The Dutch startup Bynder (a digital asset management solution) grew from 0 to 300 employees, raised fair sums of investment, and has six offices worldwide. Its founder, Chris Hall, is an entrepreneur at heart. At The Next Web Conference in Amsterdam, we sat down with Chris to talk about his experiences as founder and CEO of Bynder.
What inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
I was never ‘not’ an entrepreneur; I never worked for a boss. I’ve always had an interest in ideas, business and the likes. The first serious business endeavor was a web design agency, which I started in 1997. That grew into Label A, a development agency that still exists, and has 80 people now. A few years ago, we started to work on an internal project we wanted to solve for a few big FMCG clients of ours. It was always a hassle to get every picture and logo in the right spot. So, we developed our own tool to overcome that problem. That is how Bynder was created.
I’ve always been working on ideas. I had a car wash when I was ten, sold surfboards — I did many of such things. During my studies, I decided to register at the Chamber of Commerce, when I was 18, and that is when it all started. I’ve put so much time in my business at the time [the agency] that I didn’t finish my studies. It’s the classic college drop-out story. There is this drive in me that wants to make things better, make things more efficient: those are challenges I like to think about continuously.
Can you remember what the biggest barriers to enter entrepreneurship were for you?
I don’t think there are a lot of barriers. Well, money is always an issue, but I think that if there are any barriers, that they are with, and from other people. People are often risk averse, which makes it’s challenging to get the right people on board. For example, people worry about their pensions. So, I think it’s more a barrier that other people have, I have never really experienced such barriers.
Mostly, it’s about the perception of risk, at least it has been for a while. About getting a salary [as an entrepreneur] for example. My college friends all went to work for large companies, and I was working on a startup. Back then, there wasn’t really a startup industry. But nowadays, it’s the other way around. Now, the talented students join a startup instead of a multinational. Now, startups are sexy, which wasn’t the case 10–15 years ago. It was really unknown, but that barrier has been broken too now.
What does success look like to you personally?
Success is a moving target: I don’t have a specific number in mind, like if we’re worth x billion or whatever then I’m happy. That’s not a real goal — you can always raise the bar again. I think that success is when you have an idea and you see that it works in practice. That gives me a thrill. And when you see it’s scalable. Also to do something very difficult but getting it to succeed nonetheless. That I’d call a success.
Success is also that cliché of ‘it’s not about the destination but about the journey’; it’s not about having those numbers on your bank account, but the thrill to let it grow continuously. Because if growth doesn’t happen anymore, there’s nothing to win either. I like growth. There’s also a lot of entrepreneurs who are in it for the money, I think, which is fine. But then you’re most likely quickly satisfied with an exit. To me, it’s not about the money; it’s about the growth, the challenge to grow further.
What does a productive day for you look like?
Good question! The funny thing is that it seems as if I don’t do a lot of things. And although I’m telling that jokingly, I actually wake up quite early to beat the traffic jams from Rotterdam to Amsterdam, so I’m super early at our offices. Then I’ll first go through my emails, but that’ll explode again anyway. I don’t have a strict schedule: I often have sporadic meetings, or I’ll look over a few shoulders to see how their projects are going. But, my added value really lies in generating ideas, creative ideas. You can’t time that, those ideas happen spontaneously, at the craziest of moments. It’s often very sporadic, that I’m browsing through such ideas. And it’s a bit of a cliché, but I also have to do stakeholder management. Since we raised a fair sum of money last year, we need to report to our different stakeholders, like the board members. And that does take up quite a bit of time. But all in all, I’m more occupied with thinking than doing, and for me, thinking happens sporadically.
So, there’s no real typical day for me. I really like being busy with the product too, so I’m also often with the design and development team, and marketing. I like to be hands-on and help them out there where I can.
Which problem are you solving with Bynder?
The category name is a bit dusty, but we’re doing digital asset management (DAM). What it comes down to is that you have one place for all your digital files, which is easily searchable. And that saves so much trouble from sending emails back and forth, or zip files, or using file transfer tools. With Bynder people can easily look for the right version of the right picture for example. The more modern version of DAM is invisible; it’s linked or integrated into all your other marketing solutions. Think about databases, which are often invisible, but always there on the background. I believe that it is also the future for DAM, to become this invisible element integrated in your CMS or Hubspot, in your online campaigns.
