Muller – who himself also once studied at Erasmus University – thinks that the world will never look the same again as it did before the corona crisis. Yet he wants to impress upon students and future entrepreneurs that a large part of their success depends on perseverance, not on the situation. “Don’t just throw in the towel. Instead, think about how you are going to step into this new world.”

Apparently, things are going not so bad for Picnic?

“Things are going very well indeed. We are continuing to grow and are now established in Holland and Germany. There is a huge demand for us, and the corona crisis has spurred that on even more.

“Still, the situation is certainly not always so easy. The measures sometimes make it a bit difficult for us as well. It is very important to keep a distance of 1.5 metres in the distribution centres so that everyone is able to work safely. We also have new employees in our office who have to sit behind a screen all day for the first three months. That’s not much fun, of course. What’s more, I miss the get-togethers, where you meet new people – that’s the fun part of working with such a young team. Thank goodness we’ll start doing that again soon.”

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Erasmus TV: chairman of the Erasmus Trust Fund Michiel Muller gives tips for young entrepreneurs

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Last year Picnic was under fire because its employees were experiencing too much work pressure. What’s more, your workplaces were reportedly unsafe. How are things going now?

“Most of the criticism levelled at us was pulled out of a hat by people who had never even visited us. Nevertheless, every company makes mistakes and we are by no means perfect, either. We have done a lot more to improve safety. For example, we now have a safety coordinator and have gotten rid of all sorts of things.

“We have also proven ourselves to people who want more flexibility. We were too preoccupied with optimising our company in the beginning. But now we are much more flexible when it comes to scheduled hours. If an employee says: Next week, I would like to work 40 hours instead of the lower number of hours I normally work, then we can agree to that nowadays. Then we make sure that the employee can effectively work those hours.”

Aside from Picnic, you are also involved with the university as the chair of the Erasmus Trust Fund. In the interim, has the fund managed to attract a lot of donations?

“We intend to use the fund to raise 100 million euros by 2025 and are well on our way. We have raised 30 million so far. We want to try to create a steady flow of money for the university. It is essentially an endowment fund, meaning that the donated amount will be preserved, and projects will be financed from the return on investments. In the long term, you create a stable flow of income this way, since only the returns on the trust will be put to use.”

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Why is the fund so important?

“The fact that we are doing it makes a good impression on students and that’s a very positive thing. Erasmus University is highly rated worldwide. The university is ranked number 68 in the whole world, which is incredibly high and is a great motivator. We want to keep up that level of excellence. As a university, we should not have to depend on what the government decides. For instance, if a political party switches over in the coalition, the world might look different then. With this fund, we want to make a contribution when it comes to enabling projects that make a difference.”

You studied at Erasmus University as well. Has a lot changed since then?

“I graduated in 1989. Back then, the university was already very much geared towards entrepreneurship like it is now. The university was, of course, founded in 1913 by 40 entrepreneurs from Rotterdam. The entrepreneurial aspect of the organisation is still there, although a lot has changed since I graduated. For one thing, all the insights that we’re now gaining from research are also being put into practice. That’s an improvement over what it used to be. The Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship is a good example of this.

“By the way, there are far more international students now as well. I also see that as a huge advantage. I think that a mixture of national and international students offers a lot more insight and really enriches us. When international students go back to their home countries after their studies, they take their positive view of the university with them, too. The university gains in standing as a result.”

You have extensive experience in entrepreneurship. What kind of advice would you give to students and budding entrepreneurs on how to become a successful entrepreneur? And how should first-time entrepreneurs respond to these uncertain times?

“As an entrepreneur you’re always dealing with ups and downs, trial and error. But sometimes you accomplish something and that’s what it is all about. The most important thing, obviously, is to start. Show some initiative and determination. Success is definitely not just about money. It also has to do with the experience that you gain. For example, with Picnic, we were the first e-commerce company in the Netherlands to enter into a collective labour agreement. That is unique and we have managed to pull it off pretty well. An experience like that keeps me going.

“There are definitely opportunities even in these unstable times, precisely because the world is changing so much. You shouldn’t resign yourself to the situation as it is now. A new situation means that you have got to be flexible. Don’t just throw in the towel. Instead, think about how we’re going to step into the new world.”

About Michiel Muller

Michiel Muller (1964) is a veritableserial entrepreneur. He is co-founder of Picnic, an online supermarket that delivers groceries across more than 130 towns and cities in the Netherlands and Germany. In the past, he also built up Tango’s network of unmanned petrol stations and established the online residential property auction Bieden en Wonen. Muller has written several books on entrepreneurship. His book “Michiel Muller: Experiences of a Serial Entrepreneur” was released in 2010 and was voted entrepreneur book of the year that same year. He wrote a second book in 2015, “Ondernemen is een ABCtje” (Entrepreneurship is as easy as ABC). Muller attended Erasmus University in Rotterdam several years ago. He is still involved with the university, as chair of the Erasmus Trust Fund.

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