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The Big Exit Show: Arco van Nieuwland about exiting multiple software companies

The Big Exit Show: Arco van Nieuwland about exiting multiple software companies

What about.. not only exiting your first startup through an IPO, but also exiting your second one by successfully selling to a strategic buyer? That’s what we call a real serial entrepreneur🦸🏻 …and this new episode reveals some of the secrets to accomplish the entrepreneurial life circle – twice.

With his five co-founders, Arco van Nieuwland started the software company Exact in 1984, and took it from a student garage to the stock exchange 15 years later. The public company dynamics, moreover distant from the entrepreneurial mindset, made Arco and his co-founders Lucas Brentjens and Sebastian Toet start a new journey – Yuki. After selling Yuki to the accounting software conglomerate Visma in 2020, Arco is for the very first time(!) in a podcast, revealing his key lessons from his more than 25 years inspirational, yet hard-working road.

What are the common traits for succeeding – when starting a company 25 years old and “not knowing anything” VS doing the same at the age of 50 with so much more experience (and money)? Tune in to learn the importance of intrinsic problem-solving passion, adapting to the circumstances 🐉, and that people might be the game-changing factor both in the start and exit phase 👨‍👩‍👧‍👦

Arco van Nieuwland: co-founder of Exact and Yuki, Johan van Mil, and Remy Gieling

In this podcast series Peak’s very own co-founder and managing partner Johan van Mil, and podcast host Remy Gieling talk to successful European tech entrepreneurs about the exit of their company. You can find the episode at your favorite podcast platform, linked below.

And, if you are really interested in listening to the big exit of specific founders – reach out to us so we can invite them for the next episode!

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Apple Podcasts

Google Podcast

You can find the transcribed version of the episode below:


Remy: Starting a company is easy. Selling your company, that is a different story. In the Big Exit Show by Peak, we lift the curtain of secrecy of selling ambitious scaleups by talking to successful founders, who have been in this roller coaster. My name is Remy Gieling.

Johan: And I’m Johan van Mil.

Remy: And in this episode, we talked to a true serial entrepreneur, Arco van Nieuwland. Arco and five other friends started the software company, Exact in 1984, and built it into a global powerhouse. In 1999, Exact had the IPO by the original founders and was taken private again in 2014 by Apax and is now owned by KKR. Exact has offices in 20 countries, [00:01:00] more than 1850 employees and over half a million companies in the Benelux alone use Exact software as their administrative backbone. Arco left the company in 2005 to start another venture called Yuki. That company was sold to the Norwegian conglomerate, Visma in 2019. And now, he’s a full-time entrepreneur with his fund CNBB. We are so excited to have him on the show. Arco, welcome.

Arco: My pleasure.

Remy: Arco, is this your first podcast ever to be on?

Arco: Ah, yes, yes, yes, I have to admit. My first podcast ever, so it’s a premier.

Remy: Yeah, are you excited?

Arco: Very excited.

Johan: Hey, Arco, what’s the heroic story of exact? What’s the story, what you tell everybody to your friends when you talk about Exact, why you started it?

Arco: Well, while you were just summarizing a little bit about Exact, I was just wondering. Does it still count as a unicorn, since meanwhile it’s now sold from Apax to KKR, and [00:02:00] valuations very north of one billion? So it will be great if I still can take the benefit of that as delivering a unicorn to the market.

Johan: You can.

[laughter]

Arco: Okay. Thanks. Yeah, it’s a classic story as six students rented a garage. And with each 6,000 guilders at that time, bought our PCs and started programming. And there was PCs with dual floppy drives, and that was about it. And we started programming. Our launching customer or distributor was Ahrend. And well, then it went all the way.

Johan: To the roof?

Arco: To the roof, yeah.

[laughs]

Johan: And what’s the real story on Exact? Because this is indeed the fancy story, which is a big dream– a founder bringing in a company to life, and bringing it even to an IPO. What’s the real story from your position?

Arco: Well, it’s pretty close to the public story but the real story is that blood, sweat, and tears, [00:03:00] working 80 hours a week, no money and just going through many failures, and then step-by-step, bringing it to fruition. And yeah, everything that could go wrong did go wrong, but we had our successes, we had our failures. We were robbed. We were cheated. We did failed acquisitions. We thought Belgium was an easy market to enter. Well, we found out that Waterloo is not for nothing. Waterloo is in Belgium. We attracted a venture capital, at that time, General Atlantic Partners, which was new at that time since the term startup is only recently invented.

And now, everybody talks about startups and scale-ups but at that time, we didn’t know how to spell venture capital. We ran into these guys that were interested in our, at that time, already from the very beginning, [00:04:00] profit-making company; well, that was easy since we did not take any money out of it, and they helped us enter into the US market. So we had our adventures in the US market. Perhaps, a small story that I can advise everyone, go to exhibitions.

We were, I think, one of the first Dutch companies that went every year to the COMDEX. COMDEX doesn’t exist anymore but that’s a very big international exhibition. And we spent there one week behind the casino tables and talked about the strategy, and aimed very high. There was the moonshot travel. And there we picked our RDs on how to innovate. We were the first to start with updating software via billboards. None of the listeners knows what a billboard is but it’s pretty close to online updates, and you can download your software. We were the first to robotize [00:05:00] the production of floppy disks. Of course, nothing was online.

Arco: So I have to make a side note. The time we started was without internet, without mobile phones.

Remy: Everything was on-premise, right?

Arco: Everything was on-premise. It was not even a network. At that time, it was mini and mainframe, so hardly dare to tell it, since you must think I’m already sitting in my wheelchair here, but it’s been a long time but in that period, robotizing copying of floppy disks was quite spectacular.

Remy: Yeah. Yeah. What a date.

Johan: Yeah.

Remy: It was an amazing ride.

