Wouter Goedhart on building a recruitment marketing company, investing in startups, and launching his own limoncello brand
Wouter Goedhart is the type of guy who likes the challenge of being an entrepreneur. He likes the fast pace and unpredictability of starting and running a new venture, as well as the urge to develop and reinvent himself as the company changes before his eyes. As co-founder and years-long CEO of VONQ, a key player in the recruitment marketing space, Wouter has learned tons about growing a company and building great teams. Today, a year after stepping down as CEO, he is focusing his energy on investing in high-potential startups and developing his own limoncello brand.
Starting out in a new market
Wouter’s journey as an entrepreneur started back in the mid-2000s when, together with friends Tycho van Paassen and Remy Verhoeven, he decided to follow the entrepreneurial path. With what business idea? They didn’t have that sorted out yet. So when Wouter started noticing the potential of the internet as a place for companies to post job vacancies and for candidates to apply, he knew there was something there. “I saw an opportunity with users going more and more online for vacancies instead of going to recruitment agencies,” he remembers. “I could see that some job postings did well while others not so much, so I started advising companies on how to do it better. The internet was still small at the time, but you could already see that different platforms had their own target audiences.” This was the point where Wouter reached out to Tycho and Remy and suggested that they take on this new market. The rest is history. VONQ was founded in October 2006 and looked a lot different from what it is like today. In fact, it started out as a service company, as Wouter and his co-founders didn’t have much experience building a product. “It was all about what the customer wanted. If they wanted to post on a job board that we didn’t have yet, then we did our best to try and include it on our platform.”
It was long days of reaching out to new customers and selling, while evenings were reserved for posting new vacancies online and weekends – for admin work. It was hard work and most of it was done manually, too. “At the beginning, we didn’t have things automated, so we would benchmark the results of all the jobs we posted on a whiteboard,” Wouter says. “Those were also the results that we sent to our customers. We basically built the backend of our business on a whiteboard.” Nowadays, VONQ is a company with a team of over 150 employees, more than 50 nationalities, working across borders. Without a doubt, the growth has been formidable. Yet, getting there has not been an easy ride all along.
Learning how to scale and expand internationally
Growing VONQ has been a journey that has taught Wouter and his team what it’s like to build a successful venture from scratch. And it hasn’t been just about making sales and expanding their customer base. It has also been about learning to build a product, getting the right funding at the right time, scaling across borders, and discovering the best talent to help grow the company. Finding the right talent hasn’t always been easy – even though VONQ is a company that specializes in exactly that. “At the beginning, it was super hard,” Wouter says. “Approximately a third of our people we hired through our own campaigns, and the rest came via our own employees.” Especially when it came to scaling up sales, finding the right people has been crucial. “We are always looking for people who have an eye for what the company can be in the future. There are salespeople who can sell your product and turn customers into ambassadors. Those are the people we need.” Getting the right talent onboard has also been very important when expanding to new countries. What Wouter and his team learned along the way is that opening an office outside of the Netherlands was almost like building a new venture. For the Dutch market, they had automated their product to suit the needs of local customers. Yet, when they decided to expand to Germany, things had to change.
“When we went abroad to Germany, we saw that we really needed to change the product – and not only by localizing it in terms of language, but also by choosing a different way of servicing,” Wouter says. “Germans are very process-minded, and they would rather stick to a process than to a product. We needed to reinvent our offering.” That also required them to hire local talent that knew the market better than anyone in the Netherlands. In England, on the other hand, the team found itself having to do the exact opposite to what they had done in Germany. “While in Germany customers are still quite open to receiving cold calls, in England that doesn’t work. People there prefer the marketing method, so we focused on automating our sales process.” Both of those experiences have taught Wouter and his team that expanding abroad is no straightforward process. It requires time, resources and a good understanding of what the market really wants and needs. To support their growth and international expansion, the team brought onboard Capital D, an investor that acquired a majority stake in the company. It was a challenging decision for Wouter as co-founder and CEO, yet he knew it was the right one.
Embracing the entrepreneurial way of life, again
The fact about being a CEO of a growing business is that you have to reinvent yourself every time the company makes a leap. “I assessed my own role every year and at a certain point, I saw that I started moving outside of my comfort zone too much,” he says. “I had changed from an entrepreneur helping companies to a manager. And then to the manager of the manager. I saw that I missed the entrepreneurial spirit in my role and I couldn’t turn it around. That’s when I started thinking about handing over my job to someone else.” When Capital D came onboard, Wouter decided to step down as CEO and pass the baton to Arno Schäfer, VONQ’s current CEO. Since then, he has been dividing his time between family, running marathons, investing in innovative HR and SaaS companies, and developing his own limoncello brand. Working on it together with his sister, Wouter aims to create a completely circular limoncello product. “I have been making my own limoncello for five years already, but it used to be something I shared with friends and family. What started as a side gig is now becoming a bit more serious,” he laughs. Now seems to be the right time for Wouter to turn a hobby into successful – and sustainable – business venture. And he’s well on his way to do just that.
Listen to the Up!Rotterdam podcast with Wouter below, or check all the episodes of the Up!Rotterdam podcast here.