Peter van Sabben / Growth Tribe
“Don’t fall in love with your first idea.”
Diagnosed with dyslexia and held back to repeat a year in primary school, the young Peter van Sabben quickly realised he would have to figure out how to learn by himself. And so he did. Besides becoming a start-up specialist, he now runs Growth Tribe, the trailblazing growth hacking academy with ambitions to encourage learning and prepare all of society for our AI-driven future. Peter’s journey hasn’t been without hard lessons, though, and he speaks from experience when he says, “About 80 per cent of start-ups fail.”
Interview Siji Jabbar
Photography Jerome de Lint
You run Europe’s number one teaching company. Yet you are dyslexic. How did that affect you as a child? It shaped my life! I had to repeat a year in primary school, and I remember being in tears about this because the impression I got from my teachers was that I simply wasn’t smart enough. It was also a wake-up call, though, because I realised then that I’d have to work twice as hard as everyone else from then on. I was lucky because my parents showed complete trust in me, and supported my decision to take the academic route even though the school’s advice was not to. It was my first inkling that there might be something wrong with the education system.
Did you resent having to study harder? A little, but what I remember most is my determination to prove my teachers wrong. And the growing realisation that I actually enjoyed learning. I remember once ordering a book to teach myself to touch-type, and being able to do so after 4 weeks of self-tuition. By the age of 15 I knew that I wanted to become an entrepreneur and I found myself reading a book of entrepreneurial case studies, from cover to cover.
Where did you get your entrepreneurial drive? I’ve no idea. Neither of my parents were entrepreneurs. My dad was an engineer at KLM, where he presided over their flying simulators. He worked hard but always made time at the weekends to watch us play hockey or help us with our homework — I’m the youngest of three. My mum stayed home to raise us, but went to work once we were all at school, first at a public notary office and later in real estate. She’s open, easy-going, polite and honest, values they instilled in me. There was nothing we couldn’t talk about as a family, andI had a pretty ideal childhood.
You’ve left the Netherlands at the age of 21 to do a two-year management traineeship with Red Bull in Salzburg. What motivated this? I’ve been very driven since having to repeat that year in primary school. I was the first among my peers in Castricum to leave for Amsterdam; I was 17 at the time. I’d always wanted to study abroad, and meet people that were similarly entrepreneurial and similarly mobile.
Was it hard to leave your friends and family knowing you’d be gone for two years? My parents and friends were quite excited. It was hard to wave goodbye my girlfriend at the time, particularly as we’d only been together for six months. But we carried on long-distance and were on the phone for half an hour every night. It ended only about a year ago, so it’s still a bit raw, but it was right to end when it did. We had eight wonderful years together and remain friends.
What did you learn at Red Bull? The importance of helping people to grow and how crucial it is to have a company culture that supports this. I remember Red Bull’s founder telling us that whether we remained at Red Bull or left after the programme wasn’t important. What mattered was that we flourished.
Red Bull is privately owned, so they can think long-term and have the freedom to experiment and learn, and to keep investing in the business, which helps them maintain their supportive company culture. It made a huge impression on me, and it’s one of my main priorities at Growth Tribe. It was also at Red Bull that I learnt that marketing innovators do things to get people talking, instead of trying to convince them to do anything. Suit Supply’s campaign with two men kissing is a good example. It started a conversation even among people who don’t wear suits.
You left Red Bull to launch MinuteRace. Yes. MinuteRace was an app that companies could use to create timed challenges for their customers. So for instance, Nike could use it to let all Nike-wearers at a festival know that the first 100 people to take selfies at a particular spot would win a free pair of Nikes. We made our money by licencing the brands to use the pictures.
How did you fund this? We got a €30,000 loan from our CTO’s dad. The plan was to raise more money once we reached a certain critical mass, because apps only make money further down the line, no matter how great the idea.
But it didn’t take off. We had some traction, but it was clear after six months that we lacked the experience to know how to make a success of it. Aside from which, my partners and I did consultancy work on the side to cover our living costs, so none of us was completely focused on the business. The final straw was the poor execution of a challenge we’d been paid to organise for Jägermeister at a music festival.
How did you feel about this? I wasn’t as disappointed as I might have been if I hadn’t learnt by then that your first idea isn’t likely to lead to immediate success.
Was its demise what led to your involvement with Startupbootcamp in London?Entrepreneurial success isn’t about the idea; it’s about the execution. And it was clear that I would need more execution experience before launching another start-up, so I was already thinking about how to get this when the global marketing manager’s position opened up in London.
You’re not hired for a job like that out of the blue, though, so how did you get it? I wasn’t going to find what I needed at a traditional company like Unilever. So one of few options left was to participate in a Startup Weekend, the 54-hour event where groups of developers and start-up enthusiasts pitch ideas for new start-ups, form teams around the best ideas and develop a demo for presentation on Sunday evening. It was there that I met Marc Wesselink, a managing partner at Startupbootcamp, who’d apparently noticed my enthusiasm during the weekend. He told me they were looking for someone for the position in London, and asked if I was interested in talking about it.
