On an overcast Wednesday afternoon in January, I stand outside an unmarked building on the Keizersgracht, Amsterdam. No logo outside indicates that I’m entering the office of one of the Netherlands’ most exciting AI initiatives. I am here to meet Ron Vrijmoet, Managing Partner at DEUS, his third venture, a collaboration with the “powerhouse machine” of his partners that have worked together since his initial venture.
Global interest in Artificial Intelligence hasn’t gone unnoticed. According to a report published by PwC, AI initiatives could contribute $15.7 billion to the global economy by 2020. The goal of DEUS, according to Vrijmoet, is two-fold. The first is to build “human(ity)-centered Artificial Intelligence services.” The second is to be a key player in the discussion around ethical and responsible use for AI with the DEUS initiative, a pro-bono community-based platform that will facilitate knowledge exchange between business, academia, and governmental organisations.
Vrijmoet is a respected voice in the Dutch tech industry, founding award-winning mobile solutions company MOBGEN ten years ago, before leading it as CEO. Its potential was recognised by global professional services company Accenture, who acquired the company in 2016 and brought Vrijmoet aboard to accelerate growth in the Accenture Interactive operating group. At the end of 2019, Vrijmoet stepped down from his role as Managing Director at Accenture to begin DEUS.
To say the company is young is an understatement. While each of the partners has been working separately on preparation up to six months ago, they came together in a professional capacity two weeks ago and moved into the office last week.
I sit down with Vrijmoet, who exudes enthusiasm energy for the purpose that drives DEUS. He explains:
The potential impact of AI technology is so huge that we cannot afford to let this linger. I truly believe that if we do this right it can help us to solve big issues, such as environmental and social issues. Having built a company once, I want to not only build a company again but create something special that really has an impact, and I think we can with DEUS.
As I learn more about his journey over the past ten years, four key points stick out that Vrijmoet credits to his development.
Be specific about who you are and what you want to achieve
“With MOBGEN, we only had a vague idea of what we wanted to be and what we wanted to do. Our idea was to combine design and technology in the mobile space, and that’s how MOBGEN was born as a company. That’s definitely something that worked out very well in the end, but the idea was very vague.
At Smartify, (Vrijmoet is a founder and shareholder), Thanos Kokkiniotis and Anna Lowe were quite specific about what they wanted to be — the Shazam of art. I learned from them that it is good to be specific about what you want to achieve and that’s definitely something that we’re doing now with DEUS. We are more concrete about our technology space, the role we want to play, and we have learned about the type of proposition that could work in the market.”
Fill your team with specialists
“I got lucky enough to start working with people like Nick [Mueller – Design Director], Richard [Olyerhoek – Head of Operations] and Danny [Verloop – Head of Technology] who were absolute masters in their own space and I think in hindsight I underestimated that. I always thought an organisation needed a lot of people and a lot of managers. But at the end of the day, you need great specialists, because they solve problems, clients love to work with them, and they come up with unique solutions that no one else can. Believe in craftmanship, facilitate it, celebrate it, and reward it. That, to me, is key to running a successful business.”
Don’t be fooled by appearances
“Professionally, I was raised in a more traditional organisation, and what the guys I worked with taught me is to never judge a person by the suit he wears because often the most brilliant people are the outcasts. If you have a hacker coming into your organisation that from the age of 8 has been gaming, hacking and developing through the night, he will write code that is flawless, and better than what a 40-year old could write, with 20 years of experience. Create a company of outcasts, of different people, that dare to swim against the stream, and then mould that into an organisation.”
When it comes to funding, be conservative
“I started MOBGEN with three investors, and €300,000 as starting capital. A danger as an entrepreneur is that you give away too much too early. Try and launch with your own money or with money from FFFs (Friends, Family, and Fools) to get going for one to two years to prove the value of your business model and then talk to Venture Capitals or private equity advisors. In that period, don’t spend too much and focus on testing your business model so that it is something that can scale.”
What really shines through while listening to Vrijmoet, is his passion for his colleagues, and the diversity that fosters his team. “It’s the people around me that inspire me the most,” he responds when I ask who he looks up to.
As we wrap up, I discover that the new DEUS office housed MOBGEN in its earlier years. There is a satisfying full-circle to this new startup, reviving the fire and team that brought Vrijmoet’s earlier venture success. Just as Latin’s role as lingua franca for thousands of years, DEUS hopes it will cement its place as de auxillo auxilium in the AI landscape.
Find out more about DEUS here
Feature Image: DEUS & Ron Vrijmoet