Running a Successful Startup & Learning to Fail with Startup Coach Kees van Nunen – Starting to Scale Ep.3

Kees van Nunen has seen the Amsterdam startup world from every angle. In his career, he's worked at corporate venture incubators, co-founded multiple startups, and worked as a startup coach and consultant.

He has coached over 60+ corporate innovation, product & marketing teams, departments and their senior leaders in adopting new mindsets and ways of working. He brings tons of advice for entrepreneurs to this conversation.

Kees stresses that startup founders and entrepreneurs need to get comfortable with failure. To Kees, a failure is only a true failure if you don't learn anything from it.

In the episode, Kees discusses failure, the importance of vulnerability, how to develop as a leader, what success looks like, and much more.

Kees has seen a lot of startups in his career and knows what it takes to succeed, so listen up and enjoy the episode!

It’s available on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, YouTube, OR you can read through the episode below. Enjoy.

You knew from a very early age what you wanted to do – can you tell us about your history?

When I was younger, my granddad had his own company, and I always respected that. When they ask you in primary school what you want to be, most people want to be policemen or a fireman or something like that, but I always said that I wanted to be a director, because I didn't know the word "entrepreneur". I looked up to my granddad a lot because I remember going to his house on Friday mornings and walking to the factory together, and he was saying hello to everyone and I heard all his stories about how he built his business. That was really interesting, so I think that urge started really early on in life.

When did you decide to push towards being an entrepreneur, or work in that kind of environment?

I did two internships right after university. The first one was at eBuddy, which is an online instant message aggregator, where I was a business analyst. That was my first taste of the startup culture and startup world. Afterwards, I joined ABN AMRO Bank in their incubator, where I helped build several projects/startups from an internal perspective of a big company. That was my first taste of entrepreneurship.

Can you just explain what you mean by "incubator" for people who aren't familiar?

An incubator is an environment where, at least at ABN AMRO, a group of people try to build new businesses where ABN AMRO was the full or partial shareholder. This was a company incubator where everybody was paid by ABN AMRO, so everybody was on their payroll. Almost nobody had equity in the stuff they were building.

The choices you make are different in my opinion because the risk profile is completely different. Whatever the outcome is, the payments are not completely aligned. When you're a startup founder, your goal is to build that startup because you want to increase the value of the startup as much as possible because your main compensation is in equity. At ABN AMRO, people had really well-paid jobs to build businesses and had no equity.

Do you think the different risk profile plays a big factor in the decisions you make when it's not necessarily your risk?

I think it has a really big impact because for most startup founders, it's all or nothing. The culture sometimes at the bank was, not for all my colleagues but some, it was a 9-5 and they left and went home to the kids, to the wife, had a good weekend. Most startup founders I know, it's all or nothing. Basically, they work their asses off because they know if they fail it's going to fail bad. If a venture fails at a corporate venture builder, at least you still got your job, you still get your monthly paycheck, so there's not that much risk. Your life doesn't change.

But when you're a startup founder, you end up with almost nothing. Your reputation is gone, your money is gone, so you have to start over from scratch. So, the urge to win and make it a success is so much bigger in my opinion.

Are there pros and cons to working in an incubator and founding your own company?

Yeah, definitely. Sometimes anxiety kicks in, so if it's all or nothing, it can be really hard to make decisions and keep them rational. And you also have this reality distortion field that is sometimes talked about with founders. On one hand, it's good because they see reality different than it is currently and they want to change that reality. But also, sometimes they cannot look at it objectively because they’re so desperate to win. They don't see reality – they look at data differently and they become over-optimistic about what they see.

Is it important for founders to reach out to other people to help them?

Being a founder can be really lonely because you make all the tough decisions. So, I think a good support network is important. And also, the hardship and emotions are common, distress is common. It's really important to do the work on that and to know where it comes from and how to deal with it when it hits you. What I've seen in the startup world is that we over-glorify success, and we only talk about success.

