Interview Daan Weddepohl / Peerby
"The only way to avoid mistakes is to do nothing."
When a dumpster in the basement of Daan Weddepohl's apartment block caught fire that caused his house to burn down, the idea for Peerby was planted. "I had nothing and I had to borrow stuff", is the short version of the story that lead to the success of the app that is now running in 20 cities across Europe with pilots in NYC, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Daan's ultimate goal? "To facilitate the transition to a more sustainable way of life, by getting everyone to share what they’ve got."
Interview Daphne van Langen
Translation Siji Jabbar Photography Jerome de Lint
What did you want to be when you grew up? A bit of everything. A surgeon, because I liked figuring out how things worked; a professor, because I thought they invented things; and I yearned to study physics so I could understand how the universe works.
Where did you grow up, what was your childhood like, and what were you like as a kid? I was born in Rotterdam. My earliest memory is of sitting in a pushchair with my feet up on its slightly too high leg rest, and feeling terribly frustrated about my inability to convey my discomfort because I hadn’t yet learned to talk. We later moved to Hendrik Ido Ambacht, a devoutly Christian village, although I wasn’t raised Christian. This was before computers, so I played a lot outside, with a stopwatch that my dad had modified hanging from my neck to remind me when to go home. I was a sweet, well-behaved kid, but preferred hanging out with the troublemakers, who seemed more interesting than the other kids. This hasn’t changed, actually. I don’t mean criminals; just people who aren’t afraid to flout convention.
What did your parents do for a living, and what were they like as people? My dad taught higher education psychology, and later worked as a system administrator in the Dutch health service — I think his calling was fixing computers rather than people. My mum was a psychotherapist, with her own practice. My parents were pretty liberated for the early 80s: they both chose to work part-time to take care of me and my younger brother. They got divorced when I was 6, and my mum took us with her to Ede but my dad stayed in the western part of the country.
“They tested me for ADHD and dyslexia, and discovered I was highly intelligent, which can be a blessing, but it felt to me like trying to get through doors when you’re three metres tall.”
Did this affect you in any way? Yes. Being uprooted to the other side of the country wasn’t fun. I got bullied as the newcomer, although this stopped after I flew off the handle a few times and punched a couple of kids. Those same bullies later became my best friends.
It was around this time that I began to feel the burden of responsibility. My father was stressed out after the divorce, so I didn’t want to add to that by putting a foot wrong, and my mother had to work very hard to keep everything running —it just seemed like she was no longer present, and home was no longer home. Luckily, that changed when we got a babysitter who lived in our street.
How did your studies go? I dropped out of secondary school. I made it to the third year without doing any homework, simply by paying attention, but they made me repeat the year "to learn how to work harder". That was the dumbest decision they could have made. Repeating the same lessons bored me, so I began acting out. I didn’t cut class or anything, but tested the boundaries; minor provocations like sticking a bottle of ketchup on my desk. So they tested me for ADHD and dyslexia, and discovered I was highly intelligent, which can be a blessing, but it felt to me like trying to get through doors when you’re three metres tall. Owing to the diagnosis, I was sent to a school with a more tailored curriculum, but the experience at the previous school had been so traumatic that the extra classes didn’t initially make much of a difference. I needed to learn to learn. So I dropped out.
What did you do next? I’d been coding since I was twelve — learning from my dad and reading up on it — and eventually responded to a job ad for helpdesk employees. I was seventeen, and the job was with Call2. I was seconded to the government’s computer service centre, but was soon yanked from the project for being overqualified. I was fixing computers that they would otherwise have claimed on insurance.
Then I went to work for the ICT company Getronics, managing servers for the NS and KLM, before moving to a company that automated dealing systems for investment banks. I moved to Brussels to work for Fortis when I was nineteen, and found myself alone among the forty-somethings, which drove me nuts. I had to put up a serious front all day. So I eventually started my own software consulting company, and before long I had a partner and employees.
