In the spotlight | 8 min read

Johan van Mil weighs in on which startup founder is the Hacker, the Hipster or the Hustler

© Jolien Evaert | storychief.io
"I'm always looking for the best and brightest startup founders in Marketplace, SaaS and Data Companies. What I’m looking for in a founder is ambition, energy and real executions skills." —Johan van Mil, Co-founder and Managing Partner of Peak Capital

Johan van Mil is a sentreprevestor.

A what?

Simply put, he's a serial entrepreneur turned investor—from The Netherlands.

Here's a little bit more about Johan in terms of sheer numbers:

  • He stands just over 6 feet tall.
  • He has 2 beautiful children
  • He's founded 12 companies.
  • He's written 1 book (Ondernemen doe je!).
  • He taught Applied Economics and Entrepreneurship at at the Masters Program of the VU University Amsterdam for 4 years .
  • He's currently invested in 15 startups (after 3 recent exits to listed companies) with a total fund size of €18,000,000.

On that last point, when we say "he," we mean he and his fellow co-founders at Peak Capital—a Dutch venture capital investment firm. They invest in fast growing Marketplaces, SaaS and data startups.

They also serve up some cool Twitter action.

Peak Capital Meets Pulp Fiction

As such, Johan was one of the many rockstar judges sitting on the panel of the Marketing2020 vertical last month in The Pitch Tower at TNW2018 in Amsterdam.

Story Chief, alongside other disruptive SaaS startups, had the privilege of being grilled by Johan. His questions were unconventional, which makes sense since he's not your average run-of-the-mill investor.

But now it's our turn to ask him some questions.

Let's rewind a bit, go back in time to 1990, to 19-year-old Johan van Mil. Where were you and what were you doing?

I was studying in Belgium, actually, at the University of Antwerp.

After my studies, I worked at several corporate enterprises until I realized that having my own company was more interesting for me—both financially and career-wise. During my studies I'd already started a few companies.

What was your thought process in going from serial entrepreneur to investor?

Actually, a lot of people came to me.

They asked if I would invest in their company, as a hands-on investor, and to help them succeed.

In 2007, I asked myself, "I've already had 7 startups so what can I do to help other entrepreneurs?"

I decided I'd rather take the route of helping others and combining that with launching a venture capital fund. So I, along with some good friends who also happened to be entrepreneurs, founded Peak Capital.

We continue to invest not only money but hands-on support in fast growing technology startups.

Okay. You've mentioned this "hands-on" approach more than once now. How do you do this with 15 companies in your investment portfolio? Can you elaborate?

Yes, well, for example...I'm on my way to one of the startups now.

We meet with each of our portfolio companies every two weeks, sometimes once a week. If they're up and running and everything's going right, like Catawiki let's say, then there's less involvement on our part.

It's a matter of asking ourselves, "How can we speed up this company and make them more successful?"

Startups need to be making the right decisions:

  • As to the building of their team, their product, and their market.
  • They need to be in the right countries.
  • They need to stop doing what's not important.

Right. So. There’s the product and then there are the people behind the product. Can you give us a percentage as to the weight of "product versus people" when you are deciding whether or not to invest in a certain startup?

People are WAY MORE important.

When we look at a potential investment, we work with a scoring system as follows:

© Jolien Evaert | Story Chief
  • 50%: People running the company
  • 20%: Market
  • 30%: Traction
"The product can change. The market can change. But changing the founding team is very hard."

So what do you ask yourselves when you're looking at the founding team?

Is it complete?

Do they have all the skills to run a successful SaaS company?

Do they have a Hacker and a Hipster and a Hustler?

What? {Laughs} You're going to have to explain that holy trinity of H-level founders.

Sure.

We don't invest in single-founder startups. There is a minimum of two founders, however we prefer a 3-founder startup team. And here's why...

