Fe/Male Switch team at their first startup party at the villa

Violetta Bonenkamp's partnership journey with Fe/Male Switch

April 19, 2023

hi, Violetta. Great to finally meet you. To get started, please tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.

hi, Sven. Thanks for having me here. Okay, a few words about myself. I guess I should start calling myself a serial entrepreneur. I hate this word, but just for the fun of it because I'm running a couple of startups at the same time, which turned out to be more fun than I thought.

I have been moving from country to country, I think, my whole life. I like the fact that I can experience different cultures. So it's not a surprise.

When I was 19, I moved to the States, so I lived there for a bit. Then things didn't work out the way that I wanted them. I decided, Hey, there's still Europe to explore.

Fast forward many years, I'm still here, even though I've changed a few countries. I've studied and worked in a lot of countries. This was my thing. I can also call myself a serial student. I have five higher education degrees. Wow.

I didn't do it because I was crazy and I wanted to collect diplomas. I was probably just searching for myself. That's why my first degree is in Linguistics and that one I got back home. I'm originally Russian, but I'm from this little place that's stuck between European countries.

Oh, right. Yeah.

Former Konigsberg. When I say that I'm from Russia, people think, Oh, okay, this big country mentality, but no, not really. We're like from this resort on the Baltic Sea.

I'm this country girl, basically. I realized that Linguistics is all nice and dandy, but I want to explore further. So I decided that I wanted to study something else.

And in the end, I studied higher education management and I got myself an MBA just because I wanted to have a bit of the... I love languages and all of that and education, but I also wanted to see how good I am with numbers and all that.

I suck at that, but at least I know that if I need to, then I can. So management and all of these things. And yeah, I guess I've been enjoying the lifestyle the way that I can.

Every two years or so, I can study something new, live in a new country, have more friends, and so on and so forth. Then I always thought that I'm bad at business. That was my, I don't know why. It's something that's probably one of those innate biases that you don't understand why you have that.

But I always thought, hey, I'm not a business person. And then eventually now I am a business person and I'm looking back and I'm thinking, why did I ever think that this is true, I'm the happiest that I've ever been in my life.

Even though I'm constantly busy and it's quite stressful, of course, running startups, especially when you start during the pandemic. So that's always fun. And now I have two startups.

I live between the Netherlands and Malta because we have to go back and forth. That might sound very hectic. A lot of my friends and family still don't understand what it is that I do. But I can honestly say, yeah, this is something that I've never imagined I would enjoy, but I am enjoying it.

I think I'm quite happy and quite successful with the way that I manage things, even though, of course, sometimes I have to stop myself and say, Hey, you need to slow down.

You need to take a break before you get too excited and the excitement takes you over and then you're like, Hey, okay, I can't move. My head is exploding so I need a break. 

I'm a very inquisitive person, I would say. I like trying new things and I think I attract the same people. That's why the team that I have is also...

We have someone who used to be in design and ballet dancing, and he's an IT person now, so things like that. Then we have an ex footballer and politician who is a lawyer with us. So it's these people that I think we're not able to just do one thing the way others do and be happy with it. We always have to do gazillion of things.

And that's, of course, there's always a disadvantage to that. We need someone who will keep us in place and say, Okay, let's see that through. 

So the first startup I got was five years ago. I came to the Netherlands to join an incubator, love the country from the point of view of the language because, hey, if you want to do customer development, actually talk to your users, you have to do it in a language that you're comfortable with.

Then, of course, the legal and the tax system didn't seem as complicated as they would be somewhere else.

Those were the two things that we actually liked. The fact that, of course, the Dutch government, like a lot of European governments do, they support very early stage, like idea stage startups where you basically have no other way to move forward other than with the subsidy from the government.

Because by that time you've already bootstrapped everything and there's nothing left in your account and you need to hire people and you can't afford that. That happened and that's how I stayed here.

Then somehow during the pandemic, the Maltese government approached us and they say, Hey guys, we saw you and we like what you're doing. Would you maybe consider us?

And of course, I immediately said, I want to go to Malta. The weather and everything. The sea, I'm very much a sea person. I need to have the sea by my side.

So it was like, Okay, how do we make this happen with making both countries happy? In the end, the solution was, hey, we're going to do a different thing in Malta because here in the Netherlands, we have a company, we have partners, we have projects running, so we can't leave, we don't want to leave.

But seeing, as I mentioned, we are very inquisitive people. We had a pile of business plans and applications that we were ready to, Okay, which one shall we choose to go to Malta with?

That helped. We already had a lot of ideas and some of them were already in the making. Long story short, it's been two years, I think, already that we're there. It's a totally different ecosystem. But I love, once again, the fact that I get to be here and there at the same time. It helps.

If you are frustrated with one thing, you go to the other country and there it's great. And you're like, Okay, well, nice. I'm going to get my energy here. Then you go back because the other thing needs to be done here or you love it here. And I realized once again that, oh, my God, this is the most perfect situation that I can find myself even in.

Sounds amazing

Even though most people will probably say, Oh, it sounds horrible. It's just a nightmare. How do you manage that? But I thrive in it.

How long is the trip between Netherlands and Malta?

Well, on a good day, and by a good day, I mean, during the summer and the spring, there's a flight that goes directly from Eindhoven to Malta, and I live very close to Eindhoven, so it's a three hour flight.

That's very fast. On a bad day when there is no direct flight, we have to go to Brussels, so it's another three hours by car. But still, it's not that bad.

