#24 Michiel Muller: Bringing Entrepreneurship to Your Door

published on 17 March 2021

Entrepreneurs thrive in uncertain waters and don’t cry over spilled milk.

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Michiel is the very first person we dreamed of interviewing. It took us a year to hunt him down, and it was a magical moment for us to see him accepting our calendar invitation. Even more unreal was asking him questions that we had prepared for months and spent many sleepless nights pondering over. He is one of the most genuine and humble people we have ever met despite being at the head of one of the hottest startups in Europe. Our conversation felt as natural as riding a bike in the middle of a summer day. What an inspiration!

Michiel does not need any introduction (he has a Wikipedia page about himself), and we could ramble for days about his experiences. Nonetheless, we will give you a hint. Michiel is co-founder of Picnic, the Dutch pure player online supermarket unicorn. Michiel has been a serial entrepreneur most of his life and has built companies such as Tango and Route Mobiel, to name a few. Before he decided to take a leap of faith to become an entrepreneur, he worked for 11 years at ExxonMobil. Michiel’s entrepreneurial journey is straight out of a best-selling book! Let’s sit back, relax and jump right into it. 

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.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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

Wow (laugh). As a kid, I spent my days in front of the music player, simulating being a conductor. I dreamed of leading an orchestra, but I never took the chance to go to conducting school.

Despite that, I always had a passion for music and still play the saxophone at times. Fun fact: I’m also part of the Picnic band. In my next life, I want to become a conductor or an architect. If you think about it, both are entrepreneurial professions at their core and require creativity and out-of-the-box thinking to succeed. That is something that I love!

How did you escape the day-to-day routine of working in a big corporate?

When I graduated from Erasmus University, I chose to work at a big corporation. It was a common choice at the time and a way to prove to everyone that you were a successful student. The people interested in entrepreneurship were looked at as second-hand car salespeople. It was a completely different world back then, where starting up a business was less on the radar for graduates. 

I really enjoyed my time at ExxonMobil with great colleagues, a good salary, pension plans, and opportunities to grow. Yet, I missed the feeling of being able to build something on my own. I wanted to leave before getting addicted to all the tremendous corporate benefits. It felt like the longer I waited, the harder it would be to change my career path. I just had to do it!

Did creating companies become a drug to you?

I have started many businesses since I left corporate life, but never alone. I always was surrounded by incredible co-founders! 

My first day as an entrepreneur was memorable. I left ExxonMobil and started working with Marc Schröder to build Tango. It was the 11th of September 2001. We all know what happened that day.

I had left the safe haven of corporate life when the whole world was in shock. Luckily, we were able to grow Tango to a profitable business and this was not the end! Together, we founded many other companies. Some of them have turned out quite successfully.

Marc and Michiel posing in front of their newest venture Route Mobiel
Marc and Michiel posing in front of their newest venture Route Mobiel

What helped you persevere here when things got hard?

Life is entirely different outside of corporate boundaries. Entrepreneurship is all about being comfortable in the presence of uncertainty. You have to like it, use the uncertainty to bring you to places you have never been before, and build something you are passionate about.

How did the idea of Picnic come about?

My two co-founders, Joris Beckers and Frederik Nieuwenhuys, came up with the idea after selling their software business and realising they had only built software for the non-food e-commerce industry. 

Food was lagging behind, and that was the beginning of setting up an online grocery provider that could change the industry as a whole. Picnic operates in a sector with massive potential. People spend almost half of their income on groceries, it is by far the largest market, but it has one of the lowest internet penetration rates. In 2015, only 1% of consumers in the Netherlands bought groceries online. Grocery-shopping was one of the only markets where buying in a store is cheaper than online. We wanted to change that by cutting delivery costs and providing groceries at the lowest price to everyone.

We knew this was a perfect place for us. The only question was if we would be able to make it happen.

Michiel having fun with his co-founders. The dream team! 
Michiel having fun with his co-founders. The dream team! 

Didn’t you want to pack your stuff, buy a van and discover the world once your companies took off?

I can still do that, as I am not that old (laughing). I enjoy every single second of being an entrepreneur, and it is not like I am going to bed depressed and looking for an escape. It is quite the contrary.

