Michiel Roodenburg is the co-founder of Crisp, an app-only supermarket helping to revolutionise online grocery shopping in the Netherlands.

The Amsterdam-based startup was set up by Michiel, along with his two friends Tom and Eric in 2018. Since then it has gone on to become one of Europe’s fastest-growing online-only supermarket apps for fresh and affordable food.

It was Michiel’s passion for food that inspired him to launch the business, though his journey wasn’t always necessarily leading to this point.

“Before Crisp I worked for Albert Heijn and Ahold. I was mainly involved with financial accounting, modelling and later on financial management. Then I moved to the more strategic side, so commerce strategies and five years plans.

“I started working at Albert Heijn because I went through the economic school at the University of Amsterdam. The holy grail for economic students is mergers and acquisitions, so I started in that after my studies, but quickly realised this is not my holy grail.

“There’s no physical product and I experienced an individual performance focus, less than a team focus. There weren’t many deals, the atmosphere in the office wasn’t great and I thought to myself, wow this is not my cup of tea.

Challenges to Crisp’s non-Dutch startup approach

The challenges facing Crisp were somewhat unique in comparison to the usual ones facing startups in Europe. This was due to the high demand of the industry it was entering.

“We took an approach that is not very common in continental Europe. It’s very often that you start small, gain some traction, then use that traction to convince investors. We thought well, we can’t do that, we have to think big.

“From the start we said if we wanted to have that impact, especially in food, we needed to have mass. We also needed to have a world-class app and we needed to be able to bring groceries from suppliers, to a central holding and then to customers.

“You need a sourcing team, a logistics team and a tech team, so you need a big operation and up-front investment

“We had a non-Dutch and non-continental Europe approach to our funding strategy. We had a very big seed funding round, securing that seed without having sales, just a dream, was the first hurdle we tackled.

“Then you need to have a tech team with the right levels of seniority, and we succeeded in forming that. The next step is to find the right sourcing partners who are willing to do a lot of business during the night.

“We encountered a lot of problems aligning tech with business, like outsourcing fulfilment. We needed more speed than what was available with current fulfillment partners, mainly speed in tech alignment. Therefore we launched our own warehouse with our own tech.

“Lastly, you need to create a brand that customers trust. We are very transparent on the choices we make, much more transparent than incumbent players on things like where it’s coming from and what’s in the product. So being a curator you can trust is very important – Trust is hard to gain but easy to lose.

“What makes me happy is food, big parts of my life revolve around it. I actually wanted to start an Italian restaurant after spending time studying in Italy. I thought an Italian restaurant offers a high turnover, it makes sense economically and it involves very good food.  It was a tough choice, between operating my own business, or starting in the financial department of a big food retailer. I chose the latter to gain experience in finance & food.

“I thought it’s big enough for complexity and it’s working with food. Also, the job interviews were very different from what I had encountered before. You only have two interviews to join the talent programme, not something like nine interviews, business cases and questions like ‘how many ping pong balls fit in a boat?’

“It was very much ‘where have you grown up? How is the relationship with your parents? What do you value in life?’ That different angle really caught me and I thought, well let’s give it a shot; doing something with food, something with complex issues and something with a human angle. I stayed there for ten years and really enjoyed it.

“However, after those ten years, I also realised that I liked more energy. There were a lot of toll gates, a lot of bureaucracy.

“Along with Tom and Eric, we really believed that times are changing, especially now. How we consume and what we consume is changing. On those two crossroads, we started Crisp.

“Convenience is more important than ever. Tech facilitates convenience. It also helps facilitate contacting customer support, making a choice on what to buy and explaining how to use the products.

“Our assortment is overseeable on purpose, because we want to fix the well-known paradox of choice. We don’t believe you need six types of the same milk in your store. That’s another choice intended to facilitate convenience for the consumer.

“What we consume is changing as well. Choices on better taste, better quality, fresher products and also being more conscious of what you consume. That’s why we focus on making it easy to make a consciously better choice. That had become an important factor in our lives because it was the period in which we all had children.

“There are a lot of market insights now that show a big growth in online food. But for us, it’s not just the food – it’s about fresher, more healthy produce, being more conscious and buying local – this has all become more important during the pandemic.

“Those trends are picking up now. Market share of online food was traditionally really low. In 2017 it was maybe 1-2%, way behind fashion, travel, technology, etc. Now, because a lot more people have experienced online food, the overall numbers turning to it is bigger. So maybe the growth rate is going down, but in overall figures it’s grown so much more rapidly than it would have without COVID, and I really think that’s permanent.

“Going to a baker or a butcher is fun, going to a supermarket is not. So someone helping you in organising better quality and more sustainable food, we firmly believe that trend is only going to get bigger.

Aligning values in the startup hiring process

Ensuring new team members are a good cultural fit should be vital for any startup. Combining that value alignment with finding people who fill skill gaps is a big driver behind Crisp’s success.

“Having that cultural fit, being accepted within the team, being humble and being open are key. We really try to focus on that and are very picky. So every person that joins Crisp, apart from some positions due to our growth speed, are always interviewed by the founders.

“So ensuring common values are aligned but also making sure they strengthen the team, we really focus on that.”

Michiel also pointed out that you should be tactical when hiring talent, truly understanding what it is your business needs to minimise unnecessary costs.

“For example, we didn’t need a marketing team at the start. We needed to develop the app, start a distribution centre and find out more about what drives conversion. When we had that knowledge, then we started recruiting for a solid marketing manager.