In 2007 you did something completely different: drama school. Why this interest, and what were your plans? I’d been going to summer theatre camps with a cousin for years, and had fallen in love with acting. So, after some part-time training at Theaterschool De Trap, I applied to drama school in Arnhem, and was accepted, much to my surprise. And as I’d decided to become a professional actor, I sold my company. But I had to leave drama school after a year. My evaluation stated that I had demonstrated “insufficient development in emotional creative expression”. The question was whether I had potential for further development, and on this we didn’t agree. I know now that the real problem was that I just wasn’t at ease with myself, and tried too hard as a result. You narrow your range of expression when you do that.
How did you take the rejection? It remains my most significant and most painful rejection ever. It gave me nightmares for years. I’d wound up my company to go to drama school, and had envisaged my future as an actor. I tried everything I could think of to convince them to let me stay, even calling drama teachers to threaten to keep coming to class. It didn’t work.
So I applied to drama school in Maastricht, and their rejection was the final blow. It finally sank in that I was going to have to let go of my dream. That was also the year my house burned down, my relationship ended, and my mum became terminally ill. It felt like my past, present and future were coming apart at the same time.
Your house burned down? Yes, a dumpster in the basement of our apartment block caught fire. It was during this incident that I found out that I can be quite coolheaded under pressure, because I calmly turned to my girlfriend and said, “I suggest we pack our things, as I think we need to evacuate the building.” I actually said “evacuate”! We had to be rescued by the fire department, and my girlfriend ended up with post-traumatic stress. That’s partly what broke us up in the end. And that’s how I lost everything. I booked a one-way ticket to Istanbul, just for something to do, and travelled along the Aegean coast at a furious pace. I didn’t feel at all at peace with the world, and was trying to escape the void. Only when I’d lost all hope and had nothing to hold on to did I begin to do what I really felt like doing, rather than acting from a sense of obligation or because it was expected. I went back to complete my training at Theaterschool De Trap, and began appearing in ads and performing in television series.
“I don’t think you need wait for “a good idea”. Rather, I think you need a strong motive or desire. Even a very bad idea can sometimes result in an unintentionally good one.”
Nevertheless, you switched from acting, and launched Peerby, the online item-sharing platform for neighbours, in 2012. How did this come about? The simple version of the story is that I had nothing and needed to borrow stuff. I was inspired by Rachel Botsman’s book about collaborative consumption, What's Mine is Yours; why not share what's already available? The more elaborate reason is that I wanted to create something that would allow people to connect, because my recent experiences had made me more open to others, and had put me in touch with my emotions and my vulnerability.
How do you turn a good idea into a successful start-up? I don’t think you need to wait for “a good idea”. Rather, I think you need a strong motive or desire. Even a very bad idea can sometimes result in an unintentionally good one. Look at Columbus, who went in search of a shorter route to India. My selfish incentive is that I’m only really motivated when what I do also adds value to society. It hadn’t occurred to me before that this kind of meaning was possible through work.
You went through quite an ordeal to gain this insight. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but I’d recommend it to everyone. When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose. There’s no better starting position.
You set up Peerby with Eelke Boezeman. How did you meet? At the Founder Institute, a start-up incubator programme set up by Adeo Ressi, Elon Musk’s best friend, with the aim of globalizing Silicon Valley. His method for doing so is to use the transfer of knowledge to allow people to set up meaningful and enduring companies worldwide.
It ran for a semester in Amsterdam, with the crème de la crème of Dutch business participating under the guidance of TEDxAmsterdam founder Jim Stolze and digital media entrepreneur Joris van Heukelom. Eelke was one of the participants.
Tell us a bit about the programme. All the participants were chosen, and the programme itself was quite intensive. You basically founded and worked on a start-up each week, everything from registering it to writing code. And each week you had to pitch your idea to guest mentors; score low and you were out.
You would then be strongly advised to stop, which is one of Adeo’s methods of weeding people out. You need to be able to handle repeated rejection and disappointment as an entrepreneur. The highlight was 24 hours of work on a special assignment that you had to complete within 48 hours, the details of which you received by email on Christmas Eve. Of the thirty candidates, only seven of us made it.