Before I go on, I just wanted to pick up on a couple of things that you said. You said you're an inquisitive person, and from your story, clearly you are. Do you think that's a key trait for an entrepreneur? Are all entrepreneurs naturally inquisitive people?

I would say yes, there's always a yes, but it depends on what entrepreneur we're talking about. So if it's someone that has a startup mentality, and that's a bit different, of course, from a typical entrepreneur because, well, the idea of an entrepreneur would be, hey, I need to make money and I need to make a scalable startup.

We're like, what are you talking about? Money? We don't need money now. We need to disrupt the world and create something that is going to make things a lot better. And then eventually we're going to start making money.

So it's a bit of a different perspective. So I guess, yes, if you are in startups and you have this idea of I want to create something and it's going to be very hard to get that to work, to get to a place where you actually start making money, you have to be inquisitive.

Because if you're not, the desire to do something for free for the first two or three years is going to disappear very quickly if you realize that there's nothing else that's driving you other than the fact that, Hey, I need to feed my family and basically make sure that I have enough money.

So for the traditional entrepreneurship, I would say here, it might even be a disadvantage, at least in my opinion, because just looking from my own perspective, when I tell people that I'm a startup founder and then eventually I say, Well, the first product, we actually eat the first product.

We actually don't have it on the market yet because, hey, surprise, surprise, after three years, it's still an R&D because it's a big thing that's never been done before. And yeah, it's a mess. They're like, Huh? So how do you make money?

So I sound like a failed entrepreneur because that's not how it's supposed to be. And then I'm like, Well, I'm not going to talk about the fact that it's going to take, I don't know, five, eight years, or maybe I will never achieve success.

But still, I'm curious, yes, in that sense, to see if we will have success with the first start, which I know traditionally that's not going to be the case because statistically, yeah. But it's still the fact that I still... Not even I believe that we will succeed, but I'm curious to see if we will. So this desire to see this through.

It's something that's also driving me to push forward, even though this is a very complicated boulder to push up the hill. But if you don't have that desire to know, desire to see, then probably it's better to have a traditional business where you actually concentrate on making sure that there's money in the account and then you can hire people and feed your family.

Fair enough. I often think for an industry that prides itself on disruption and world changing ideas a lot of people inside the startup ecosystem have very fixed ideas.

On Twitter, I would find it so fascinating that you would have the building in public, solo tech founders bootstrappers, that say if you raise money, you're not a real founder.

Then on the other side of Twitter, you've got the people raising, in some cases, obscene amounts of money with just an idea. And if you're not out raising capital and talking about raising capital, you're not a real founder.

And it blows me away every time I see that because there is no one way. There's just how you do it.  It's nice to hear you talk about the different types of startups and the different ways of doing things.

Yeah, exactly. So with the first startup, we did exactly what you were talking about. We followed the book because we didn't know anything else. So there was the book, the Lean Startup. You read it and you basically play it out because what else are you going to do?

You ask questions in the incubator and they tell you, Hey, read the book. So it's all looped into that book. And then fast forward three years, you realize, Okay, the book was just one of the ways to do that. Might not have been the best way for me. My idea of a B2B legal tech startup might not have been the best thing to get started with if it's your first thing, so all of these things and you're like, Okay.

The second startup, the one that we met over, is something that turned out to be a bootstrapping thing.

On purpose, partially, that happened like that in the beginning. I realized how much of a different trajectory you have to go through if you're not concentrated on writing applications and business plans and pitching and all of that. Oh, my God. It's like one application after another, rewriting the stupid business plan, knowing that it will never come true. But the numbers have to make sense for the people who are giving you the money.

And yeah, the bootstrapping thing was such an interesting experience to go through, of course, to a certain extent. And then you realize that you probably need to find a balance somewhere.

What I noticed from the startup ecosystem in the Netherlands, because that's the only one that I have experience with, so I don't know if it's the same somewhere else or not, but I would say it's similar in Europe, that from day one, they push you towards venture capital. It's this mantra, venture capital, venture capital, venture capital.

So here we are with nothing but a pitch deck, very ugly looking pitch deck, because back then I didn't know that you have to put any design effort into it.

And nothing else, just a crazy idea with none of us being technical people, so not even knowing if that idea was feasible. And we were supposed to already pitch venture capitalists. And back then, of course, I didn't realize, I didn't understand why we had to do that, but I didn't question that because I'm like, Okay, they know better, right? Who am I?

Now I realize that the amount of time that we wasted doing that instead of actually either building something or talking more to people is... I feel sad that we lost all that amount of time. But on the other hand, well, it's an experience we have to go through. Now I know how to do it. I can write a pitch deck in five minutes. I can get a business plan out of thin air and it's going to look pretty.

It's going to look ridiculously stupid, but it's going to look pretty. So yeah, this is something that you have to go through. You know how to do that. But definitely realize that the world is open in any direction that you want to go to and you have to be comfortable will go in into that direction because if you break, everything else breaks.

There's just one other question that I wanted to pick up, and we're still at the beginning of this chat, but I can't leave this alone before diving into what we were going to talk about because I just connected with you on  on LinkedIn and the first thing I noticed was "happy startup CEO".

And you mentioned that in your initial introduction that you're a happy person and you're loving this. Do you think that makes you quite different from other founders?

