#5 Martijn Lancee: Be Humble but Confident

published on 26 December 2020

Working in Silicon Valley means embracing working really hard, far from the nine-to-five jobs in the Netherlands.

I met Martijn for the first time two years ago in an accelerator for start-ups in San Francisco. He was relaxed and started cracking jokes with everyone in the audience. Wow, I thought. An alumni from Rotterdam School of Management, who’s living the big life in California. I need to get to know this guy!

Beyond his charismatic presence and his natural gift for talking, Martijn is one of the kindest persons I have ever met. I found in him an inspiring figure, someone to whom I will always reach out for advice. A mentor.

Martijn is currently working for LinkedIn at its San Francisco office. He’s responsible for developing and executing LinkedIn’s strategy to accelerate mobile growth. Prior to that, he has also worked for both Google Dublin and Google Amsterdam before relocating to the Bay Area. On top of that, he recently became a dad for the first time, congratulations Martijn!

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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How did it all start?

As a kid, I lived in Luxemburg, Brussels, and the Netherlands before I decided at age 14 to move to Barbados, a small island in the Caribbean. Bonus point to the audience if you can point out the island on the map. I wanted to live with my dad and learn how to surf.

If you want to change your life, you need to do it yourself and convince everyone around you.

I learned that, if you’re on an island, you always need to find a way to resolve conflicts because you don’t want to be stuck on an island with enemies. Immediately resolving conflict is a very important lesson that I have carried throughout my life.

After Barbados, I studied International Business in the Netherlands. During my studies, I got the opportunity to intern at a tourism company in Majorca, Spain. After a week, I had closed more deals over the phone than my manager in four years. Although it was extremely embarrassing to my manager, I learned that I was able to listen, talk, and eventually sell. That was the first time in my life that I realized I was good at something that I could do for a living.

I then started an MSc at RSM in Entrepreneurship & New Business Venturing and did an exchange in Mexico — I challenge you to keep track of the number of countries Martijn has lived in, it’s incredible!

During my master’s thesis, I managed to partner with Microsoft Amsterdam. This was the first big name on my resume, and it opened a lot of doors later. After that, I wanted to start my own company in customized jeans for men. Unfortunately, I could not get any funding, so I got a couple of part-time jobs and started traveling around the world instead.

I have traveled to 86 countries in my 35 years on this planet, with the goal to expose myself and learn about other cultures because, if you can walk in someone else’s shoes and understand his perspective, you will own the most valuable thing in the world! You will be able to relate and communicate much better with anyone. Ultimately, you can then sell more effectively — I guess that’s how he sold in a week more than his manager in 4 years, thanks for the trick Martijn!

After Microsoft, I went to work for Heineken in Kigali, Rwanda, for half a year. During this project, although I got plenty of responsibility and really enjoyed exploring central and East Africa, I understood that Heineken wasn’t as forward-thinking as I had hoped, so I looked for other career opportunities.

This brings us to Google, your first tech company.

Yes, so after that experience in Africa, I applied to a bunch of tech companies and got an offer from both Google and Microsoft. I decided to go for Google because, at the time, and remember this is in 2010, Microsoft was not a fun company to work at. On the other hand, Google was young, innovative and its headquarters were in Silicon Valley — the first hint for what’s coming guys, be ready. I thus decided to opt for Google.

Walk me through the interview process; many of our readers dream of working at Google and would love to know how you managed to get in.

Funny story, trust me! So, all over the world, in my experience, Dutch people are generally perceived as arrogant.. Dutch people generally tend to dress up in a suit and pretend that they know everything; it’s perceived as not being humble. So, I thought, I’ll try to be as different as possible from being arrogant. I arrived at the interviews at Google’s EMEA HQ in Dublin in a t-shirt and brought stroopwafels (for our non-Dutch readers: the in-famous Dutch waffles) to share with the team. The feedback after the interview was: you’re finally a normal Dutch person, not pretending like you knew everything.

That’s another lesson in life: be humble but confident. Ask questions and don’t be afraid of not knowing an answer.

Google Dublin but?

Dublin was great, but I wanted to get to the headquarters in Silicon Valley. However, I wasn’t a data science wizard, so I had to find my own way. I strongly relate to that, Martijn.

I then got the opportunity to move back to Amsterdam in a job two levels higher than my position in Dublin. Although Amsterdam was not a goal in itself, I knew it could help me to get to the US, so I didn’t hesitate.

Four years and two promotions later, I had built a strong reputation and set of skills and expertise, and I knew I was ready for the next challenge.

Tip number 3: try to always surround yourself with people that are smarter and more experienced than you, so you can always learn from them, and not the other way around.

I then applied for a job at Google SF and, guess what, they liked me! High energy, humble but confident, not arrogant, and ask a lot of questions — that’s the feedback they gave me.

I arrived there with this new energy, a burning hunger to make a dent. I was very different from the majority. I only had $5000 in savings while everyone else was in their mid-thirties and early forties, already living a comfortable life in the valley. I knew I had to make an extra effort to get to where I wanted, so I was the first one to get to the office and the last one to leave. I showed that I wanted to make it.

