What brings students to set up their own business? And how do they turn their entrepreneurial ideas into reality? In this series, student entrepreneurs talk about the early years of their business. In this instalment: Juriaan Karsten decided to quit his study to build and expand his start-up, Parkeagle.
Juriaan Karsten (26) seems to have a knack for risk and creation – in fact, in the previous six years he has ventured into four different projects alongside his university studies, each with varying degree of success.
Currently, he is a co-founder of Parkeagle, a smart-parking start-up based in Amsterdam. Since its inception in 2016, the company has focused on solving traffic and congestion within inner city districts through smart-parking technology. Their smart sensor can be placed in parking slots or even garage entrances giving the user the ability to visualise available parking spots around the city as well as access to traffic insights. At the moment, the company is working with businesses as well as the municipalities of Rotterdam and The Hague.
This urge to create initially started six years ago when Juriaan decided to build his first social media app while studying Economics at Erasmus University. In his eyes, social media was really starting to boom, with Facebook in particular leading the way. This led to the birth of his first start-up: ‘Grader’.
“In the beginning I did a lot of the stuff myself, but I could only get so far. I was later working with a Chinese guy that I had found online and we built the app together”. The app had a simple yet effective concept. It would let users upload pictures and outfits to be rated by others – ‘an Instagram on steroids’, recalls Juriaan.
With a solid base of users and consistent growth every month, Juriaan saw his team expand in the following two years, and soon investors took note. Juriaan accepted 250 thousand euros in investment, yet this came with one costly concession – the contract explicitly stated that if he accepted the investment, he would have to put his studies aside for an extended period of time. “I didn’t see this as an issue; and next thing I knew we were moving our office to work in Amsterdam.”
Even though the app was growing consistently and Juriaan had a team of nine people working on the project, it soon hit a wall. This was a rude awakening, as it proved without a doubt that a good idea and growth on their own are not clear indicators of success so much as an effective and profitable business model. “We were still working in ways to monetise the app, but we needed more money. We couldn’t find more investors unfortunately, and soon I was completely broke and in debt. In the end I sold it for pennies.”
Juriaan returned to Erasmus University where he commenced his studies in History, exasperated by his previous failure, but not discouraged: “I think of ‘Grader’ as a really expensive MBA since I was able to learn a lot – a really, really expensive MBA”.
When he turned 23, he was soon off to a code camp in search of more technical knowledge – an experience that was a major detour from his History studies. During his first weeks of study at the code camp, Juriaan’s mentor suggested that he should go to a start-up event hosted in the same building. “The guys from the code camp joked that we could get a job as a software engineer, which was unlikely because we were just starting out.”
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After waiting for ten other start-ups to present their idea at the convention, the last start-up – Parkeagle – with its two initial founders took to the stage.
“I thought these guys were brilliant. Of all the people pitching their ideas, they were the most advanced guys out there when it came to technology. They had a really interesting technological idea to improve parking through sensors. I approached them and I was just asking a lot of questions, and they were blown away since they’d never thought about the questions I was asking them. They were really product focused rather than market focused”
To the surprise of his mentors at the code camp, Juriaan came back head high and waving his hands celebrating that he received an internship offer from the two founders of Parkeagle. “I came back celebrating that I got a job offer and my coach was like: ‘What in the world is going on, this guys is just an average coder.’ I just got really lucky.”
Thriving in the start-up scene and in the code camp, Juriaan again decided to put his studies on hold until he eventually decided to quit his studies altogether and work full-time. With an industrious attitude, he found himself working on Parkeagle’s commercial side: managing the first sales, fixing legal aspects and even assembling endless amounts of parking sensors manually at the office when Parkeagle won a contract to work with the city of Rotterdam. “The two initial founders realised I was actually more of a co-founder than an intern, and they offered me the position.”
During his first year at Parkeagle, three years after his first venture ‘Grader’ fell apart, Juriaan is still left with a bitter taste. After all, he insists that with some more capital injection from investors, Grader would have been up and running today with profitable margins. “That’s why I started collecting all the investor contacts my team and I had mined from the web throughout the years and started NLfunding.co as a business on the side in 2017.”
Later this ‘business on the side’ proved its value as Juriaan was able to sell it shortly thereafter for a profit, while also creating a huge network of investors and founders.
Does he regret not finishing his studies? “It is still one of my insecurities – not having a piece of paper from the university. But I won’t go back to studying because I don’t like the current education model.” By this he refers to the fact that studying can take years; years that hold you back from heading out and actually experiencing the industry itself.
“I believe in the value of education, but it has to be purposeful education. So if you don’t know what you want to do after you graduate, in my opinion you should go into the world and find out what you’re good at. If you find what you like, you should think about studying. I think the current education system where you are locked in place for four years is not adapted to reality.”
Of course, Juriaan does not openly advocate dropping out of university to become an entrepreneur. After all, entrepreneurship does require a lot of work and some luck as well. “Of the other ten companies that were at the start-up event, only two survived, and Parkeagle is one of them.”