It's a journey that I've been on and the happy entrepreneur that's been out there for probably six months. Before that, I didn't dare say these things out loud. Really? Yeah. The journey of an entrepreneur for me was, so from the total excitement and curiosity of, Oh, my God. I know nothing about this world, but I'm loving it.

You know, I was ready to go everywhere. Every networking event, every workshop, everything, I was there. Then the pandemic hit and at some point, of course, it was bad, but at some point I loved it because everyone switched online and I could attend even more events. At some point every day I would have three events that I'm attending simultaneously.

One on the laptop, one on the phone, the other one on the iPad or whatever. And I'd be like, Okay, now, I'm absorbing that information at a speed that you would never be able to do if you were not into that. I was ready to suck all the information into me. And then, of course, at some point I slowed down because, first of all, I already knew enough that point. And second of all, it got tiring of this constant constantly doing the same thing over and over again.

And then, of course, the negative thing settled in. Okay, pandemic. The funding is running out. We're nowhere near making money because it's just the beginning stage of R&D. It's a very deep tech thing. So we need more money to build stuff.

Okay, what am I going to do? Well, in order to survive, I had to start working twice harder. Even though before that it was not the picnic in the park, I had to work even harder. And that's the part that basically almost killed me. So the physical health gave up just because, yeah, well, this is only so much that we can do and not getting any younger.

So at some point when my body said, Okay, I'm breaking down, you have to start paying attention to me. That's when I went into my unhappy place when, of course, when you don't have enough sleep, you can't sleep at night because you're having these headaches and then you can't work and you feel like everything's going wrong. You feel like, Okay, the team is not performing properly, the funding is running out, we're not getting any customers.

You start concentrating on the negative things.

Then at some point, I realized that I need to climb out of there because if I don't, I will go even further and I didn't feel like doing that.

At that point, I decided to try to have a business coach, something that I never did before. I'm not a fan of sitting in front of someone and talking to them about these things. I was not raised that way. We were raised to suck it up and you need to cry, just cry on the shoulder of your best friend and then move on.

I think that the half a year that I was with her allowed me to start talking to myself, to acknowledge to myself that I'm not happy with how things are going in the company and that I've tried every way of fixing that, and I have no idea how to fix that.

I'm ready to give up at that point. When I decided I'm ready to give up, that's when this understanding came that maybe  all of this is happening not because of me, not happening to me, but it's happening to almost every other startup founder out there, and everyone is just being quiet about that and pretending like it's not happening.

And that's exactly what it turned out. I started reading about more books about the experience of other CEOs, also former CEOs or those that are in venture capital, and every single one of them said that at some point their mental health, their physical health gave up. Every one of them.

There's not a single one that went through this saying, it was easy peasy. No, not a single one. But of course, especially in Europe, we don't talk about this because it's considered to be failure and failure in Europe is bad. So no, you can't talk about this. 

That's around that time when people from Malta reached out to us, and my first thought was, Oh, my God. Yeah, Malta, we're going there. I don't know how we're going to do this, but we're going there because I need it for myself, because I need the sun, I need the weather, I need the change, and all of these things.

And it did change. Malta tremendously helped. I can't say that it's going to help everyone, but for me, it is my place where it's my place of strength, as I call it. I love going there.

I'm more productive there. I became more relaxed there. So it all, of course, helped. Together with the business coach that allowed me to start looking at myself and realizing that I'm doing everything I can. If it's not working out, I just have to let it be because it's not my fault. It's nothing I can do about it. It is what it is. I just have to see how it plays out.

And it did play out somehow. Not in a way, probably that is... I don't know even how to call this. Because of everything that was happening, the pandemic, the war, a lot of people from my team, they broke down and they left for different reasons.

Some wanted, actually many of them wanted to relocate because we needed them to relocate to Europe. Some of them didn't want to or couldn't or were afraid to relocate. Others, well, we just couldn't work with them anymore because something else happened there personally for them. So eventually we lost two thirds of the team and that's what made us better.

Everyone, once again, is saying these things. It sounds very counterintuitive, right? But once again, in every book that you read, there's always this point in a startup where they either have to get rid of or they lose a big chunk of their company, and they all say that they became more efficient after that.

That's exactly what I felt. I felt after half a year or so, I feel like I talked to my team and I don't have the need to feel frustrated or tell them what to do because somehow they are able to finally self organize and I don't have to feel like they're going into the wrong direction.

I've been feeling for a long time just because, the team was bigger and let's be honest, maybe some of those team members were not a great match with what we're doing. Just because when you start hiring in the remote environment, there's a lot of people that have never personally seen a Met.

Because when you start the team remotely, there's good things, but there's also bad things for the relationship, for the culture in the company.

At some point, I realized that I am happy. I don't know how that feeling came about, but happy both in where we are as a company, even though, of course, some will be not happy with where we are. I don't care. I am happy. Looking at my point A and where we are now, I am happy and I am happy with my personal life.

Recently, I did the most horrible thing that a startup founder can do. I married my co founder. Fantastic.

That is. I love how happy you are. Congratulations!

It also helps because we are on the same page. We don't have to pretend and try to separate life from work. Life is work, except that we manage to turn work off when we need to. But on the other hand, of course, the fact that I know that my husband understands me and I understand him because we are in the same boat. I think that helps a lot.

I think that's powerful.

