What do you do when the passion is gone? And how do you keep your 110 year old family company relevant and innovative? Serial entrepreneur Marc Schriemer and Director of Werkman Horseshoes Christel Werkman discussed working with family and friends, finding your passion and making difficult decisions.
The two entrepreneurs shared their stories during the ninth edition of Founder Talks, with plenty of time for questions from RTV Noord journalist Bart Breij and the audience.
What’s an email?
Schriemer co-founded full-service internet agency iWink right out of college in 2004 and founded two companies after that: Leovalor and Tckl. Ironically, the successful tech entrepreneur was a late bloomer when it came to the Internet: “Computers weren’t really my thing at the time”, Schriemer laughs. “When I was still a student and someone told me I had to check my mail, I had no clue what he meant.”
Schriemer was quick to catch up though. “I had a website where people could buy ad space for selling horses. It was sort of a niche, especially at a time when most companies weren’t online. When I started contacting larger stables, they wanted to have their own websites, so that’s when my friends and I started building websites on a regular basis.”
After the bubble
Together with his friends and fellow Business Administration students Jurriaan Wentink and Simon Wisselink, Schriemer founded iWink in 2004, two years after the dot-com crash. Not the best or easiest time to start a full service web design and web development agency, you would think. “It wasn’t as difficult as you would expect”, Schriemer says. “The Internet bubble showed us what didn’t work and as long as you focus on quality, build great things and keep promises, you will get the opportunities you need.”
iWink started growing fast. Their secret? “We made a great team and we could always count on each other to deliver. And we also had what we called Q meetings. So every quarter, Jurriaan, Simon and I would go somewhere for the weekend to focus on where we wanted to go with our company. It’s amazing what you can do without any distractions and just being away from your daily routine.”
Turning a difficult decision into a new business
If we’re not having fun, it’s time to call it quits. That’s the promise the three friends made when they started iWink. And after ten years, Schriemer felt unhappy. “It wasn’t an easy decision and it wasn’t an impulsive one either. We discussed it at length and parted on the best terms possible.”
In the process of selling his iWink shares, Schriemer came up with a new business idea. “It’s not easy to calculate how much a company is worth exactly. Project based revenue is very different from subscription based revenue for example. So that’s where I got the idea for Leovalor, an easy automated way to see what your company is worth. We’re developing software and taking our time to create something good.”
VIP seats and staying hungry
In 2016, Schriemer saw yet another opportunity he turned into a business. “If you’re a soccer team sponsor, it’s not always easy to give away VIP and skybox tickets to your clients. You’d be surprised how often skyboxes are relatively empty. It’s just a lot of hassle and extra administration to keep track of who wants to go to which game. So we developed an easy platform for that, called Tckl.”
In just a little over two years, Tckl has been used for Ajax in CL and Dutch National Football team, as well as Mojo concerts and the upcoming Stadspark Live festival in Groningen. The startup also received investments from G-Force and the NOM. “It’s a very scalable product.”
Any tips for fellow entrepreneurs? “When I left iWink, I got a t-shirt with a Steve Jobs quote on it: Stay hungry. Stay foolish. Those are words to live by for me. And be sure to always be on the lookout for something new, some new opportunity.
Tractors and tanks
Christel Werkman is the fourth generation at the helm of Werkman Horseshoes. The 110 year old company has managed to stay very innovative throughout those years, in an industry that can be viewed as fairly traditional. “When my father’s grandfather founded the company, horseshoes were made by hand, as they always had been, dating back to Roman times. He found a way to automate the process and started the factory.”
“We had customers ranging from farmers to the Dutch army. But then farm horses were being replaced by tractors and cavalry by tanks, so we had to find a way to keep our head above water. So Werkman Horseshoes became an international exporter and today we’re active in 40 countries. Throughout all those years, we’ve always looked at ways to stay relevant, improve the way we do things and keep jobs here in Groningen.”
Running the family business
Christel initially never wanted to take over the family business. “I was never pressured by my family, but I just didn’t feel like it. I decided to study fashion retail in Amsterdam, because it was as far away from Groningen as I could get. But after working in Amsterdam for a few years, I started to miss Groningen and the quiet countryside. And my father convinced me to come back.”
Christel started from the ground up. “I started at the production level, shipping crates”, Christel smiles. “That wasn’t always easy though, because you’re working with people who have been working there since before I was born and I’m the boss’s daughter, so I was perceived as intimidating I guess. And it’s also really a man’s world, so that was something I had to get used to as well.”
The customers of Werkman Horseshoes are ferriers. “It’s really a very specialized trade. They know more about hoofs than veterinarians. But most of it is based on experience and intuition, rather than it being an exact science. We wanted to understand just exactly how horses move and what happens to their hoofs, so we worked with the university for example.”
“Horses are prey animals with a strong fight-or-flight response. That means they’re incredibly fast, but it also means they don’t show pain or injuries until it becomes very severe. So that was one of the reasons we came up with Black, a sensor to track see how a horse really moves, so you can catch injuries early on for example.”
Their latest innovation also meant necessary changes in marketing, because it’s no longer about regular horseshoes. “We’re going to change our name to Werkman Hoofcare for one, because that is what is starting to define us. We’ve been very busy with rebranding these past couple of years.”
One fun rebranding fact: their new muscular horse also makes for a popular tattoo. “That’s so weird! But great to see that people embrace our brand.” Asked whether she would ever get one: “No way!” She laughs.
Is it difficult to work with family members? “Sometimes, sure. But we’re able to separate family and business when and where we need to. It means being open and not letting frustrations build up and boil over. Most family businesses don’t last more than 3 generations and I’m proud we’re still relevant and create jobs here and hopefully, we’ll continue for at least another 100 years.”
There’s also a thing or two other entrepreneurs can learn from family businesses. “A lot of businesses and entrepreneurs have a fairly short term outlook and base their decisions on that. We tend to think in terms of generations and look forward on the longer term. And that I think is the real power of family businesses.”