Judith Huisman (left) and Anouk Roohé founded online venue booking and meetings management company Meetingselect in 2007. Today it is one of the fastest-growing companies in the Netherlands. Judith and Anouk still lead the business, with Judith taking charge of sales and technology and Anouk overseeing administration and operations. Here they share their perspectives on being tech entrepreneurs.
Q: How did you come up with the idea to start Meetingselect?
Judith: Anouk and I used to work as international sales managers for the NH Hotels Group, which owns the Golden Tulip hotel chain. We realized that personal assistants and secretaries in companies were spending lots of time searching for meeting venues and waiting for hotels to send them proposals. We thought about how we could combine that need with the hotels’ need to respond to customer requests within a few minutes. I had come across a meeting management technology on a trip to New York. So I spoke to Anouk about it and we thought we could adjust this idea to a European way of working.
Q: What was it like to work with venture capitalists?
Judith: We needed quite a lot of funding to get the company going because it’s based on a software platform. The bank gave us a full start-up loan but we also needed other investors. We had to pitch in front of different investors so we prepared by watching episodes of the UK television program Dragons’ Den, which features budding entrepreneurs pitching their businesses.
Anouk: It was a five-minute elevator pitch.
Judith: We got our first investor at the start. Because we were new to working with investors, and had a sense of dependency, we didn’t feel as though we were equal with that investor. But as we grew in experience, we grew close. We realized we were working towards the same goal – making Meetingselect bigger and more successful.
Anouk: Now we have two investors and we have very good relationships with both of them. We still own the majority of the business, though.
Q. What were the biggest challenges you faced at first and how did you overcome them?
Anouk: The initial funding got used up quickly, so the first few years were quite hard. There was also the economic crisis in 2008. We weren’t earning that much money and we worked evenings and weekends. But after three years we decided we needed to have more of a personal life as well. We still work long hours, but now the balance is better.
Judith: We thought that we would sign contracts with clients much quicker than we did. Even though companies were interested in working with us, business was slower than we expected. So we had to attract more capital to grow the business.
Q. How does Meetingselect innovate from a technology perspective?
Judith: We have transferred our platform to an open source platform and we have a public application programming interface that our technology partners and travel agencies can browse and search. Also, we integrate our system with Google Places, Elasticsearch and WhatsApp. From a technology perspective, there’s never a dull moment.
Anouk: Every two weeks we have a new release!
Q. How does Meetingselect innovate from an organizational perspective?
Judith: We practice flexible working and everyone has a sit-stand desk so half the office can be standing up at any one point in time. We also have a darts area for recreation.
Q. How do you believe Meetingselect has disrupted the sector in which it operates?
Judith: In the past, if you wanted to organize a conference, you would contact the hotel by phone and maybe wait up to two days to get a proposal for your request. With our technology, meeting venues can respond to a quote within a few minutes. Event managers can compare quotes, proposals and meeting venues at the click of a button. Procurement teams can find out how much their company is spending overall on conferences and events. It’s very transparent.
Q. Why do you believe the business has been so successful?
Judith: We make our clients’ lives very easy. We save them a lot of time and we save them money. And we really listen to our clients. We take on board their feedback and we are flexible.
Q. Are there any ways in which being a female entrepreneur differs from being a male entrepreneur, in your view?
Judith: No. We take the same risks and manage in the same way as a man. The one thing that might be different is that women use their intuition more.
Anouk: It’s more of a different attitude to leadership than to entrepreneurship. Men and women can both look at the figures and make a decision, but sometimes we know intuitively that something needs to be done in a different way.
Q. What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs who want to pursue a career in business?
Anouk: We are successful because we had an idea and we had the guts to start up a company. If you have an idea, follow your dreams and make it happen.
Judith: Flexibility is key. Act quickly and listen to your clients.
Anouk: Your team is really important because they make it happen. You need different types of people – people who are administration-focused, analytical and creative.
Q. What’s the most important thing that you have learned from leading Meetingselect?
Judith: It’s like a personal trip around the world that keeps on going – you meet new people, come across cultural differences, and are astonished by amazing things.
Anouk: I would recommend starting a business with someone else. I don’t believe that I would have come so far without Judith. It’s nice to share the journey.