#28 Loek Janssen: The Elegant Mind

updated on 13 June 2021

I was on the path of advancing my career as a cog in the wheel for big prestigious institutions. If I wanted to make it big, I decided that I had to risk it all. 

Picture1-j3x3j

Loek sees the world through a different lens. He sees solutions where others see problems. It is safe to say that he is gifted with an extraordinary mind. We’ve never experienced someone as self-reflective and with such a natural ability to turn complex things into meaningful narratives. We left the conversation feeling like we had caught up with an old friend after a long day. Wow

Loek's story begins under humbling circumstances in the Netherlands, where he grew up and studied econometrics at the Vrije University in Amsterdam. He aspired towards a career in academia before the startup bug bit him. Loek is now the co-founder of Nova Credit, a company helping newcomers in the US getting access to financial services. The company was born in the university’s dorm rooms during his time studying at Stanford University. Over the past five years, it raised over $70M and helped hundreds of thousands of people.

Fun fact: Loek has taken an advanced latte barista course, so you know who to call for Instagram-worthy cups. 

But that is only one part of the story.

At Venture Insider, we strive to undress the ups and downs, the late nights, the early mornings, the failures, and the victories.

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

Join our community if you want to get these stories straight in your mailbox 🚀 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What did you always dream of when you were a kid?

I have a funny answer to this question (laughs). Last week, my cousin showed me a photo of her autograph booklet from childhood. She asked me to write about the person I aspired to be. I was around 14 at the time and very much into skateboarding. I didn’t care much about grades or school. But I wrote down my uncle’s name. He is the businessman of the family and held the CEO role at a publicly traded company. I dreamt about becoming a leader like him. 

Loek skating in Barcelona in 2006
Loek skating in Barcelona in 2006

How was your journey getting into Stanford?

In the Netherlands, we are incredibly privileged to have one of the world’s best educational systems. However, if you aspire to study at a top school abroad, there is very little information on how to get there. Studying abroad was never on my radar. I didn’t know it was even possible.

Luckily, I loved to geek out with professors and help them with their research. At one point, they asked me if I was interested in studying in the United States, as many of them had taught there and knew some professors over there. They made me aware of this opportunity. I wouldn’t have ended up at Stanford without their incredible help.

Then, what? 

I am a normal boy from Eindhoven. Always having to work jobs alongside my studies, and I was not a summa cum laude student. I thus needed to stand out, and I found creative ways to do so. I effectively finished 2 bachelor's degrees with honors and conducted research with a professor I admired in quantitative finance. I also cold-called the person running the Stanford alumni network in the Netherlands. He ended up being super friendly and helped me with my essay. At that time, I realized it was a network game. 

I booked a ticket to the United States, and I visited all the universities I was interested in. I spoke to as many people as I could and made sure to communicate how I wanted to change the financial world to the directors of the programs I was interested in. I had my foot in the door, without having applied yet. 

How was your first day in the US? 

It was a complete mess (laughs). I had just come back from a six-month trip all around the world. My flight connection was from Japan to Los Angeles. I arrived at Stanford campus in the middle of the night and discovered that my studio apartment was empty ($1700 price tag, but no bedsheets, where are we?). I ended up sleeping on a plastic mattress and using my clothes as a blanket. It was a chilly start to what ended up being a life-changing experience. 

How did you stand out at Stanford?

You just can’t with grades. I was an exceptional student in the Netherlands. At Stanford, I was slightly below average although I was working ten times harder. It was close to impossible for me to stand out academically. Instead, to get where I wanted, I decided to become a social butterfly. Stanford is a place filled with intelligent and ambitious people, and the relationships you make will ultimately form the path of your life. 

Picture3-ycqq0

When did you decide to become an entrepreneur? 

It all clicked for me when I was looking for jobs. I had $120k in student loans, and I felt pressured to get a stable income. I couldn’t relax and focus on building a company I thought. 

Therefore, I interviewed at many of the major tech companies in Silicon Valley as well as hedge funds in New York to become a quant. However, it just didn’t feel right, and I left all the conversations feeling like I didn’t fit with the role. 

I was on the path of advancing my career as a cog in the wheel for big prestigious institutions. If I wanted to make it big, I decided that I had to risk it all. 

This feeling terrified me for a long time. I could either eat the marshmallow now and consequently grow slowly or delay the gratification and give it all. In the end, I decided that my personality would thrive better under uncertainty and being involved with high risk. From that moment, I went all in trying to build a startup. It was a matter of survival.

The founders of Nova Credit. Nicky Goulimis (left), Loek Janssen (middle), and Misha Esipov (right). 
The founders of Nova Credit. Nicky Goulimis (left), Loek Janssen (middle), and Misha Esipov (right). 

How did Nova Credit start?

At Stanford, I took a course called The Lean Launchpad taught by Steve Blank, a renowned startup figure in Silicon Valley. The course was all about getting somewhere with nothing and asking all the difficult questions. I remember we interviewed hundreds of people, and after each conversation, we iterated on the product. The initial feedback and market analysis were encouraging, and we decided to apply to Y-Combinator immediately. To our surprise, we got in. Lack of a domestic credit history keeps millions of immigrants in the United States from realizing their dreams. Nova Credit helps immigrants to keep the credit score they had in their home country allowing them to access financial products and start their new journeys (look at it as a credit passport). 

Picture5-kl17o

What makes YC so special for founders? 

YC supported us in hitting ambitious milestones and raising money from top-tier VCs at a significant valuation. Despite giving away 6% of our equity to participate in the program, it was 100% worth it. 