At some point, I realized that I'm not going to hide the fact that as a startup founder, I don't fit the persona of someone who is sitting in the office typing on the keyboard in a very bad office, buying cheap stuff because we need to save the runway. Yes, it's all nice and dandy. You can save a few euros here and there, but your mental health is going to go buzzing and then you're done anyway.

Now I have a start up Villa. I'm proud to say that we're renting a Villa where we work and live in Malta. I was ashamed to say these things out loud for a long time because you're not supposed to have that.

There were a lot of people coming my way thinking that we're renting that Villa with money that we're not supposed to be using for that. I'm like, Dude, chill. You don't know how we're paying for that. Don't imply. But of course, this was the reason why I didn't want to share these things.

But at some point I realized people are always going to think what they want to think. So it's their problem. I'm never going to be able to make everyone happy.

There are people that love me. There are people that hate me, and it's always going to be this way. I'm not going to pretend to be someone that I'm not. And that's how I decided, yes, that the happy CEO is something that is more powerful than successful.

Everyone's talking about success and all of that. But are you really successful if you're not happy? If you are happy if you are successful, right? But the other way, not always.

I think that's awesome. Okay, so can you please tell us what Female Switch is all about?

Well, the short version is it's a startup game for women. But yeah, that's very short. 

The slightly longer version is during the pandemic, all of my stories start with during the pandemic, there was a call from the Dutch government, and we usually look at all the applications that are out there to see if we can apply for something.

There was one that said that, Hey, there's not enough women in tech startups. I'm like, Yeah, I know. And the government wanted to have more women. I'm like, Of course you do. And they have no idea how to do it. We decided that who is better to come up with some solution if not a startup that they actually want to create?

So here we are, a startup with a female CEO doing something in deep tech like they wanted, and we have a very diverse team. Even if it's just gender, it was always around 50/50. And it happened without any forceful intervention. It just happened because me being a girl and the girl who was in charge of HR at that moment was also a girl. And of course, we know more girls than we know boys. And that's how it happens, right? Because that's how it happens usually the other way around.

When male founders look in their network to find other people, not because they don't like women, but because they might not have that many in their network.

For us, it happened the other way around. That's why we came up with this idea of a game. We wanted it to be something fun.

We were already thinking for our legal tech startup, we were thinking, Okay, how can we gamify this extremely boring industrial design and engineering piece of software? Because yeah, well, forgive me, Autodesk, but their UI sucks. We wanted to give some fun to the engineers, so we decided, Okay, I'm going to try to really bit more about gamification.

That's how we decided, Hey, we need to create a game that will basically teach the women how to build a startup, but in a way that it's fun for them and they don't feel that they're risking anything, they don't feel threatened. They take it as a game. So it takes away all this anxiety and they actually learn how to do stuff. And then I'm pretty sure a lot of them will realize, Hey, it's not that complicated. Why didn't I do this before?

Because once again, we all think, and especially girls, we all think that startups are not for us because it's a) hard, and b) you have to sacrifice your personal life for that. It's always something. Women are like, No, I'm not going to do this. That's how the idea came about.

We applied for the grant. We didn't get it because even though the government loved the idea, they didn't believe that we were going to be able to build this with that small budget that they were giving in that amount of time that they allocated. So being true entrepreneurs, we're like, Okay, challenge accepted.

What did you do then?

So we built it just to spite them.

So how did you pull together the resources? What did you do next?

First of all, once again, the setting, right? It's the middle of the pandemic. Everyone's morale is down because we don't know if we're going to survive. We don't know how long it's going to last.

We're getting fed up with building something, but we can't talk to the people because this industry of industrial design, it's very traditional. They only like one-on-one in person meetings and you can't do this during the lockdown. So you're getting frustrated, like, what are we doing?

So the fact that we had this idea and we could switch our minds away from that is something that helped. We basically had 50 %  of the team members reallocated to this thing. At that moment it was possible because we had quite a big team.

Especially back then, it was the developers, the hardcore blockchain developers that were busy building, but the other team was not that occupied at that moment because, well, we were concentrated on the development.

That's why that transition was not hard. We even managed to hire more people. We hired a few students who were with us part time as well.

At that moment, we also got a few interns, so we managed to get addition to the workforce. That was not expensive. That's important. That actually made my life harder because back then I didn't realize that with each person I hire, it's more work for me to manage that person.

So stupid me, you live, you learn. But that helped us move from zero to the first prototype in less than three months with basically even less, if I calculate, so we even spent less money on that than was budgeted by the application. That was a matter of principle for us. Okay, you didn't believe in us? Here we are. You will never be able to take this away from us.

Of course, our mistake was that in the application, we didn't specify enough that we were going to use what's now famous as zero code or no code, low code tools to build the thing. Of course, they didn't believe us that we were going to be able to do this because they thought we were going to be using traditional development.

Then, of course, the time frame and the amount of money that you need for that is incomparable with what we indicated.

Our mistake, which in the end, okay, it is what it is, it turned out probably even better because we were lean and this is the first time that we tried bootstrapping.

It changes your mind. Like I mentioned before, you are not wasting time on writing pitches. This is the project that in the first half year, we didn't have a single pitch, we didn't have a single business plan, we didn't have a strategy, we didn't have vision or mission or whatever. We just knew that we wanted to build that prototype.

That, of course, was the part that made us move very quickly. In three months, it was ready and we ran the first pilot with 15 people, very quickly. That's when we realized that, Oh, my God, there is a potential there because everyone loves it.

