The startup mentor with customer perspective

Jan Willem Klerkx – entrepreneur, investor, and startup mentor of a number of YES!Delft startups – is the type of person that helps a company become a success story. With an academic background in Technology Management and early professional experience in IT sales, he quickly discovered that what he was actually meant to do is help businesses grow.

The revelation came early on in his career. He was asked to lead a small IT company that, at the time, was closing the year with a loss, so he made it his goal to turn it around. A few years of hard work later, that company was as profitable as never before. The thing was that, although the team already had a good business strategy before Jan Willem took over, it was simply not successful in executing it.

Strategy without customer-focused execution has little value, Jan Willem learned.  

“As I was helping that business grow by making the company more customer-oriented, I realized that I was sitting on the wrong side of the table at the quarterly shareholders meeting. I was making a lot of money for the shareholders, while taking home the same paycheck every month. That didn’t feel optimal,” Jan Willem recalls.

That was the point where he decided to develop his own approach. “I decided to look for companies with a great vision, excellent tech team, and technology, but with little focus on customers or little experience in sales. Then I’d invest money in exchange for equity, and work with the existing team on making them profitable.”

He told those teams that a great technology by itself does not lead to a great product. And even a great product does not equal a great company. A company should put all efforts and finding the right product-market fit, and once that’s done, turn early customers into ambassadors.

Over the past decade, Jan Willem has invested in and worked for five companies, two of which were acquired by Qualcomm, the world leader in developing 3G and mobile technologies. The first company, Euvision, was a market leader in image classification technology. The second, Scyfer was a leading company in Deep Learning, formed around Deep Learning celebrity Max Welling from the University of Amsterdam. One of the five ventures was focussed at elderly homecare and failed completely. The other two companies, SIG.eu and BONCode, are still in very good shape and growing.

As of four years ago, Jan Willem has also been active as a startup mentor at YES!Delft as well as at a number of other incubators. With a keen interest and expertise in artificial intelligence (AI), he is coaching startups as part of the AI/Blockchain Validation Lab at Delft-based incubator.

 

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His experience is in helping find the best product-market fit. Finding that fit is not that easy, since most startups lack experience in sales or insight in how big corporates operate – and therefore have a hard time to really grasp the relevant part of customers’ feedback. On top of that, some startups tend to be so convinced of their technology or product that it does not help sales either. And in the mind of Jan Willem: “Sales is everything, the rest is cost”.

Nowi, a YES!Delft startup developing climate sensors powered by WiFi, 4G and GSM signals, is one of the tech startups that has taken much of Jan Willem’s advice to heart. And especially so when it comes to their business model. While they used to focus on product sales as a sole revenue stream, they have recently established a second one: working directly with clients on applying their technology to various products.
“We already generate some revenues by applying our knowledge on energy harvesting and by developing the so-called ‘Plug & Forget’ sensors in pilot projects for various customers,” says Simon van der Jagt, CEO of Nowi. “Jan Willem has helped us with anything from business model ideation, to specific advice on how to best deal with a prospective large customer, or simply testing our assumptions with critical questions.”

To this day, Jan Willem remains a startup mentor to the team.

“I help startups get the customer perspective,” Jan Willem says. “Many of them have these huge dreams – and that’s great! But running a business is not a dream. It’s a lot of hard work of really understanding why customers might consider buying your stuff.”

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