Arco: Yeah.

Remy: Well, in this podcast, we want to get to know your insights on scaling companies but also about selling companies. And we’ll look into your latest venture Yuki later on, but we really want to start with the Exact story, so we’re really glad you told us right now. Maybe we can zoom in on a few moments in the Exact story. What was it like starting a company in 1984? [00:06:00] How did you know how to run a company because there was no real Internet? What were they? Books? How did you learn how to run a company?

Arco: I think that’s good news, we didn’t. So it was just a go with the flow. We felt that we had a great idea, and a lot of energy and passion, and a lot of time and no money. And we spent it all.

Remy: Did you rent an office?

Arco: We rented a garage but our first office was at the student room of one of the founders. So we sat there around this table until his fellow house members kicked us out.

[laughter]

Arco: And then we rented this– literally, this garage in Delft. So we didn’t know anything. We just went for it and we felt– and that has been always our main drive, that we could do better while other current products in the market were shitty, unfriendly products. So [00:07:00] we could deliver a better product. And we felt that customer is central, and that sounds very logical. I think it’s a drive of many entrepreneurs. But at that time, 90 percent of all the ERP systems were all tailor-made systems. They spent hundreds of thousands of guilders on IT systems, and a standard product out of the box did not exist. And we felt that we could deliver that, and so we did.

Johan: I think a few of you started from Grote Beer 00:07:34, right? You had been with Grote Beer before this–

Arco: Like myself?

Johan: Indeed, and then started Exact. What was the problem at that time that you were trying to solve? Because now, it’s all about seeing a problem and finding a solution to it. What was, at that time, the problem?

Arco: Yeah, that’s a little bit by the book that you need to solve a problem. And to be honest, I apply that to many of the ventures we are currently investing in, but to be honest, we were not really solving a problem, but chasing an opportunity [00:08:00] at that time, there was Ahrend still existing, big in office supplies. They felt that they needed a solution for architects, an IT solution. So Ahrend wanted to step into office automation, and they did not have any knowledge and Grote Beer was not willing to support them.

So, we stepped into that opportunity and went all the way. So you could argue the problem was that there were architects that were seeking for project administration, but to be honest, it was just Ahrend wanting to offer– to serve that market. And we were available at that time and could make some money out of that. And then it went through the roof since– once we got started, and started thinking about it, to say, “Hey, but if we can develop an architecture solution, the solution for project administration, time and billing for architects, we might as well also deliver accounting, [00:09:00] invoicing, and the rest.

And then the first thing we did was deliver a brochure. And I think perhaps that’s one of our little secrets, that we first developed all the brochures, then went to an exhibition, hired a booth, showed all our brochures, and at night, I was programming at home delivering what we needed to show next morning. And that’s during the exhibition. We made progress in the mock-ups and the screens we were presenting.

Remy: That’s called an MVP right now, right?

[laughter]

Arco: Exactly.

Johan: And Ahrend, there was a time– well, I had because for an office furniture supplier–

Arco: Absolutely.

Johan: –to step into the software market in 1984.

Remy: And what was the time when you decided to fully focus on accounting in [Midswift 00:09:50] where, I think, the main focus of Exact was?”

Arco: Yeah, once we delivered all the brochures, then it became clear that we [00:10:00] could not stick to the brochures only and also had to deliver some software with it, and people were just demanding for accounting software since there are more people that need accounting software than architects, so that was an easy bet.

Johan: So literally, you’ve put all the stands of brochures –of accounting, architect, et cetera?

Arco: Exactly.

Johan: So how many people were taking the brochures [crosstalk]?

Arco: Yeah, more or less. Yeah. And that’s–

Remy: Who were your competitors back then? Were there competitors?

Arco: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Everybody said it’s impossible since the market was fully divided. There was Midas, Grote Beer, Windgassen and Unit4. Well, the only one still left is Unit4. They controlled the entire market but all of them were user-unfriendly. So that means– you cannot imagine it today but if you need to look up a customer number and account number, you need to go through a pile of paper, find the name, find the corresponding number, and then you have to type it in. And we were the first to come up with a look-up [00:11:00] browser where you could search in a small window.

Remy: And those were the MS-DOS days, right?

Arco: MS-DOS days, yeah, for character base.

[music]

Remy: You were with multiple co-founders. Did you envision the future together? Were you dreaming about what it might become? Were you dreaming that one day, the name of your company would be on a Formula One car?

Arco: No. I think that’s perhaps different from the startups now. The startups now start with their unicorn ambition and vision, and then start thinking, “How can we achieve that?” And for us, it was just we wanted to be the best in the market, and that’s what drove us. And that led to the fact that we were really successful, and eventually, we’re the absolute market leader. So it was not a big plan and only later, I wrote business plans and I never wrote a plan that really came [00:12:00] out as I predicted it. So I will not dare to write another business plan anymore. So it was just a go-for-passion drive, and really being passionate about delivering the best product in the market, and becoming the best company in the market. That’s what we did.

Remy: So you say, “We didn’t have a clear vision,” right?

Arco: No.

Remy: “We didn’t have a product”?

Arco: Well, we had a vision. We had a vision on– that we felt that the product should be easy to use by SMEs. So the lower mid-market should be able to use this product in a super user-friendly way, and should always have proper support. So one phone call away, we would be there to help other customers. And one of the first customers, Rietveld was in an incassobureau, in a collection agency. We sat there during New Year’s eve drinking his bottle of whiskey and making sure that every [00:13:00] part of the software was doing what it was supposed to do. And that was an example of how far we went to really make software work and customers happy.

Remy: Hey, that was all tailor-made software, right? In those days? Mainly tailor-made, I think.

Arco: Yeah, but were very, very strict in only delivering standard software.

Remy: Yeah, it was already from the start?

Arco: From the very start, yeah.

