As you might have read in my previous interview with Brian Garret, of 3D Hubs I was in Amsterdam towards the end of January. In my interview a week earlier with Brian who is based there I had questioned whether Amsterdam was really one of the big European Tech Hubs. I found myself at Rockstart Accelerator, a startup hub right in the centre of Amsterdam only a few minutes walk from the AirBnB I was staying in. Floris Van Hoogenhuyze, is the founder of Barqo and in our early email exchanges we had agreed to meet early for coffee in the ground floor coffee shop/co-working space of Rockstart. I expected things to be quiet at this time of the morning but I walked in to what can only be described as a hive of activity and immediately my comments to Brian a week before were retracted about Amsterdam not being a great startup hub. I met Floris and within minutes we got on well, his energy is electric. The guy was bouncing already and I don’t believe it was the caffeine intake, it appeared he’s just always like that.
Floris is one of the founder of Barqo a startup in Amsterdam enabling Peer-to-Peer Boat Sharing. They’re an AirBnB for boats to put it simply.
AF: So Floris, tell us a little about you? The story of how you got to Barqo.
FV: I studied economics and then I followed that by working at Heineken on a part-time basis whilst doing a thesis on a large corporate bank. At this point I realised the corporate world wasn’t for me and I wanted to do my own thing. So in 2012 I joined a company doing video production & online video marketing called HUISenVIDEO. It was specialising in video production and marketing for the real estate sector and in the early days (2012) it was a pretty rough ride but we managed to get through it and become profitable in the first year. That company is still alive today and continues to grow. However, then one day myself and my two co-founders Sebastien de Groot and Thijs Janssen were drinking coffee outside in January 2014. We saw the first boat of the morning sail by along the canal here in Amsterdam and we happened to be discussing the possibilities of the sharing economy and in particular the success of AirBnB. I guess you might say it was the eureka moment when we started very quickly to move onto the topics of boats – Peer to Peer (P2P) Boat Sharing.. And hence Barqo was founded. The experience is huge in Amsterdam and across Holland. There are 400,000 boats in the country and so we discovered that the domestic market alone was huge. Basically you have a lot of boats that remain unused on average for 92% of the time which is staggering. Sailing is popular here in Holland but not everyone has their own boat and why should they? Barqo was created to solve that problem. So we started working pretty hard at launched at the end of the season (bad timing but worked out ok) in late August, early September 2014.
AF: How much traction did you get off your launch bearing in mind it was the end of boating season?
FV: It was pretty good, we had a few hundred boats on the platform fairly quickly. These were requests built up prior to even launching from our landing page form. Even though the season was nearly over we still managed to get 30 transactions of happy Barqo customers sharing their boats to strangers.. Which is pretty cool right? This is all with what can only be described as a proof of concept so I was pretty pleased heading into the winter months when we really had a chance to get our head down on Barqo in time for the next season.
AF: You’ve mentioned Seasons quite a lot. Is this a seasonal product? Surely there are implications from this?
FV: Well that was a big concern of mine too but now after seeing the majority of winter through we’re quite excited. What we found is that boat owners and sailors have a chance in the winter months to be focusing on next season. During the winter months when boats are either racking up charges for being out of the water, maintenance costs, or more commonly, sitting docked and haven’t been used for a number of months the concerns are all the same: 1. We’re not getting use of our boat and it’s costing us money 2. Nobody is renting our boats. This realisation heightens the urgency to do something about it. 1. We must get more use out of our boat 2. We must get more income from renting our boat. So winter time is a great time to be onboarding new boat owners and then during the boating season our focus is on mobilising the community which is a challenge in itself. From a customer perspective, booking a boating trip is much like booking a summer holiday.. It’s often planned ahead and booked months in advance and whilst we are encouraging customers to go on spontaneous boating trips, we’re happy for them to be booking in advance. We’re now seeing other locations in Europe and further a field sign up for Barqo where the season is year round which is a great positive but we’ve still got to figure out our strategy on other markets. Domestic focus must come first.
AF: So what is the biggest thing your team is working on right now?
FV: We’re actually working on a huge insurance model with one of the biggest insurance providers in Holland. It’s a massive undertaking and we’re making real progress on it. It will steady the ship in a big way once that’s secured. You know the importance and how large AirBnB’s insurance model is and that’s primarly for homes so you can imagine what it’s like for boats.
AF: What’s the next milestone for Barqo?
FV: Right now it’s about stacking ‘seller side’ on the marketplace. So by February we will have 1000 boats on the platform and we’ll grow at 50% into March and April.
