European Business: You started your first internet company twenty years ago while still a high school student. It allowed users to compare prices for mobile phone services. A year later, it was already a roaring success. How did you obtain the skills and know-how to run such a fast-growing company at such a young age?
Ben Woldring: I had coding lessons in high school in the late 1990s and the school challenged me to create a website. That experience made me want to apply myself to coding, so I went to the library and I read „HTML in 20 Steps“ from A to Z. One of the best tips in this book was to create something totally new, something unique no one had come up with yet.
I had already taken an interest in the telecommunications business at the time. That was the era of the landlines, my dad was one of the first to have a mobile phone and I compared all the different providers so he could sign up to the best one. In the beginning I thought it was just my dad who had some problems finding the best deal, but I soon found out that many consumers were facing the same conundrum of a non-transparent market. That’s how the idea came about for Bellen.com, our first price-comparison website.
When you’re at such a young age, you tend to think of the possibilities and not the impossibilities. Ben Woldring
European Business: Bellen.com made that non-transparent market transparent quite quickly and disrupted much of the way the telecommunications companies priced their services in the Netherlands. Didn’t it take a whole lot of guts to take on such established players as a start-up?
Ben Woldring: Well, when you’re at such a young age, you tend to think of the possibilities and not the impossibilities. There was a show on national Dutch television at the time which featured a segment about cheaper calling possibilities. I sent them an email about this website I had created and how this might be useful for their program the following week. Of course, I had hoped that they would link to Bellen.com. Already the next day they invited me onto the program. Dutch child protection laws didn’t allow me to be on television on Saturday evening, though, so a camera crew came to my parents’ house. They shot a feature about my website there, and that Saturday I was invited to attend the show in the audience. I remember how all the directors of the big telecommunications companies were watching this recorded footage in the studio, and after the show they all approached me: One wanted to advertise on my platform, another one wanted to use Bellen.com to make it easier for consumers to switch providers. That was the moment I started to realize that this was going to be huge.
European Business: You just sounded slightly annoyed when you recounted the story of not being allowed on live evening television at thirteen years of age due to legal restrictions. Have you experienced other instances in which you felt burdened by regulation you deemed more cumbersome than useful?
Ben Woldring: One of the major examples would be my encounter with the Dutch Chamber of Commerce when I wanted to officially register my company. That was the first significant setback I remember: They told me it would be impossible for me to register my company at age thirteen and to come back in five years when I would be eighteen. I then asked the lady at the reception desk to please speak to her superior about whether there were other possibilities, because I was not going to wait half a decade to start my business. After all, the big telecommunications companies wanted to collaborate with me, the business was already there.
When she came back from her discussion with her supervisor, she answered that they had good news: They would make an exception for me and allow me to start my business once I would be seventeen, one whole year earlier than the regulation actually mandated. I then told her that they were not getting my point and that I was not going to wait four more years either. I went home and talked to my mother about registering the company in her name until I would be eighteen. So it was always fun when the directors of the telecommunications companies had to wait for my mom’s signature after I had negotiated the contracts.
European Business: Back when you started out, nobody spoke much of start-up culture and the disruptive power newly founded small tech companies could unleash. Today, start-ups are talk of the town. Why do you believe that is?
I believe this has a lot to do with the power of the web. Information which was once only accessible to the elites is available to everyone nowadays, thanks to YouTube, Wikipedia and many other websites.
There have also been many technological innovations which make it easier to set up your start-up than it used to be. Look at what Google, Amazon, Alibaba and Microsoft are offering in the cloud, and the immense possibilities that come with that. You don’t need to invest that much anymore to set up your business.
Back when we started and I appeared on television, after which there would be an explosion of traffic on the platform, we needed to call the server manufacturers weeks in advance to order more servers and to have them installed at our hosting provider. With the current cloud infrastructure, you don’t have to worry about any of this anymore. In the early days of the web, it was really hard to set up the entire infrastructure. Nowadays, all the tools are readily available, which also allows people in the countryside and in areas where it might be less expected to set up start-ups. That would have been much harder only two decades ago.