There's huge interest from everyone regarding this project, which I didn't see for my legal tech startup because legal tech in industrial design is boring. You don't get excited middle aged man cheering you a LinkedIn saying, Yeah, it's awesome, which you have here because it's a game.

It's  fun. It's startups, plus game, so it's exciting. I got that boost of energy.

The team got this boost of energy. I got into development, which is something that I never did before because I had the overview of the development, but I was never in the development team because here I could actually manage, do simple things using Bubble and all the other things myself. I loved that.

I loved how it switched my brain from thinking like a linguist, so I think in words, and that switched my brain towards thinking like, if A happens, then B happens, if not, if then also. 

That was a very hard switch for me. My brain didn't want to think that way. Now it does. Now I'm happy that we did this because it made me a better entrepreneur in a sense that I don't only I don't only write pitches, but I can also explain how that thing works from the technology point of view.

At that point, we started reaching out to people who wanted to have partners. And that's one of the things we discussed because I was in love with this world of zero code software. I fell in love with it absolutely because it's something that for people like me who can't sit in front of my computer doing the same coding thing for three hours, I'm going to go crazy.

But the zero code thing, it's like Lego. It's fun. If you put pieces together, I still remember the excitement when I built my first app. It was a to do app in one hour. I was watching the webinar and I was doing thing and in one hour, my to do app is there. This is fascinating. If I can do it in one hour, then basically everyone can.

Why are we not using this to build startups then? Because for the MVP, there's nothing better than this to build an MVP because you can change it on the go. You don't have to hire anyone. You don't have to apply for funding. It's quick. It's cheap because you pay what... I don't know. Even you can use the free plan.

I felt like I discovered this treasure, and then I start talking about this to the people around me in the Netherlands, no one's like, No, didn't hear about this. I have no idea. And then, of course, I was discovering more tools and I started reaching out to people from those tools. So that's how we partnered with, for example, Bubble, of course, the tool that we use to create the game.

So the first two iterations of the game were completely code free. That was a matter of principle for us to say, Hey, so this is the game you're playing? We're not just advertising zero code. You're actually playing it.

Yes, it's probably a bit slower than you would expect from a finished application, but who cares? It's out there. You're playing it. It's working. And all the other things we're going to worry about later.

Then, of course, we also reached out to Adalo, the mobile app builder, whereas bubble is the web application. Then there were tools like Make. With them, for example, how do you, as a small company, talk to bigger ones?

For example, Tilda, the website builder, and Make, the automation tool, they're not quite well known in Europe because there's bigger competition that they have that are known here. So for example, for Make, it's Zapier. Everyone here knows Zapier and no one knows Make. That was my in.

I'm like, Hey, guys, we're in Europe, we love your tool, we use it here. Look, we build a bot with it, we love it. We want to teach our users how to use it because we think this is a very nice way for them to also build something from nothing in half an hour or whatever.

They're going to love it. We could go to Zapier, but we wanted to go to you first. So a bit of the... What we did was, of course, we asked for a free account for us so we can continue building.

We also asked for free accounts for a few months for our users so they can use it during the game. Then if they love the tool, they're going to get hooked to it. It's good for us. We showed them how to use the tool and how to start building something good for make, for example, because they will get more users.

It's good for everyone because it's a game for women, so it's a hot topic. Women in startups, you can always publicise "Hey, I'm helping women."

Was that the first major partnership? You kind of fell into it organically. You had the idea, you reached out on the basis of, well, nothing to lose, might as well ask?

Yes. It was the opposite of the first startup.

With the first startup, it was, Okay, we need to get funding. So this is what we did because, well, that's what you do. And second of all, we didn't know any better.

With the second one, we actually decided to register it as an NGO because some of the things that happened previously made me realize that there are advantages to an NGO because it is easier talk to certain organizations.

The government is not going to talk to you about doing something together if you're doing it for profit. But if you tell them, Hey, I'm an NGO, it's a different story. Same with universities, for example. So all these bigger companies, you tell them you're an NGO and attitude changes. People start treating you differently.

Then I discovered the wonderful world of free things and discounts for NGOs. And I'm like, Wow, this is nice. This is even better than funding because you can quickly get the stuff that you need for free. And when you put all this together, it's a significant amount because, for example, with Google and Microsoft, we're getting credits for the ads from them.

Before that, I never used ads, so I had no idea how to do that. That allowed us not only to have the credits for free and actually have a lot of traffic coming to us. But it also allowed us to learn how to use ads. So actually next time when we have to spend our money, we won't waste a lot of it because we already know how to do this.

And the way that we found, for example, another partner was exactly that. On LinkedIn, I wrote, Okay, I'm learning how to use ads. This is what we have at this moment. It's frustrating and annoying. I have no idea why this is working, why it's not. Anyone has any advice. And that's how a marketing agency from Amsterdam also reached out to us and they said, Hey guys, you're an NGO so we can help you for free to figure it out. Asking for help also helps. Sometimes if, of course, people are interested in what you're building.

Your whole story is fascinating. I'm so glad we're having this chat. What did you do next with your partnerships? Have you looked for partnerships that are not about credits and free tools?

Yes, of course. We tried a few things that didn't work for us. We tried to go the route of a typical NGO. Google, Okay, how do I get funding as an NGO?

You have, of course, that scenario that doesn't work for us because we are not a typical NGO. We are an NGO that's run by entrepreneurs. So it's a lethal combination. We don't care about our image. We don't care about writing 10 pages of the mission. We want to build.