So, when you talk to most startup founders, most of the time they say, "I'm doing fine, it's going great, I'm going to the next round, the product is kicking ass." But if you just look at the numbers, 7 out of 10 startups fail. So, a lot of startups must not be succeeding, but you don't hear those stories because it's hard to be vulnerable and open up. So, I think it's vital to have a support group, advisors, or mentors, where you can talk about the emotional side and how to deal with that stress. Imagine you have 20 people working for you and you're responsible for their monthly paychecks and their families and maybe their mortgages. The stress can be immense.

What have you been up to in the last few years and at the moment?

After ABN AMRO, I joined Startupbootcamp and worked for them as a Lean Evangelist. I developed a Lean Startup programme where we coached all the startups on experimentation and business model development and growth strategy. Then I left and I started working with a lot of corporates, so I helped a lot of corporates set up corporate startups. And then, from coaching teams I went to coaching a portfolio of teams and then more to strategy, and then to building complete innovation governance frameworks. That’s basically my career. It went from team coaching to portfolio to helping whole organisations implement innovation over time.

What do you think the biggest differences are between coaching a team and coaching a whole organisation?

The amount of complexity you have to deal with. Organisations are complex organisms with a lot of interactions and balances you need to keep track of. And the bigger the organisation, the more interactions there are, and that makes it difficult sometimes to move towards a more self-learning or innovating organisation. Because if you look from a more traditional point of view, most organisations are designed to not evolve. If you look, for example, at compliance, or legal, or branding, we sometimes call them the antibodies of the organisation because they're there to protect the core organisation of being killed off. So, it's basically to protect the core business.

But what you try to do with innovation is you try to change the core business or build an adjacent business. But a lot of the organisation is not used to dealing with change because it's designed to not go through change. That's sometimes one of the hard things of doing innovation change work big corporations: how to deal with those objections and how to get people on board to slowly change the organisation.

What challenges do you see as a coach in starting a business, and how do you help people with that?

One of the biggest challenges in big corporations is how to put the customer central again. So, how to start having good customer conversations, start learning from your customers again and be vulnerable, and really listen and not just push ideas forward that you think are good. So, how to really develop products together with customers and having that customer interaction.

The other one is building a good experimentation culture, because we're so used to celebrating success. So, in most big corporates that I work in, the only way to advance your career is to always be successful. You go from successful project to successful project, and it's pretty hard to accept that failure exists. You need to celebrate failure, because to make progress, you need to learn that sometimes stuff doesn't work. I think we have to reframe what failure looks like.

If a startup is going from success to success, how would you advise them? How do you tell people that they need to fail?

Show me one startup that has success after success after success! I think that's a situation that doesn't exist, to be honest, and if it exists then you're not looking objectively enough at the data. I think we have to reframe what failure looks like. For me, a failure is only a situation where we don't learn. So, even if we build something that doesn't work, as long as we learn from it, it's a successful experiment. Success for me is as long as we keep on learning and improving, we're making progress.

Also, if you're successful all the time, then my first question would be: Are you challenging yourself hard enough? Are you pushing hard enough against the boundaries, or are we only testing things that we should already know? Because if your gut feeling is always right, are we only testing stuff that we already know? And are we taking enough risk in trying to evolve this business?

The only competitive advantage a startup has is the speed of learning because you have less resources than corporates, you have less contacts, you have most likely less customers. The faster you learn, the faster you will grow.

How do you look objectively? Is it important to get a coach or advisor in?

Yes, I see my role most of the time as a mirror. So, I'm just mirroring and asking questions to help people look from different perspectives at what they're doing. Because when you're a single founder, the problem is that everyone has biases. We already talked about the reality distortion field. I think if most entrepreneurs knew what they were up against, they wouldn't start their journey. I think to succeed as an entrepreneur you have to be a little bit crazy, you have to be over-optimistic. But you also need to have somebody around that helps you to be realistic and helps you to reflect when necessary. That can be built in different ways.