I am having a lot of fun with the people in my company, and it is fantastic to see how things are developing. I will take my time off to relax, but that time will come when I am 85. Then I’ll travel all around the world.

All the companies you have created have been in the Netherlands and funded by Dutch investors. Any particular reasons for that?

I believe partnering with an investor is an important decision. It can fuel your growth and bring you to heaven, but teaming up with the wrong partner can also cause dramatic issues. Of course, we also receive calls from the largest investment funds from Silicon Valley that want to know more about Picnic’s growth story. The question is simple, who is the right partner for the future? The investors must fit within our business, values, and vision. 

We wanted to partner up with people we could trust and share a similar set of values with. We have teamed up with Dutch family funds, where we know the people personally. They are well aware that this is at least a ten-year plan, almost like a marriage, and that it is a long-term commitment. All in all, our investors are quite happy about their decision in trusting us.

How do you keep track of new technologies?

We have over 200 of the brightest tech people, so staying on top of the latest technology is part of our DNA. Keeping up with every consumer trend is another story, but having an open-mind helps to understand what consumers are spending their time on. For example, in the last weeks, I’ve used Clubhouse quite a lot. I believe that understanding consumer trends can ultimately give a glimpse of where consumer markets are heading to.

At Picnic, it is also important to stay innovative and keep the entrepreneurial spirit alive. It’s easier to keep it than getting it back once you have lost it.

The way we stay relevant is by trying out as many “crazy” things as possible. Or also do the “idiot” projects, as I like to call them.

Can you tell us a story that few people know about your journey?

Seven years ago, I bought a few Bitcoins. I didn’t really understand how it worked, but I was curious. The price was somewhere around $300, and it was hard to get your hands on them. I remember finding a Japanese bank that sounded quite secure. The “funny” part of the story is that this same “secure” Japanese bank was the victim of the largest Bitcoin hack ever, and actually filed for  bankruptcy only a few months after my purchase. 

This story is not finished as customers are still fighting in Japanese court to get part of their investment back. Honestly, it’s all rather uncertain what will come out of this. What’s certain though, is that this is not a good situation to be in, given their current price! That is life sometimes.You win some, you lose some ;)

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

Entrepreneurs thrive in uncertain waters and don’t cry over spilled milk. However, there are a couple of things that I could have done differently early on in my entrepreneurial journey.

During my years at Tango, we missed the opportunity to expand the brand beyond selling gasoline and diesel. We had built the company into a trustworthy business with $350M in turnover and twenty employees in just three years. I wish we had leveraged the great brand we had developed and pushed it to the next level. Everybody loved it, and I would have liked to have expanded into energy and connectivity.

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Another time was when I lived in Paris in 1997. It was the early days of the internet, and I was browsing using an IBM desktop computer. I wanted to figure out the score of one of the FC Barcelona games. It took ages to look it up, and I started to wonder that there must be a lot of football fans looking for an easy solution. I could have quickly jumped into the search engine business and founded one of the industry’s major players.

The lesson from this experience is that we are all constantly on the verge of a breakthrough without even realizing it. Opportunities arise every day. That is why it is essential to be curious, entrepreneurial, listening to others, and understand what the younger generation is doing. Because if you aren't, you will miss out on the next big thing.

When was the time you felt the most vulnerable?

It must be when I left my safe job and began my entrepreneurial journey amid all the world’s uncertainties. For the first six months, I remember waking up at night pondering whether I took the right decision. I had a mortgage and a family to feed. Once I settled on my entrepreneurial route I never regretted my decision to leave the corporate life.

If you only had 30 days to live, what would you do?

I would travel around the world with my family!

Do you have an inspiring figure?

Elon Musk and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The one Billion Dollar Question: Elon sent a Tesla car into space. Would you do the same with a PicNic vehicle?

Yes, that is a great idea, haha!

Our Main Takeaways

  • Do not lose your Bitcoin codes. Sorry, Michiel.
  • Entrepreneurs enjoy uncertainty. Like with Michiel, it can bring you to places far above your self-perceived limitations.
  • Pick your investors wisely. Founder-investor fit is essential and will determine whether you move towards heaven or further away from it.
  • To stay innovative, you have to be crazy. What some label “idiotic” projects will be your way of edging closer to the next big thing.

Inspiring story Michiel, thank you very much.

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