And if we see people coming to us and loving this, this is our mission. I get frustrated when I have these meetings with people from traditional industries. 

People from banks that decide whether they want us or not, or people from these due diligence companies that are hired by other entities that want to decide if we're good enough or not. And of course, all the questions that they ask are like, Okay, so what's your impact in five years? I'm like, I have no idea.

You want my honest answer? I have no idea because what we're building has never been built before. I have no idea if it's going to work.

I have no idea if in half a year we're not going to pivot to something else. So do you want me to give you a fake number? I'll be happy to give it to you.

But at some point, I got so frustrated that we decided to steer away from all these... The fundraising route that we're supposed to take because I didn't want to be one of those NGOs that just gets the money and then spends it and then puts it on their website. Hey, this is how we spend the money. I, for some reason didn't want to do this.

I wanted to have a fun startup where I decide where we're going and I could concentrate on users and not on some third party that will tell us what needs to be done.

That's why after talking to some universities and to some government entities, we got frustrated and we moved away from there. I'm like, All the banks here, we talked to banks as well. So we tried everything that you're supposed to try and then we're like, Okay, then I move to smaller companies. So that's how we started talking to companies that actually needed us.

Maybe not as much, but almost as much as we need them. So the partnership in which both parties get something exciting.

Not just in a bank, they would need us just to tell to the shareholders that they put the money into something that is a good cause. The administration and bureaucratic thing that has nothing to do with actually wanting to help us and loving what we're doing. And that's what I saw, of course, with those software companies. They actually genuinely love the idea because they're also in software and they understood and they saw what it is that we're doing.

They were excited to do this. They participated in the pilots. They held workshops for the users where they showed how to use their software. That helped tremendously because, of course, users feel if you're just telling them, Hey, this is this tool, we want you to use this tool, they're going to be like, Why do we have to use it?

Are they paying you for us to use that? You would always assume that. But here we were saying, Hey, we love this tool. This is the feature that we built with this tool.

Look how easy it is. This is the tutorial how to build something like that. This is the guy or the girl from that company who's going to show you how to use it. This is the three months of free where you can play zero strings attached, just try it. Then it's totally different attitude from the users where at some point I had to push them to try the tool because change management is hard.

Pulling someone away from Excel and telling them, Hey, there is life outside of Excel. There is airtable and something else. At some point, we had to forbid them to use Excel. No, you're not going to use Excel because we want you to try something else. If you're not going to love it, great, you can go back to Excel, but at least you're going to try this and the chances are you're not going to go back.

We heard that with a lot of things. We heard this with Canva. We had an experienced designer not wanting to use Canva because it's just for rookies. And then she said, Oh, my God. Why didn't I use it before?

We had people who were telling us, I'm not a designer. It's too complicated. And then they were like, Oh, my God. Canva, where have you been my whole life?

With Tilda, the website builder. So I say, You can build a landing page in one hour. I can guarantee that. People were like, No, not possible. I said, I dare you. This is a challenge. Do this. You're actually going to get tokens for that. Do it just for the principle.

And then they would be like, Oh, my God. I actually build a landing page. I didn't know I could do this. So this is the partnerships that we love.

The credits part is, of course, a bonus for our users to try it for free because they will not pay for something that they don't know. This is just human nature. 

But the fact that they fall in love with the tool as much as we are in love with the tool, that's the thing that we want to continue doing. So we're not going to partner with someone that we don't use ourselves and that we don't love because it's just going to be forced and this is not what we do.

At some point, you probably saw on the list of our partners on the website, there's a big company that actually gave us a financial grant and that helped us tremendously, of course, to... I'm not allowed to say who it was, unfortunately. But let's just say it's a big company and they helped us with a grant as part of them giving back. 

That helped tremendously, because at that point we were already running out of money and we were not making any money yet. I really didn't want to have our users pay for something that was still in beta because we were getting an enormous amount of feedback from them and I realized that if we are making it paid now, we're not going to get that feedback and we needed that feedback.

The second pilot, we ran was with I think we had 400 people apply and we chose probably half of that, I think 300. But in the end, we had 150 active users, which was a lot. Last time we had 15 and we were already overwhelmed because we were doing a lot of things still manually and then 150.

We felt like the current team when the users are the ball and we as a team, we're running like a second millimeter in front of them building stuff for them and fixing everything that they broke because they broke a lot, which is the point of beta testing. The fun of having actual users telling you, Hey, why did you do this? That makes no sense. My developer is going like, I hate users.

Why are they breaking my stuff? The typical thing. That was both, of course, exhausting and fun. That allowed us to see what's missing, of course, what needs to be done, and so on and so forth.

One of the things that we're adding now is, thanks to some of our partnerships, we're adding the financial literacy/blockchain/web3 elements because as it turns out, we don't talk enough about money, we don't talk enough about being careful with money, but at the same time investing.

We don't talk about things that are new with money. Everyone's afraid of using crypto. Great. But have you actually tried it? Why are you afraid? You can be afraid after you've tried it and something happened, but you have to at least try it and we want to make it in a very safe way for them.

So we're building mockups of tools that are out there. For example, now we're building a mock up of a wallet so that they can in the game feel like they are using a blockchain wallet without actually using one.

They know what that is. So we remove the fear aspect and the fact that if they're going to lose money, it's going to be in game tokens that are worth nothing.