“We always aim for someone too senior for our size at that moment, but who is able to grow with us. That’s not always possible, but it’s our aim – focusing on having a very good senior team that acts as an umbrella you can work down from.

“During the RISE programme, we were exposed to founders who are a few steps ahead of Crisp and there is always one common denominator; they really, really focus on culture. Making a hiring mistake is way more costly than spending more time on recruitment.”

The Crisp Startup culture

Placing such a big focus on culture in the hiring process sets the tone for its importance in day-to-day life at Crisp,

“Some of it is based on gut feel, however we’re now trying to isolate and measure factors of employee happiness.

“At first with a small team it’s hard to measure, so you host a lot of discussions when creating the company values. It starts with the founders; ‘why did we start the company? What do we find important?’ Then you have a group discussion and try to make it stick.

“We like to focus on working as a team. If you understand what’s happening with the people around you, then you can connect more and you can figure out how best to communicate with them.

“It makes you productive, it makes you more loyal if someone is there to pick you up when you’re down. If other people beside me can do that, it really creates a sense of being one team, which we find really important.

“You can increase that by doing things together in mixed teams. Right now it’s a bit challenging but one example is we purposely made a big kitchen in our offices so people can cook lunches together.

“We also send teams to visit producers together, this helps people understand other aspects of the business. It gives a new perspective, for example you might learn that one producer delivers products on a big palette so it’s not consumer-ready. You then realise ‘oh, so this is really a problem for your team’, something which that person may not have realised otherwise.

“That really opens people’s views and makes acceptance higher, you try to be more humble and open to other opinions. We try to offer a lot of activities that stimulate that.”

Covering all the bases in your startup funding strategy

When it came to seeking funding options, Michiel highlighted the benefit that came with Crisp’s founding team having such broad experience spread across them. He also stressed the need of having a clear financial plan that you can back up to investors, something which startups often fail to provide.

“We recently closed our series B and I noticed process and angle changes. So if you fund for seed, other aspects are more important, so the relevance of certain aspects changes.

“With the seed, I noticed that it really helps if the founding team has a broad experience in important elements of the business.

“For us, Tom is an ecommerce expert, he’s founded a business, been through an IPO and knows how to scale an organisation. Eric knows a lot about product, tech and building an excellent customer experience. I know a lot about finance, culture and the food industry. That rounded knowledge was very important for our seed investors as there were no real black holes in our experiences.

“We don’t cover it all but we all have a decent track record and are very clear in the relevance of our dream. I don’t have time to organise better food for my family and there are lots of others in the same position, so the relevance was easily stated. The market; everybody likes food, the supermarket industry alone in the Netherlands is worth €40bn. The trends; how and what we consume are pretty uniform across many countries, especially now during COVID.

“We could also make a good plan. Having a good financial planner makes it much clearer for investors if you need a big amount. Having that plan, it helps explain to rationally-minded people who often come from corporate finance; ‘what is our end state? What do we want to reach?’

“Having a good model which you can really defend and explain is very important. Having that presented by founders with experience in the most important aspects of the business is vital.  Those are the two main points I think many seed funders can improve upon.

“Nowadays, from seed to series B, investors are more data-driven. Founders and management teams are still very important but now it’s more important to also show data that supports your dream.”

A big fish in a small pond

We asked Michiel for the best piece of advice he’d ever been given in business. He recalled something that became very personal to him and kick started his Crisp journey.

“It was someone at Ahold, he said; ‘Michiel you are a big fish in a small pond here. With your qualities, you are very open, people really like to work with you and you can handle a lot of complexity from different angles.’

“‘You’re good at making things happen, you’re an accelerator for growth but big corporate is hesitant to try new things. They want to do it, but culture and processes are not aligned to do so. If you really want to maximise your strengths, you need to leave this pond, and you need to go to an atmosphere where those strengths are more valued.’

“That was a turning point, I think now it’s going okay and I like my life, it’s good advice.”

Michiel’s key tips

We also called on Michiel to offer up his own essential advice to fellow entrepreneurs, wisdom that he’d taken from his own journey so far.

“Think big. Think with the end game in mind. I think sometimes especially in the Netherlands, people think small. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming, it’s not like you’re arrogant.

“Have a strong founding team, make sure they are aligned with the major values of yourself and what you find important – but also, just as vital, ensure they cover the pitfalls or skills that you don’t have.

“Lastly, which I’m also trying to embrace more, is having enough trust in the people around you. Giving more autonomy to your teammates really increases motivation and enables the organisation to scale.

Why Rise?

Finally, we asked what inspired Michiel to join RiseTechleap.nl’s own acceleration programme in the Netherlands dedicated to startup growth.

“It really helps that the people associated with Techleap.nl are other founders who are many steps ahead. People on the programme experience the same hurdles and you get to tackle one aspect at a time, so you can really delve into them.

“You get the time to go into great detail and get high levels of analysis, so it gives you a lot of insight. So I thought, if I want to spend time, love and effort on something, then I think this is worthwhile because it’s the complete package.

“Interesting founders at a similar stage to Crisp, interesting founders who are many steps ahead of Crisp and want to make time for us and the useful advice from other businesses – that’s what I find attractive about Rise. Being able to reach out to experts on certain subjects  in a private setting is extremely useful – really diving into these topics gives us valuable insights, that is a huge benefit to us.”

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