Sometimes you do it with a coach – you hire someone to have a weekly conversation with you, it could also be a peer group. I've been part of a brain trust, which was a biweekly meeting with three entrepreneurial friends, where we talked about our businesses for 15 minutes each. We started asking each other questions and helping each other, basically thinking through different challenges we had. Or you could have your co-founders in your company, or advisors – there are so many options.

One of the biggest mistakes I see is that most people are not taking enough time to reflect, zoom out, really think through and strategizing to see what's happening around them, and what the impact of the data is. Most entrepreneurs are so busy running, running, running, that there's no time for reflection, but I think that's where the real magic happens. The moment you zoom out and reflect, that's where you really learn and see what the impact is of the information you've gathered and how it impacts the decisions you need to make.

If someone wanted to start a brain trust, does it have to with companies in the same field as you?

I think there are pluses for both. If it's the same industry, it might be easier to dive into specific challenges to that industry. Equally, if it's other industries or different business models, people can give different perspectives, so I would say to view it as an experiment. Try to get some people, do it five times, then evaluate and see if the sessions had value. See if you have to change the format and see how you can create even more value.

That's how I normally go through life, I see most things I do as an experiment. I try to say upfront, okay, what do I want to get out of it? How do I know if this is going to be successful? How will I measure if it will be successful? And then I run the experiments and look at the data afterwards. I think that's how you should approach this as well. The first question is what the problem is that you're solving for yourself, then there could be different solutions. You pick which experiment you want to run, whether it's a brain trust, an advisor, a coach, and then you evaluate after a certain period if that experiment was successful and created value for you.

Is it important that you should set measurable, specific goals as a leader and entrepreneur?

I think it depends. Five years ago, I would have said yes, because I really believe in a structured way of learning, and that building a startup could almost be like an engineering problem you can solve by running experiments and learning. But I've also seen that there are people that just have a really good gut feeling and they just follow that. They work more with soft data instead of hard data, and they're also super successful. So, I think there's not just one way.

I really believe in a scientific way of building startups, so I'm really a science-oriented person that likes to measure things and make decisions based on data. I personally believe that leads to the best decisions, but that doesn't have to hold true for everyone. You also have to remember that it can sometimes take a lot of time to do it really structured and collect enough data to make good decisions, and sometimes you don't have that time. Or sometimes it's just too expensive to collect all the data, so you have to take decisions with incomplete data, partly based on gut feeling. That's what entrepreneurship is – it's part science and part art.

If we took two startup founders and gave them the same idea, we don't let them talk for a year, they have the same access to capital, the same resources, the same customers, after a year it will be two completely different startups. There are so many micro-decisions that need to be made that influenced the direction of the startup, and that's basically all based on past experiences of the founder and their biases in looking at the data. So, I don’t think there is only one good way of building a startup. I believe data-driven decision making and informed decision making is super important, but I think there’s a balance to strike there.

Why is vulnerability so important as a startup founder?

I think, in order to be able to learn, you have to look beyond your ego. A lot of startup founders I know are really strong personalities, they have really strong visions and drive. And they think "this is what I want to do, and this is what success looks like". But you will hit roadblocks and you won't be right all the time. I think you need vulnerability to be able to deal with that and to really learn from it and reflect and look at yourself.

A three-person startup company is completely different than a 200-person company where you're the CEO. The challenges you have to go through as a startup founder are immense. You need to be able to be vulnerable and reflect on your own behaviour and spot patterns of bad behaviours that prohibit the people around you from doing their best work. If you feel anxiety or pain and you react from that anxiety instead of out of a good place, that's where some work needs to be done to be a better leader.

Is it important to attend and participate in workshops to continue developing your skills as a leader?