Remy: Okay. When did you make that switch to SaaS, because now it’s not on-premise anymore, it’s only running on the cloud? When did you make that exact switch to the SaaS?

Arco: I think, in hindsight, too late, SaaS– there was one step in-between, which I will mention briefly. There was a step from doors to windows that was disastrous. There were many technology errors. And I think the biggest lesson we took with us there is that at that time, we changed everything. Data structure, technology, database–

Remy: Interface.

Arco: Interface. [00:14:00] Everything was changed and there was just too much. And that that what kept us a little bit from making the move to SaaS. Later on, we were way more careful, and more or less, copied the Windows version to a SaaS environment. Although it was a fresh new development, we stayed very close to the original functionality and data structures, first of all, to make it manageable for ourselves, and at the same time, the customers also were not waiting for a fundamental change of how to work with the software. So we were relatively late. I think the first one to benefit from SaaS in the Netherlands was, at that time, Twinfield. So they cleared the pathway for us. And then we followed shortly behind them.

Remy: Because there also was a time that many companies didn’t want to adopt SaaS, right?

Arco: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Johan: Yeah.

Arco: But it was not the reason. We felt that that was a way to go [00:15:00] but we’re– and that’s, of course, if you have a lot of customers, and we already had at that time. And that’s a bit of a down–

Remy: Yeah, and using your product daily, right? Because–

Arco: Daily, absolutely.

Remy: Yeah.

Arco: And that’s a bit of a downside of running such a large company. You’re more concerned to lose what you have than not to win what you don’t have. And I think that’s what triggered me, which we will discuss later on, to start all over again.

Remy: Yeah. Innovation starts outside your company, right?

Arco: Yeah.

Remy: Yeah.

Arco: It felt so limiting if you have to be concerned about losing what you have.

Johan: Yeah.

Arco: And that was typically with so many customers.

Remy: At what time did you begin to think about the possibility of an IPO?

Arco: Well, that was more or less triggered by the fact that we had a VC on board. So we were engaged with GAP, General Atlantic Partners. And we felt that that would help us getting access to the US [00:16:00] market, finding acquisition targets, taking a little bit of money off the table. Not too much but it was enough to take away the tension amongst the shareholders. So everybody was, at that time, independent. And that sounds a little bit like a small thing. But if you are with six founders, at that time, five, then you need to manage your tensions. And so that was an important step but the very moment we took GAP on board, it became clear that they needed an exit, especially at that time, an IPO, being a public company, then you were a real credible company. And until that point, we were just a bunch of students running a company.

Johan: Yeah.

Remy: How big was the company back then? And what was your role?

Johan: Especially when GAP stepped in, right?

Remy: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Arco: I think when we went public, we were around 100 million, not that big but [00:17:00] it’s very good for a couple of students. [laughs]

Arco: Yeah. Yeah, we were around 100 million but I don’t know the exact numbers, especially not when GAP came on board but we were substantial. We were profitable.

Remy: And we’re still talking guilders back then, I guess, right?

Arco: Yeah. In 1999, I think, guilder was replaced by euro.

Remy: Yeah.

Arco: Yeah.

Remy: And your role?

Arco: My role was, at that time, I think when we went public, I was responsible for the latest in innovation. It was e-Synergy. And that’s still a brilliant product. And I’m still disappointed that it got so little attention from Exact once I have left, but that was–

Remy: What was it?

Arco: Well, e-Synergy was a solution to combine all the processes wall-to-wall in a company. And that means you have six entities—customers, products, employees, documents, transactions, and projects. And they all relate to each other. And it’s all in one [00:18:00] database. And it was at that time. And now, we’re talking data lakes and repositories. And at that time, there was a real big innovation. And that meant that all employees were working on the same basis. So a support ticket was a workflow in the company and was contributing to the information around the product. If you took a customer angle, you could see all the support tickets. You could see all the transactions, invoices, bugs, everything related to customer projects.

Remy: Sort of a data warehouse software, almost, maybe?

Arco: Yes, to some extent, but then with a lot of pointed functionality.

Remy: Yeah.

Arco: So it was not just a Power BI type of repository. It was really implemented with workflows, data structures, screens, reports, consolidation, and that kind of–

Remy: Never considered a spin-out?

Arco: I have considered that but nobody dared to [00:19:00] spin it out.

Johan: Mm.

Remy: Yeah.

Arco: Since on the one hand, it was fast-growing, very profitable. So they didn’t want to lose it, but at the same time, they lacked– and that’s my hindsight view on why it was put aside more or less. It’s still there. It’s still, I think, a very successful component of what Exact currently is still bringing to the market but it was not enough understood.

Remy: Within the six founders that you had, because a lot of– were from the technical university, what was exactly, in beginning, your role? And how did it evolve over time?

Arco: I started as a programmer, developer.

Remy: Yup.

Arco: And that was based because that was my background. I studied computer science. And gradually, I moved away from real hardcore development to more product marketing. And now, I’m very much closer to marketing, branding, and of course, innovation, [00:20:00] and product strategy and vision.

Johan: Yeah.

Remy: What was the process like for you? Because you started out from university, you learned along the way how to run a company with friends, hired people.

Arco: Yeah.

Remy: But it got so big. How does that affect you personally?

Arco: It doesn’t. If you just work hard and play hard, and that combination was very important, it’s not that there’s a direct impact on you personally.

1: You didn’t feel any pressure because you’re you have the responsibility at a very young age for so many people?

