Can you tell us a little about background?
I’ve been in consumer electronics for about 25 to 30 years. I started my career at Psion in the UK (manufacturer of mobile handheld computers). I began on regional distribution and went on to set up their international sales network. Then I came to The Netherlands (in 1994) and joined Palmtop Software, which later became TomTom. We started by doing applications for meter-reading and then went on to doing applications for PDA [personal digital assistant] devices. We then began working on the first personal navigation device and created that category in 2004. At the time we were turning over 40 million euros a year and we then went up to about 1.8 billion euros in 5 years. We listed on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange in 2005. Then we were hit by the crisis and by Google giving the technology away for free. So the business started going down, but now I’m pleased to say we are back to growth. That’s my background in a nutshell.
How did you first hear about the EIT?
It was actually on a train to Brussels. I was going there to give a presentation to a summer school for entrepreneurs. Sitting opposite me on the train was Willem Jonker (CEO, EIT Digital and former Vice-President Research at Philips). We started talking and he told me about the EIT. He then came to see me afterwards, back in the Netherlands.
So it was a chance meeting?
Yes. It was serendipity …
You are one of Europe’s most successful entrepreneurs. If you could give one piece of practical advice to other would-be entrepreneurs in Europe, what would it be?
I tend to give four pieces of advice to would-be entrepreneurs.
First of all, you need to trust your intuition on the product side. During my career people were often telling me that what we were doing would never work. Even when we launched the first navigation device, people were looking at us in a funny way, saying it’s obvious that this isn’t going to work, people are going to use the application on their PDA. So you need to believe in your intuition. You build knowledge about the industry or the product you work on over a certain amount of years – and this gives you the confidence to realise whether it will be a success or not. You need to believe in yourself and your product.
The second thing is that you need to build a good team around you – you don’t do these things on your own. One of the reasons behind our success at TomTom was the fact that the four founders had a very different set of expertise and we didn’t overlap in our expertise. But, together, we had a great amount of synergy – and I think that’s very important.
The third piece of advice is don’t run out of money. Having a lot of good ideas and good people is fine, but if you don’t have any money at some point it becomes academic. So make sure you plan properly. In our case, in the early days, I used to go to the bank with my business plans. I was making money as well and negotiating overdraft facilities. And I must say, every time I got what I wanted. But this took a lot of good planning, knowing where the revenue was going to come from. Those were the old-fashioned days when you actually did make money to grow.
Finally, you need to be resilient. You need to have what it takes in terms of courage. When the chips are down, you need to keep going. It’s never a linear journey. There are always lots of ups and downs.
What’s more important: great innovation or great marketing?
I don’t think you can disassociate the two. You can’t be successful without innovation. If you are an entrepreneur by nature you will innovate because it means you’re doing something that hasn’t be done before. If you copy something, you’re unlikely to be successful. You’re going to do something different, you’re going to take risks to try to solve a problem. The bigger the problem you solve, the bigger you’re likely to be. So innovation and entrepreneurship are very linked. Innovation is important, whether you enter an existing market or a new market.
Marketing is a way of making that innovation successful. In Europe, we often see a lot of great innovation. It’s everywhere. We’ve got amazing scientists and great products, but we’re not very good at commercializing them and bringing them to market. This is one of the things I was saying at the EIT Innovation Forum (more on this later in the interview). The tech landscape is a clear illustration of that. We were there first in GSM, we were the biggest PDA manufacturer in the world, but where are we today? Innovation and marketing go hand-in-hand: we shouldn’t under-estimate the importance of a good marketing strategy.
How can Europe earn a bigger share of the consumer electronics market?
First of all, we need more consumer electronics manufacturers. If you look at the biggest categories, like phones, tablets, computers and TVs, there aren’t any manufacturers in those segments in Europe. The problem is you don’t have many players in Europe anymore.
If we look at the segments that are growing very fast, connected to home automation, health and fitness and consumer electronics, I’m afraid that, there again, the major players are also foreigners. So I think we need to get a stronger consumer electronics landscape in Europe. We’re doing our little bit, so too are companies in France like Parrot, but they are far and few between.
How much of TomTom’s equipment is actually manufactured in Europe?
We design everything in Europe but we all manufacture in the same place. The factories in China manufacture for everyone – for us, Apple, HP and Fitbit. But all the design and innovation for TomTom is done in Europe.
The reason for manufacturing abroad is presumably down to cost considerations?
