Cleaning cars, spinning records, delivering newspapers... Lars van Wieren did it all before co-founding Starred – a company that is single-handedly changing the way companies interact with employees and recruitment candidates.
Entrepreneurs come to the game in very different ways. Some are determined to change the world from the very beginning, and won’t stop until they find their niche. Some just happen to stumble on a big idea. For Lars, entrepreneurship wasn’t so much a choice – it was in his blood. ‘I'm from a family of entrepreneurs,’ he says. ‘My grandmother had her own wool store. My grandfather was a hairdresser. My other grandfather was a piano teacher. My other grandmother was a real estate agent. They were all entrepreneurs, so it runs in the family!
Lars started his first company at just 13 years old – a car cleaning company he set up with his cousin. ‘It was called Carclean BV – it wasn't an actual BV but we thought it would look professional!’ he laughs. Lars and his cousin would deliver questionnaires to all the houses in the neighbourhood, asking if and how often they wanted their car cleaned, before collecting all the papers and planning the most efficient route around the town. ‘We were making €25-€30 every Saturday – it was pretty good money for a 13-year-old, and we invested all that money in house music so it also kicked off my DJ career!’
Whether it was cleaning cars, delivering newspapers or working in a cafe, Lars always had a job on the side. ‘My parents had to stop me at a certain point,’ he grins. ‘My school was suffering because I had so many jobs.’ Whilst studying Small Business & Entrepreneurship at Groningen University, Lars was also running a thriving DJ business – not only would he perform around Groningen, he also became an agent of sorts, passing on the booking requests he couldn’t make to other DJs and taking a small finder’s fee. ‘I used to buy big piles of vinyl too,’ he says. ‘I’d take the best stuff for my own collection and I’d sell the rest for a profit. I’ve always had the trading spirit in my blood.’
Lars spent a year with a small startup – Videostrip – after university, and was on the verge of leaving to start his own company when Google came calling with an offer to work in their YouTube department. ‘I thought, how bad can it be to work at Google for a couple of years!’ he says. ‘It was really insightful seeing both ends of the spectrum – a small startup and then, one of the biggest tech companies in the world.’
The experience was invaluable, but Google inadvertently provided the spark for his eventual, inevitable dive back into entrepreneurship with Starred.
‘At Google, we used to do a very long, boring customer satisfaction survey once a year,’ he explains. ‘Our clients really hated it because it took ages to do. After two months we would get this big report by post – we’d read it with the whole team, everyone would promise to do it better next year, then a year later we’d just conduct the same survey again.’
‘I thought, how can we be the number one tech company in the world and do this in such an old fashioned way? That was the beginning of Starred.’
Lars founded Starred in 2013, and a year later brought in his old boss from Google – Mark Berendsen – as co-founder. At the time, the idea of getting proper feedback from customers and clients was stuck in the dark ages. Big research agencies dominated the market and charged by the hour for long, tedious surveys which all asked the same questions. Even the likes of Google and Facebook – among the most tech-savvy, progressive companies in the world – had not yet got to grips with the importance of getting real feedback from clients and customers. ‘At Google they always taught us – put the user first and the rest will follow,’ says Lars. ‘So, we asked friends and family what they hate about giving feedback, and everyone said the same things – it’s very impersonal, you don’t know how long it will take, every question is obligated and you never hear back from the company. Those became our fundamental ingredients for Starred; we wanted to create a feedback platform that was personal, short and sweet with all the right mechanisms.’
It’s fair to say, those ingredients have produced a recipe for success. Starred has rocketed to prominence in the years since, helping huge organisations like Coca Cola, Danone, Virgin Atlantic and Deloitte manage their candidate and employee experiences, from hiring to retiring. In fact, Starred was so successful in the early years that Lars found the company was suffering from spreading itself too thin. ‘We were a tiny fish in a huge ocean,’ he explains. ‘We were trying to be there for everyone, and it actually meant that we were there for no-one. Two years ago we decided to really focus on a niche – specifically our employee feedback experience and candidate experience for new hires.
‘Now we’re a big fish in a small pond. Packard’s Law says that a company is more likely to die from too much opportunity than too little – if you can find your niche, you give yourself a much better chance of being a world leader in that space. So, in that niche we're now the go-to company in the world, and that's a great position I think.’
With Starred in the ascendancy as one of the Netherlands’ leading scaleups, Lars was at the Louwman Museum in The Hague when Techleap launched the Rise Program at the beginning of the year. ‘It was a very impressive session,’ he says. ‘It was an actual mandate from the government to make the Netherlands one of the leading tech ecosystems in Europe. I actually applied that evening!’
‘The program has been a great ride,’ he continues. ‘It was quite a diverse batch of scaleups in the end, but it was really inspiring to hear their stories. After our first session we had a boat ride until midnight where we got to spend some time together – I made some friends that I can go to for advice, for sure.'
‘The mentor sessions were off the charts, too,’ he adds. ‘That was a huge selling point of the program and it was really insightful to have time with high profile figures like that. Pieter van der Does is the CEO of Adyen – an almost 40 billion euro company. If he is willing to invest his time in this program, it shows that lots of people believe that Techleap will be big.
For a software services company that specialises in employee feedback, coronavirus has been an inevitable rocky patch. ‘It’s hit us pretty hard, to put it mildly,’ he says. Recruitment isn’t the best industry to be in right now, but Lars is confident that Starred is in this for the long haul. ‘Entrepreneurship feels like a sprint at first,’ he says. ‘Everyone wants to be an overnight success, but then you realise it’s actually a marathon and there aren’t really any true overnight successes.
‘I don’t like quoting Steve Jobs too often, but he once said, ‘overnight successes take a terribly long time to build’. I think that’s apt. Too many entrepreneurs are impatient and they feel like things have to happen in the first few years, but it will never happen like that, and just when you think you’ve made it there’s an invisible virus that strikes down the world! Growth isn’t the most important metric anymore – you have to build for the long term.’