Arco: No. It was a lot of fun. We had so much fun in everything we did. I think that’s very hard, and later on at Yuki, I can explain that again but it’s so hard to get to the point of magic and chemistry, and that makes a difference. Look at those successful companies, it’s always something like a sect. There’s always this [00:21:00] magic binding factor. And read the book of Google, it’s very similar to what I’ve seen with Exact but also the people from Microsoft or from Apple, they are a member of a certain tribe, of a certain clan. And then they feel invincible. And that’s what we did. That was of course, in hindsight, the easy part since no family– I was, whatever, in my early 20s. So no family, no obligations, no social life. You could argue since we were working 80 hours a week, made a lot of fun, went to the US, made tremendous trips everywhere, and that made it all work.

Remy: And how did you build that culture?

Arco: We built that culture through hiring and recruiting from the student environment. So we were in Delft, and Eduard was from Tilburg. So that–

Remy: So young people?

[00:22:00]

Arco: Young people, all academic, all from the same student environment, feeling comfortable at drinking a lot of beer until late in the evening, understanding certain informal hierarchies. That is what we took with us, and we found people that liked that.

Remy: I hear some parallels with– I had a Fireside chat recently with Chris Hall of Bynder.

Arco: Yeah.

Remy: I hear a parallel there, right?

Johan: Also how he builds his culture of young people, the–

Arco: Yeah, very recognizable.

Remy: Yeah.

Arco: I think that he achieved, perhaps, from a slightly different angle but very similar things–young people, student environment, a lot of party, a lot of drinks, working hard, playing hard. And it sounds so simple but you need to pick or find the same like-minded people that like that and feel passionate about what they’re doing, but it’s very much like what you see at Bynder. And for us, it was special since it– and with [00:23:00] Bynder, it came also very natural since Chris has this inspirational spirit with him. But for now, if you look at startups and scaleups, that is a recognizable important asset in the company. At that time the startup did not exist so this was quite unique, what we achieved there.

Remy: Last question, I think, on this, how do you keep the boundaries to indeed work hard play, hard? I mean a lot of people, I think, we all know from our student times, but also now, can drink a lot in the evenings but are not as sharp in the morning. How do you keep that boundary if you are running a company?

Arco: Well, I think you don’t. You don’t keep that boundary. And things get out of hand. And then you have to correct and adopt. I think that is impossible to manage. Once you start setting boundaries, it’s the end of the culture that’s related to that spirit. I think what is more important, [00:24:00] how do you keep that spirit in the company. And that’s what we saw over time once we were growing, and people started calling me “sir–”

[laughter]

Arco: —then you realize that something has changed in the company. And then you see that the lights are switched off after seven o’clock.

Remy: And the young people get older, right? They start having kids. They also have a new–

Arco: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah.

Remy: –way of living with a family, also it means less parties, right? I think it’s pretty hard to maintain that over time, right?

Arco: Yeah, that’s impossible so you should not try to keep it alive forever.

Remy: And for exit, no.

Arco: And you should evolve also culture-wise.

Remy: Now, after the IPO, how did the company change? Did the company change?

Arco: Yeah, the company changed a lot very much. And I think for us, it has been amazing going public, and having the recognition of a public company, and experiencing what it means to [00:25:00] be public, to have a supervisory board, have external shareholders, roadshows, investor relations. That is all amazing and it’s nice to have been a part of that, but I would dare to state it’s the end of the entrepreneurial spirit. It means that you start looking at peer groups. You start reading analyst reports. And to put it really blunt, you could argue that from that moment on, you’re more managing your P/E group numbers and analyst reports then that you are really managing your own company. Again, although I like it a lot, that period, and I’ve learned a lot from that, that is not where I got excited from. It’s a small example if you’re a public company, and you made the wrong hire, the wrong CFO, and you fire him, and you made a second wrong hire, you [00:26:00] think twice before firing him again. Well, if you are not a public company, you think, “[expletive]! I made a wrong hire again,” excuse my French, you’re just firing him or her again.”

Remy: Yeah.

Arco: So yes, it changed a lot.

Remy: So there are a lot of companies now, we call them unicorns, who are growing very fast. And people are asking like [Robert Fiss 00:26:23]. He would message, “When are you going to do an IPO? Or recently with GitLab, who did a great IPO as well, would you recommend it to entrepreneurs to IPO the company in this relatively early phase?

Johan: And especially because it’s always presented as the best path, right?

Arco: I’d say perhaps a little bit of a boring answer. It depends. I would just explain what it will mean. I had a discussion with Chris Hall when it was going public. I said, “Yeah it’s great. You have to do it. It’s a once-in-a-life [00:27:00] experience, so yes, go public. At the same time, I also explained to him it’s not that much fun anymore, and it will change the company, and his role, and how you will have to explain to others what you’re doing and why you’re doing things. So from an entrepreneurial point of view, yes for the experience, no for the end result from an organizational perspective. And then there’s this other consideration, valuation, and taking some chips off the table.

Remy: Yeah. And your shareholders, if he sees in this case.

Arco: And your shareholders, especially in the Bynder case, and also in the Exact case, you have VCs that are seeking for–

Johan: A return.

Arco: –the highest valuation, the highest return. But to be honest, today, different from back then, there’s such a mature private equity venture capital market that there are many alternatives in finding an exit. And it could either be strategic, or another VC, [00:28:00] or a new conglomerate. So there are alternatives.

Remy: So one more question about this because we didn’t talk about this in previous podcasts, when do you talk with your VCs about the possibility of an IPO?

Arco: First of all, you need size. It doesn’t make sense if you’re below 100 million in revenue, I would not go public since the cost of being a public company are high. You need to pay your subscription fee for–

Remy: Lawyers, accountants…

Arco: Yeah, lawyers but your regulations and your accountant, it’s all two times higher. I think at that time, the annual cost for being a public company at Exact at that time was around two million, I guess. So it costs a lot of money to be a public company and it limits your abilities to make decisions on the spot.

Remy: Isn’t it for marketing costs as well actually, if you boil it down?

Arco: Yeah, but I include that all.

Remy: Okay.