After two years of sales, I entered a more strategic role and helped to distribute Google Apps to Android smartphone manufacturers.

Why moving to Silicon Valley in the first place, where does that dream come from?

Some people are born with ambition, and others develop it over time. I’m the second type of person.

I have personally always liked to sell because I love the social aspect of selling. So I realized, if I’m going to be a salesman, I might as well do it somewhere where there are some of the best salespeople and resources in the world, Silicon Valley.

I also understood that, if you want to become the best, you need to learn from the best. That’s why the Bay Area made total sense and was always in the back of my mind.

I want to highlight that Silicon Valley also has major downfalls that are less acknowledged by the general public. Some of my friends have burned out, and I even know someone who sadly took his own life. That’s something people need to be aware of. Working here means being okay with working really hard, far from the typical nine-to-five from the Netherlands. The cost of living is high, so there’s a natural pressure to make it big and do it swiftly.

LinkedIn

After another two years, a LinkedIn recruiter reached to me to set up LinkedIn’s app distribution program. Google turned out to be an ideal stepping stone and I’ll be forever grateful to everyone I met at Google and learned from during my almost 10 years there.

To me, it was just the perfect opportunity. Again, I was stepping out of my comfort zone, having to rebuild my reputation from scratch. To be honest, when I got in my new team, I felt like I was again surrounded by smarter people, which meant that I would learn a lot. I was eager to learn, and people valued that a lot. Wow, this interview is just full of golden nuggets, keep it raining Martijn.

I strongly believe that it’s the people who make the party, in both our personal and professional lives. So it’s important to surround yourself with great people. Some would say “you are what you eat”, I like to joke “you are who you hang with”.

Now that you’re a young dad, how did you manage to find some time for your family?

When I joined LinkedIn, I was working 16 hours a day, five days a week, plus probably 8 hours during the weekend. I was new, and I wanted to learn everything so that I could make an impact as soon as possible. I did not see my wife a lot, but then, she became pregnant, and I realized things were going to change. Now with the baby, my focus has shifted, and the first thing I do is always helping with the baby. Since I’m working from home, we tried to incorporate my day with the baby’s life. I work until 5 PM, and I do bath time every day. When he’s sleeping, I’ll continue to work a bit. We simply adapted to the situation.

I also think that a family comes more responsibility and less time for your job. This taught me how to be more efficient with my time. I’m now prioritizing better.

What truly motivates you on a daily basis?

First and foremost, my family. They will always be my number one priority. I want to have a job that is able to financially support them. There is this quote from our previous CEO, Jeff Weiner, that I really love.

I would like all our employees to wake up and feel excited to go to work, and to feel excited to go home after work — Jeff Weiner.

The other part of why I get out of bed energized is to accomplish my mission at LinkedIn: improve the lives of millions of people by giving them the tools to educate themselves and, at the end of the day, find a job using our platform. That’s a massive mission to me.

If you could change one thing in your life, what would it be?

Back in Barbados, I optimized to have fun, relax, and surf. I wish I had started my own company earlier. It doesn’t have to be the next unicorn but simply trying to do something impactful.

I also wonder how I could have learned more languages, traveled to more countries, and discovered other cultures — Trust me Martijn, if there is someone who should not have any of those regrets, it’s you!

The last regret I have is not to have done more pro-bono work. You don’t need to be paid as a student, you can go to Aldi (cheapest groceries), and you’ll be fine. What matters is to get an experience that will pay dividends later in your life.

What is the greatest challenge you have faced so far?

Finding purpose. We, humans, can feel insignificant. What most of us do is try to optimize to get fatter. I’m very happy with both my job and my family and friends, I feel like I am exactly where I want and need to be in life, but I sometimes wonder: is there more? What else should I do? How can I have a bigger impact? This feeling might never leave me…

Will you ever start your own company?

This is my biggest desire. If I don’t do it, I’ll regret it at 90 years old on my deathbed.

So, I know it is something I need to do but, I’m not worried either. Most successful entrepreneurs are in their forties, and I still have some time to further develop my toolbox.

In short, yes, absolutely, but I’m not sure what it will be.

An inspiring figure?

It changed a lot over the years. As a student, I thought Steve Jobs was cool, but later I realized that he was an asshole since he treated people with disrespect.

Nowadays, I’d say Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. His goal was not to make money, he actually dislikes most business people for having bad ethics. Yvon started by focusing on creating sustainable climbing gear that would not damage mountains as much as the typical gear available at the time. On top of that, Patagonia was the first company to offer equal pay, 50–50 executive board, daycare at the office, and the list goes on. And only then, tech companies such as Google started copying their model. Yvon was a visionary and he always focused on the human element; we’re part of an ecosystem so I really respect the sustainably-oriented company he built.

A book?

Let my people go surfing.

The one Billion Dollars question: how to make it big in San Francisco?

Be humble but confident. Be curious. Work hard. Come from a place of love, not hate. Be the best version of yourself. More importantly, be consistent over time, that’s how you will develop trust.

Inspiring story Martijn, thank you very much.

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