It can’t hurt to ask

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By Ger Zwartendijk, entrepreneur, Program Director part-time MSc in Management at Nyenrode Business Universiteit, judge Start up Weekend Amsterdam ’14.

On the way to the opening of 60 Acres, the Nyenrode business accelerator, I call my old classmate, Rick van Echtelt from my car. Rick is a businessman. Even during our studies at Nyenrode, he already knew what he wanted to do. He had no plans to work for a large company, he was going to be his own entrepreneur. His first startup, N200.com, underwent a tempestuous start. The first project went badly, with angry clients and law suits, but Rick continued to believe in his product and persevered. Once he had proved he had a good product, Rick managed to get Paul Baan (founder of software business Baan and Silicon Polder Fund) on board. The company was given a new lease of life and since then N200 has since become a successful business in events’ registration.

I talk with Rick about entrepreneurship and the coaching of businesspeople. ‘You start a business to be self-sufficient and self-directed, but you can’t achieve that without other folks lending a hand along the way’ (Entrepreneur, October 2013). Most entrepreneurs starting out these days are inexperienced in the art of building up a business. Who should you listen to, and who not? During the Entrepreneurship course, our students get to grips with their own ideas about starting a business. Each team of students is given an assignment to find a coach that best suits their own ideas. No sooner have they come up with an idea, than they have found someone to help them.

Our experience is that people enjoy helping out enthusiastic entrepreneurs and to get their networks up and running. Our view is that successful businesspeople tend to ‘accumulate’ people around them who are willing to help them start and build their businesses, for example, by setting up an advisory panel to avoid the prospect of tunnel vision. Our students are coached in how to draw up written plans and receive advice from entrepreneurs, investors, bankers, experts and teachers. Conflicting advice sometimes has to be given as well. For example, should an internet company have its own in-house development know-how or should it be bought in? Some businesspeople feel that the former is essential, others have proven experience that the latter is more successful. However, the question is: what do entrepreneurs mean exactly? What is meant by development know-how? Does it involve a database or the design of an app? It’s all about asking the right questions. Rick tells me about a business friend who often likes to spar with him about his own business. Too often. As a businessperson, it’s yourself who holds the reins. It’s all very well asking for advice, but in the end it’s you who has to take responsibility and make the decisions. As basketball coach Yogi Berra once said: ‘if you come to a fork in the road, take it. It’s better to take a wrong decision than none at all.’

At Nyenrode, the 60 Acres event is opened by Jan Aalberts, who started his own business manufacturing industrial products in 1975. One piece of advice he was given was not to work with the automotive industry because of its cyclical nature. However, it is exactly this industry which has helped his business succeed. In Aalberts’ view, as a young entrepreneur you’re always in a state of conflict. It’s a continuous struggle to bring about success. So, much of the time you’re doing things for yourself. The choices you make are to satisfy yourself, not others. During the get-together, I bump into the founders of Wawik. They are a current crop of students who have set up their own company alongside their studies. It is their first business. They have received well-intended advice from all sides, but they have quickly learned that although advice really helps, at the end of the day, it is your call.