These are the partnerships. With Spatial, for example, the metaverse, the VR company, we also love them because we love metaverse. We actually built our own...

In the game, we have different buildings, so we built one of the buildings in the metaverse in VR just to see if we can, how easy it was. It is quite easy with Spatial if you have, of course, a good designer.

We're testing and trying all these little things. Depending on that, we partner with the companies that we think are cool. This is our approach. If they want to give us more than just the time and credits, that's better. Of course, we always ask for that.

We always say, Hi, guys. If you're interested in being personally involved, giving the workshops and stuff, most of them say yes because they're also in love with their product and they want to promote it. Doing things together, like writing articles. Tilde has been very helpful with co writing articles. We got written about by EU startups with the help about this thing that we're doing.

Oh, fantastic.

Yeah. This thing's basically a partnership where you help promote each other. That's why I got interested in the tool that you're building because I do believe if it's a two way street, then it has to be semi equal if it's the companies of same level, for example. But if it's a bigger company...

I'm trying to get to Canva for a long time. We already have their nonprofit free accounts. We already talked to them about certain things, but I want something official. And of course, we're too small for them. Very small.

But even recently, they reached out, someone from their marketing department reached out. They want a quote from us on how Canva helped us build the game. So I'm like, Yes, I'm getting to them. So it's step by step.

But I do love Canva not only as a tool, not only because we are using it for the game. Every educational piece of material that we have, it's built with Canva. So it's like thousands of Canva pages there. B

ut of course, I love the fact that it's a woman there that built this massive thing. I'm 100 % sure they're going to love us once they get to know us because what's not to love?

We're awesome. It's hard for us.

I'm happy to promote everyone on our social media. This is the thing that I always say, happy to do this. I noticed that especially with women, they're afraid of doing this. They're like, but it's boasting. I'm like, what are you talking about, boasting? This is not boasting.

This is you saying that, hey, I'm that good. I'm ready to do that. Either I'm looking for a work or co founder, whatever, and just me sharing it. There's no boasting here. This is just stating the facts. So I realized that I need to help more women put themselves out there because they're afraid to do it themselves.

And I saw that they were thankful for the fact that I think of them even though the pilot is over and we haven't launched yet. I still don't forget about them. If there is an opportunity that I think is good for one of them, I will reach out and tell them.

And the first thing they would say, Oh, my God, you haven't forgotten about us. Thank you so much. I'm like, Why would I forget about you? That's, of course, the part that always is frustrating with other incubators and online courses. Once you're done, you're done. Like you did.

But this is how you build fans and how you build a strong brand.I think it's that type of attitude that will really build the brand. No wonder you're growing so quickly now.

I might be wrong, but I think one of the reasons why it's shaping up to be this way is the fact that we don't depend on external people telling us what to do.

Those that fund you, those that tell you which way you have to go or distract you by, Hey, write me this 50 page report. Of course, we still have that stuff, but we don't get distracted by that as much as we would have if we were VC backed.

That allows us to test and try and switch our direction. Well, not switch, we know where we going and we know what the end goal is, but sometimes we go somewhere else and that turns out to be a great thing.

For example, we always wanted to have AI based system in the game. That was already two years ago. My massive goal is to build a success prediction model for female entrepreneurs.

Basically, something that doesn't exist in the very early beginning to figure out how to steer the person towards the road to maximize her success, basically. Of course, for that you need a massive development.

Then Open AI came with the AI and that allowed us to already train and practice and figure out a lot of things in preparation for what it is that we want to do next.

That, of course, massively decreased our road to that starting point. I'm glad we didn't do this two years ago because we were away for those two years doing something that now it's here. I'm glad that we postponed this. Now, of course, suddenly that it's here, I postponed other things and I put this on the agenda.

For the next launch, we're going to have a lot of AI elements in the game.

In game characters that will help users do certain things like come up with the startup name or draw a logo, all of these things that usually you have to do yourself and you have no idea. Here you have this AI character that, by the way, we call her Elona Musk.

I saw that, I think, on one of your social posts.  Where is your audience based today? Is it primarily still in the Netherlands?

For the first pilot, we concentrated on the Netherlands, so not the Dutch people, but those that are interested in the Netherlands as the base for their startup.

That's our idea because while we were here, we know everything about the Netherlands from the startup point of view. 

For the second pilot, we wanted to add Malta to the list and basically Europe in general, but we fucked up. In the application for the game, for the pilot, I forgot to mention that it's only for Europe.

In the first three days, we had 200 people sign up and I'm looking at the geography and it's from all over. And I'm like, fuck, I'm not going to tell these people now that we're not going to take them because I forgot to tell them that it's only for Europe. So we're like, Okay, we're going to do this for the global audience.

What was tough about this, of course, was the fact that we needed to pair those people together and take ones in Australia and the other ones in Europe. Time wise, complicated. But then we were like, Okay, we're going to let them figure it out themselves.

We just decided that we're going to have more office hours to make sure that there's a slot in the morning when I'm available and the slot in the evening when I'm available so that everyone can talk to me if they need to. But we're going to run this pilot globally. And we did. 

We had connection. We had girls from Philippines connecting to someone from Malta, for example. Something that you would have never had if it was only Europe. A girl from South Africa that's one of our partners now, also, we would have never met her if I just put Europe.

