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Interview

Meet the Mentor: Michael van Lier

Interview

Words by Kelsey Lee Jones

Illustrations by Edith Carron

Michael van Lier is the most tech-minded mentor of our Incubation Programme. An expert in software and new business ventures, and fascinated with emerging technologies, he’s been founding companies for all of his professional life. In his most recent venture, he launched his own startup studio We Are Builders; here he develops ideas into new ventures together with investors and founders. To our programme, he brings his unique mix of insights from experience in the startup scene, the world of tech, and the floriculture sector too. 

Tell us about your background and expertise...

I’m a nerd at heart. I’ve been starting companies since I was seventeen years old. But back then being nerdy wasn’t such a cool thing. Nowadays, it’s the best thing you can be. My companies have always been tech-focused in verticals like software and cloud infrastructure. Our last company was called Solware, we created online software and beautiful concepts mainly for corporates. I started getting frustrated by my own questions about these companies, I wanted to give more value and input. I’m entrepreneurial myself, so it was difficult building concepts just for other people. 

I got into the Lean Startup methodology and began gaining experience about how you can start small and end big. I ended up merging my experience into a startup studio called We Are Builders together with Alex Buis. Which essentially is a company that creates new companies. We work with a network of founders and investors. Now we’re not just building the software anymore, we’re building the companies too, and I think we’ve found a really sustainable and entrepreneurial model to do so. My expertise focuses on ‘the winning combination’, finding the market-customer-product combination that works at that moment in time, and creating value for the customer with a beautiful product.

What projects are you busy with these days?

I’m busy with the startup studio. It’s one of the most challenging models that I’ve tried to tackle. Our model is based around connecting with investors who have great ideas but lack the time to act on those ideas. With a well thought out process, we eventually match those ideas with founders. Together we start a new venture. There’s an investor, two founders and ourselves in every company. In 2018 we’re co-founding two new ventures – it keeps us busy. We’re working in a lab atmosphere 24/7 and we will validate over twenty ideas before we get to two companies.

What interests you so much about the hackers and engineers?

Being a total nerd, I like to be in an environment where all the tech stuff is being created – I really like the vibe around it. I’ve been around hackers and engineers all my professional life. I, as well as many other architects and engineers, like creating things that get used daily and around the globe. It’s kind of strange, I think most people imagine us as the people who just like to tinker around, but sometimes business and tech goals are very much aligned.

“I like the startups to think for themselves, to find what’s important and to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit”

Could you give a brief overview of the Lean Startup methodology?

I’ve actually just published my own blog post about this topic, but I’ll focus on the things I find most important here. What Lean Startup helps you do is execute. A lot of people have good ideas but with weak execution sometimes it’s because of their own bias or fears of the unknown. The Lean Startup is a framework that tells you how you could approach going from idea to idea, from zero to one. It helps you validate all of your assumptions, it encourages you to get out there and talk to people.

What do you find interesting about the floriculture sector?

I’ve been living in Westland my whole life [it’s where Royal FloraHolland is located – the Netherlands’ largest flower auction site, it plays a vital role in the worldwide floricultural sector], I moved out only two years ago. The whole area is built on horticulture/floriculture, there are greenhouses everywhere, and most businesses are based around them. I’ve worked in the greenhouses myself, just like every youngster does – it’s where you learn to get up early and work hard. Later I’ve worked on consultancy projects with horticulture businesses and our last software company was actually based in Westland. We had lots of floriculture customers and we created some of the first apps and platforms in the business. I’ll always have an interest in this sector. I think I have a unique knowledge of both this sector and how the tech business works, and that’s what I bring to the programme.

What are the biggest challenges that startups seem to be up against?

That’s an easy one – first and foremost their own bias. You have to leave your ego at the door and find out if you’re really fixing something that people want to address. After that, I think it’s about finding out if the opportunity is there and if you and your team is the wolfpack who will fix it. There are a lot of problems out there and people trying to fix things, but most of the time they just don’t get there.

Three of the biggest reasons that startups fail: no market need, team dynamics and money. I think all startups should make sure they know what they’re really up against. I have to check in my ego a few times a week as well.

What is your role as a mentor in the Incubation Programme?

I’m here every two weeks to check-in on the progress of my assigned startups. I’m working on the entrepreneurs behind the startups, I’m trying to tell them to get the hard stuff done. Not just the easy stuff. We talk about what they have achieved in the last few weeks and if it got them any further towards their end goal. I like to think I help them and push them to find the right things to work on. Occasionally they’ll get some advice on the things I’ve learnt, but most of the time I’m trying to figure out what’s the most important thing for them to work on and to teach them about validating their own assumptions. Even if I personally know the answers to their hard questions I like the startups to think for themselves, to find what’s important and to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit. It doesn’t matter what you’re working on, it’s really important to evolve as an entrepreneur.