#7 Marcel van der Heijden: The Art of Sharing the Struggles

published on 26 December 2020

Success is not the result of meticulous preparation or deep thinking, but trying out different things at an unmatched pace.

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The beauty of humans is that we all have a unique story to tell. Marcel’s embraces uniqueness and takes it to the next level. This results in a story born out of a printed version of back to the future. Yet, as all good things in life, interviewing Marcel came with an exciting catch, making my role as a writer challenging. In fact, his story spins-off into countless directions, ranging from when he flew to San Francisco to set up a new investment fund, his research into neural networks, or when he built a company on the back of a couple of cables and sim cards.

I’ve already given a light flavor on what to expects from Marcel’s many superpowers. Still, it is also crucial to mention that he is currently a partner at Speedinvest, one of Europe’s leading early-stage venture capital firm investing in companies such as TIERWeFox & Shpock. At Speedinvest, Marcel is in charge of the deep-tech team. Let’s jump right into it to learn more about Marcel. Vamos!

But that is only one part of the story.

At Venture Insider, we strive to undress the ups-and-down, the late nights, the 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 symbolizes the voice of the writer, aka, us at Venture Insider.

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Introduce yourself — tell us a little bit about your journey?

My journey began in Amsterdam, the city where I was born. Few know, but I did not enjoy it at school, and I struggled, particularly in high school. At one point, I decided to drop out for a period, which was a hazardous decision to do back then. But after a while, I re-enrolled. Things got better during my last two years since I had a fantastic physics and philosophy teacher, guiding me into an entirely new world, natural sciences.

Following the guidance and advice of my teacher led me into an undergraduate degree in Physics at the University of Amsterdam. Again, I was not the best student, but I had a great time. For instance, I spent an extended period researching a local hospital, which allowed me to meet a vast number of intellectual and curious people.

At the end of my studies, most of my buddies began working at big companies and wearing comfortable suits. However, I quickly realized that life did not appeal to me. Instead, I pursued a PhD in Physics, which I believed was a better use of my time.

I enjoyed every second of my four years in Academia. I worked in a small team and had plenty of room to experiment and follow my passions. Besides my research, I organized conferences and workshops on neural networks and mobile technology, a new and exciting area at that time. This was my first entrepreneurial experience which opened up many new opportunities.

From Academia to founder of Airmail, the first wireless email service in the Netherlands. What happened?

It is important to note that during the late 90s mobile technology was THE topic and on the tip of the tongue of everyone. I believed that technology was promising and would change the world. I considered myself lucky to be able to be active in that space at that particular time.

At one point, I had to decide whether to stay in Academia or be a part of a more significant thing. In the end, I decided to go for the latter, and I raised a thousand euros from my mum to start a company.

In the beginning, starting a company was a mess. Airmail consisted of a computer with a bunch of cables, a phone, and sim cards I received for free from big mobile operators. In the end, I launched the service on the back of that. You take the “starting a company in the garage” metaphor to the next level, Marcel.

What did you learn from your first entrepreneurial experience, and what did you do differently founding Digital Mobility?

I learned it is OK to have no clue what you are doing. I felt exactly that way when building Airmail. For me, it was just an exciting project which I did to learn. It always surprises me that it is possible to create something that people would pay for with a computer, cables, a bit of advertising and a thousand bucks.

On the other hand, my approach was way more serious building Digital Mobility. For instance, together with my co-founder, we raised a significant funding round, hired top executives from companies such as Ericson, and moved to London. In short, we tried to build an “actual” company.

But all came down when the market collapsed. All of a sudden, we couldn’t sustain the company, and our revenues had disappeared as our customers stopped returning our calls. After a couple of challenging years, we decided to sell our assets and move on.

From being a start-up founder to Microsoft.

In 2003, I returned to the Netherlands to join the mobile data division of Vodafone. After that, I worked as a product manager at a software company building its hosting product. Interestingly, the hosting product we built partnered up with Microsoft. I found myself engaging with the Microsoft hosting team daily, and shortly after I received an offer to run the EMEA sales hosting-product line, and then a global partnership around Microsoft Office 365.

While very different from being a founder, I did enjoy my time at Microsoft and valued the opportunity to see from the inside how a large organization operates. But after seven years, I decided it was time to focus on my next move.

And then, San Francisco?

After Microsoft, I wanted to take a year off to focus on my next move and enjoy my time with my young children. But after three months, I received a call from one of my now co-founders of Speedinvest offering me a partner position in the US. I guess a sabbatical is not something for you, Marcel.

I was intrigued by this new challenge, and I flew to Vienna to meet the rest of the team. It only took thirty minutes to make up my mind. I wanted to build our presence in Silicon Valley, together with this incredible team. In Silicon Valley, I helped Speedinvest’s technology portfolio companies in business development tasks, such as finding customers, deal sourcing, make technology partnerships, and raising funding from US funds.