You launched Peerby as a free service, and without a business model. Why? We thought about charging a fee, but decided to leave it open, and users responded by lending rather than renting things out, which was a pleasant surprise, as a lot of the people I’d pitched Peerby to had scoffed at the idea of people sharing anything. The norms of social interactions are quite different from those of monetary transactions. Dan Ariely has a good example of this in his book Predictably Irrational, in which he gives three groups ten minutes to drag as many circles as possible from one side of a computer screen into a square. Group A was to receive nothing for their efforts; group B were offered ten cents in total; and group C, ten Dollars. Group A performed best, Group B the worst. When the two money groups were promised gifts of a similar value instead of money, they both performed as well as Group A.
I read on your website that an electric drill is used, on average, for only 13 minutes in its entire lifespan, so it makes more sense, environmentally and financially, for people to share rather than buy. Are there any downsides on the sharing economy? When you buy something, it travels one way, and that’s it. But to share something is for it to move back and forth; the concept isn’t yet mainstream. And it involves a social component that you don’t always feel like engaging in. It’s a bit like sports, actually: you get a lot from it when you do it, but you need to be in the right mood.
“When you buy something, it travels one way, and that’s it. But to share something is for it to move back and forth; the concept isn’t yet mainstream.”
You ran a crowdfunding campaign in 2016 that brought in over two million euros in one weekend. Why do you think it was so successful? It was overwhelming, and I’m at a loss to explain its success. Peerby members were responsible for 70 per cent of the receipts, which suggests we’d been doing something right. To be honest, I was relieved when the weekend was over, because I simply couldn’t comprehend what was happening; the money just kept pouring in. It was like being tickled for 48 hours or something. There’s a limit to how much delight you can process.
Our initial funding was covered by a government-awarded innovation subsidy. Then we made it to the finals of the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge. That was surreal: there we were are at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, sandwiched between the president of Costa Rica, Bill Clinton, Matt Damon and all sorts of royals, while trying to process the fact that our platform was suddenly 100,000 euros to the good.
Are you comfortable with making mistakes? I try to make as many mistakes as possible, because our doubts should encourage us to press ahead, not stagnate. Bert Sibum was my initial inspiration driver. He coached me for a while when I was contemplating not starting Peerby because I was too busy. He asked “Do you already have a problem? Because problems should be solved if and when they arise.” Peerby wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t said that. The only way to avoid mistakes is to do nothing. As I once told my team, “Adjusting our course doesn’t mean we never should have started cycling.”
Your team is now twenty strong. Which areas of management do you find a struggle? I’m a manager merely by default, a reluctant manager. I’d rather just create, you have to build things together. I’m not especially complimentary, because my mind is usually on what we need to do next. I could probably do more to acknowledge and celebrate what we’ve achieved.
I also find it difficult to define exactly how I want things, and to give people the room to fill in the blanks. I’m currently struggling with the question of whether we’ve over-adopted lean start-up methodology, in which you validate or invalidate your assumptions. I’m a huge fan, in theory, but you can take this sort of thing so far that you end up buried in figures and paralysed by over-analysis.
It’s always important to have the right people around you. To who do you turn for advice, support or inspiration? Adeo Ressi. I’d have been a completely different sort of entrepreneur without him, if at all. We talk on the phone every other week. He’s got so much experience and is such a visionary that he’s able to give you an instant and relevant answer to any question. He sugarcoats nothing, and doesn’t bother with things like the sandwich feedback technique; he gives it to you straight: “Okay, that wasn’t very good.” Wonderful way to work.
Anyone can start an online business, but not everyone can make a success of it. What’s distinctive about your platform, and how do you keep it so? The backend of the platform isn’t rocket science. The challenge lies elsewhere: you’re trying to stimulate a certain kind of new behaviour. You have hundreds of small companies around the world trying to do what we do, but failing because they simply don’t know how to stimulate behaviour. In fact, funnily enough, we’re the #1 operator in a global industry that investors referred to as “a graveyard”.
We’ve done dozens, if not hundreds, of things to make Peerby what it is, and they're so inextricably linked that it’d be hard to extricate just one thing to illustrate the point without yanking on the other parts. What’s your message, how are you marketing yourselves, how are you solving the problem, how do you shape interaction, how are you funding the operation, how are you telling your story, how committed are your colleagues?
“I still get people asking me if I do this full-time, while I work eighty hours a week with a team of more than twenty. People don’t see what goes on behind the scenes.”
