Pieter Schoen: Navigating the ups and downs of entrepreneurship on the way to success
Pieter Schoen is a man who knows how to turn an idea into an appealing business opportunity. After founding a publishing business and two IT companies, he started – and later sold – NLE, one of the key players in the Dutch energy market, together with his business partner Harald Swinkels. As a founder and in recent years also an investor, Pieter is no stranger to the ups and downs of entrepreneurship. And that shows, as he sure has plenty of lessons to share.
Building a company at a young age – and learning from it
Pieter grew up learning how to trade. He was raised an entrepreneur if you will. “My father never gave me pocket money. He said: In the real world, you would never get money for free. You have to earn it. I was nine and in school when I started trading with the most bizarre things – lighters, shoes, water beds. Since then, I’ve loved to trade. I am a hustler in that way.”
At a young age, Pieter had gotten a taste of entrepreneurship and it was an experience that would stick with him for years to come. Yet, his entrepreneurial journey was not going to be smooth sailing all the time. Pieter’s first big move into the scene started with a book. As a young man himself, he was often asked about what career he saw for himself. “It’s a difficult question,” he says in hindsight. “Most people don’t know at a young age. So that’s when I thought of interviewing famous Dutch people and asking them how they became so excellent at their job.”
He ended up speaking to over 100 people and put their insights into a book called Career Choice. “It was a great success.” Not only that, but the book also led to Career Fever, his first business with Harald. It was a company aimed at helping job seekers get in touch with recruiters more easily and at their own pace. “We made a game on a DVD where you could virtually apply to over 140 companies, including Heineken, Unilever, and Shell. If you passed the test, you could directly make an appointment with a recruiter. If you didn’t, nobody would know.” That was back in 2001. Pieter and Harald were in their early 20s, with a lot that they still didn’t know about running a business. They managed to secure 10 million in funding from a Dutch investment company and were encouraged to expand as quickly as possible. Costs were not that important, their investor told them, as long as they “grow, grow, grow”.
What followed was a rapid roll-out to seven European countries, opening offices in places like London, Paris, Madrid, and Frankfurt. With 150 people and seven new locations in two years, costs were running high. Career Fever was offered an investment of 40 million, but a third party advised the team that the offer was too low, so they turned it down. Pieter still believes doing so was a “real big mistake”. After 9/11, the recruitment market crashed and with running costs high, the two founders eventually filed for bankruptcy. But none of it was in vain. The lessons had been learned. “Because of this experience, I am now very aware of the costs of a company,” Pieter says. “I like rapid growth, focusing on the costs and making a small company profitable before stepping on the gas.”
Disrupting a traditional industry and becoming an investor
After Career Fever closed down, it didn’t take Pieter long to identify a new business opportunity. In the early 2000s, he and Harald were doing consultancy work for some of the large energy companies like Nuon, Essent, and Eneco, so when the energy market opened, a lot of them struggled to retain their clients and gain new ones. “Before that time, there had been no competition in the energy market,” Pieter remembers. “The average age of these companies used to be 50-55 years and they didn’t really have much of a marketing skillset.” Together with Harald, he found an opportunity to shake up this traditional industry and create a company that was fresh and new. That was the beginning of NLE.
With over 300 employees with an average age of 28, the company became a real disruptor in the market. It boasted a laid-back, yet professional, work environment and relied on a strong marketing strategy to appeal to new customers. NLE was acquired in 2018 by competitor NUTS Group. For the past years, Pieter has been focusing on his own investment company, Shoe Investments, while Harald has pursued his dream to become a film director. As an investor, Pieter is looking to identify some of most promising tech scale-ups out there and help them grow. “At Shoe Investments, we decided to invest in scale-ups because we wanted to put in bigger amounts of money and be able to give companies the time to realize the investment,” he says.
There are four main criteria that he looks for in a scale-up: A strong team and a scalable solution are key. What’s more, Pieter likes to be involved in the growth of each of his portfolio companies, so he needs to understand their technology and market, and be able to actively contribute. “We don’t want to be like a traditional VC. We want to participate; we want to contribute to the entrepreneur.” Shoe Investments has made more than 10 investments to date, including in companies like Charlie Temple, Equalture, and energy company Mega. He aims at having four new investments per year. It is ambitious, he admits, but it is an ambition that has driven all of his professional endeavors, after all. That being said, there is one question that still needs asking: What is Pieter’s dream going forward? “To go public with one of my portfolio companies,” he says excitedly. And given his background, “I am hoping to do so with an energy company.”
Listen to the Up!Rotterdam podcast with Pieter below, or check all the episodes of the Up!Rotterdam podcast at https://podcast.uprotterdam.com/