After six incredible years, my children had grown up quite well, and I felt it was time to head back to Europe (it did not help when Trump got elected). It was a hard decision since it is such a unique place, but we had a lot of business to do back in Europe, such as raising a new fund and building a European deep-tech investment team.

What’s a day like in the life of a VC in SF?

To be honest, it was pretty rough. First, I had to juggle with different time zones, as a lot of our founder operations are in Europe. I got up in the morning around five and began working at six. Later in the morning, I put on my operational founder-support-hat and started doing the calls and meetings with US customers/partners of the portfolio companies as well as connecting with US investors and potential acquirers for Speedinvest.

On the flip side, I had the opportunity to meet countless amazing and super-smart people that you will never be able to meet anywhere else in the world, period. Access to such people and information is unparalleled in the Valley, which made my stay very exciting. Also, the atmosphere is very collaborative, and people genuinely want to help and are more than willing to give you 30 minutes of their time to listen to your story.

“In the Valley you see success happening right in front of your eyes at all time”

In terms of startup ecosystems, how does SF differ from Europe?

Silicon Valley is a great place to be an entrepreneur since you’ll find plenty of early-adopters. Moreover, everyone is playing with immature technology and test it very early on, if not, their career is at risk, while in Europe it is quite the opposite.

The common misconception in Europe is that you need to think well and hard about an idea before starting a company. However, in SF, they do it. In short, people in the Valley are faster and try out more things, and if it doesn’t work out, it is OK, and they move on. European founders make sure you take notes here.

What makes you wake up every morning?

I want to see our founders on the podium, succeeding.

Where in the world will we see Marcel in five years, and what will he do?

I never planned my way into Speedinvest, and we never planned in 2011 to grow the fund size from a 10M to a 400M+ in just a couple of years. We just started investing out of our new fund, and delivering outsized returns will keep us busy for many years to come! We have a pretty clear picture of the next few years but even though feedback loops in ventures are lengthy — the space itself evolves fast. Only time will tell, I guess.

If you could change one thing in your journey, something you now have regret for, what would it be?

As a founder, I made a lot of mistakes. First, I worked in isolation without interacting much with my peers. If you work by yourself, you won’t have the opportunity to solve problems and share solutions with another fellow founder. This was a big mistake, since sharing your struggles is crucial. I’ve learned a lot from sharing my difficulties with other founders since most of them have dealt with similar issues, and can therefore provide accurate advice. I can’t stress enough the importance of having a strong social circle of fellow founders, investors and advisors. Not tapping into this is a mistake. This is taking the slogan, “sharing is caring” to the power of two, hehe.

“Being part of an group where everyone helps each other out is pivotal, and Silicon Valley is the prime example of such a productive ecosystem”

Listening to podcasts, reading books, and flipping through blogs is all well and good. However, nothing beats sharing experiences and lessons learned over a beer with a fellow founder. It seems to me that sharing struggles is an art. I love the idea, and will do it myself asap!

What would you suggest the “20 years old you”? Launch a business, join a startup or a corporation?

I believe it is all relative, and it heavily depends on your needs and desires at a certain point in time. For instance, I wanted to do something in the mobile email space, and starting a company was the only way I could scratch that itch, leading to the creation of Airmail. Would it have been better if I joined a big company instead? Maybe. Would it have changed my trajectory? Yeah, probably. Would it have been worst or better? Impossible to know. Overall, I don’t think there is a right answer here. Instead, you have to do what excites you.

One book?

I advise all aspiring entrepreneurs to read Zero to One by Pieter Thiel.

The one Billion Dollar Question, how to make big it in SF?

I recently spoke to a portfolio company planning to move to SF. They had made a one-year plan, with a detailed roadmap explaining every aspect of the expansion. Honestly, I don’t think that is the way it should be. Yes, planning is necessary, but the only way to get there is packing the suitcases and getting on the plane.

As I mentioned earlier, people in SF is willing to help out, but they don’t have a ton of patience, so be straight to the point. Once there, rent an Airbnb and spend every single minute meeting as many people as possible. For example, when Andrew Chen of Andreessen Horowitz (A16Z) arrived in the Valley, he decided to meet five new people every day — I love that spirit!

Do not forget to ask people how you can help them in return. Eventually, you built solid relationships, and magically things will start moving. In short, hustle, move fast, be responsive and do not sit inside your apartment waiting for something to happen. I can guarantee that nothing will.

Here is the cookbook recipe for success in the Valley; make a list of the 200 people you want to meet, elaborate on how you can help them and write down all the questions you want to ask, and then do it.

“The best way to make it in SF is to engage and give back to as many people as possible since, at the end of the day, it’s a numbers game”

Inspiring story Marcel, thank you very much.

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