Definitely. I just believe that life is one long learning journey. My mantra is “what do I need to learn today to be more successful tomorrow, and what’s the best way to learn it?” When I coach people, that’s the first question I ask them. There are so many great techniques. For example, one of the techniques that has helped me the most is the breathing technique from Wim Hof. I’ve been working with a breath coach which has helped me to release tension and reach deeper levels in myself and deal with pain from the past. That’s helped me a lot to show up differently in meetings, to be less triggered, and basically become a better person.

Do you have any tips for people looking to learn or develop themselves as a leader?

It all starts with asking yourself what you want to work on. What do you want to learn? One thing I really believe in is 360 feedback – asking the people around you how they see you, how they think you react, what they think you need to learn. We see ourselves differently than other people see us, and sometimes we have a lot of blind spots. So, that’s one of the places you should start, and then really reflect on those conversations and see what you want to do with it. Which parts of yourself do you want to develop? And then just look around, talk with people, Google what kind of workshops, what kind of coaches could help you in your journey.

What are the differences between getting a coach in, versus a consultant or a trainer?

I always say I have three roles. The first one is coach. A coach, for me, is a person that really helps you to get better and works beside you, and helps you reflect by asking questions, not giving directions. Helping you to find the answers that are already locked inside yourself. Basically, a coach is like a mirror to get deeper insight into yourself.

A consultant is somebody that helps you to solve problems, they bring knowledge, certain experience, and you work together towards solving the problem. In the startup world, most people talk about Lean Startup coaches, but most of them are actually startup consultants. That's one of the most important things I learned last year. I did a coaching course and I thought I knew how to be a coach, but I didn't. I've basically been a consultant all my life. I love telling people what to do, I love to solve problems, I love to give advice. When I started the coaching course they said, "stop it, you're not here to give advice, they already know the answer." Your goal as a coach is to guide them towards the answer and ask questions. You have your own patterns of trying to be the smartest in the room, but why do you need to be the smartest in the room? That's the question my trainer asked.

A trainer for me is somebody that helps people to learn new skills by giving a dedicated training programme. When I work with teams, those are the three different roles I normally take. I think I’m 70% consultant, 10% coach, 20% trainer, most of the time. I would like to move more to coaching, because I think it’s super interesting to help people become better versions of themselves. It has been an interesting journey.

Startup success doesn't have to mean becoming a 200-person company, how else could it look?

I think that's a hard question to answer because it differs from person to person. I define success as creating sustainable, long-lasting value. One of the things that I like to argue is that most big startups we know, Uber for example, aren't successes yet. Because basically, they don't have a profitable business model. I don't know if this is still true, but Uber was still losing a lot of money per ride, so on a unit economic level, they weren't profitable. They have a huge business, but it's all fuelled by investor's money.

The business model was to build a high valuation and do an IPO, so the early investors and the early employees could cash in on that success. But is that success? And then we’re not even talking about the effects they have on society, like how they deal with labour issues, because everybody is a freelancer, nobody has insurance etc. Everybody has to find their own definition of success, but for me, it would be a sustainable, profitable growing business.

The main questions are what kind of entrepreneur you want to be and what your road to success needs to look like. Some people want to swing for the fences. With Uber, it was all or nothing. If they weren't able to secure the next round of funding, the company would have failed. It's like with WeWork. They were funding, funding, funding, and then it stopped because it was hugely overvalued, and it was all inflated. So, is that the play you want to do? It's a completely different startup.

Most people think "okay, I need to raise money", but what most people don't understand is that when you start raising money, you adopt the business model of the investor. Most investors want you to swing for the fences because the business model of the investor is to invest in 10 companies, and one of them has to be highly successful. It's not completely that simplistic, but they don't care if some of them fail. That's part of their business model. So, you're being pushed to have that enormous growth, and the question is, are you the right entrepreneur for it? Is your business model ready for it? Is your company ready for it? And can you deal with that constant focus and constant growth?