Information which was only accessible to the elites a few years ago is available to everyone nowadays, thanks to YouTube, Wikipedia and many other websites. Ben Woldring
European Business: The Netherlands may be one of Europe’s smaller countries, but it is certainly one of its most innovative. Do you believe a success story like yours would have been possible in a larger market like Germany or France?
Ben Woldring: There is certainly a difference between smaller and bigger countries in the way in which they operate. The best example today would probably be Estonia whose former Prime Minister and current European Commissioner for Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip hosted roundtables with all significant stakeholders to discuss digital transformation and to make real headway in the field. In a smaller country, there is less hierarchy and per definition it is easier to get in touch with the right people and to realize your ideas. On the other hand, once you have the momentum in a country like Germany or France, you can really scale, whereas in the Netherlands you are limited by the much smaller size of the country.
European Business: When thinking of the most successful start-ups in the world or the biggest disruptive ideas in the past few years, most of them have emerged in the United States. What does Europe need to do in order to catch up?
Ben Woldring: The most important measure we should take in Europe is to include entrepreneurship and coding and the acquisition of digital skills as key competences in the curriculum of our schools, so that Europe’s youngsters are not only prepared to work at the big corporates, but that they be enabled to think about creating their own business too. That would allow us to better compete with China and the United States in the upcoming years.
The most important measure we should take in Europe is to include entrepreneurship and coding and the acquisition of digital skills in the curriculum of our schools. Ben Woldring
Several countries in Europe are already making substantial progress on this. In Finland, all students age seven and up learn to code. Imagine that you don’t only learn to read and write and do math at such a young age, but also to code. Now, the goal of this is not to make everyone a coder, but to equip all students with basic computer science skills, just like we equip them with basic reading or basic math skills. This would also allow more women to succeed in tech. In Europe, we prepare our young people too much to work in big institutions, whereas in the United States, they are encouraged to seize possibilities to create their own businesses – and they are taught that if they should fail, there is no shame in it. They can try again.
European Business: You recently tweeted that blockchain makes you think of Bellen.com in 1998. What is it about blockchain that fascinates you and makes you think of your early days as an entrepreneur?
Ben Woldring: What fascinates me about blockchain is that it is not only a technology, but that it introduces something new to society, just like when the web was introduced to our society twenty-five years ago. In the beginning, everybody thought: What can I do with that? And then people realized that they could send an email to somebody halfway around the world which would be delivered within seconds, that they could find any piece of information they sought and engage with people they never would have met.
When we look at bank transactions these days like SEPA payments in Europe, it still takes time to process a payment from the Netherlands to Germany or from Belgium to Greece, whereas with cryptocurrencies, payments are almost instant, no matter if the transaction is carried out within Europe or with someone on the other side of the world. And this is just one of many possible applications of blockchain.
Think of the bureaucratic steps that are necessary to register your company today, from going to the chamber of commerce to the notary public’s office and so on. In 2018, it feels quite old-school to have all these registers in separate, unconnected databases. With blockchain, we can go from a more centralized world to a decentralized world where all the parties involved in society can work together to find solutions to our global challenges.
With blockchain, we can go from a more centralized world to a decentralized world where all the parties involved in society can work together to find solutions to our global challenges. Ben Woldring
More than 1,000 people from over 20 countries attended the world’s biggest blockchain hackathon in my native Groningen a few weeks back (see video below) and there were tracks on global digital identity, future of pensions, energy transition, health, public safety and security, digital nation infrastructure, and machine ecosystems. Blockchain can be applied in very many and very diverse fields. There is a lot of new land to be discovered. That’s exciting and challenging at the same time, because the scale of blockchain is global.
Link: Bencompare App
Interview: Julian Miller, Photos: Bencom Group; Jelte Oosterhuis; Pieter Magielsen; Jean-Pierre Jans