Startup Sitdown – Robert Gaal

This week we sat down with Robert Gaal, CEO of Karma, a Dutch company changing the way travelers get internet connections. Robert and his co-founders Steven and Stefan are all extremely tall and cool, like everybody else from The Netherlands. We spoke to Robert about Karma, moving to New York, and the growth of Europe’s startup scene.

You just moved to NY from Amsterdam – what are your first impressions of NYC as a place to live and build a business?

I fell in love with it the first time I was here in 2006. From that point on I came back here a bunch for business stuff, but when you really take a step back and see the city it’s really quite a beautiful place. It’s amazing that we’re now actually living in this place, and I’m from a little town in the south of the Netherlands originally, but this is a city I can feel at home in, which is weird because it’s the biggest city I know. The city of Amsterdam feels like a little village, no skyscrapers, no taxis running you down.

What has your experience of TechStars been during these first couple weeks of the program?

So far the experience has been me never leaving this office and loving it. Seriously, it’s just been great working around so many talented people. That’s my favorite part of the whole experience, especially the team of TechStars who are doing such a great job. It really drives you forward to do even greater things. All founders here are loving that I think.

You last founded an enterprise company, what are the biggest differences now that you’re building a consumer facing product?

For a consumer product it’s sometimes easier to know what your customers are thinking. In enterprise it can sometimes be hard to get in the mind of somebody at a large corporation. On the other hand, the general consumer is a large group who’s moves can be unpredictable. But that’s why you zoom in on a specific demographic more and more over the course of your product.

You and your two co-founders have all started businesses in Amsterdam before, what’s the startup scene like there? 

I would say there is definitely a startup culture now. For instance, when my company first started in 2006, the word startup was still written with a capital letter and hyphen in the middle in every newspaper, now it’s not. That has changed, I could get my face in the newspaper easily by just saying I do a startup, but now it’s coming to a stage where there are some serious investors based there.

For instance, the biggest local social network, called Hives, just got acquired, so there are some successful founders investing in smaller companies. There is a sense of having one successful generation, and now a second generation is profiting from that. I think its about two or three generations behind the scene in San Francisco, and two behind New York. The relationship between European cities is similar to that between NYC and San Francisco. For instance, Berlin is more like SF and Amsterdam and London are more like NY. For me, Berlin is a six hour train ride, and london is a one hour plane ride, Europe functions differently with its cities in terms of startups, we are so dependent on each other, I think of people from Berlin as colleagues.

What’s your favorite part of running a startup?

The way you launch products is something that really interests me. With big teams in large companies you’re always dependent on somebody else’s vision or guidelines. In a startup you’re really creatively constrained by not having enough money and that ultimately leads to better product. It makes you more creative. The constraints are not fun, so the product must be fun, the process must be fun, and the people you work with must be fun – that’s something very gratifying.

What is the worst part of running a startup?

Sometimes just those same constraints. I’m so in love with startups I haven’t thought about it much. But the hardest part is that it takes a certain amount of sacrifice. Sacrifice can be “I’m not going out with my friends”, or “I’m not at home with my girlfriend who’s sick.” I don’t mind the sacrifice, because I don’t feel that it’s in vain. There is a lot of sacrifice though, many people go into startups and don’t realize that.


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