However, YC can’t turn bad apples into good ones. If you have a good project, YC can help you accelerate growth and get to product-market fit faster than you would otherwise. If your fundamentals are less rosy, YC won’t be able to fix it. You might grow and even raise some money, but you will ultimately not last. 

YC amplifies what you already are, it does not fix startups lacking fundamentals.

Is it a bubble? 

I think so, but the word “bubble” is often misunderstood. The definition of a bubble is something that increases in value more than the underlying market or benchmark for that asset class. For example, I’d say Bitcoin is in a bubble, but I believe that it is seeking fair value in today’s distorted financial world. Upward price pressure is justified. Why? Strong network effects.

Similarly, YC has one of the most potent network effects in the startup world. They have attracted brilliant partners who draw the most innovative people, consequently building the most valuable companies. It works because of the inherent value of the network teaching each other how to do it.

The team in front of the infamous YC office in Mountain View. 
The team in front of the infamous YC office in Mountain View. 

How did your life change after your company raised millions of dollars? 

My housing situation (laughs). There were two funny moments during this period. The first was during our early days at YC. I had just graduated from Stanford, and I desperately looked for ways to save money. I asked one of my Ph.D. friends at Stanford if I could stay in their dorm, and against Stanford's policy slept under his bed for a couple of months to save money. 

Two years and a successful funding round later, I found myself living in a bigger San Francisco house. I shared the house with seven other people, and we also had a garage. I was still a scrappy founder so just had a share-house, but at least I could afford rent.

Funny story: we rented out the garage for $600. Yes, in San Francisco this is normal due to the scarcity of cheaper rooms. The person who rented it, built a successful crypto startup in that garage. This is the beauty of being in Silicon Valley!

Loek surfing in California after a long day of work
Loek surfing in California after a long day of work

Why leave Nova Credit behind after all these years?

The company didn’t need my contribution anymore.

Nova Credit had snowballed, raised a significant Series B round, and hired a sizable engineering team. We had reached a phase where I felt that I was adding less and less value as a leader. Everything was different from the early days, and we needed someone who had experience in scaling companies. It was the perfect moment for me to step aside.

I was thirty at the time, and I needed to reset my brain to focus on new projects. My mental health also told me it was time to take a step back and find balance in life.

The growing Nova Credit team.
The growing Nova Credit team.

What is ahead of you now?

I’ve moved back to the Netherlands, after travelling for a couple of months. At the moment, I have found more balance in life, and it feels great to be closer to my family. I am an angel investor, a startup advisor, lecturer, and I keep building on my personal brand.

That is not all. At the same time, I am working on my next big thing. This is the pitch: I’ve realized that I love different cultures, languages, and the history of people. My mission is to build cross-border services and technologies to create a fair playing field for everyone to discover this beautiful planet or to leverage better opportunities. I get excited about that.

I want everyone to have the opportunity to discover the world and create an equal playing field for everyone. 

What was the time you felt the most vulnerable? 

There have been many moments, and each has been a reflection point for becoming a better leader. However, I remember a specific occurrence during my time at Nova Credit when I felt particularly vulnerable. 

I had my first big disagreement with my co-founder. We were raising our voices. I had made a mistake that almost tore the engineering team apart, and the most senior of them was on the verge of quitting. 

It took me a lot of courage and vulnerability to apologize in front of everyone for my mistakes. A big lesson is to engage and involve all the relevant stakeholders as soon as possible. Lessons learned! 

Building a startup is exciting but hard! 
Building a startup is exciting but hard! 

What would you do if you had 30 days left to live?

I would rent a huge place in the jungle or a private island and gather the craziest and smartest people that I’ve met during all my walks of life. I want all of us to go on some joint spiritual exploration, listen to incredible music, and do hackathon-style prototyping to find new things the world needs (yes, working is part of feeling fulfilled). 

One anecdote about you?

I created a private dining company with a friend during my bachelor’s degree. I used to watch all the Masterchef episodes, and I found a passion for molecular gastronomy. We decided to bring this experience directly to people's homes and made some money from it. Maybe it was my real calling in life, who knows?

Any regrets?

I wish I had spent more time at Stanford to make even more friendships and build a greater network. I used to spend too much time focusing on grades. Learn what you want to learn to build some structure in your brain, but that is enough. The rest should be networking and building relationships.

Any book?

I am not really a big book reader. There is too much fluff in books for me as I’m a non-fiction nerd and I like to get straight to the point. Instead, I Google topics and create my own wikis trying to understand complex things.

One Billion Dollar Idea: if you were to start a company today, what is your one-billion Idea?

Sell your house, and put it all into Bitcoin (just kidding, kind of). I think a lot will happen in the application of AI to traditional industries. I would look into the medical space, as I believe it will blow up moving forward.

Our Main Takeaways 

  • Networking matters more than you think. Loek wishes he had spent more time networking and less time studying books, that says it all. 
  • Accelerators help fasten growth but don’t turn bad apples into good ones. 
  • Sometimes, it is time to step back. Loek took a break from Nova and is now building his own brand. This allowed him to find a better balance and also helped the company grow with more experienced people. 

Inspiring story Loek, thank you very much. 

Picture10-msbaz

The last few words

Venture Insider would love to hear your voice.

You can be a part of the change.

We strongly believe that everyone has a story to be shared and invariably something to learn from everyone.

Join our community if you want to get these stories straight in your mailbox 🚀   

If you are on a mission and want to be heard, get in touch with us to get your story featured to a bigger audience.

Read more