This interview is part of our series of Growth Stories. We interviewed the founders and CEOs of 20 of the fastest growing startups in Europe. We asked them about their companies, their companies’ culture, and their lives, trying to understand how these three factors played a role in the achievement of such impressive growth.
In a well-known 2007 TED Talk, J.J. Abrams (yes, J.J. Abrams) recounts the story of the $ 15 Mystery Box that he bought when he was a teenager. The box just contained some cheap magic tricks but for the creator of Lost and destroyer of Star Wars it represented the potential behind every surprise.
Aside from the fact that people actually use them, the philosophy behind the travel packages created by Dutch fast-growing startup srprs.me is the same: mystery trips for travelers that love to be surprised.
The product is as simple as it can get. Travelers that want to go on a “City Break” just list up to three places they don’t want to visit. They receive the weather forecasts of their secret destination one week in advance but they get to know it only when they arrive at the airport and embark on a plane that will surely land them safely to their destination and not on a deserted island. J.J. Abrams aside, it’s clear that – more than a product – srprs.me sells the experience around it.
And apparently, sales are pretty good. In the past three years, the company grew more than 3,000 percent. To find out more about such impressive growth, I meet with Raymond Klompsma, the CEO and co-founder of srprs.me.
Raymond welcomes me in the headquarters of the company, a quiet office in a corner of a beautiful Amsterdam park. We sit on a table covered of postcards that satisfied travelers have sent to srprs.me since 2014, when it was launched.
TNW: How did it all start?
Raymond Klompsma: srprs.me was founded by me, Stefan Wobben, Marcel Hagedoorn and Tim Beglinger. At the time, we were running a design agency that we also founded, Concept7. We were brainstorming business ideas, just to write them down, and Stefan added the concept of the “destination unknown” that was actually based on a true story.
A while back, Stefan was in Barcelona for a conference. He didn’t have anything to do for the weekend and asked me and Marcel to organize something for him but without revealing any detail until the very last moment. We sent him to a city he would’ve never expected where he had a wonderful experience.
Since he had no room for any kind of preparation, he was completely open-minded. That’s how the idea of srprs.me ended up in the brainstorming. And we all fell in love with it immediately to the point that we wanted to realize it.
How did you get your first customers on board?
Firstly, we tested the concept with 15-20 people – parents and relatives – and then in March 2014 we went live with our product and got around 700 travelers. That was a real surprise because we didn’t have any kind of expectation. You know, we didn’t do market research beforehand, maybe just one hour or so on Google. The year after we got 12,000 travelers and that was of course also thanks to a massive PR campaign that we launched. The press liked the idea, the gimmick of it, and so we got a lot of coverage.
I understand why the press got hooked. You sell an experience that is bucking the trend: in a time obsessed with reviews for everything, you celebrate the unplanned pleasures of traveling. As you state on your LinkedIn’s profile “it’s a mission to bring spontaneity back in our lives.” Is it just marketing rhetoric?
No, this is really who we are, who I am. There is no discrepancy between the experience that we sell and our company culture. Our brand and our company culture are the same. I do think that people forget to live more with their heart and overthink every decision. As a company, this informs also the way we work.
In this regard, can you name three core values for srprs.me?
Sure. We’re like a friend, open-minded and a little bit weird. And if I could add an extra one, I’d say that we strive to make things “beautifully simple”.
Even simpler? To me, it seems that your product is already really simple.
Yes, our product will be even simpler. We keep working on how we could make it simpler and better. Every month there is a theme and we test new concepts. It’s an ongoing experimentation.
Speaking of products, do you have direct competitors?
Last year, we conducted a thorough research on a worldwide basis. There are 15 companies that sell something based on the “surprise model.” And in the travel business there are of course other companies that sell unknown destination but they don’t fully embrace the concept. For us it’s not about selling empty hotel beds or plane seats but a truly different way of traveling. Anyway, up until now there has not been much of direct competition.
I guess that this allowed you to expand to markets other than The Netherlands.
Yes, we are now also present in Belgium and from last April also in the United Kingdom. We really had to start from zero over there but at the moment 12 percent of our sales is already made in the UK and it’s getting traction.
Is this international expansion challenging your way of doing things?
Yes, a lot. This is something I’m struggling with at the moment: how can you maintain the feeling of being a startup while scaling up? But also at the level of product: we receive many offers of possible deals that would be highly lucrative in the short term but would somewhat change the nature of our offer. It’s hard to say no but I’m determined to maintain the steer.
Expansion means new hires. What’s your role in the process? Do you look at formal education when looking for new people?
Finding the right people is a big chunk of my work. This applies to every position. For example, is fundamental for us to have the right people in customer service that can choose to send a bottle of wine to a traveler without having to check with finance all the time.
As for the formal education, it’s important but culture is way more important. Do I believe in this person? Does this person have the right mindset? These are the questions that I ask myself. I could hire an assistant that can’t type.
OK, during these interviews, everything seems always wonderful and perfect. Can you name some more negative or just challenging aspects of your time at srprs.me?
That would surely be the work-life balance. As much as I love srprs.me, I’m a family guy. I live in the North of the Netherlands and I want to go back to my children to have dinner with them. When there are traffic jams and I miss my moment with them, you don’t want to be around me.
What’s a question you would like to ask to the other CEOs we’re interviewing for these Growth Stories?
I’d ask: what’s the advice you would give to your 19-year-old self? (If you ask me, I’d say: judge less)
In this regard, Ola Sars (CEO, co-founder Soundtrack your Brand) asks: how do you see yourself in 5-10 years?
I have the ambition to make a worldwide brand out of srprs.me. I think I will need at least another five years for this!
In the lead-up to Tech5 2018 – the annual competition organized by TNW and Adyen which celebrates Europe’s fastest-growing tech companies in the Netherlands, UK, Germany, Spain, France, and Sweden – we’re launching a series of remarkable stories of businesses that experienced extreme growth. If you are a startup with an inspiring/remarkable/interesting story about finding your special metric that led to growth, please share it with email@example.com.