Where does your motivation to solve this problem come from?
My motivation is that although I’m not a marketer, I have a great interest in it, and affinity with it. And I find the SaaS-model just very interesting. I’m more like a merchant or trader in that way. SaaS, to me, is the ultimate business model: if you sell a product, you need a supply, you need to invest in a stock, but that brings along a ‘ceiling’. With SaaS, if you get the metrics right, and the machines are turning, then the sky is the limit. We can deal with a million, even ten million customers. There’s no limit. It’s more about how do you get the market running, how do you get the product running, that’s the difficult but exciting part of SaaS. You also see that with companies like Slack for example. I find it amazing that within a year it grew out to be a billion dollar company.
Which one thing would you love to tell your younger self?
The mistakes I’ve made, looking at it in hindsight, those were made due to not following my gut instinct. Now, if my gut feeling isn’t right, and although things might appear perfect, I am still, unfortunately, right about it not being perfect. But on the other hand, I don’t regret anything. For example, we’ve had some very interesting investment deals lined up that didn’t work out in the end. Deals that would have made the front-page of the Times for example, but that’s part of the deal. You need to have that disappointment sometimes, to learn from it. I wouldn’t do it any other way. You cannot avoid it, you have to experience it. Such an investment round for example, I tend to compare it to getting a baby. I have two young children myself, and there’s nothing that can really prepare you for that. Everybody can tell you about sleepless nights, and you can imagine it, but until you’ve been through that, you don’t know what it really is about. Some things you just need to experience.
What has been your biggest failure?
Failure is a part of entrepreneurship. But I didn’t make mistakes that I regret. That doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes, without mistakes you cannot grow. You need to take decisions so fast, and yes, there are wrong choices and decisions, but entrepreneurship is not an exact science. So, people who are afraid of making mistakes, well, they will doubt and consider everything before taking the next step. That’s very academic. Academics always try to think things through, but that prevents them from actually doing stuff. Sometimes, you just need to try and accept the risk that it might not be such a well-considered decision, but that’s better than going too slow. That’s my opinion. Otherwise, I think you don’t fully understand the idea of risk versus reward. You can think things through all you want, but you’ll never cover each aspect. In a way, planning is like gambling. If you start to plan too much, you don’t think openly anymore. Think about sailing, where you need to beat or zigzag against the wind, that’s the way to get to your destination. In academia for example, I have the idea they think it’s about following a straight line, instead of going against the wind. But in these times, in which developments are happening so fast, you need to navigate quickly. By the time you’re ready to start, your idea might already be old again. You shouldn’t be uncomfortable with letting go of your initial planning or idea.
What would you highly recommend aspiring entrepreneurs to do?
Just do it. You just have to do it. You can talk about it, read about it… but they just have to do it. I was lucky enough to start during my studies, because then money isn’t an issue. The longer you wait, the more you might feel inclined to enter the corporate world. Then it only becomes more difficult to work for almost nothing. The younger you start, the easier it is.
I see that with those who are a little bit older. They find it difficult to have these insecurities that come with entrepreneurship. They seem to prefer stability, but that is one of the challenges of entrepreneurship.
What are you currently struggling with?
We’ve grown extremely fast. In 3–4 years we’ve gone from 0 to 300 people. And my role, especially since that investment round, now I really have to pick up that CEO role. And being a CEO is something very different than being an entrepreneur. It is a challenging transition with a steep learning curve. Usually, I would see something and solve it. Now, I have to push that urge to solve it to the back. As a CEO, you should focus more on putting the right people in the right places, and trust them. That process of letting go of such tasks is what makes it challenging for me. It’s a completely different profession.
Who is your favorite super hero?
I don’t have one specific hero. But Bill Gates… everybody likes Steve Jobs, but Bill Gates, what he now does in his so to speak second life, that I find very inspiring. The way he solved issues in the corporate world, that is amazing. And now he uses that same brainpower and mindset to solve bigger issues with regards to philanthropy. I admire that. You’ve proven yourself in the economic model, and now you’re working on a philanthropical model.
Challenges expressed are in no way meant to solicit commercial acquisition.
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