June 9, 2021

A heart to heart with Niels van Deuren on lessons for startups and students, and life beyond HousingAnywhere

A heart to heart with Niels van Deuren on lessons for startups and students, and life beyond HousingAnywhere

Niels van Deuren is a household name in Rotterdam (and beyond!), both within the startup and student community.  He founded HousingAnywhere in 2009, which has grown into Europe's largest rental accommodation marketplace, with 10 million yearly unique visitors and 60,000+ properties in 400 cities. HA recently raised €24 milion in Series C funding. But there is much more to Niels than HousingAnywhere

Besides being a passionate and brilliant entrepreneur, Niels is also an incredibly kind individual who despite all of his successes is still the definition of humble. Always ready to help others and share his experiences and words of advice, we are thrilled to have sat down with Niels at The Student Hotel Collab to talk about entrepreneurship, lessons for fellow founders, thoughts on working with students, his advice to students navigating their career path, and life after HousingAnywhere.

Hi Niels! Let's dive straight into it by reflecting on your past first. You've always been an entrepreneur. If you had the chance to start over, would you have made different choices?

Hello! No, I liked that I went straight into having my own company. I interned with Heineken but during that period I already had HousingAnywhere, so I continued that see where I could bring it. I would not have done this differently. When you have an idea for a company, you should go for it.

After graduation is a perfect time to become an entrepreneur as your costs are low and you’re used to living on a budget, so you have time to experiment. When things fail it’s okay to move back in with your parents and recover there. Don’t force it though: if you don’t have an idea, work elsewhere first.

Was there ever a point in time where you thought “what if I join a corporate..?”

I never thought of leaving HousingAnywhere to join another company, because I really wanted to see where we could bring the business. In my mind, the worst case scenario was that we would go bankrupt and I would just join a company then.

"I'm proud of having built a company that people still use, and having built a connected team. A defining moment was when I sold HousingAnywhere."

Was that your plan B: joining a company?

Maybe more like a plan C (laughs). Plan B would be to pivot, u-turn, find a way but if that plan also doesn’t work I would join a company, have a stable salary until I have a new good idea.

Until you have a new good idea. So your Plan C would be temporary?

Yes! Working at a corporate means a stable salary and you have colleagues of course. It definitely has its advantages but I would probably only enjoy it for two, max four years.

Would you want to be a founder again?

I am currently working on two exciting business ideas, more about that soon..!

We had the privilege of hearing about Niels' ambitious plans in private, and we're thrilled. Lots of good stuff coming for Niels! Did you know he recently created his first piece of art at Vondelpark in Amsterdam?

Are your days busier now than during your HA days?

No, my days are much more relaxed. I like this better, but I would not have wanted this relaxed life after graduation because then you miss a lot of things. After having worked for 10 years with HousingAnywhere, it’s time to slow down a bit and relax.

Niels and Micky, Minite's founder both come from the Rotterdam School of Management where they studied International Business Administration, a few years apart. First as fellow RSM alumni and now as entrepreneurs, they both aim to help students

In prior interviews you mentioned leaving HousingAnywhere to pursue other ideas such as taking on an advisory role. You’ve also now invested in startups in South America. Was this part of your plan or did it cross your path?

It was not my intention to invest but co-investing with others made it easier, so somehow I ended up there. What was planned was to become an advisor in a freelance role, helping startups with strategic challenges. But since I’m also working out other business ideas of my own now, maybe I secretly do like the operational side more: doing things instead of telling others what to do. I like advising but in the end it’s up to the people to implement that advice, which is never 100% how I imagined it, so that’s when it starts to itch and I want to do it myself (laughs). I’m a bit of a control freak.

On the topic of control freaks: do you think it's necessary to have a clear plan?

As a startup you definitely should have a long term plan, but of course your five of fifteen year business plan can and will change. While working you will discover more and sometimes pivot to find your market. My advice is think long term, but act very short term. At HousingAnywhere the business model was selling memberships to universities and their students. Then we made a switch to the Airbnb model where students can book a room on the platform for which HousingAnywhere receives a commission.

"As a startup you should have a long term plan, but know that this will change. You will discover and learn things, and maybe pivot to find your market. My advice is to think long term, but act very short term."