Arco: Marketing [00:29:00] cost is not that much. I think you should spend money on marketing, in most cases. And being a public company is already a marketing factor on its own.

Remy: Yeah, but can you put the 2 million as a marketing expense?

Arco: Now, if I would then have to choose how to spend my 2 million, I wouldn’t spend it–

[laughter]

Arco: –on stock exchange. Now, it is annually. It is not a one-time going public, on itself, costs a lot of money.

Remy: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think 10 million roughly, right? To bring your company–

Arco: Yeah. And then you spend a lot of money on the bankers, and it’s expensive. So getting back to your question, you need a minimum size to make it worth the trouble and the cost. Then it also depends on why you want to go public. It could be that you want to be recognized as now, you are really worth the investment. It could also be that you are seeking additional capital. And what you see today, often, valuations on public markets are higher [00:30:00] than on private markets. So if you are seeking money, the public markets are a way to go. For Exact, for instance, we did not need any money. So we have always been very cash-rich, very profitable. So for us, going public was an exit for the VC and for a few of the employees since what you see today with a lot of startups and scaleups, with all their equity stock option plans, that’s nice but people want to exit at some point in time. So the pressure sometimes is building to exit and to have some flexibility in your cap table.

Remy: Hey, what did you learn on the competition level in that way going public? Because I can imagine in those days, for Exact, also competition was rising. When you are public, you should also be more aware of what you share. You have to share certain things with the market like your financials but also, indeed, the successes that you have, but also the failures. What were your learnings on taking a company public related to [00:31:00] competition and to growth in that respect?

Arco: Nah, I would argue that that was a benefit since– for instance, if you need to tender for the larger companies, if you’re not a public company, you’re not taken seriously enough. If you want to tender for governmental solutions, you need to be more visible. So I think it helped us being more competitive. And we always had numbers where we did not have to be ashamed of, and it would rather scare off the competition, then it could damage us. But that’s a personal thing. I’ve never been so secret about numbers, or what we were doing, or our latest innovation since if it’s not coming from the heart or from the core of the company–

Remy: They cannot copy it.

Arco: –the competition cannot copy.

Remy: No.

Arco: And of course, there are examples. So in China where it’s the other way around but it’s– you need to have [00:32:00] the spirits behind it.

Remy: Did it change for you personally? Because all of a sudden, everyone knows the company where you are the owner. Is it that people treat you differently afterwards?

Arco: Yeah, that grows gradually on you. First of all, what I mentioned earlier on, that they start calling you “sir,” or “mister,” and “[foreign language 00:32:20].” So that is different at that stage but indeed, being more public, and of course, also seeing the financial side, did make a difference. And of course, suddenly, the Quote also finds out and they want to take you in your rankings, that was very unpleasant since– people always were aware that I was well to do but it was very abstract. And then when it becomes a clear number–

Remy: Very– it’s what’s changeable, right? Yeah.

Arco: –then it becomes a very funny number. And then people start acting differently. Yeah.

Remy: Yeah. And for the international listeners, we have a [00:33:00] publication in the Netherlands who publishes the wealthiest 500 people in the Netherlands–

Arco: That is like the Forbes 500.

Remy: Yeah, like the Forbes 500.

Arco: Yeah.

Remy: –each year, and it isn’t always that fun to be mentioned in it, I guess.

Arco: Yeah, some people it. I don’t like it for security reasons, but also for privacy reasons. I like to interact with people as I am and not because of a listing somewhere, and just people look at you differently if there’s a number behind your name that reflects you or your wealth.

Arco: Is that something to consider for other entrepreneurs?

Remy: Yeah, absolutely. I would say that’s why I’m a big fighter against the UBO registry in the Netherlands and Europe. I think that’s a big burden for family companies, for successful entrepreneurs since it will limit your possibilities in just acting socially and keeping your family outside of the picture.

Remy: Yeah.

Arco: So for sure.

[00:34:00]

[music]

Remy: At a certain moment you left Exact, right?

Arco: I think in my head, I’ve left Exact already 10 times. So I think every three years, I thought, “Well, it might be–” since it was my first job, actually. I was a student. I rolled into exact, and it started growing, and growing, and growing, and it didn’t stop. But every three years, I thought it’s time that I should do something different. I’m always doing the same, so I need to do something different. But then again, we went to another country, or we went public, or– there were always things that kept me going. But then at some point in time, after a couple of years being a public company, and with supervisory board that were really heavily interfering, it didn’t feel like being an entrepreneur anymore. And it felt like playing a political game. So then I decided to [00:35:00] really leave. And that’s what I did.

Remy: This was around 2005?

Arco: It was 2005, yeah.

Remy: And when was the first time you started thinking about, “Hmm, maybe it would be fun to start another company with a new vision from scratch.”

Arco: Well, that moment never happened. So first of all, I thought, “Oh, my god. What am I going to do? I’ve never worked elsewhere. Perhaps, nobody wants to have me, and has this been a lucky shot, and I’m not capable of doing anything.” So that was my first concern. I’ve seen other people leaving with their money, and they started flying, racing, and it felt a little bit like, “Uh-oh, I’m going on a sliding scale, and that will be my end.” So I was very concerned to become irrelevant. That was my problem. I did take a small vacation with the family, went sailing, and did some other things. [00:36:00] So I can advise everyone who does that to take more time off since the rest will come automatically. And then Lucas Brentjens, who was at that time, the CEO of Exact, left, more or less, together with me, started a small company, FamilyWare, a software for family and friends, birthday calendar, address book, stuff like that. And then I joined them and I thought, “Well, I don’t see a real easy market for that but the platform is great, and we could use this for serving entrepreneurs.” And that’s where it all started.

Remy: And that became, eventually, Yuki.

