Berlin is one of the biggest startup cities in Europe. Companies such as ShopAlike, GoEuro and Marley Spoon all started in the German capital — and what they all have in common is that they operate online.
These companies witnessed fast growth and rapidly expanded abroad, creating international employment in the process. To see what it is like to work at a startup company as a foreigner, ShopAlike interviewed Tim Kruisman, an employee of online shopping portal Visual Meta in Berlin.
An interview with a startup employee in Berlin
Birthplace: Waddinxveen, Netherlands
Education: Bachelor, Business Administration – Commercial Economics (Rotterdam); Master, Marketing (Sweden)
Family: Married with 1 daughter
Tim Kruisman works at Visual Meta in Berlin. Mr Kruisman has seen the company and himself grow rapidly in the course of a few years. When he started in 2013, Visual Meta was still a small startup with around 60 employees. Now, the company has roughly 250 employees and operates in 14 countries, including the Netherlands.
After your graduation, you made the decision to work in Berlin at a startup company. Why did you make this choice?
After my graduation, there weren’t many employment opportunities. The financial crisis [in 2008] was still ongoing and, without work experience, it was almost impossible to find a job. I couldn’t find work immediately after my bachelor, so I chose to do a marketing master in Sweden instead. In order to afford this, I decided to work for a full year at Welkoop.nl, where, in hindsight, I learned a lot about retail. Even to this day, I can still apply this knowledge at Visual Meta. In Sweden, I met my current wife and together we searched for jobs after our graduation. The country didn’t really matter — the one who would find a job first decided where we were going to live. In 2013, I found a job at Visual Meta and together we decided to move to Berlin.
I chose a startup company because I like organisations with little bureaucracy — where people are free to express ideas and that these are taken seriously.
Could you briefly explain to us what Visual Meta actually does and what your position is?
Visual Meta offers websites such as ShopAlike, Ladenzeile, and UmSòLugar in both Europe as well as Brazil. These websites are comparison portals where people can compare product and prices of different webshops without having to actually go to these different online shops. My task in this is that of the director of quality. The quality department is responsible for creating order in the chaos of the more than 150 million products Visual Meta provides and the more than one thousand online shops/partners we have.
In the quality department, we make sure that the product is shown in the right category on the site. At the moment, I am responsible for approximately 60 people who are divided into four groups, each consisting of 14 different nationalities. Every platform consists of people from all countries in which we are active. All of these groups have a manager — these are my direct reports. I directly instruct these managers and make sure that the goals of the management are transformed into operational actions. In short, I convert strategic plans into operational actions within Visual Meta. Furthermore, I put a lot of effort into setting goals and HR business, and I am the contact point for other departments within the company.
What do you find the most challenging part of your job?
The variety. Every day is different: one day you are working on a strategy with the managing directors and the next you are guiding people. Another day I might be solving technical problems with the developers. Working with all kinds of different people, though, is still the most challenging part of my job because people never respond the same in situations. This means that I try to approach each individual in a different way. I believe that you can achieve the best results through this approach.
How did you see the company change from a startup to a full-fledged and healthy company?
When I started in 2013, Visual Meta only had around 60 employees. The structure of the company was based on individual country teams. There were hardly any processes in place, and a large part of the employees were interns. In this environment, everybody had a great degree of freedom and everyone could implement changes quickly if they felt like it was necessary.
Sometimes, this lead to uncertainties and problems. It was, for example, sometimes unclear who had responsibility over what. At the end of 2014, the company structure was radically changed, and we implemented specific departments such as sales, marketing and quality. From that moment, we also started to implement more processes, not only within the specific departments but also between the different departments.
This organisational structure has clear advantages in the form of more certainty concerning responsibility, higher efficiency and more exchange of best practices. The implementation of this new structure also had a few downsides in the form of slower decision-making and sometimes estrangement between employees who work for the same shopping platform. In recent years, we have hardly had any interns, and most employees at Visual Meta are in permanent employment. Additionally, major changes have taken place in the HR department, including a better feedback process, onboarding of new employees. The subject of structural personal development is higher on the agenda.
All these issues didn’t have the highest priority when I started at Visual Meta a few years ago. So those are clear signals for me that Visual Meta is growing up.
Would you recommend people to work at a startup and/or to work abroad?
I have never worked at a big company before, so my frame of reference on this is formed by the experience of friends and family of mine. I would always choose a startup on the basis of what they told me about working at a bigger company. There are fewer processes; it is less bureaucratic and most of the time, a startup is more flexible. I would definitely recommend a startup to people who can handle this kind of environment. However, for people who like to have more security and want to know where they will be in the long term, a startup would be less suitable. This is, of course, an important decision that people have to make for themselves.
Furthermore, trainings, workshop and good onboarding programmes, for example, are less common at small startups. I would always recommend young people who don’t have many obligations to go abroad and experience new things. You learn about different cultures and meet new people, especially in international companies such as Visual Meta. I also have learned to have a different outlook on life because of my experiences abroad.
As additional bonus, you also learn to appreciate the Netherlands more, because you have comparison material and conclude that it isn’t all that bad at home.
How did you see yourself grow within the company and how was it to adapt yourself to your new management role?
In 2013, I started in the Dutch team as quality manager, after which I was asked to apply internally for International Business Developer & Quality Manager at the end of 2013. In my new function, the focus lies in implementing and expanding the business model to new markets. Besides that, I coordinated all quality-related matters for Visual Meta.
As I mentioned earlier, in 2014, we made some significant changes to the company structure. This had a very positive effect on my position within the company. I was asked by the managing director to present my ideas and recommendations for a new quality department. They liked the ideas and decided to appoint me as quality director. I personally think that being active during meetings, sharing new ideas and helping to maintain a positive working atmosphere greatly helps when you want to stand out and grow within your company.
This is also an important aspect of a startup company — they’re always moving, and there are many opportunities to grow and prove yourself. This growth can mean you climb the management ladder, but also further develop yourself and gain more experience in your field of work. These two sorts of growth are equally important to me. Not everyone wants to become a manager, and having skilled employees is vitally important for an organisation.
However, rapid growth can also bring certain challenges. For example, I found it quite difficult to be the manager of people that are my friends as well. Many times, people will treat you differently when you’re their manager. This was definitely a challenge for me, and in hindsight, I think I underestimated that change.
What does a standard working day look like for you?
I find it important to start the day with face-to-face conversations, either a bit of small talk or work-related business. Of course, you cannot escape the many meetings — that is roughly 40 percent of my time. Furthermore, I’m busy emailing, and I have a lot of contact with the engineers. I do this so I can have a better reflection of the job and see improvement points easier.
Furthermore, my day consists of a lot of on-demand requests and unplanned business, which keep the job rather exciting.
How do you see the future of e-commerce? What do you regard as the most important trends in this sector?
I think that online webshops will become much more personal and that online shopping will be a more individualised experience in the future. It will also become easier for big players to use personal information and set different prices on the basis of different customers (price discrimination). This is of course not positive for the customer, but it is for companies.
As biggest trends at the moment, I see:
- Artificial intelligence and personal assistants such as Siri. Shopping with the help of personal assistants is increasing. I think that the success of Google also strongly depends on how they handle this.
- Photo recognition is also becoming more important. The world is just a
click away on your smartphone for most people. Pictures will be used in the same
- Conversion (proceed to purchase) on mobile will also increase in the
coming years. In places where the PC plays a less important role in e-commerce, such as Southeast Asia and Brazil, mobile conversion has always been higher.
- Fast product delivery will become the standard (same day delivery or within an hour).
However, this will also have to be paid in a certain way. I think that in the
long term, free delivery will no longer be sustainable.