By the age of 18, Steinar Henskes had already won a Dutch Judo championship. He was passionate about judo but also about laser technology and entrepreneurship. At the age of twenty he was already the owner of several small companies. He had a company that developed applications using laser light and he had several online shops: one that sold scooter components and one selling networking devices. Today, at the age of 24, he is the founder and CEO of Bird Control Group and he sells his laser devices in more than 70 countries worldwide. This year he opened his second office in Boston and he won another title: the best student entrepreneur worldwide. Steinar Henskes is a winner.
I talk to Steinar in Yes!Delft, a tech incubator. We are sitting inside the building in a greenhouse with no plants, but where innovative ideas, with coaching, grow into startups. He checks his mobile: “The news site nu.nl published an article a few minutes ago about Sudan’s Khartoum Airport, the first African airport that started to use our laser technology to keep birds away from aircraft in an animal-friendly way. We trained the airport staff of Khartoum to use the lasers,” Steinar explains proudly. Birds at airports often collide with aircraft and this increases the risk of accidents. The idea of a laser device that scares birds away, developed when Steinar was experimenting with laser techniques in a field and noticed that birds flew away. “I was not the first who came up with the idea, but I improved the laser device and took it to market.” The first laser device looked like a torch; it was developed for farmers to scare geese away from fields. “Soon the aviation industry became interested and asked for an advanced laser device that could keep large areas bird-free. We were able to develop such a device and are now a leading specialist in this field.” His customers include governments and large multinationals from a wide range of industries including the fishing industry. With Steinar’s lasers, fishermen can keep birds away from their nets and prevent them from being killed. “Birds are often a by-catch of fishing and thousands die this way every year. Recently we received an award from the WWF for our animal friendly solution. I am so proud of it; with a small team of 15 people we manage to make a huge impact worldwide.”
Investors Sense Pressure
“There were many obstacles along the way, but as soon as I overcame them, I considered them lessons learned,” Steinar replies smilingly when I ask him about this. “Once we developed our technology and our products were selling well, we needed to be sure to have a plan for the future. If you do not have a plan, if you do not readjust your plans well in time, it can be scary. Questions we asked ourselves were: what are we? Are we going to make our own products and for whom? As the company started to grow, finding the right people was another challenge: “Everybody wants to work for a startup nowadays; cowboys, fortune hunters, I’ve seen them all. You need talented people who are reliable and honest. A company is like a train that travels to its final destination but stops along the way. It’s fine if you want to get off during the ride, as long you agree to go in the same direction, and to get off at a mutually agreed stop. You do not want somebody who simply wants to ride a train for the money.” Managing his cash flow well was another lesson learned. “Your cash flow is the oil of your company’s engine. Most startups are not so good at managing it. Until now I managed it; but as the company grows bigger and more complex I need assistance. If you notice a gap in your cash flow too late it’s hard to recover it. Investors sense it when you are under financial pressure. This can result in a deal that is not necessarily favorable for you.” Another tip Steinar gives to startups is to find mentors: “Successful entrepreneurs who have (or had) a similar business to yours, who enjoy helping you grow, without wanting something in return. On the other hand you need ultra smart people who do hold interest in growing the company. Everybody can advise you, but you also need people who can make decisions.” His number one tip for startups? “Get out of your office and meet and talk to your clients!”
Promote Our Stars
“Receiving the EO Global Student Entrepreneur Award was for us a symbolic transformation of the startup phase to a company that is scaling up. The award also helped us when we opened our second office in Boston. In a new country you have to start from scratch and with this award you get this extra push as it easily opens doors for me in business. Awards and ranking do matter and it is a challenge for StartupDelta to make others aware of this,” Steinar says. “We also need to promote our own stars. To honor those who are above the average is not in our Dutch culture. But entrepreneurs create jobs, they inspire and innovate. They are role models and they should be recognized for this! It is necessary that we show our success. StartupDelta can help raise awareness about startups and entrepreneurs in the Netherlands.”
“We are moving to Boston because of the market opportunities, but our headquarters remains in The Netherlands. It is a good place for startups, also for foreign startups. The infrastructure is good, people are skilled, maybe a bit strong-willed, but a good entrepreneur needs to be strong-willed. The Dutch are also one of the most critical people that I know, and so The Netherlands is a good testbed for products. From the Thai street market to the bazaar in Turkey they know the words kijken, kijken, niet kopen (just looking, not buying). So, if the Dutch buy your product, you know others are willing to pay for it too!”