Arco: And that became Yuki. So then we thought that we buy the platform. The technology was slightly inspired by e-Synergy. So it was all in one repository, documents, transactions, everything in one place. And then we just [00:37:00] started from scratch as a company with a new name, branding, positioning. And our idea was, “Okay, bookkeeping has been old-fashioned since, what is it? 1814 this– or even longer ago, this monk that started with dual accounting. And we thought now it’s time for innovation. And then the vision was you file a document, and the next moment, all your accounts are fully up to date.

Remy: What did the people back at Exact think of this? Because you were somewhat starting a competitor, for a different market maybe, but it’s also somewhat similar.

Arco: Yeah, I think that we’re not that concerned. That’s also what I explained to them, “You should not be concerned.” So they believed me, I guess.

[laughter]

Arco: But we’ve never made a secret out of it. So I’ve always invited all the people from Exact, “Come and look. What we’re doing, you should do the same thing.” And [00:38:00] don’t forget in 2005 until 2015, I was still one of, if not the largest shareholders at Exact.

Remy: No niches, so you’re building your own–?

Arco: So it was more or less my justification of that I would not compete since all my acts were still in that Exact basket so there was not a real reason to hurt Exact or so. And I used it as an example and to inspire Exact, “Go this way.” Well, that did not really happen, only after five years.

Remy: Because Exact was still focusing on the big companies, right?

Arco: No, no, no, it was just all SME, all mid-markets–

Remy: So what was different than with Yuki?

Arco: At that time, we did the full service. So our idea was that we were the middlemen. We were more or less like a business processing outsourcing company. So we were in the middle between the entrepreneur and the accounting firm. Our assumption was entrepreneurs don’t want to do accounting. [00:39:00] And we take care of it.

Remy: I think it’s a fair assumption.

Arco: That there was a fair assumption. Also there, we talked about business plans. We did real investigations, business plans, and our market was the independent contractor, sets at pay market. 700,000 and we had a great spreadsheet, and we could address 10 percent of the market times 1,000 euro a year. And we would be successful within two years. That did not happen. And we did market research. We did interviews, and they all said, “Yes, we would to have it,” but it just didn’t happen. And I think that has been an important point at the success of Yuki that we pivoted. And I think we did that two or three times similar to also Exact. And that’s perhaps a general message to entrepreneurs. It’s not the strongest that survive but those who adapt the easiest to circumstances, the Darwin approach.

And I [00:40:00] think also with Yuki, we changed our strategy since we were in the middle, we were business process outsourcing company. But accountants said, “Oh, yeah! Great! Wow! Fantastic! But not for now.” And they also did not feel comfortable that we took care of the posting, so the processing of the documents. Since we said we are not accountants we only do the processing, we are more or less the outsized bookkeeper for the entrepreneur, but the accountant is taking care of the VT declarations in annual accounts. That did not work. The accountant wanted to own everything or the entrepreneur wanted to do it himself. So there was no place for us. So then we made an important move. We raised the prices. We moved away from the independent contractors. And we provided our software, which was developed for accountants to run a back office. And we made that available to accountants. And as of then, it took off.

Remy: Yeah. [00:41:00] And especially when Yuki was rolling out and was starting, you’re all at the same time indeed shareholder of Exact?

Arco: Yeah.

Remy: How did that feel for you personally? Was it not in the way of starting an indeed a competitor of Exact’s?

Arco: No, that only happened later, especially in the very beginning. We were not competing–

Remy: No.

Arco: –since we were offering a different solution. There were entrepreneurs that liked to do their own bookkeeping, so they bought their Exact license. And those who wanted to outsource it came to us. So–

Remy: It was a different–

Arco: –just taking a taxi or a train as a means of transportation, it’s the same, different price, different level of comfort. So it didn’t feel like competition.

Remy: No, okay.

Arco: Only later on, then of course, we started competing but that was only, I think, after five years. And already in that period, we were not taken seriously by Exact since we were way too small. And I think they were right. At that time, [00:42:00] they did about 200 million-plus in revenue. And we did perhaps 7 million in revenue. So only, if they would grow 3 percent, they would grow the same number as our total revenue, so–

Johan: Yeah.

Remy: But eventually, at the end, you sold it to Visma, right?

Arco: Yes, we did. Yeah.

Remy: I think one of the competitors of Exact in the market.

Arco: Yes.

Remy: What was the situation back then? I can imagine it’s all sort of changed.

Arco: It’s only a year ago. It’s not that long time ago. It’s quite recent actually. Well, the difference between Exact and Yuki is that we were more like investors in the company, although we run the company on a day-by-day basis very passionate, but we had a more, let’s say, professional approach. So we made a consideration, every year, where are we in the market? What’s the competition? How are we valued? Different from the period with Exact. That was just go-go, [00:43:00] the best, the best, the best, the best.

Remy: Has that something to do with being really on-hands with the early days of Exact where you were programming yourself, and maybe making the flyers yourself?

Arco: Yeah, of course.

Remy: Did you have more of this emotional connection?

Arco: [crosstalk 00:43:11] stage in your life. At that time, I was 25, I didn’t know anything. And meanwhile, I was 50 and there was a more professional approach. And I thought I had a lot of experience but you could also argue that the money we had, and experience we had was also in our way since, of course, the market has changed, products have changed, and you cannot compensate with money. So it was relative expensive growth, I would argue but still, at the end of the day, we were able to put our experience at work, that’s for sure, but we had a periodic like every year, every two years, we had a review, “Okay, where are we? Where do we want to be? Where should we be five years from now? What’s the competition like?” [00:44:00] So we had this discussion but we felt so comfortable. We were still growing 30 percent. We finally had proper traction. We were doing really well in Belgium, had a proper setup in Spain. So everything was perfect. And then came Visma.

Remy: And how did that happen?

Arco: By phone.

[laughter]

Johan: They just called you like, “Hey, Arco.”