AF: You had mentioned growth hacking earlier to me before we’d started the interview. What tricks or hacks work best for Barqo?
FV: For us at the moment it’s actually more of a manual ‘growth hack’. We hit big boat fairs, we don’t get a stand. The four of us split up and go into absolute hustle mode and it works a treat every time. There’s always a spike in boat signups and interest over the next few days when we do that. We’ll be doing a lot more of that as we approach boating season.
AF: Can you tell us a bit about your team?
FV: Sure. We’re currently 4 but soon to be 5 in the next few weeks. We’re all based here in Amsterdam. 2 Developers, 1 community manager and then myself and my 2 co-founders. As founders we wear a lot of different hats and play a lot of roles within the company just now.
AF: Can you tell us a bit about how you are funded?
FV: At first we funded it ourselves, using our own capital that we invested into Barqo. We then raised a convertible note which was really useful as it cuts down the fund-raising process significantly and takes away the need to argue over terms and valuations. Now we’re about ready to put the next round in motion. My big thing is not to get too focused on fundraising. It takes up so much time and almost becomes an obsession. We’re in a good place and the company needs my focus so although we’ll be raising another round soon, I’ll be doing my best not to get too distracted. I guess we’re in a unique position where we have a previous company that is profitable and running sustainably by itself which helps a lot.
AF: Please explain your business model.
FV: Similar to AirBnb I guess. They charge a service fee to both the owner and the tenant. We charge a service fee to the owner of the boat of 15%.
AF: What’s a big challenge for you guys in the future? **Up until this point I was already mightily impressed by Barqo and their founder Floris, however it was only when this question was asked I saw the true operator and strategic thinker that he is. It was at this point that Barqo appeared on my personal ‘ones to watch list’.
FV: I want to grow internationally. Every startup does right? But it’s in what way we grow is the biggest dilemma. I intend to start by mobilising and encouraging the dutch community to go on boating excursions and holidays abroad and not just in Holland. After that once we start generating traction in other markets we have a problem on our hands, one which I’m already doing a lot of thinking about. It’s Uber versus AirBnB right? AirBnB centralised themselves. Yes, they have other offices but for the most part they are centralised. Uber on the other hand have went country to country — roman conqueror style. For us we’ve AirBnB’s concept right? It’s the sharing economy, but then from a growth perspective just like Uber targets congested cities, we have to follow the boat trail and our company immediately becomes logistically challenged from the get-go. **Floris elaborated further on this and revealed some of their tactics to overcome this but maybe that’s for another day**
AF: Talk me through your daily routine? **Again it was here that Floris passed his iPad across the table and I understood more about the man I was talking to. I thought I liked my daily routine and that my Google Calendar was impressive but Floris takes it to the next level. His discipline in time management was impressive and I was then able to realise that it wasn’t just because he and I were early birds that we were meeting at this time but because it’s just how he does things. For it to be quite early in their startup journey, Barqo have a lot of structure in place.
FV: So maybe I’ll talk more about the team first. We only do 2 meetings a week. Monday and Thursday mornings are when the whole team gets together and we pretty much evaluate everything. After that we have 2 working blocks during the week where we’re all behind our screens but working on the same thing, headphones out and talking to one another. The rest of the week everyone gets on with their individual tasks which we use wunderlist for. I find meetings to be unproductive and so as a founder it’s easy to get distracted with lots of external meetings (He laughs across the table at me hinting that I am one of these ‘distracting external meetings’). So when they do come along, I make them early morning only as I don’t like stopping and starting throughout the day. For me I’m a creature of habit. I often wake early with breakfast, coffee and a newspaper (oldschool) on the agenda immediately and I’m usually in here no later than 8am to get early meetings out of the way.
AF: What was the highlight of 2014 for you?
FV: I was playing cricket on a Saturday afternoon. After a break in play I had a quick peak at the Barqo app where I can login in to monitor performance and I saw that at that moment in time there were 6 boats out on excursions in different places around the country by first time users. It was such an amazing feeling as I had nothing to do with it. I was playing cricket after-all!
That’s it for this time but I suspect on my next trip to Amsterdam I’ll pop in and see these guys again and maybe do an update on where they are at. Floris and the Barqo team are super enthused by the work Founded In Holland and FoundedX are doing and it’s exciting to see startups supporting the cause and getting behind it. Although it’s a little premature the team at Barqo might be doing a collaboration on a community event later in the year with us at FoundedX so that is certainly something to listen out for!