At just 13 years old, Koen Droste was already running his own website management company. Now as CEO and co-founder of Polarsteps, he runs one of the most exciting travel tech scaleups in the Netherlands.
When you think about the things you want to do in your life, travelling the world usually ranks pretty high. We all have dreams of trekking across different continents, climbing mountains, sailing oceans, visiting the ruins of ancient civilisations. For some of us that’s a once in a lifetime trip – opportunities to drop everything and travel the world don’t come along very often, so you want to savour every moment.
When you’re finally on your dream trip, the last thing you want to be doing is spending time uploading your photos and videos. You want to live in the moment. What Polarsteps does, is take all the boring tasks out of your hands; every photograph you take, every video you record, every note you write is automatically assigned to the location where it happened, and Polarsteps uploads everything to your travel journal, allowing your friends and family to track your progress in real time and see all the things you see. All you have to do is take the pictures.
Koen himself is a keen traveller, but the inspiration for Polarsteps started with Niek Bokkers – one of Koen’s co-founders. ‘15 years before we started Polarsteps, Niek had his own website where he would do these crazy trips,’ he says. ‘One time, he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, from the Netherlands to the Caribbean. He wanted to keep his friends and family in the loop, so he took a GPS tracker and a satellite phone; every day he would take his GPS coordinates, type them into the satellite phone and text them to a server in the Netherlands, and the server would upload his position to a live map on his website.’
Though the execution was quite complex, the idea was simple – when people travel, they want to see where they’ve been and what they’ve done. Koen loved the idea so much that he reached out to Niek about building it into something bigger. Alongside Max Neustadt (CTO) and Job Harmsen (Head of Design) the group set up Polarsteps in 2015.
Polarsteps is just the latest step in Koen’s own entrepreneurial journey, and it has benefitted from some of his past experiences. At 13 years old, Koen was already running his own website management business, where he and a friend would set up websites for people and then maintain them on a subscription basis. His entrepreneurial spirit continued through university and beyond. Whilst studying International Relations at the University of Groningen he set up Companyspot.nl – a Glassdoor-esque company profiling platform that made company information accessible and transparent.
A few years later, he co-founded a publishing business, Upcoming.nl, which he describes as ‘like Buzzfeed for the Netherlands’. The goal was never to be an entrepreneur, but running a company was a natural progression for Koen, who admits that he just enjoys building things. He shrugs. ‘I like the creation process of things. That's the essence of what it boils down to, whether it's an app, or a company, or the furniture in my own house!’
The road he travelled was littered with ups and downs – Companyspot.nl was a failure, he says, but Upcoming was hugely successful, spiking from 0 to 3.5 million unique monthly visitors in just 2 years. Like all good entrepreneurs though, Koen has learnt from all his experiences – the failures and the successes. Since establishing Polarsteps in 2015, the company has become a phenomenal success story, raising millions in funding from some of the Netherlands’ most successful internet entrepreneurs and building a dedicated following of almost 3 million users.
If there’s one huge thing Koen has learned from his own businesses, it’s the importance of understanding your users. ‘We are relentlessly customer focused,’ he says. ‘If you look at startups now, everyone wants to work on trendy technology, like AI, chatbots, neural networks, things like that. For me, the true art is to create an awesome core experience that’s bug free. If you’re able to do that, users will love your product and other things will fall into place.'
‘What has really worked for us is to focus on user satisfaction,’ Koen explains. ‘We solve their problems, understand how they use the app and continually make it exciting to use. When you do that, users start promoting your product themselves and you get organic growth, and that’s really valuable.’
With Polarsteps already establishing itself as an exciting scaleup in the Netherlands, Koen had been following Techleap.nl before applying to be part of the Rise Program. ‘I’d always been impressed with what they were doing for the Dutch scaleup community,’ he says. ‘I really liked the idea of being able to learn through the experiences of other entrepreneurs. 90% of the challenges you go through as an entrepreneur are being experienced by other entrepreneurs as well – there are a lot of lessons to learn and the program is really geared to helping you learn from others.
‘The chance to get together in a closed setting with some of the most successful entrepreneurs of the Netherlands – Pieter van der Does from Adyen, Ali Niknam from bunq and so many others! It was amazing to see the variety in their personalities and their approach – as an entrepreneur you’re always looking for the perfect way to do things, but all these entrepreneurs have been successful in very different ways. That definitely helped me realise that there are many roads to success – you just have to find the one that fits you best.’
Coronavirus has been a challenge that all our Rise Program entrepreneurs have shared, but few have been as adversely affected as Koen and Polarsteps. With the world in lockdown, no-one was travelling, and with no-one travelling, activity on Polarsteps fell silent. ‘It’s the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced,’ he says matter-of-factly. ‘It’s hard to see your community fall silent like that.’
Still, there is reason for hope. Travel is starting to pick up again, and though intercontinental travel is infrequent, people have found creative solutions to start seeing the world again. ‘We’re seeing a lot of people making road trips,’ Koen says. ‘The other week we discovered a user on Polarsteps who was doing a Monopoly trip in the Netherlands – visiting every single city on the Dutch Monopoly board, in order! It’s awesome to see how creative people are in these crazy times. Even though they can’t fly to Indonesia and go backpacking, they’re finding new ways to travel, despite the circumstances.’