Arco: Well, more or less– of course, we were quite and are quite connected in the market, so easy, accessible, and we knew what was happening in the market. We did two acquisitions ourselves as Yuki. And that was the, meanwhile, DizzyData and Comandi. So we were well-connected. We were also seeking for opportunities. We knew the players. Meanwhile, Visionplanner was sold to Visma. Lucas was, at that time, a member of the advisory board of Visionplanner, so the contacts were really close. He knew what Visma was capable of. And then [00:45:00] shortly after that, we received a phone call from Visma, “Can we have a coffee?” By that time that it’s not about the quality of Dutch coffee.

[laughter]

Arco: It’s about other topics.

Remy: And no other coffee’s better, right? [laughs]

Johan: And they are really quite aggressive, as we can say, in the most positive way in the market because they bought like 27 companies last year.

Arco: Yeah, absolutely.

Johan: Eleven, being in the Netherlands. You were the biggest, by the way.

Arco: Yeah, we knew that, of course. So before engaging with them, we went through our numbers and our expectations and said, “Okay, do we like to sell?” Well, first of all, the answer was no. And I think that was, of course, the easiest starting point for us. Since we felt comfortable, we did not need any money since we already had our first home run so that made it also easy. And then if you would sell the company and you will, again, have more money with negative interest and all the complications that comes with that, sorry guys, who is still waiting for his first [00:46:00] exit but we felt comfortable.

We also took into account what the ambitions were of the other shareholders. They might want to take some chips off the table, but we felt that we made some estimates where we could be in five years from now, then derives just net present value of that. And so well, if it would bring this money to the table, it might be a good one. And we looked at, is Visma the party whom we would like to work with? And we like Visma a lot as these are tech guys, is a product company and that’s what we were as well since we should not underestimate– Lucas and myself have always stayed product guys–

Remy: Yeah.

Arco: –working, talking, discussing,` seeking new features, opportunities every day, again, and still today. We’re–

Remy: Not programming anymore, I hope.

Arco: Not programming anymore although did some programming the other day in R to recognize and parse credit card statements. So–

[00:47:00]

Remy: Oh, cool!

Arco: –was only in my cell–

Remy: Still with the boots in the clay, as we say.

Arco: –and then importing it as an MT940 comma-separated file, occasionally, but it’s very rare.

Remy: Hey, is Visma different than Exact? Because the two companies are very good, and of course Exact, from the start, but also Visma now, when they’ve taken over Yuki. What makes them different? Because they both have a very different strategy if I look from the outside?

Arco: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. They are very different, although I do think that strategies are growing towards each other. Basically, Exact is a single product, single brand company. That is not literally true since meanwhile, they have acquired quite some companies but the idea is it’s Exact, there’s one product adjacent–

Remy: Clear branding? Yeah.

Arco: Adjacent products and it’s Exact, the brand. There’s one number to call, and that’s Exact.

Remy: Very well executed, by the way.

Johan: Yeah.

Arco: Very well executed, very profitable solid company, [00:48:00] still a lot of values that we, long time ago, put in place are still carried on. So that’s nice to see. Visma, on the other hand, is although– and that’s the interesting part about Visma. It’s a product company but it has more of the characteristics of a private equity company. So they acquire companies in a very efficient way, very professional way, and more or less, they leave the company as is. They say, “Okay, guys, we bought you because you’re a great company, so please, carry on what you’re doing. By the way, we have here a center of excellence on AI. Here, we have a center of excellence on other topics. You can benefit from that. We have some ideas about branding. You can benefit from that or not.

Remy: You’re not obligated to work with their–?

Arco: For the Dutch market, I think it’s slightly different since they acquired quite– and so they have account view, they have cash, they have– [00:49:00] well, there are two other brands. It’s all accounting so they need to do something about that, and that is difficult. So the model they have deployed in other countries requires small adjustments. And that’s why you see, the name is VISMA | yuki.

Johan: Yeah.

Arco: And that’s fine with me.

Remy: And for the listeners, we’re currently still recording this in the Yuki offices.

Arco: Yeah, I’m still welcome, so yeah, yeah.

Remy: Yeah. The warm connection is still there. Johan, on the other end, always says that one offer isn’t the offer. So did you, at one point, look for a counteroffer?

Arco: Yeah, that’s a very interesting question. The answer is no. And there’s a reason for that. Of course, we are experienced in valuing companies, buying and selling companies, so we know what’s out there in the market. I think there has been a possibility in driving the price higher. At that time, other companies, not to be disclosed, [00:50:00] during that same week, started calling me and suddenly had a lot of interest in Yuki at that time.

Remy: Very bizarre, right? [laughs]

Johan: That said that everybody knows somehow.

Arco: It’s a small world, so you could argue, for certain people. So we knew that there was an opportunity to play parties against each other. And explicitly we did discuss it but we didn’t do it. We made two considerations. First of all, it was a very good offer. A multiple [NARR 00:50:29] which is in the higher rankings of the market. So it was not that they were offering us a bargain. It was a very good price. So we might have been able to pull out another 10 million, I don’t know. But then what would it add? Yeah, it would add 10 million but it was not like we were seeking the last million. And we felt that Yuki was in the right hands with Yuki. And the deal structure allowed us to find some [00:51:00] additional upside as well.

But the starting point was we were not driving it to the last million. And that helped the process since we– I think from the first call to money on the bank was perhaps eight or ten weeks. It was amazing. We had a discussion on the prize, that was 40 minutes. There was a due diligence process that took perhaps two or three weeks. And of course, this is a solid company, so there were not that many reasons to go in-depth and find trouble in the data room but if you feel that you have overpaid, you always find something, and then you have to start nagging on small topics, and there was no discussion. It was a smooth process, and I think everybody happy.