Or do you want to build at a more sustainable pace? Are you fine with having a decent lifestyle business, where you can live well with your business, but it's not growing that quickly and you're not going to be that next unicorn that's going to have the big IPO? I think that's a really important conversation to have. The media glorifies the big IPO stories and there aren't enough stories about the small companies that are bootstrapped and successful and are the engine behind most of the economy. They're equally really nice businesses to build and have as a founder or shareholder.

What role does Amsterdam’s startup ecosystem play in attracting startups?

The role of the ecosystem, again, is learning. In order to build businesses, you need knowledge, people, and capital. If you have a good ecosystem, they're all there. You also have investors that are willing to take risks to help founders, and founders that are eager to build new stuff. Most of the time, you also want to have an ecosystem in a market that has a good infrastructure to launch new products and has consumers that are open to new products. The Netherlands is a good market because technology adoption is really high and people are highly educated, so it's a good place to launch and test new products. The last thing you need is good people. I think you could speak more about that because you work in recruitment, but it's all about the people. In order to build companies, you need people to work with. And good people will attract more good people, because people want to live here.

The benefit we have in Amsterdam is it's just a great city to live in. It's a small city, we have a lot of cultural institutions, we have a lot of good restaurants, you can do everything by bike. So, the pace of living and the quality of living in the Netherlands is really good. I think that's one of the main reasons Uber and are here, and other startups. A lot of people want to live here.

If you're a startup founder who is worried that investment will change the direction of the business, is there a way around that?

You need resources to build, so the question is, how do you pay for those resources? Money is one way, but you also might be able to pay with equity by finding people that will take risk and go on this journey with you. Or maybe you can bootstrap it by doing consulting work or doing a side job and funnelling the money into the startup. I don't know if that's the best way to go but there's a lot of options other than raising funding. I think most of the time you just have to get creative and accept that growth will be a little bit slower.

But there's also the question of what kind of investors to get on board. Not all investors want you to build the next unicorn. And also, how much money do you need? Because some startups just need to keep raising money, and others just raise once and have enough money to build a sustainable business. So, it also depends on what trajectory you see towards profitability.

How would people get in touch with someone like you, or you in particular? Do you work with certain businesses or with anyone?

I like to work on stuff that's exciting to me, but people can always reach me and hire me to work with them. The biggest challenge is that in the beginning, most startups don't want to spend money on a coach. They would rather hire an extra developer or marketer, because they think it's more important to build the product than learning about themselves. So, most of my work has been with accelerators and incubators, programmes that support entrepreneurs, and those programmes pay for my involvement instead of me working directly with startups.

What does the future hold for you? Do you have anything planned?

I signed up for a course to become a breathwork coach, because that's something that has brought me so much and I want to be able to help others with that as well. In the long run, I want to move from consultant to coach. In a year or two, I would like to work with senior executives and startup founders on their personal journey and enable them to become better leaders and the best version of themselves. To reflect on why they behave in a certain way, where it comes from, and how they can behave better in order to become the best leader they can. Maybe organise retreats or do longer stints of coaching where I see people on a biweekly basis.

I don't know, I'm still shaping it in my head but that is the direction I'm thinking of going. I think the most important thing I've learned is that by learning to know myself, I've become so much stronger, and such a better tool to others. That's the journey I would like to help other people with. I think it's amazing – the deeper you go, the more you learn, and the more whole you become.

You may have just answered this, but what is the best piece of advice you've received?

For me, it would be to look at your shadow side, the side of yourself that you don't want to know and bring it into the light. There's a really great podcast called The Reboot Podcast hosted by an ex-VC that went to Tibet and was then a founder coach – he says, "welcome to the human race". We all think we're perfect, but every human is imperfect. Once you start to see where you're imperfect and come to terms with it, you become more human. I think that's so powerful.

Be sure to check out Kees and Will on LinkedIn to keep up to date with what they're up to.

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Will Aldred

9th December