Yes – but it’s also about quality. It’s extremely automated. The work that they do in China is very impressive. Costs are actually going up in terms of labour, so the reason for manufacturing there is a mix of cost but also know-how and great expertise in large-scale manufacturing.
How can Europe encourage more women to become entrepreneurs?
I would say it’s probably about seeing more examples (of female entrepreneurs). They need to see that being an entrepreneur is fun. We could also make it a little bit easier for women with childcare. There are actually a lot of women running their own business, which gives them more flexibility. This is always a tricky question to answer – and no one size fits all solutions.
You were one of the keynote speakers at the INNOVEIT 2015 – EIT Innovation Forum (5-7 May), which brought together 600 innovators from across Europe. What were your impressions of the Forum?
First of all, I think it’s a great initiative to have a body that puts the spotlight on this crucial need for having more entrepreneurs, whether those entrepreneurs end up setting up their own business or working with an entrepreneurial mind-set in a large organization, which will be beneficial to the economy as a whole. Being an entrepreneur is about risk-taking and doing things differently, thinking out of the box - and that’s what we need in Europe. From that point of view, this organisation is good.
As to the event, it was inspiring, bringing together many nationalities, with a mix of students, academia, business and research. They had people with the right level of expertise there and I enjoyed talking to everyone. It’s a good initiative.
Can events like this make a concrete difference?
Events like this and the publicity they generate are beneficial. They bring the important issues to the fore and I think it’s also a great celebration of what the EIT is doing in general, which is bringing enterprise, research and academia together. I’m a great believer in serendipity: you may get people meeting with different expertise and they may be the next big entrepreneurs of tomorrow. What I like about the EIT is that it’s pan-European and it embodies a lot of what is needed.
Other than TomTom, what is the best example of innovation you’ve come across?
In terms of electronic engineering, I’m thinking of James Dyson (inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner). He’s a great innovator: I like what he’s done for tech, creating a school of design in the UK, really encouraging young people to study engineering and for more engineers to find new innovative products that are used every day. For me, that’s an amazing success story. I like the way he’s giving back to society. He’s an inspiration to many.
Have you met him?
No, but I’d like to. Maybe one day.
Why has Europe often struggled to keep up with its global competitors when it comes to innovation?
There’s a lot of regulation, but I think you have that in every country. People talk about scalability, about the fragmentation of the European market. But that didn’t prevent Nokia or Ericsson from making the best telephones in the world in the past. It’s about a risk-taking attitude. What you see today, especially in tech, if you look at the big organisations that keep innovating, it’s often the founder-led companies that still seem to be at the helm of things, really looking ahead. In this environment, where things move extremely fast, there is a certain amount of risk you need to take to keep ahead and diversify. So maybe the lack of appetite for risk-taking is one of the reasons.
Is Europe’s education system giving young people the right skills for the future?
If I look at the three systems I know best – in France, UK and the Netherlands – I quite like the theory of Ken Robinson (UK expert on education and innovation). He says you need to encourage creativity early on and also how to learn how to deal with failure to be a free thinker and an entrepreneur. Our education system hasn’t really been reformed since the Industrial Revolution. It may be time to do it differently. We don’t know the jobs of tomorrow, things are moving so fast. There will probably be jobs in five years’ time we know nothing about now, so we need people who can adapt to change, that can think laterally, that can be creative. And that’s what the education system should provide.
Is Europe too risk-averse to make the most of its entrepreneurial potential?
I think it is, but at the same time because of the crisis, the economic drive will force a change there. In times of crisis, people roll up their sleeves and try to do something. I’m very encouraged by what I see in terms of all these entrepreneurial hubs in Berlin, Amsterdam, London and Paris, and all the incubators for start-ups. So I think there is a wave of change. We see some good, successful start-ups getting bigger in Europe – I’m thinking of Spotify, Deezer, those guys. So I’m looking to the future with a bit more optimism. We need to keep going and I think the younger generation wants to do things and maybe take a bit more risk.
If you could change one thing about the European Union’s innovation policy, what would it be?
Policies are good as a framework and it’s good to encourage innovation, but at the end of the day it’s up to all of us in private enterprise to see what we want to do. So less policy for me is the best! As an entrepreneur you want to be able to concentrate your efforts and your energy on your business, so anything that gets in the way, whether bureaucracy, complexity, won’t help. So let’s make sure the people who want to take risks and put their energy into creating something are able to do that in an easy way.