picture by Reyer Boxem
INTERVIEW WITH BEN WOLDRING by Jeroen Geelhoed, &samhoud consultancy
The – very – young founder of comparative websites Internet entrepreneur Ben Woldring from Usquert in the province of Groningen launched his website – Bellen.com – when he was thirteen years old. Now, eleven years later, he is the director of Bencom Internet company, which employs twenty people. Over the last few years, he has set up nine comparision websites and is one of the youngest entrepreneurs in the Netherlands.
I became an entrepreneur in order to put my own ideas into practice and to do things I enjoy. When I was thirteen I started Bellen.com, a site comparing all mobile service providers. Starting something up and simply doing it gives you a tremendous kick.
Initiatives and ideas
Taking initiative is crucial for successful entrepreneurship. It is not just about dreaming about your ideas, but carrying them out, actually doing it. If you want to be a successful entrepreneur, I think you have to put your heart and soul into it and not give up if things don’t work out straight away. I get good ideas by looking at what is going on all around me. You can apply the idea of comparison websites to a large number of markets – Bellen.com is for the telecoms markets and Gaslicht.com for the energy market, for example. I give presentations all over the country, and as a result I regularly stay in hotels. You then discover that the same room in a hotel can be booked through very many different websites which offer quite a range of prices. Literally while you are sitting in a hotel bar, you start to wonder whether it would be useful to have a search engine that could check all those booking sites for the best deal. That is how the LookingforBooking idea came about. Look carefully all around you – don’t think about it for too long, and just do it!
The right people
When setting up a team, it is very important that it includes very different people. For example, it is not a good idea to have a group of only entrepreneurs, because there will be no proper focus. Diversity is essential. My first employees were friends of mine in secondary school – they entered the telecoms providers’ rates onto the site. Of course, I made sure that they were earning more than if they worked for a farmer on his land. Now twenty people workat Bencom, every one of them professionals. We look for people who enjoy working in a dynamic environment. At Bencom, we spend every day working with innovative ideas.
Vision and strategy
Having a vision is essential for being a good entrepreneur. If you set up a new branch of activity that from the very first day does not go all that well, then it is important to know where a particular market is heading. I can clearly remember that Gaslicht.com had a difficult start. Changing from one energy company to another was a difficult business and price differences were minimal anyway. There was hardly any motive for consumers to compare the various service providers. If the market is not in your favor, then it won’t work. So in that case it is useful to have the vision that that particular market will be like the telecoms market in a few years’ time – that providers will be battling hard to gain customers, that large price differences will emerge and that consumers will have a greater desire to compare rates. That is the power of true entrepreneurship: looking ahead and sticking to your vision. Strategies need to be fine-tuned constantly. Sometimes you have to make different choices strategically in order to be able to survive, but I believe a vision is more important. Bencom’s strategy for the next few years is not contained in some 100-page business plan. We put down on paper where we want to go, and how.
Turning your enterprise into something big is always a challenge. In my case, it started by thinking from the consumer’s point of view. The information on Bellen.com is what people were interested in. You get publicity through word of mouth. People talk at parties about how much they are saving on their telephone and energy bills. There is a buzz around your business. Although only twenty people work at Bencom, we have three different locations for the various activities: telecoms, energy and hotels. This is to safeguard the entrepreneurship of our employees and to encourage creativity. If you have a good idea and start discussing it with a large group of people, then it is remarkable how little of that good idea will remain intact.
The highest high point
For me, the high points of entrepreneurship were meeting super entrepreneurs Richard Branson of Virgin and Steve Balmer of Microsoft. Meeting them face-to-face, simply because eleven years ago you started out in an attic. Another high point is the fact that every day, 30,000 people are able to find the best deals, all because of a relatively simple idea that is still successful to this day.
The lowest low point
We once introduced something for which we had very high hopes, but which went completely wrong. This was the ‘ContractWizard’ on Bellen.com, which was supposed to help you terminate your subscriptions easily. Not everything had been tested properly, so that, as well as their own letters, people applying also received the letters of every previous applicant. They then started e-mailing each other. The knock-on effects were horrendous, but fortunately everything turned out alright in the end. As an entrepreneur, you learn that not everything you introduce will be an immediate success. I try not to look back too much, but rather to learn for the benefit of the future. We now test things much better than before.
The most important tip for entrepreneurs
If being an entrepreneur is something that appeals to you, start as young as possible. Once you have that house, your mortgage, the kids and the lease car on your drive, the step to entrepreneurship is that much greater than if you are not used to such luxuries.
The first signs of entrepreneurship
For me, entrepreneurship started at an early age. I began when I was thirteen, although I was always trading things with my friends in the years before then. When I was six or seven I sold bubblegum because a friend had been given an American bubblegum machine by her father. I wasn’t using the Internet then, just operated locally. So the entrepreneurial instinct has always been there. You get an enormous buzz from being able to set up something so big thanks to the Internet, which until then had been the preserve of established companies.
I met Branson at the start of the year: we were both speaking at an entrepreneurs’ conference. I asked him a few useful questions and he asked some interesting questions in return. I gave him my business card featuring my eight comparison websites. At the time, I was working hard on the ninth. He asked, “What’s next?” I would have loved to tell him, knowing what he was working on at that time. But you have to sign confidentiality agreements with various parties and there were a few cameras around the table. The idea would then have become common knowledge, so I wasn’t able to tell him. He realised I wasn’t going to divulge the information, and he said, “The next thing is travel, the travel industry.” That is something that we had already been working on for eighteen months. Genius! Just by looking at my business card, Branson knew what we were up to six months before our launch!