You introduced a paid service in 2015, in which you charge a commission for whatever is borrowed, or rather, rented. Why, and might this overshadow the free service? One of borrowing’s huge advantages is also a disadvantage: social interaction. The rental platform was introduced as a solution to the reciprocal imbalance of borrowing, which some borrowers felt quite strongly. I really don’t know if the renting option will overshadow the borrowing facility. There are too many variables to consider. Our community did grow with the rental introduction, and we now have members who borrow and rent.
You stated, in 2015, in an interview with Sprout.tv, that you run a start-up by experimenting. How do you experiment with Peerby, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of running a start-up this way? We experiment with everything. The first thing we do whenever we think up something new is identify the riskiest assumption we’re making and the biggest unknown factor, and then devise a test to systematically address these unknowns. The test may take the form of a marketing campaign; or we might solicit feedback from members; or we might simply put a button on the website and see who clicks. The advantage is that you can test big ideas relatively quickly. The disadvantage is that you get only an isolated understanding of whatever you’re testing, whereas the world is holistic.
You said in the same interview that your greatest concern is staying focused. What exactly do you mean by that? I meant having to chart a course in a sea of infinite possibilities. When anything’s possible, how do you decide? Go wider in your offering or narrower? More and more specialized services are launching to fill a niche: Airbnb does nothing but apartments, for example. We’ve gone quite wide, in that you can get all sorts of things via Peerby — thousands, in fact. But we could also introduce services, or cars. These are the choices I sometimes struggle with.
What’s the most common misconception about running an online business? The one related to the fact that I still get people asking me if I do this full-time, while I work eighty hours a week with a team of more than twenty. People don’t see what goes on behind the scenes. Another misconception is that whenever you have an idea, you can simply say to a programmer, “Right, work this up quickly, will you?” and that the first attempt will work perfectly, and that people will automatically visit the site, and just like that you have a hit. Would be nice if it were that easy.
What would surprise anyone who knew you as a kid if they saw you today? I think some might be surprised to find that I don’t work in park maintenance. A common refrain in Ede was: if you don’t finish school, there’s always work in the park.
What do you think separates those that create their own job — such as you’ve done — from those that go the more conventional route? I don’t think there need be a difference. I think it’s possible to go the conventional route voluntarily and quite happily, but I suspect most people stick to that route because they assume they don’t have a choice. It’s frequently a matter of realizing your freedom.
What advice would you give anyone hoping to start an online business? Just start! People don’t act either because they’re afraid to start or because they don’t persevere. And some are afraid to tell anyone their idea because they think someone might steal it; but that’s a sure way to never do anything. Why would anyone swipe your idea and devote five years of their life to it? It’s a completely mistaken assumption, and it’s a pity that people think this. I learnt this from Adeo. Your idea cannot grow, ripen and be tested unless you share it with the world. Share your idea with as many people as possible.
“If the world’s 20 most profitable industries had to pay for the damage they cause, they wouldn’t be profitable. And this damage is everyone’s loss.”
And what advice would you give your younger self? I wish I could have given myself the insight that you actually always have a choice. I felt trapped for so long, even in relationships. Acting put me in touch with my freedom: you find that even when a director describes exactly how he wants you to play a scene, you retain your freedom within the restrictions nonetheless. You have infinite choices even within a space no larger than of 2 square millimetres. I think people become conditioned to not taking the first step. But you need to take that first step over and over again.
You’ve rolled Peerby out in 20 cities across Europe and the US. What’s the ultimate goal, and what happens when you achieve this? Our goal is to facilitate the transition to a more sustainable way of life, and we hope to do that by getting everyone to share what they’ve got. We’ll have fulfilled our mission when all products are derived from the circular economy and everyone on the planet uses them. And I’m sure I’ll find something else to do after that.
Peerby would have been unimaginable just 30 years ago. What would you like to see 30 years from now? I’d like us to have created a system in which every element of creation and destruction is recognised and assigned a value. So that when you do something that adds value to the world, you are rewarded for it; and, conversely, when you do anything that subtracts value from the world, you pay for it. Sounds almost utopian. If the world’s 20 most profitable industries had to pay for the damage they cause, they wouldn’t be profitable. And this damage is everyone’s loss. Perhaps we should have a universal declaration of the planet’s rights, as we do for human rights.