“Start your business during your studies”
Graciëlla van Vliet studied Econometrics in Maastricht, followed by a master’s degree in Rotterdam—a near guarantee for a top job at a top organisation. Instead she opted for independent entrepreneurship. She is now the head of two successful companies, Closure and NabestaandenLoket. In 2019 she was named Rotterdam Businesswoman of the Year.
Reluctantly, Graciëlla van Vliet admits that these days she rarely visits Maastricht. “Definitely not enough. I don’t have the time, and when I am there it’s a quick trip for a business meeting. Recently we were in Maastricht with my in-laws for a weekend. They figured I’d know the best restaurants, but I had to disappoint them. As a student, I had no money for eating out. A sandwich at the HEMA, that was it. I put a lot of time into my studies, I worked with the SBE PhD committee and Research Project Maastricht, and I was involved with my dispuut Nos Ergo and the student association Tragos. That was my little world.”
Van Vliet, who was raised in Roosendaal, has fond memories of her studies. “Maastricht is a nice city with an international character and a university that draws students from all over the world. That really appealed to me back in 2012, when I was deciding where to study econometrics. I was sold right away during the open days, especially when I heard that the bachelor’s programme included a compulsory module abroad. I was keen on going to Australia. In the end I spent a semester in Adelaide, which is where the seed for entrepreneurship was planted.”
Graciëlla van Vliet studied in Maastricht, Adelaide and Rotterdam. She has won a number of awards and prizes for entrepreneurs, including the Philips Innovation Award. In 2019 she was named Rotterdam Businesswoman of the Year.
But that penny only dropped after her master’s degree and during her first job. “I’d become good friends with Chantal in Maastricht. She was doing Econometrics too, but three years ahead of me. So she left Maastricht much earlier for her master’s and later for work, but we kept in touch. And just when I’d committed to a good job at a company in Rotterdam, Chantal and I talked about starting our own company. On a whim, we handed in our resignations and took the plunge.”
The idea was a platform that helps relatives of deceased people to cancel their subscriptions and other obligations. “Chantal’s grandmother had passed away several years earlier, but her Facebook account was still active. That was the trigger for us. We did some research and discovered not only that many social media accounts continue to exist, but also that it takes a long time to cancel subscriptions, contracts and other periodic payments. As a surviving relative, having to give notice to all these organisations means you’re constantly being reminded of the loss of your loved one. First and foremost, we wanted to develop an automatic cancellation system to help the families of deceased relatives. At the same time, we figured the organisations and companies involved would also be interested. There’s a lot of administration involved in things like returning money that’s been overpaid. Good and compassionate communication is difficult and also expensive.”
As an econometrician you learn to think and act analytically. That’s an indispensable attitude for an entrepreneur.
Trial and error
Their reasoning turned out to be spot on. They now have two companies: Closure, focused on cancelling subscriptions and obligations; and NabestaandenLoket, for all matters involved in handling a death. Four years after they were founded, both companies are in perfect health. They have 12 employees, process some 80 files a day, and have formal partnerships with dozens of organisations, including funeral companies and telecom firms. “That didn’t happen by itself,” Van Vliet admits. “Resigning on a whim was the easiest thing. The advantage was that neither of us had a mortgage, children or other big obligations, but we also didn’t have real experience, capital to invest or a good network. We were fortunate to receive help from UtrechtInc, an incubation programme for startups. With wanting to be too critical, we had this idea that we could or would learn everything ourselves: sales, building a platform, marketing, finding partners. That’s not how it works. Through trial and error, we built up a team, sought expert support and grew the business step by step. First Closure, later NabestaandenLoket.”
Is a background in econometrics a good starting point for building a business? ”Yes, as an econometrician you learn to think and act analytically. That’s an indispensable attitude for an entrepreneur. I also seem to have some entrepreneurial blood in me. For the Research Project Maastricht, I spent four months in China conducting research for Dutch organisations. My module abroad for the bachelor’s programme was partly focused on entrepreneurship. And right after my studies I ran a food truck. Yes, I’d say that entrepreneurship grabbed me and hasn’t let me go. Looking back, we should have started even earlier. During your studies even, if you’re flexible in terms of time, have few financial obligations and can therefore take a little more risk. Why not try to get a business idea off the ground alongside your studies, instead of joining a committee or doing an internship? As far as I’m concerned, universities could pay more attention to this, for example by bringing enterprising students together and providing support from alumni.”
The young entrepreneur’s success was recognised in 2019 with the title Rotterdam Businesswoman of the Year. “An honour, for sure. An award like that opens doors and does good things for your network. At the same time, I like to keep my feet on the ground. Currently I’m putting all my energy into our two companies. We want to grow, spread our wings across borders, add new products. If you ask me, creating and building something myself is the best thing there is. No other job can compete with that.”