introducing marcel van der heijden from karma kebab.
Marcel van der Heijden is a seasoned entrepreneur. Having founded numerous companies and sold them, co-founded others and integrated coaching, investing and advising into a colorful career that continues to flourish, he’s someone who is passionate about growing himself and helping others to as well. But whilst Marcel knows more than most about harnessing the digital world to build companies, brands and products, he’s undeniably a people person, and positivity and personality have guided many of his entrepreneurial ventures.
Originally, we were going to talk to Marcel about how digital technologies are transforming the way we live and how startups can harness digital strategies to optimize growth. But after Marcel told us of a pivotal time in his life that happened not so long ago, our conversation took a much more personal turn, talking about taking care of yourself as an entrepreneur, why money isn’t everything and how karma can be found in life and in business.
Your career is incredibly diverse; you’re an investor in several companies, you started your own digital agency, co-founded another, you now co-own a plant-based kebab company called Karma Kebab and you also act as a coach and adviser. What’s the common thread between them all?
I think one common denominator is that I love to work with people with a positive attitude; it’s not a hard business metric but it’s what I base a lot of my decisions on. I also think growth in the wider sense of the term is another common denominator. I love growing companies and helping others to do so. I have founded two companies in the past ten years and then in 2016 I became part of the management team of a bigger company that acquired my business, and in the three years after that, we acquired another twenty-two companies. So that in itself says a lot about how growing is something I’m passionate about.
During those years I also started to use part of the proceeds from selling my company in investing and helping other entrepreneurs; those who had a link with Amsterdam because I wanted to be able to meet people and those who had a strong idea with a digital core because that’s what I really understand. I’m always looking for entrepreneurs who can really benefit from my experience and then ultimately, I want to see those I invest in and advise grow. So growth and people are definitely common threads you can weave through everything I do.
And what has that diversity given you?
A very big network. It’s also given me a tremendous amount of knowledge about different industries. When I started getting involved with Karma Kebab, I knew a lot about e-commerce, social media and digital strategies, but I didn’t know anything about preparing food. But my co-founder is a chef and a product developer and combined with my network (that when I looked hard enough did have some people in it with experience in the food industry) I suddenly had a good basis to learn about food. So that diversity has allowed me to constantly learn through experience, past and present, and in turn that learning gives me a huge amount of energy.
How did Karma Kebab come about and what’s your aim with it? It seems the outlier among the others?
After I left my company last year, I experienced what a lot of entrepreneurs go through after selling their business, a real rough patch, so to speak. It was difficult because entrepreneurs often perceive themselves as being invincible, but it turned out I wasn’t, and it took me the best part of last year to get back in touch with myself. And during that time, I was putting some time into building a business in digital advertising, but I was getting zero energy from it which was really strange. The thing I’ve been doing with passion for the last nine years gave me nothing and that was hard to cope with.
So, at some point during the summer I thought I don’t need this, I don’t need to set up another company right now, I’m going to focus more on helping other people and take it slow. I started coaching a couple of young entrepreneurs in digital marketing and I also met up with the founder of Karma Kebab who I had met two years ago. We had been meaning to discuss his brand and product for some time but it eventually only happened around the same time as when I made this decision to focus on helping others. I sat down with him and offered him a few hours a week to help Karma Kebab think bigger and then something really funny happened.
At the beginning of 2019, I took a four-month sabbatical to travel in Australia, New Zealand and Japan. And during this time something fundamentally changed in the way I started looking at food. I started reading more into climate issues, how we’re treating agricultural land, how unhealthy the world population is and I realized more and more how these issues connected to our food systems. I suddenly started getting a lot of energy from helping Karma Kebab, and those few hours a week turned into a few days a week until this point now where I’m the co-owner.
I also started talking to other entrepreneurs who had plant-based startups, and I saw all of them struggling with similar issues; how do I raise finance, how do I scale my business. I saw a lot of passionate people but they were working at a really small scale.
Then it hit me that if we want to make a real impact on the planet, our food systems need to fundamentally change. I looked at all these brands and thought we need to create the next Unilever, the next Nestle, which takes many small plant-based food brands and puts them together to create a business at scale that can not only make these types of products for the everyday consumer, but at the same time use their commercial power to make sure we can tackle those challenges.
It’s a big idea, but I have the time, energy, network and experience and I'm now dedicated to pursuing the idea of The Karma Company, a plant-based FMCG that brings together others to change the food system positively.
Have you always consciously helped others to grow?
Yes, I think so. I’ve always given a lot of advice to people and I’m known for connecting people with others. So if someone approaches me for some advice about their business, then I’m always happy to spend some time giving them my perspective.
Karma Kebab started like that, and that overarching idea feeds into The Karma Company; I really believe that if you give something to someone (or the planet), they will give back to you at some point, whether that's in the form of energy, connection, experience or growth.
It’s interesting to hear you talk so much about energy, almost as if it’s a compass in your business life?
A lot of people are in a situation where their work doesn’t give them a lot of energy but they’re not willing to acknowledge it, and that can lead to people staying in jobs far longer than they should.
I’m not a deeply spiritual person, but last year I did a retreat in Italy and it gave me a kind of reset. It did a lot for me on a personal level and since then I’ve spent more and more time taking care of myself and noticing what gives me good and bad energy.
I used to work like an animal but now I don’t want to be in a situation where work is the only thing in my life. When you work to that intensity, you can quickly become estranged from friends and family and really lose perspective on life as a whole. I don’t regret the time I spent working at maximum output, but I’ve learned a lot looking back at that time.
How do you think becoming more aware of yourself on a personal level has affected yourself as an entrepreneur?
I think it’s made me a better entrepreneur and a better person. People are quick to separate their work and personal life, but I think they’re both deeply connected. In the past, I’ve developed myself a lot as a business person, but last year when I was going through that rough patch, I realized that I was kind of neglecting myself for nine years. I was helping everyone else build their houses, but not my own. But now I feel like I’m better balanced to take on new ventures.
Lastly, you’re an entrepreneur who has a record of successful growth and you’ve helped others to do the same. Are there any fundamental principles to growth?
For personal growth, my golden tip is read Mark Manson, the author who wrote The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. I got his first book when I was feeling really well from my sister who gave it to me for my birthday. I read the first chapter, thought it was complete shit and put it in a corner never to be read again.
But the year I was going through my rough patch, I had a lot of free time and I tried to read it again. Well, I read the whole thing pretty much in one go; it totally resonated with me and I started regularly reading his blog. I usually hate self-help authors but he’s different for some reason. I’d also say subscribe to his newsletter which is the most amazing newsletter ever (as a marketeer, I'm jealous) and it comes out every Monday with three ideas about life. It’s helped me a lot, and it’s accessible to everyone.