In celebration of World Entrepreneurs’ Day today, we wanted to play our part by adding to the conversation about what it means to be an entrepreneur in today’s society. And the most honest way we can do this is to speak from first-hand experience, from a WeAreBrain perspective.
Our business was built from the ground-up with the bare hands of our Founders Mario Grunitz and Jack Myasushkin (CTO), and CEO Elvire Jaspers. All three have a unique story of how they came to be industry leaders in their own right, but the real story is how they came together to build a technology business born from the ashes of war. Indeed, the story of how WeAreBrain came to be is as unique as it is inspirational – and filled with elements you could say sound fictitious, even. But it’s all true, and the journey from where it started to where we currently are has set the tone for how we continue to operate – to be different, with a purpose.
We sat down to chat with Elvire, Mario and Jack to pick their brains about what it means to be an entrepreneur in the 21st century, and how their journey from startup to fully fledged technology business has shaped their mindset towards making a meaningful impact in the world.
Q: What got you interested in being an entrepreneur?
Mario: Idealism. The romantic idea of freedom and creating your own destiny. The relentless pursuit of learning new things, challenging yourself by trying to find ways to address (and solve) some of the wicked challenges of our times.
Elvire: I yearned for something more than what a freelancer life could offer. I wanted more control of doing things my own way. I wondered why certain services or information were not available or transparent, and I wanted to change that.
Jack: A wise man said, ‘If you see any other way to live your life but entrepreneurship — take it.’ I didn’t. All my life I have been challenging the status quo born from an urge to find better ways to do things. This will not fly when you work for someone. So since my mid-20s I started to talk to a lot of people asking them what is wrong with me. The answer I got from one serial entrepreneur back then was, “Jack, you have an entrepreneurial spirit, but you are not an entrepreneur yet.” From that conversation my journey began.
Q: Origin stories are always great – when and how did you get the idea or concept for WeAreBrain?
Jack: WeAreBrain is a child of war. In 2014, Russian troops invaded Ukraine. Back then, Mario and I had already been talking about how to fund a new breed of company in the IT consultancy and professional services space. Our dream was to create an environment built upon values that we hadn’t seen before in this space. When the Russian tanks crossed the border, Mario and I helped our colleagues and their families escape the war. Soon after, Elvire (who worked with us in the past) was so moved by this that she decided to join forces with us. This was the start of WeAreBrain.
Q: What things took you by surprise throughout the process of bringing the business to life?
Elvire: All three of us have different nationalities: I am Dutch, Mario is German, and Jack is Ukranian. Apart from the expected football team rivalry, this gave us a lot of issues with setting up a bank account for the business at the start. It took us over 3 months to get it all sorted out, all while our first clients were wanting to pay invoices. There was a lot of time, effort and frustration spent on that.
Jack: Although we each had our professional backgrounds in the field, when it came to entrepreneurial endeavours we couldn’t even imagine what we had signed up for. Starting with obstacles such as opening bank accounts for the company, to overcoming cultural barriers when building a remote distributed team from the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Ukraine.
WeAreBrain operated within the Dutch market, which back then was not ready for such a way of working. Our deep belief and commitment to the values of WeAreBrain helped us to succeed and build a multi-million Euro business: growing our team from 9 people to 65+ in just five years, managing to join the DDA (the Dutch Digital Agencies association) in the first year of our existence, and winning a prestigious SpinAward for our collaboration with Lobster Ink.
Q: What mistakes did you make?
Mario: It’s easier to answer which mistakes we didn’t make ;). But generally speaking, our biggest learnings could be categorised as Team focus, Business focus, and Cash focus.
- Team focus: Stay true to yourself and surround yourself with people that are better than you. Focus on your team’s strengths and how they complement you by filling gaps in your own skillset. But at all times, make sure that whoever you hire shares the same values as you do.
- Business focus: Master one thing first before you start expanding and doing something new. Don’t overexpose yourself and don’t try to do too many things at once.
- Cash focus: Be frugal in the way you spend your money. We have often taken risks that quite frankly we couldn’t afford at that time (investing in new ventures, etc.). It’s important – especially for young companies – to build cash reserves early. Ideally, enough to carry you through at least 6 months when business might be slow or a COVID-19 type of lockdown forces you to reassess your entire business operations.
Jack: We made all the mistakes but one: throughout the journey we respected each other, and remained loyal and committed to the values WeAreBrain is built upon. In more practical terms:
- We kept growing the team not having properly defined our business model and value propositions
- We made lots of mistakes hiring people who didn’t fit with our values
- We held on to a few people for too long who weren’t the right fit, out of an incredible sense of loyalty
- We spent too much time babysitting our senior team, which hindered not only their growth, but the business’s as well
- We made a few investment decisions based too much on gut-feeling rather than on well-weighed research and due diligence
Elvire: Apart from what Mario and Jack have already mentioned, we also made a few funding and credit blunders. We have financed all our initiatives ourselves (and continue to do so even now) without any external help, which has been rewarding but also cumbersome. I encourage all startups to apply for a credit line or loan when all is going very well, and not when you need it.
Q: I’m sure when you began formulating your ideas for the company you had to interrogate the market thoroughly, what would you say is the competitive advantage and why can’t it be copied?
Mario: Personally, I don’t look much at the competition at all. I primarily try to listen a lot to our customers. They often live in the here-and-now and it’s our task to support them with our knowledge, skills and expertise. Additionally, I try to identify and anticipate long-term economic trends and see how those will shape the future of our customer’s businesses. Think of AI, IoT or 5G.
Elvire: What advantage do we have? Well, when we started, the fact that all 3 owners are from different backgrounds, countries, and ages made us very diverse. WeAreBrain has always been this way and I am very proud and happy with that. For example, more than 50% of our senior team is female, we come from 10 different nationalities, and everybody is considered equal (salary, opportunities, etc.).
