We recently chatted with the three extraordinary founders of OpenDairy, an independent and full-service global B2B marketplace for dairy products. We collaborated with them in the development of their platform, building functionalities such as time zones, unit calculation, language options, and in-app interaction between traders.
Our insightful conversation with the three co-founders: Hans Caspers (Head of Tech), Martijn Goedhart (Head of Growth), and Henk de Weijer (Head of Business Development) brings us closer to understanding the mindset of an entrepreneur and what it takes to successfully kickstart a business.
Here’s what the OpenDairy founders had to say about making it big in the commodities industry.
Martijn: I studied Business Administration at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam and have been in trading ever since (actually already before) my graduation. I’ve never been an outright entrepreneur previously but I have been responsible for setting up new activities and managing teams during my previous roles. I’ve learned a lot about the food ingredients trading world in the last 10 years and combined that with my ever-present interest in innovation and technology. I have been an entrepreneur for a little more than a year now and I am really enjoying the ride!
Hans: I studied International Management in Amsterdam and began my entrepreneurial journey during my studies. After my graduation, I spent a few years working for a startup in San Francisco, close to the Mecca of startups, Silicon Valley. Since my return, I have founded, closed, and sold several companies active in the digital media and advertising industry. Not all ventures were successful, but they did teach me valuable lessons as an entrepreneur. Now I have the chance to do what I like doing most: starting a new company!
Henk: I studied International Management in Amsterdam, just like Hans, and started my career in the Open Outcry pit at The Amsterdam Option Exchange. In 2003, it migrated to electronic trading, making accessibility and pricing faster and more transparent for everyone. I already got to see how IT can change markets and be beneficial for all stakeholders. In 2008, I started trading dairy and loved the dynamics of the commodities. Now we are at the starting point of changing this industry as we have seen in 2003 in the derivatives market. Making it transparent for all stakeholders.
Martijn: We have always been inspired by B2C e-commerce. Successful initiatives always start with a problem recognised but accepted by users due to the lack of a better proposition. The way of trading B2B ingredients hasn’t changed much over the last twenty years. It’s still very labour-intensive, intransparent, and inefficient. Due to the ‘consumerisation’ of B2B markets, we noticed a growing need for a better and modernised solution. Actually, we were struggling with that very problem when starting our physical trade business, like where to book containers and how to finance sales, etc. That started our journey into building the first full-service marketplace for commodities. And as we knew the dairy market well, it was the logical place to start.
Hans: This comes really naturally. Both Martijn and Henk have clear expertise that I don’t have, and our combined range of knowledge and expertise are very complementary, which makes determining who does what a lot easier. Decisions are made together most of the time and since it’s just us three currently, this is a very swift process. Small decisions that don’t impact the course and position of the company and product much don’t need any discussions at all.
Henk: The real competitive advantage lies in the fact that we offer the complete ecosystem. Next to smart matchmaking, whereby both seller and buyer know exactly what they trade, we provide logistics and finance, but only when it brings value to the chain. We offer the chain the possibility to choose these tools only when it makes sense. If these elements are not competitive they can still choose their existing chain. We embrace competition in these elements in order to keep as much value within the value chain as possible.
Martijn: We could go on for hours about this, but we basically combine all the services needed for a successful transaction in a few modules:
Regarding the future, OpenDairy is truly open. We see our solution as a platform of information sharing. Everyone can plug in with valuable additions. For example, we’d like market makers to provide forward prices for ingredients. Also, insight into sustainability scores of the producers and buyers would be great to implement. We want to endorse the best decisions, service, and value by providing transparency.
Hans: Technology in its essence offers non-digitised processes much-needed optimisation. Replacing the physical document stack with digital versions, offering online track and trace of your shipment, matching supply and demand by the click of a button, are all examples of how technology affects and improves existing processes in commodity trading. A technology like blockchain builds on this digitisation by adding a verifiable and immutable layer of transaction data. It offers all parties in a transaction full transparency and traceability. By integrating supply chain finance with blockchain technology, for instance, smart contracts can be used to release payments as soon as goods are signed off or shipped. I expect the use of blockchain to grow within a lot of industries and commodity trading is definitely no exception.
Henk: We believe there are multiple commodity markets that can adopt the same concept that we are now launching in dairy. As we understand dairy, we are focussing on dairy for the time being to find out if the proof is in the pudding. Our focus will ultimately be to become active in multiple commodity markets.
Henk: Traceability, accountability, transparency, and a faster supply chain. OpenDairy, which is part of OpenCommodities, aims to become part of the complete chain of transparent, accountable, and traceable supply chain over various commodity asset classes.
Martijn: We were very much aware that our vision was biased. We have become accustomed to the old way of trading and saw room for improvement. However, it’s not about us but about the actual producers and buyers in the market. These accelerator programs structure your approach and force you to “start at the start”. What is the problem you’re solving? Who benefits? Can it be done? Also, it widens your scope, learning from other entrepreneurs in other markets. The advice is: if you think you know it all, don’t join. Force yourself to question everything you know and learned because only that will lead to a good product-market fit.
Martijn: Many things! Building a new proposition means you have to pivot all the time. Sometimes you want something which is not possible, sometimes you find out it is even more possible than you wished for. In general, we were very surprised about how well the idea resonated with non-dairy people as well. The outline of the idea is very simple, but getting it right is about details. Never skip a part, even when you assume it’s clear. The most important learning for me has been how important it is to have a good, complementary team.
Hans: The past 30 years or so of being an entrepreneur has taught me tons of stuff: about the different phases your company will go through, the accompanying challenges, and how to deal with them. When it comes to hiring, for instance, I will aim to never hire anyone but the best and surround myself with people that are smarter than me. Also, when attracting investors, make sure you stay in control. Even though you might not have the majority of shares, make sure you are the one in charge of the direction of the company.
Besides your employees, the other people you work with on a daily basis are your partners and customers. In the past, I have taken on some clients or partners that we didn’t have a natural ‘click’ with. These partnerships have never been as successful as they could have been, solely because the human fit wasn’t as good, which made doing business less fun and natural. Do business with people that share the same values and beliefs, it will make the outcome so much more profitable for both sides.
Looking at product development, scalability, and future-readiness is key. Do not build client-specific features if they don’t benefit other users. Also, build modular as specific parts of your platform might become obsolete quicker than others and will need to be redeveloped. If they are embedded into the core of the platform, this poses so many additional challenges than replacing just one module.
Hans: It’s hard to give one piece of advice that fits all entrepreneurs, but if anything I would say to always follow your gut. Entrepreneurs have a very specific feel for creating new opportunities and their instinct drives them to accomplish things that are otherwise hard to realise. So, if something doesn’t feel right, think again!
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