#6 Johan Van Mil: The Power of the Entrepreneurial Spirit

published on 26 December 2020

If you are trying to please everyone but yourself and your company, you are in for a hard time.

Johan and we instantly clicked when he mentioned his frequent vacations to our beloved Puglia, a region in southern Italy. We also share a passion for Primitivo wine and fine cuisine. We are not the only ones; at least we hope so. This interview could not start in a better way.

A little secret, Johan founded 11 companies and sold a staggering before turning into a full-time investor and co-founder of Peak Capital, one of the leading early-stage VCs in the Netherlands. How is that even possible are you wondering? Trust me, I itched my eyes twice too, yet it is all true. Today we are unpacking Johan's journey and critical lessons.

But that is only one part of the story.

At Venture Insider, we strive to undress the ups-and-down, the late nights, early morning, the failures and the victories.

In a few words; we want to share the real stories.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Everything in Italic symbols the voice of the writer, aka, us at Venture Insider.

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Can you tell us more about your journey?

I used to sell cookies as a kid. I guess I had entrepreneurship in my blood. My dad was running the family business, so I grew up with business being something ordinary, and we often talked about opportunities at the dinner table. It is safe to say that entering the world of business was a natural decision for me.

I studied Applied Economics and Management at the University of Antwerp, but at the same time, I spent countless hours brainstorming business ideas. I was lucky to be enrolled in university during the internet boom since it was the perfect time to start a company.

My investing journey, on the other hand, began in 2005 when I was teaching entrepreneurship. A common trend of the students back then was to get a job at McKinsey or Shell straight after graduation. My goal as a teacher was to play the role of the devil’s advocate.

I wanted to inspire my students to start their entrepreneurial journey instead of joining a big corporation.

Considering the high level of uncertainty of entrepreneurship, persuading my students to pick entrepreneurship was harder than expected. I tried everything. I even wrote a whole book about entrepreneurship, including the interviews of the ten most successful entrepreneurs in the NetherlandsWell, once again, we have something in common Johan.

Interestingly, after writing the book, a lot of people reached out to me, asking if I would be interested in helping them and investing in their companies. Why not, I thought. However, I did not have enough money to start a fund, but I asked a couple of friends to invest together. Strangely, this is how Peak Capital was born. I guess having good friends is the key to success, hehe.

Roughly thirteen years ago, we began investing, and since then we have grown from a small fund of €2M to the current €66M fund investing across Europe. However, it took more than ten years before I switched from being an entrepreneur to an investor. I guess I just loved being an entrepreneur too much, but at one point I had to decide to move on, more on that later. Hold tight; another story is coming up.

Describe the moment when you realized you had to start your own company?

I would be lying if I said I had been an entrepreneur whole my life. I had a few jobs before setting up my own company but always acted as if I had my own company. It frustrated me when other people did not have that same drive and was focussing on different goals.

Entrepreneurship is about taking full responsibility for your own success. You can’t blame anyone but yourself.

One day, I just decided to stop being frustrated and to start working towards my own goals. Of course, working on your own is rough, but personally, it brings me a tremendous amount of joy and energy, so it is worth it.

How did you keep yourself motivated when things got hard?

My secret is doing one thing at a time. I always give 100% on one big goal at hand, and never move one before it is done. Achievements increase the levels of motivation, and concentrating on one big opportunity at a time speeds up this process. I see countless entrepreneurs making the mistake of splitting their attention to various projects, and never making actual progress because of it. Shame on them, but I am just as guilty.

Second, I keep my energy levels as high as possible, and I remind myself daily that positivity beats adversity. Because of that, I can work until two in the morning, and waking up at seven feeling fresh.

Third, I never look at a problem, but only at the solution to the problem. People get quickly discouraged when facing obstacles, but having the end-result in mind at any time, instantly puts you ahead of 99% of people.

If a problem is not solvable, it is not a problem. Just accept it and move on.

Especially during COVID times, entrepreneurs implementing this particular mindset will drastically increase their chance of business survival.

What was the most significant piece of advice you received as an entrepreneur?

I received the best advice from one of the founders I interviewed for my book. He told me that entrepreneurs who want to please everybody are the ones that fail first. From that saying, I have developed a mindset that revolves around being social towards myself. In short, understanding when to be the outgoing and charismatic entrepreneur and when to be the goal-oriented entrepreneur getting sh*t done.

