transparent, which is what we’ve always stood for”, Benjamin explains. “Basically, in online retail, the reason people order things at your website is based on price, supply and trust and I don’t think any of the bigger sites score high in all three categories.”
Best growth hack? “The world is a big place. The international market is much bigger than a national market”, Benjamin says. “Just go out and do it and don’t worry too much about potential risks.”
But what about all the legal hassle, customer support and delivery times? “Sure, you need to figure out some legal stuff and in some countries we offer only English support. As for delivery times, people are willing to wait a few days. The notion that the customer is king, doesn’t mean you have to grovel. Support is one way to help people, but we also like to help them in other ways.”
“I’d like to change to whole process of online shopping actually”, Benjamin continues. “The fact that people have to actively search for the products is kind of weird. So that’s something we’re currently working on, but because of the competition and because we’re still in the early stages, I can’t say too much about it.”
Any tips for aspiring entrepreneurs? “Like I said, go out and just do it. I’ve met people with fucking great ideas and ambitions, who don’t follow through because it seems too daunting or risky. Oh, and travel a lot! I’ve climbed the Kilimanjaro in Africa, and just being above the clouds, thinking about the risk of altitude sickness, makes you feel fucking insignificant and really makes you think about where you stand in life.”
Create & hustle
Ard Boer is an entrepreneur, a programmer and he considers himself a failed musician. “When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I just do stuff”, he says. “Basically, I create and hustle. I come up with cool ideas for the music industry and find a commercial application for it.”
Ard started out as a high school teacher: “I tried making it as a musician, but I just wasn’t good enough. So what do you do when you’re a failed musician? You get a job to cover the bills and start your own label, in your attic. Pretty soon, we landed a gig from Sony and we set up this sort of platform where bands could pitch their music along with a business plan and the best one would land a record deal.”
Out of this project, New Music Labs was born, Ard’s company to come up with innovative ideas and viral marketing for the music industry, working with some pretty big acts, like One Direction and the Foo Fighters. “The Foo Fighters just released their album White Limo, so we had a white limousine drive around the country and when fans found it and took a selfie, they could win a meet & greet with Dave Grohl during Pinkpop.”
A few years back, Ard also came up with an idea for an Augmented Reality album cover. “It looked really cool, but selling this idea was a big challenge”, Ard says. “Marketing budgets in the music industry are not as big as people think, and ultimately, the band is basically paying for it. And in the Netherlands, about 20% of the bands are big enough to make a living out of it, let alone pay for an AR album cover. We also pitched the idea to The Voice of Holland, but that didn’t work out. That’s the thing, sometimes cool ideas work out, sometimes they don’t.”
The music entrepreneur also set up a pretty well known music festival with friends, called Into The Great Wide Open. “I did that for about three years, but instead of enjoying the music, I was cramped up in an office counting cash. So I quit the organization, it just wasn’t for me, even though setting up a festival with your best friends is the coolest thing ever.”
Pretty soon after, while being a coach at Startup Weekend in 2016, Ard met award winning composer Renger Koning. “I was working on a platform where you can track the airplay of songs and Renger was really interested, because he composed a lot of music for commercials and was looking for a way to check his earnings and royalties. So, instead of coaching others, we basically founded our own startup that weekend too.”
With that big bunch of airplay data, Ard used a neural network AI algorithm, to try and see if you could predict which songs became hits. He was invited to pitch his idea, named Hitwizard, during industry conferences at Eurosonic Noorderslag, South by Southwest in Austin, TX and the Amsterdam Dance Event. “Our accuracy was a little over 60%, which doesn’t sound like much, but ask yourself this: is the record label A&R guy more accurate? If we’re even 1% more accurate, our product already is financially more interesting.”
So big ambitions with Hitwizard? Not really. “The thing about using a neural network, is that the connections and conclusions it makes, are extremely difficult to understand and retrace. So basically, you just get an answer, but not the reasoning behind it, so all we know is that something could be a hit song, but not what makes a hit. Maybe in 20 years time, A.I. will be at the level where it becomes really useful.”
As a creative guy with no real interest in money or the business side of things, doesn’t he need a commercial sellout to help him rake in some cash? “What we’re doing with BroadcastRadar is pretty commercial. We’re talking to a lot of publishers and have plans for the German market in the near future too.”
Any tips for entrepreneurs? “Not really anything original. I’m going to say the same thing as Benjamin, who used to be my neighbor by the way: just go out and do it! Doing something and failing is still doing something. Create and hustle.”