Having Jack in Ukraine gave us the opportunity to build a high quality team there. With our Ukrainian offices, we have better access to talent and advantageous market rates compared to our competitors here in the Netherlands. Another advantage we have is that we are very flexible and have a highly entrepreneurial mindset and way of working. Our team owns 25% of the business, so every person in WeAreBrain acts as an entrepreneur, and that shows.
Jack: WeAreBrain is successful because we were able to build a kick-ass team around the values and philosophies that attract and retain our Brainiacs. Despite our size, we manage to maintain flat hierarchies, and our teams are high-performing and self-organised. That makes us deliver exceptional results to our customers. We are the living example of the fact that the whole brain is greater than the sum of its parts.
Q: What are the various ventures and R&D projects you’ve been involved in?
Elvire: WeAreBrain acts as an agency but we also create our own ventures and products. We have collaborated with Michel Pilet to build clevergig, a successful Startupbootcamp alumni that has grown to be the #1 SaaS Workforce Management platform for Temp and Staffing Agencies in the Netherlands. Many of our team members work exclusively with Michel and his clevergig team.
In addition, we have spent a few years working on our very own AI R&D: Tur.ai is an exciting new player in Intelligent Enterprise Automation which helps businesses digitise, transform and augment their existing company processes, interfaces and service offerings with Tur.ai’s Automation platform.
Mario: I have been involved in about a dozen tech ventures in the last 15 years. From digital platforms in Healthcare, Automotive and Consumer Services to complex hardware ventures in Hospitality and Digital Art. At WeAreBrain, our focus over the years has evolved more and more into B2B Business Automation with our clevergig and Tur.ai product ventures.
Q: Have you participated in any funding and investment programmes? If yes, which? And how would you recommend other entrepreneurs to approach investment?
Elvire: WIth clevergig we joined Startupbootcamp in 2015. It was an intensive, great time. It brought the first round of funding which helped the platform to grow. There is not a black or white answer to recommending what to do regarding getting investment. There are a lot of routes, like the SBC route (and other initiatives like that), funding circles and meetings, networking events etc. Per startup there will be different pros and cons for all options.
Mario: We usually try to fund new initiatives from our own operating cash flow. That allows us to stay in control of our own destiny and take the long view on our activities. We try to stay away as far as possible from banks, VCs and other formal investors. But there are exceptions of course: with clevergig we have done two successful rounds on Leapfunder and we are a successful alumni of Startupbootcamp.
Jack: Our recommendation is to not try to force investment. It is like finding a life partner: it should happen naturally when the time is right. Just be outspoken and proud of what you are doing, and you will get investors at every stage of your maturity, from a startup to an established business. Never try to oversell or do things to please investors: stay true to yourself, your beliefs, and your team. The rest will follow. Remember, fundraising is a journey that takes a lot of time and energy, so you need to be prepared for this as a team and as a business. There is an excellent article by Steve Blank which we could not agree more with.
Q: What is your vision for your company in the future?
Mario: A few years ago we moved away from the more short-term KPI setting approach to taking a more long-term view, a concept best described in Simon Sinek’s book The Infinite Game. I am still dreaming of a company that outlasts its founders – a modern type of family business that will be run by our children and future generations of Brainiacs. There is still so much for us to discover in new areas of technology and business.
Elvire: I hope we become a sustainable company where people enjoy working and clients stay with us because of who we are and the quality we deliver. I love the way our team and our clients have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has brought a lot of stress but also a lot of fantastic moments. It has been heartwarming to see how our team has adapted and showed their loyalty to stand side-by-side with our clients to get through it. I feel very proud of where we are today, considering all we went through these past months without any help, and without letting anyone go. This is the kind of company I want us to remain to be heading into the future. This is the legacy we want to leave behind.
Q: Finally, what is the one piece of advice you’d give to other budding entrepreneurs?
Mario: Smart ideas don’t build businesses. Powerpoint slides don’t build businesses. And strangely enough, money doesn’t build a business either. You need to find your calling and the true reason why you want to go into entrepreneurship. In my opinion, all the ‘hustle-porn’ posts you see on social media are bullshit and glorify a certain way of living as an entrepreneur. We are much more down to earth. Quite simply, it’s hard work, and it’s okay to feel tired and exhausted at times. It’s okay to fail at times. It’s the journey that counts. And if you haven’t yet built a strong support network of friends, family and budding entrepreneurs, then make that your next mission – they will help to keep you grounded and motivated through thick and thin.
Elvire: Personally, the best advice I can give is to always remain true to yourself. There will always be those who will try to knock you down for their own ambitions, but the important thing is to remember that the journey to the top doesn’t have to be ruthless. If you truly want to leave the world a better place than what you found it, it all starts with you.
Jack: Invest your time into setting up your own philosophy and values, and make sure you build a team that genuinely shares them. Invest your time serving your team and your clients and never make compromises with your philosophy and values as you move forward. And always ask for help and advice: from your team, from budding entrepreneurs, and from your clients. Remember, no one knows it all: the journey of an entrepreneur is to fall and rise and do it all over again. Stay hungry, stay foolish, and above all else, stay true to who you are.
There you have it, some wise words from 3 people who have entrepreneurship coursing through their veins. As you can see, the ethos of WeAreBrain is an extension of our 3 inspirational founders’ mindset and determined spirit. We hope that hearing from Elvire, Mario, and Jack has inspired you to move forward with your idea and turn it into your very own business. If you have a good idea which provides an intelligent solution to a problem, then take heed of all the advice above and get on with it. We look forward to meeting you along the way.