From the comfort of their students dorms, Jan Borghuis and Gijs van Lookeren Campagne came up with the concept of Greenwheels – the biggest and most successful car sharing company of the Netherlands and Germany. They founded Greenwheels in 1995 and have successfully been running the company for almost 20 years. However, they recently decided to venture into the unknown and start something new.
Greenwheels has become a great success, and seems to be growing more popular each day. Why did you decide now was the right time to leave that behind and get started with something else?
Greenwheels grew enormously. We started car sharing with just three cars and now car sharing has developed into a worldwide network of car sharing operations, which is mostly dominated by OEMs. A few years ago we found ourselves in a situation where competitors were signing contracts with big companies, like BMW, who were interested in rolling out car sharing worldwide. We wanted to secure the future of Greenwheels so we teamed up with Volkswagen, and since january 2015 Greenwheels is completely owned by Volkswagen. It was basically to secure the future of Greenwheels that we sold part of the company since we knew we could have more success working with a big company; however a big company is not really the right environment for us to work in since it limits what you can do.
What are you doing now and how did you come up with the idea?
We are working on “the internet of cars”, but right now we are still in the starting phase and need to decide on what to do; we do not have a new product ready yet. What inspired us was our experience at Greenwheels, since it was also connected to the internet. You could open your car using the internet, the trips were also received through the internet, a lot of what we did used internet. That is something that is in common with our new venture, and of course we will now also continue working with cars.
Why did you feel you could not continue developing this idea while staying at Greenwheels?
We could not do this while we were at Greenwheels basically because it is a large organisation with different objectives. The people in the organisation have to manage their responsibilities and use the available resources to achieve Greenwheels carsharing goals. And of course there are always the shareholders who will safeguard the direction of the company as well. You are much more limited in what you can and can’t do.
What do you feel you have learned from the launch of Greenwheels 20 years ago?
One thing we learnt is that focus and adaptability are very important. You need to have a clear focus on a goal that you want to reach, and you have to be able to adapt your service. Nowadays you can start a business in very different ways than the way we started 20 years ago. What is increasingly important is that everything is becoming web based or app based, so knowledge and interaction with customers is crucial. And technology is also vital: the most important thing now is to be able to build an app. In that sense a tech designer can be more successful than a student of economics.
What are you hoping to achieve with the new venture?
It is an occupation. It is fun to work on new business ideas, and a new venture is also a nice challenge for us. Greenwheels was a big challenge, and we think it could give us a lot of satisfaction to have a new venture and see it grow. It has been very rewarding these last 20 years to see Greenwheels grow. We are hoping for the same feeling, or even more, since we have learnt from the good and bad experiences in the past. This second time around we want to do it even better – we are trying to become serial entrepreneurs!
Do you foresee any difficulties these coming months?
Well, it seems difficult to become a worldwide number 1, but it depends what you aim for. We think it is feasible to launch a service around the internet of cars since there are already some similar things available. However, we don’t want to start just anything, we want to start something that is more successful than other ventures.
You also now have a business membership at the ECE – what is your reason for starting here?
We really like the atmosphere here. It is very open, you can meet other people – people who are very enthusiastic and people who are also goal driven. Other shared office spaces are more closed, with cubicles and less interaction. We also like the communal lunch here, it creates more of a family atmosphere and makes the workplace more open. There are not too many rules here.
ECE is a place where startups and corporates can connect- since you have experience with both, how do you think startups could work together with corporates?
Big corporates need to create an environment within their corporation – a special environment adapted for startups. Corporates have a totally different drive than entrepreneurs and that could lead to collisions. In order to grow startups need customers which corporates could help them get, and likewise corporates could have startups as customers. They could learn a lot from each other.
Another aim of the ECE is to make corporates more entrepreneurial. How do you feel we could make corporates more entrepreneurial?
What is needed is an ecosystem for them to meet each other. For big corporations this could be a place to have a kind of spin-off. As a corporate you could rent a place here for 6 months and just start here. It sets you in a completely new atmosphere: just a laptop, an idea, and a whiteboard. It’s a great place to start the creative process, while using the resources of a big company.
What needs to be done to create a good entrepreneurial ecosystem in Rotterdam/ The Netherlands?
You need a combination of funding, knowledge and a place to work where there is also support. So that means not only a place to meet over lunch, but maybe also administrative support. It would also be nice to see a collaboration between the Rotterdam Science Tower and the Erasmus University Campus (Woudestein), because there are often a lot of vacant rooms and lots of students who might become entrepreneurs.
Are you going to be at the ECE social drinks this friday?
Yes, Jan will be there!