Why did you choose to work mainly with students and what do you enjoy about working with them?

It was partly a matter of cost, but there was definitely a lot of added value. We are a student housing platform, so everyone had the same mindset. And this way, especially in the beginning when we sold to universities it was much easier opening doors (as a student.) It made sense to work with students. It was also useful in developing new features, because every student knows the pain of finding or renting out a room. So our employees were our users as well, and that really helped. However, in hindsight I should have made the transition quicker to also have fulltime, more experienced people next to students.

Are students more creative?

Students are out of the box thinkers, and they’re more eager to learn. If path A doesn’t work, a student will try path B and C until they find a way to make it work. A more experienced person may not want to go down that same road because their past experiences have shaped them into believing that path B and C don’t work, which is not always true. So out of the box thinking matters. However, in the end it depends on the type of company whether it makes sense to work with students.

On your journey with HousingAnywhere, what is your proudest moment?

Building a company that people are still using, and having built a very connected team. A defining moment for me was when I sold HousingAnywhere. That moment of signing the papers, I had a feeling of “wow, this just happened, they paid for my shares!” I felt proud, relieved (cause it’s a stressful moment), and happy because I knew that now I have the financial freedom to invest and to do other things in life.

You mentioned being proud of having built a strong team. What do you look out for when hiring a person?

Passion. People should have passion for what they will be doing. A marketeer for example should be passionate about SEO. Eagerness to learn and someone who loves to be part of the team. However, there’s also the risk of group thinking when you hire the same people. With HousingAnywhere we had a very diverse team. We always had about 50/50 men and women which is unusual for a tech company.

"Students are out of the box thinkers, and eager to learn. If path A doesn’t work, they will try path B and C until they find a way to make it work."

When looking for a job or internship, many students look at salary, work/life balance and company name. What's your advice to them?

Money should not be a driver for your first job, it should be about where you can learn the most. In terms of work/life balance: what you learn at your first (and second) job will be your backpack: it’s the foundation on which you will build your future.

Focus on learning. You’ll work about 40 hours a week as an employee, but an entrepreneur works day and night. Don't count the hours: in the first years of work, try to challenge yourself to learn new things and get the most out of yourself. Regarding working for a big name: if you compare working at KLM with working at a small, regional airline, you probably will learn even more at the small airline because you need to check-in passengers, do the safety instructions, fly the plane yourself (laughs). Working for a big firm is fun to mention at birthday parties but in the end it’s about what you learnt there, so don't focus on the name. At smaller companies you have a more diverse role with more responsibilities and impact. You can voice your opinion and influence the direction of the company, whereas at KLM you could try sending an email to a manager which likely won’t be read (laughs).

During one of our earlier conversations last year you taught me about the importance of focus. What advice would you give to startups that want to focus and grow?

Focus makes you grow. If you want to grow by doing everything, you may be doing many things but nothing will really grow. If you first focus on a specific segment and try to improve it, that will grow. If you take a second business opportunity you’re just adding a lot of work and none of those opportunities will get your full attention and therefore will not be able to fulfill their potential.

"Most people only know how to think in problems. Don’t let it demotivate you: make it a challenge. If they think the market is too small or big, consider it an opportunity."

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs with an idea?

Start working on your idea today, and talk with people in the field. Ask them what they think and don't be afraid to share your ideas. Don’t get demotivated by people who only see problems: most people only know how to think in problems. If you pitch your idea they’ll say it already exists, there's no market, or the market is too big (laughs). Make that a challenge: if they think the market is too small or big, consider it an opportunity.

#aMiniteofAdvice - lastly, what advice would you give to Minite?

Focus on 1-3 key segments. Grow in a specific segment and once that works, add other segments. Secondly, keep supply and demand in balance. Lastly, persistence is key!

Inspired by Niels' story? If you're a student, take your first entrepreneurial steps by becoming a student freelancer with exciting startups and scale-ups: get started in minutes!

Are you a startup or scale-up ready to start benefiting from ambitious student freelancers to help you grow and scale? Let the next generation help you increase online engagement through digital marketing, explore new markets through research or generate leads through creative business development! Post your project for free on Minite and we'll connect you with the best pre-qualified university talent through our Student as a Service offering.

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