Remy: But still as an investor, you also have the experience as being an investor on boards and in different companies that if you want to find the right price for a company, the only way to do that properly is to have multiple bits on the table, right? [00:52:00] I think–

Arco: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t think so, unless you’re pushed by your shareholders, and they are seeking for the last million, and they want to absolutely sure that they did not discount too much, then there’s no other way. But if you’re in control of the process, and you think longer term, and you think about the process, reps and warranties, other upside mechanisms, and a proper future for your company, then it’s not about the last million. So I would advise everybody not to go for the last million.

Remy: Not go back. And for the last 10, because I think– it’s also in the public report, right? I think you looked it up but–

Johan: Yeah, the mid-exit value of– so Yuki was 125 million?

Remy: Yeah., something like that.

Johan: So suppose– and you mentioned rightfully, I think, it’s not from the last million but would it be worthwhile if it’s 25 million more on that respect to do a broader search for buyers. I would agree with you that 1 million is not worthwhile, even you risk it.

Remy: Or [00:53:00] maybe in addition to that, you mentioned that there were some other upsides. What are some other aspects that entrepreneurs can look at to make the deal favorable for them?

Arco: Well, the future of the company, will the product be killed or will it be continued? What will happen to your people? Also for Yuki counts, of course, there are a few core people that made perhaps the biggest difference but without the enthusiasm and spirit of many other names in the company, I could not have been successful either. So I think you should respect those people who have worked their butt off for the last years as well. They are proud on the product and on the company, and if that would die just for the sake of a little more money for me, that would not be my choice. It’s the future of the people, the product, the company the customers, and reps and warranties so you can drive the price to the maximum but then, there will come limitations and then there’s risk. For us, [00:54:00] the big advantage was we did a deal in, whatever, eight weeks. ten weeks. And that was it. If we had dragged this with us trying to find the last whatever millions, there’s even the risk of failure. And I know of examples today in the market that it took them a year finding that target of one billion whatever, and they end up with a failed process. Yeah.

Remy: And that’s something that’s sometimes overlooked because I know cases. And you know as well, Johan, that’s the deal was almost done.

Johan: Yeah.

Arco: A lot.

Remy: And then the other part–

Arco: [crosstalk 00:54:31] of people is really high, and the spirit, and the downside. And then there’s a rumor in the market, “Ooh, this is it.”

Remy: They didn’t go through with it. Maybe there are some–

2: [crosstalk 00:54:40] gazettes.

Remy: Yeah, but I think I fully agree with you, Arco, because indeed, it’s a different view that the general investor has to make a maximum return on the money but indeed, it’s a good landing of the company, and especially, the continuity of the company, and the people, and the drive, and energy, which is there and I fully degree. That makes a true value.

Arco: Yeah. Yeah.

Remy: We’re almost [00:55:00] an hour in.

Johan: Yeah.

Remy: So we’ve been talking for a really long time. So I think it’s almost time for the closing statements for our listeners. Should we both ask a final question, Johan?

Johan: Sure. Yeah. You go first.

Remy: You’re a real serial entrepreneur, right? You did it twice and very successful, and even more times also with other companies, and things that you’ve been involved in, what is your biggest–? I have two questions. What’s your biggest advice if you want to start a company right now? Perhaps, we can start with that.

Arco: Well, you have to have a passion about one topic where you really want to make a difference. If that’s not there, then it’s not going to work. Perhaps, that’s the easiest, that’s right. Some people come to me, “I like to start a company, do you have an idea for me?” You have to have this tremendous urge like, “How is this possible? I have to change this?” That it still exists. Why do I have to walk stairs when it can be automated? [00:56:00] I’m going to do it. I think that if you don’t feel that tremendous urge– and then all the other advice is written in many books like there needs to be a market, and there are so many things. And perhaps another thing is, and that’s closer to me as well, and now also on the investors’ side, you can have the greatest product, the most amazing market but it’s not going to fly if you don’t have the right team and right people. So either you have to be great yourself or you have to have a solid team that really adds value to each other. And I think if I look at myself, I’m absolutely not the greatest entrepreneur in the world but I have always been lucky to work with people that compensate my flaws. And I think you have to look realistically at yourself and say, “Hey, but I’m not good at whatever, sales, or product, or service,” find people that really [00:57:00] compensate you and make it work.

Remy: The question I had was, you mentioned the first time when you were considering making an exit on the board of Exact that you were afraid of feeling irrelevant.

Arco: After that [inaudible 00:57:12].

Remy: How did you overcome that when you were going to sell Yuki? Did you have that feeling at all or was it–?

Arco: No, not anymore. By that time, I had gone through very many phases and are in a completely different phase and a different life, so no, there was not a concern at all anymore, especially in the later stage of Yuki. Although I was highly involved, I was also involved, as you know, in other investments. So there was a more gradual conversion into a next phase in life.

Remy: What’s your next ambition?

Arco: Next ambition is to, more or less, do this one more time. But then really, as an investor, as I explained, [00:58:00] we’re now doing a buy and build process with Spotler. That’s this marketing automation solution. And I think we can do a similar thing but in a different way. So it’s not like an entrepreneur really, boots on the ground, programming everything myself, but by a different strategy, buy and build, but still watching culture, bringing in place a proper management team, good culture, enough innovation, solid profitability, and that can also be done through a buy and build. And that’s the process we’re in right now. So that’s my next ambition. And then there are so many other ambitions but that’s for later.

Remy: Well, thank you so much, Arco, for sharing your story today.

Remy: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for listening to this episode of The Big Exit Show. We hope you enjoyed today’s program. And if you did, please subscribe to our show at Spotify or your favorite podcast platform. And if you have any feedback, please send a message to [email protected] My name is [00:59:00] Remy Gieling.

Johan: And I’m Johan van Mil. Thanks again for listening. And we hope you join us at the next episode.