“Innovation is in our DNA”

Joelle Frijters and Janneke Niessen, the two founders of Improve Digital, live and breathe entrepreneurship, that much becomes clear during the interview. So much in sync are the co-founders of this successful scale up that they finish each other’s sentences, and build on each other’s enthusiasm. They would never consider running a business alone: “Together our joint skill set is so much stronger.”

White label solution

Improve Digital started as impromptu as most startups, back in 2008: over a dinner the two founders decided to start a consultancy firm in monetization for media owners. Once they realized the technology to scale did not exist, building this became their product – and success. Improve Digital has built a platform that automates and improves the monetization of advertising and audience, across all screens, and through all public and private sales channels. With a white label solution, Improve Digital increases revenue for publishers. Janneke and Joelle were early with introducing this complex, innovative product to the market but have remained on top of the innovation game. “A company needs to stay agile. Innovation is not just about new inventions, but comes down to how you go about the smallest of internal processes. Innovation is in our company’s DNA: we constantly ask ourselves ‘is this the best way to do things?’.”

Tripadvisor for angels

Getting their product out there was not easy: “We had to educate the market. People made fun of our idea, the same who now act as if they invented it. It has not been an easy ride. It never is, so determination and belief are key,” says Joelle. The successful careers of Joelle and Janneke prior to founding Improve Digital helped the success of their company in numerous ways. First and foremost the women had their own capital to invest in the company, enabling them to go without salary for three years. Then there was their knowledge of the industry, thanks to which they never doubted that what they were building was “an absolute necessity.” And invaluable were their many European contacts, enabling them to scale up into Europe from the beginning. Improve Digital, that is now owned by Swisscom, currently has offices in five European countries (NL, UK, ES, DE, BE) and operates in focus markets France, Italy and the Nordic countries.

Series A round

Joelle and Janneke did not need long to convince an angel of the potential of their company. “We were lucky to have a wonderful and generous angel, but there are a lot of people with money who don’t understand entrepreneurship,” says Janneke. “There should be a European platform, like the American AngelList, where you can rank angel investors.” Joelle chuckles: “A Tripadvisor for angels!” In 2011, Improve Digital received a series A from Endeit Capital. Janneke: “We then wanted a bigger round of funding, but it’s a challenge to get more than 10 million in Europe when you are not yet profitable. In our business you will not make a profit by default in the first years, because you first have to invest in people, technology and opening markets. On the upside, this obstacle forces you to focus and make careful choices.” Having no focus is the number one mistake Janneke and Joelle observe in the startup teams they mentor. “You can pivot, but not every month” laughs Joelle. “Make a choice in what you are going to be. There may be opportunities in five areas, but nobody is going to remember you for five products. Make a choice and smash it into the market!” Janneke adds, “It’s important for a founders to take into account the opportunity cost of saying yes to something.”

Sell your story

The necessity of scaling in the tech industry is something Dutch founders are not aware of enough, says Janneke. “Although the Netherlands is great to start in thanks to its adaptive attitude to technological innovation, it’s often too small to earn back your investment. You need to scale from the start.” So how do you compete with your international peers when scaling up? One thing is certain: the Dutch characteristic of being modest is not going to help you. “Perception is reality,” Janneke posits, therefore,  adds Joelle , “you need to act bigger than you are”. “I remember when we were at a UK client, we had a team of four at the time, and our competitors came in saying they had an office with 12 desks. What they didn’t say is that there were only two people occupying those. We were twice as big, but were perceived to be smaller! That was a learning experience.”

Is it a man’s world?

When talking to two female founders of a successful company the subject is inevitable: diversity in a man-dominated tech world. Janneke is passionate when she talks about women in tech. “Diversity in teams always works better. That’s why we put time and effort in changing the female-ratio in the tech scene. We want to make female role models visible: the image of what a successful founder looks like needs to change. We started Inspiringfifty, a list of the fifty most inspiring women in tech.The women also published Project Prep, a book for teenage girls that weaves together a story of love, fashion and technology. Joelle elaborates: “Women often dismiss tech as not for them. As the tech scene battles with a shortage of people with the right skills, it is simply not an option to leave behind half of the population. It’s not that women don’t like tech, they just have the wrong idea about it. Fashion, newspapers and marketing companies are all technology companies. We want to show girls that tech can be an exciting career path.” These women lead by example, having paved impressive, tech career paths with their final destination being a tiny dot on the horizon.