Everything worked out for the better. But primarily, we're going back a bit narrowing it down to the point that we are targeting Europe as the landing spot for the startups. You can be from anywhere in the world, but you got to be interested in Europe as the place where you either want to find your co founder or a place where you want to relocate or a place where you want to work or a place where you want to found your startup. That's our idea now.

The last question on this, which is about the Villa. And so I was already interested in the Villa. So you've got the game and you've been inviting your partners in to do some training, and you obviously do things that are outside of the game.

But I did notice either from some of your socials or a blog post that I was following that you are doing some in person events as well.

Well, the Villa, I always wanted one and I was not going to give it up because we're not supposed to work out of the Villa. I'm like, Yeah, no, we're getting the Villa. We are not renting the office. We're going to save on the office. We're going to work from there because, well, who needs an office?

But I said, I can guarantee you guys, I said to my co founders, this Villa is going to eventually be one of the best investments we're going to make. Yes, it was freakishly expensive, but we fell in love with the place because the view is one of the best views out there. And of course, it has huge territory.

It has a pool and it has one of the best gardens that you can have in Malta because, well, Malta is very stony, rocky and it's expensive to have a big garden. Awesome place. So I'm like, we're going to invite people here and they're going to love it here and they're going to do stuff with us because they will want to come back, basically, just lure them in.

And of course, every time someone came to our place, they were like, Wow.

So it was something that they could not forget. They couldn't forget the Villa, they couldn't forget us. So basically that worked pretty well.

And of course, I always wanted to have some events at that place, and we decided that we're going to do something, of course, in connection to the game, but more in connection to just startup ecosystem and startups in general.

One of the reasons why Malta liked us is because we're quite active in helping build the startup ecosystem. We are doing it in the Netherlands, and of course, we wanted to do this in Malta.

Malta is a baby in comparison with the Netherlands, where they have this established startup ecosystem. Malta has basically started a few years ago, but they're moving very quickly, very rapidly. They are learning and they're taking the best things from other countries.

They're attracting other startups and they're heavily promoting their startup ecosystem.

So we decided, well, we're going to do a startup pool party at the Villa, at the startup Villa, as we called it, because startup Villa sounds like an oxymoron.

We have a friend in Malta who has a Facebook group on startups in Malta.

He's heavily invested into helping the island grow their startup ecosystem. So of course, we talked and I said, Hey, I'm doing this. He immediately said, I'm going to financially help so you guys can buy food and drinks and all that. So that, of course, was awesome.

The other awesome thing was that we have an Italian guy on the team and he loves cooking. So at the first party, we had so much food that I think we ended up eating it for the rest of the week because it was too much.

The first time that we had it, we had no agenda, nothing. It was just a spontaneous thing. I promoted the party in the Facebook group for startups in Malta, and somehow there were a lot of people.

I think there were more than 50 that showed up, and we didn't expect that many. From that point of view, I missed most of the party because I was so busy running errands and making sure that everyone has food and stuff that I didn't have a second to myself. I didn't enjoy the party. I'm like, Okay, this is not good for me. I want to also enjoy that.

So the second time we decided to approach it in a more structured way, we created a sign up form on the website to make sure that we can automate things. We created a bit of a schedule.

We asked people to donate if they want, so that we can actually buy the food and drinks that they want, because if some of them have any dietary restrictions, then of course we need to specifically make sure that that stuff is there.

We decided to invite fewer people this time so that we can actually have more of a meaningful, not just calm drink and talk, but more of a meaningful thing. And we had a pitching by the pool session, which was fun. Where Starter Founders in their bikinis with kids running around were pitching their projects.

The friend of ours from the Facebook group, he also, once again, donated some money so that we can buy a bottle of champagne so we can give it to the winner. But we decided to also buy a second bottle, the cheap one, so they can shake it and do the champagne fountain because, yes, once again, startups are not supposed to do this, right?

And, that was awesome. So I really enjoyed the second party a lot more because there were fewer people. I managed to talk to a lot of them. So we had that actual pitching event with the prizes and everything.

There were a lot of kids running around, which was also fun. I think a lot of people loved it because it's different because it's not just something where you come, usually you come to some venue or to an office or whatever, and it's very formal and stuff.

But here you are half naked, you are semi drunk, you're wet because you were just in the pool and you're talking about startups. This is the most awesome combination.

We had some women who were joining the game to come and actually meet us to see who we are. We have people from the Maltese government coming over as well. So those that funded our location there. And they also saw the energy that we put into promoting these things. So that, of course, also helps.

I think we managed to get into the startup ecosystem of Malta so quickly because we immediately met a lot of people that we would have never met if we didn't have the party that we would have never had if we never had the Villa.

You see? This is, of course, this is the best thing about that. At some point, I also want to... This is just an idea, but I think that could be a cool idea to basically have some of the winners of the game pay for their flights to Malta and have them stay with us for a week.

They can vacation, but also talk about startups and we help them with certain things.  I would love that if I were player in the game. 

I'm loving the idea of, first of all, I'm loving the idea of living together with the team because it makes you bond so much quicker.

I love the fact that we don't have to commute to some boring office. I love the fact that we can have people over and David, this Italian guy, will cook food for them and they will drool over the food, they will drool over the food, and then they will have wine and then we can tell them whatever we want. 

You guys are really going your own way and building a really strong brand at the same time. I think you're making some decisions that are going to be long lasting and beneficial over a really long period of time. That's amazing.

Thank you very much for your time I really enjoyed the chat.

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