Those weekends are apparently pretty intense — so much work compressed into such a short time; working with people you’ve just met; pitching your idea. Weren’t you nervous? No. I don’t even remember if the idea I submitted was chosen for development that weekend, but I was so excited to take part because I’d wanted to be an entrepreneur for so long, and I remember preparing like mad for it.
You don’t remember if your idea was chosen? It was a long time ago, maybe 2010.
Not that long ago. Well I remember that we didn’t get much sleep. But I also recall everyone’s excitement at spending their weekend doing what we were doing instead of, I don’t know, going to a music festival. I loved being a part of that, and still do.
Have you ever cracked under pressure? The only time I can recall that happening was when I sixteen and tending bar one summer at the beach in Castricum. Must have been thirty degrees on this particular day and my colleague had called in sick, so I had to serve 150 people on my own. I got more and more stressed and the orders began to blur. Fortunately, the owner spotted what was going on came over before I had a complete meltdown. He said, “Peter, you can only do so much, so just take things one at a time.” The experience stayed with me, because it’s what I remember whenever I find myself in a stressful situation today. No matter how demanding a situation becomes, you can’t suddenly develop magical powers. Just zoom out and take things one step at a time. Having a full-time job at Red Bull and writing my master’s thesis was more stressful than anything I’ve done since.
The Startupbootcamp job sounds like a major responsibility. Any doubts about taking it on? None. I’d already managed the move to Salzburg, a place whose language I wasn’t quite fluent in, and had managed to juggle a full-time job with my studies. Besides, I’d had two years of tech development and marketing experience at Red Bull in Amsterdam, so I saw it as a continuation of what I’d already done. If I failed in London, at least I would have taken the chance to learn something. Most of my decisions are for my own development, rather than for external approval, so I rarely experience pressure from the outside.
How did you get on in London? It’s a tiring city. And I didn’t know anyone there, so I had to work really hard to build a network. I succeeded at some things, but I didn’t always manage to persuade the managers in the different cities to try a different approach if they were weak in a certain area. So after two years, I’d done what I could do. And I was eager to apply what I’d learnt to a company of my own. About 80 per cent of start-ups fail, so I’d had two years of exposure to all the pitfalls of launching and running a start-up.
What are some of the most common pitfalls? Falling in love with your first idea. We made the same mistake with MinuteRace. You need to test your original idea and kill it if necessary, and if you’re lucky your eighteenth idea might be worth developing. And then you have to start thinking about its execution: your proposition, the market, your audience, your communication, etc.
But aren’t these things you learn on the job? How is this related to the education system? Because the system teaches us to avoid risk, to pass exams in order to get “good” jobs, and to believe that that’s the end of learning. I want to spread the idea of continuous education, because knowing how to learn is now one of the most important skills anyone can have.
Why not by getting into government? I’d be frustrated at the pace at which things happen in government. When I have conversations with government representatives, I tell them, “Come on! Let’s get a move on!” Eleven of the world’s top 20 companies are American; nine are Chinese. The first European name on the list is Spotify. Our governments failed to grasp the implications of the internet and social media, which means we failed to create jobs. So now we’re ill-equipped to deal with AI, which is going to infiltrate everything: your phone, workplace, home, computers, cars, the military industry. Macron recently pledged $1.5 billion to AI research and public education. Meanwhile, the Dutch government’s white paper on development mentions AI twice. The consequences will become apparent in the next few years.
Let’s talk about your company Growth Tribe’s which tag line is: Europe's first Growth Hacking Academy. What exactly is growth hacking? Growth marketing is data-driven marketing through rapid and continuous experimentation, whereby you make more informed decisions based on the data from your experiments. Companies like AirBnB, Dropbox and Booking.com didn’t grow so quickly because they had the smartest people or the biggest budgets, but because they kept running experiments and learning more quickly than their competition.
Most of us seem to trust out instincts by default. Why do you think you’ve been more open to trusting data? I don’t really know, but I was always into new gadgets and interested in business innovation. And I don’t like rituals: this is how we’ve always done things, so this is how it should always be done. Perhaps being dyslexic taught me to question biases and conventional wisdom. Gut feeling is heavily biased — it’s based on experiences we’ve had in the past. Data is “clean”, and I like that.
What was it like in the beginning? Three of us doing eighty hours a week out of my apartment. [Laughs.] I should show you some pictures. It worked and still works because of our chemistry and complementary skills.