When did you decide to shift from entrepreneurship to become a full-time investor, can you describe the moment?

Interestingly, I made the transition from an entrepreneur to a full-time investor in 2015. At that time, I had recently sold my last company, and I was in the process of brainstorming my next business idea.

One evening while I was eating dinner with my girlfriend, I asked her some questions about my business matters. I told her about my plans to find the managing director of Peak Capital. I had written the perfect job description, and I asked her if she knew anyone that might fit the criteria. She said yes, while she pointed her finger at me.

One of the biggest problems for entrepreneurs is to find a healthy work-life balance.

At that moment, I realized I had to take her advice and move to the next point in my career. It also wanted to spend more time with my young kids, going on vacations, and have more free time. I never had time for these activities when running a company. It was the right decision, and I have no regrets.

What separates a good investor from a great one?

First, it is crucial to mention that the venture capital market is filled with money, and because of that, it is hard to pinpoint the added value of an investor. Also, the competition is brutal, as you are dealing with the smartest people around.

A top investor needs a separate arsenal of skills in comparison with the average investor.

Intuitively, an investor should possess an excellent network of investors, founders and industry experts. The network comes in handy when sourcing deals, or in other words, accessing the most talented founders, investments and market insights. Also, an analytical-mind won’t hurt, since investors need to do market-sizing, analysis of business models, and financial modeling.

The above-afformed skills can be developed by an investor over time. Yet, there is something that differentiates the great from the good — entrepreneurial spirit.

Investors with an entrepreneurial spirit will, for example, cold-call founders, personallyhunt for new hires for our portfolio companies and find alternative ways to do the job. In shortthey are willing to go the extra mile. At Peak Capital, for example, we like to call ourselves the entrepreneurial venture capital fund, since most of us are previous entrepreneurs and know plus feel what is needed to make that moonshot.

What are the most crucial mistakes that later set you up for success?

My first mistake was to be a solo-entrepreneur. I won’t advise anyone to run a company by themselves.

It is simply too much hassle and uncertainty a single person can handle. Also, I failed to find a co-founder with technical expertise who could complement my skill set. In hindsight, I realize I should have spent a lot more time finding a reliable and tech-savvy business partner. Excellent advise Johan, especially for all the non-tech people.

Find someone better than you in a particular field, and let them run the company. Your only goal is to understand your limits.

My second mistake was to be influenced by my ego. At several occasions, I managed companies beyond my capabilities. Now I know my limits, and my sweet spot is to found and manage a company until it reaches 25 employees. Back then, I had convinced myself that I could do everything, a big mistake.

Last but not least, I failed to use timing to my advantage. At several occasions, I had the chance to sell my companies but failed because I wanted to wait for a better offer or a nicer buyer. Many founders underestimate the power of timing and overestimate their capabilities. The truth is that it is fundamental to recognize timing, especially when hiring the first employees and dealing with exits.

What business would you start in 2020 if you were a 20 year old?

I would start a company at age 20, that’s a certainty. Whatever your long-term goal is, trust me, it is worth it since the learning outcoming is enormous. However, I would start a company solving an evident problem that I personally encounter which I am excited to solve. Good point, start looking for problems guys!

If you could have an hour lunch with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you talk about?

Oh, that is a good question. If I have to pick, it would be the man himself, Elon Musk. I have pinged him a few times, but with no luck (laughing).

I have so many questions to ask, but the first is how he convinced the early investors to invest in Tesla. As a side note, I advise all the readers to check out Elon’s grand plan published in 2006. I hope you will be able to meet him, if any of the readers happen to know Elon, please let us know.

What are your main observations about the start-up space at the moment?

I am especially curious to see the next generation of start-ups born during the current pandemic and recession. Companies such as TakeawayUber and Airbnb are three prime examples of companies founded during a recession. I like to believe, the best companies are cash constraint, born during recessions, and with an obsessive focus on getting the most out of few resources. Overall, recessions are the best time to start and invest in companies.

In terms of industries, I think a lot will happen in the event and leisure space, keep that in mind if you want to start a company. Thanks for the tip, Johan.

One book?

The bible of venture capital, Venture Deals. Hands down the best book for aspiring investors and entrepreneurs who wants to raise money.

Inspiring story Johan, thank you very much.

PS: If you are looking for funding, feel free to reach out to Johan, and visit Peak Capital website to read more about its investment criteria.

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