There needs to be a:

  • Hacker: Their focus is on developing and building the product.
  • Hipster: Their focus is all about the customer perspective and user interface/front-end (UI/UX).
  • Hustler: They have the personality and they're really aiming to do things as the face of the startup.
startup founding team
© Jolien Evaert | Story Chief

Everyone can start a company nowadays but not everybody can really work their butt off through long hours and long days, and remain execution-driven.

"How fast are they in implementing a solution?"

Founders, based on their role, should have one focus.

There are only 24 hours in a day.

"Where are those hours focused?"

It might be on finding the best market fit or finding the best developers.

It's hard to build a successful tech company because there are always so many ideas being bounced around. But from an investor's perspective, we want the founder to give 10000% attention to the product we're investing in.

They should not have their hands in multiple startups.

That's fair. Now, what about incomplete founding teams. Can they just outsource development?

It depends on the phase the company is in.

If you've got 2 Hustlers without any tech expertise then you need outside help to get your product built.

But once you realize you have a product-market fit, you should find a CTO founder to hire in-house tech. Otherwise your speed will slow down and everything will just be more difficult if you outsource at that point.

Now, when you scale up and internationally, then you might outsource small standalone projects.

So, very early phase or in the scale-up phase is when you should outsource.

We don't invest in companies that don't have their own technology. The startups must develop its product in-house.

Peak Capital's investment criteria seems to be very clear. But outside of the investment criteria, you asked one particular behavioral question at the Marketing2020 pitch event at #TNW2018.

You asked our CEO and co-founder, specifically, “What keeps you up at night?” May I ask why you chose such a question?

Yes. I did ask that.

Well, the purpose of my question is to see where a founder's head is at. Where their focus is and if it's in the right place.

It goes back to the founding team and whether or not they're using their 24 hours to focus on what needs to be done to execute.

So then I'll ask you the same question. What keeps you up at night?

{Laughs}

I guess...sometimes, it's my young children.

{Laughs}

I'm joking of course, but any parents reading this may appreciate it.

But, back to your question. I think the main things keeping me up at night are thoughts about finding the right people for the right companies we invest in.

The layer just below the founding team is crucial—the people running Marketing or Customer Success or other key parts of the business.

Founders who truly understand the need to hire someone who's better than they are in these roles—these are the founders that will succeed.

Obviously, the founders are running the company. We don't decide who should be hired but we can help them evaluate different options. We may even sit in on final rounds of interviews for key roles.

If you don't mind, I'd like to ask you something more personal. You mentioned your children. Please tell me a little more about them and what your work-life balance is like.

I have 2 children—Julian, my son who's 8, and Lieve, who's 6. Her name is a Belgian name, Lieve.

My work-life balance is very good, now. It's one of the reasons I became a full-time investor.

There was a point when I wasn't seeing my kids enough. We used to live in the center of Amsterdam. Now we're in a peaceful more rural area outside of Amsterdam. There's no traffic and a vastly improved the work-life balance.

And do you have some advice for these startup founders out there who may have young children themselves?

Tech startup founders have to devote their time day and night, with early mornings and late nights being the norm.

At the end of the day they might have some sort of break but rarely during the day.

I'd tell these startup founders:

  1. Live near where you work (if you can).
  2. Work from home (if you can).
  3. Don't spend too much on commuting, or code when you're are on the train etc.
  4. Hire people who are better than you are so you can spend your free brain capacity on how to better the company instead of spending it in the day to day tasks.
  5. When building your team, don't just look at salaries but find the value of what the employee brings.
  6. Get a great spouse and have kids either before you launch your startup or after it becomes profitable. {Laughs} That was a joke, of course.

All jokes aside

Johan van Mil has quite a story to tell, and he's got personality for days.

As impressive as his resume is, as a sentreprevestor, he's surprisingly quite approachable.

Particularly when one sees tweets like these from his Twitter timeline:

I mean, who can't relate to that? Story Chief can.

Are you an early phase startup looking to establish yourself as a thought leader in your field?

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