How did you get your first clients? Someone from Facebook asked during an industry lunch they’d organised soon after I returned from London: “What can we do to help you guys grow faster?” And everyone said they needed people with the skills required for growth. So I said, “Well, I’m launching an academy to do just that. Will you send your people to me?” That’s how we got Catawiki, Usabilla and Bloomon for our first 3-month academy programme.
So you got off to a flying start. Must be challenging nonetheless, building and running Growth Tribe. How have you experienced these on a personal level? Through the sacrifices I’ve had to make; and I’ll find out later if they were worth it. I wrote my siblings and parents an email to explain that my dream is to build a company and take it as far as possible, and that I have the opportunity to realise this dream with Growth Tribe. But that means I won’t always be able to show up for birthdays or come to dinner on Sundays, and they weren’t to take it personally.
What about relationships? I would like to have a partner. You keep each other’s lives in balance. It’s become really easy since the breakup for work to occupy a disproportionate part of my life. So I hope I don’t wake up four years from now and realise, oh shit, I’m still alone; that would be too big a sacrifice.
And professional challenges? Committing to self-financing. Bootstrapping means we can’t spend money we don’t have. As a result we’ve fucked up twice now by hiring people with less experience than was needed. You end up losing money, wasting time, and creating frustration within the team. It took two mistakes and a year and a half to find the right person for that particular position.
Research shows that doing nothing helps train the brain. What do you think about this, given your thoughts on continuous learning? Tim Ferris and Yuval Noah Harari have also written about studies of successful athletes, entrepreneurs, artists, etc. that found that the habits common to them all were eating a healthy diet, getting sufficient sleep and practising meditation. I notice myself that my best ideas often come to me after a weekend away from the computer. So when I don’t mean that we need to spend all and every evening and weekend learning. And learning doesn’t even have to be work-related. What matters is that we get into the habit of learning.
So how do you keep your life in balance? I’ve been taking it in steps. First, I became a vegetarian. Then I developed a fitness habit, going to the gym and cycling four times a week. I also love to get out of the city on my motorbike, and just ride for two or three hours. Helmet on, no screens, time alone, time to think — it’s a form of freedom. And I’ve recently taken up meditation. Once that becomes a habit, I’ll take up yoga, for flexibility.
Very methodical. I read somewhere that if you want to change your life, you shouldn’t try to establish three new habits at the same time, because you’ll fail. Establishing just one takes between 30 and 90 days.
Is it working, the meditation? It’s not easy, but I need some peace, because my mind is always buzzing with thoughts and ideas. This is common to entrepreneurs, but I need to be able to switch off. Going to the cinema helps. It keeps all other thoughts at bay and you’re not constantly checking your phone. It’s not conventional meditation, but it works for me.
Why did you feel the need to change your life? You do a lot yourself when you start a company. So I was spending a lot of time at my desk, and before I knew it I weighed 118 kilos, which explained why I’d been too tired in the evenings to absorb what I was reading. Then I saw a documentary about sustainability and animal rights and decided to stop eating meat. When that went okay, I got a personal trainer, for the discipline required to get a gym routine into my system. I lost 20 kilos and it just carried on from there. It’s all part of building the company, which requires stamina. You can’t afford a burnout. When I was working at Red Bull and writing my thesis, I’d get home after work and write until about two in the morning. I remember walking past my bed during one such session and toppling over. My flatmate heard me fall and came to revive me, but I was unconscious for about five minutes. You can’t drain your resources without your immune system suffering. You learn that this is a marathon, not a sprint.
That’s intense. In retrospect: what’s the one thing you wish someone had told you before you began this journey? That your first company probably won’t be your last. Your first is an education. I’m still trying to decide if it’s worth getting some experience before starting your first company or if it’s better to learn by doing and failing. The only problem with the latter is that failing can be hard if you don’t have a safety net. So maybe get some experience in your early twenties, then start your business in your late twenties, when you have a bigger network.
And I’d advice anyone launching their first start-up to know their profit margin. Otherwise you won’t know how much you can afford to invest in the business. If you’re working your ass off but only making enough money to get buy, it’s not really a business.
And pick the one metric that matters, a term coined by Alistair Croll in his book Lean Analytics, which I’d recommend to anyone interested in becoming more data-driven. Things happen really quickly in successful start-ups, so you need to keep deciding what your most important metric will be for the next month or two. Different metrics, different strategies.
You started in your early twenties? Yes, but I’ve never been afraid to take calculated risks. Renting the building we’re in was a huge financial step, and it left us with barely enough for salaries. Two bad months and I’d have been telling a completely different story today.
Finally, what’s the one thing you’d change about the Dutch ecosystem if you had a magic wand? I would have all policy-makers take a growth hacking or entrepreneurship course, so they’d understand the urgency of digital literacy. It would revolutionise our education system, change our provisions for freelancers, and change the laws to accommodate the new reality, all of which would create a lot of jobs. Amsterdam’s doing okay, but the penny hasn’t dropped at the national level of government.