Innovation That Matters

Wise Words with Tom van de Beek

Work & Lifestyle

We spoke to Tom van de Beek, founder of KantoorKaravaan and SustainsVille.

Seeing and experiencing nature has powerful positive effects — it brings us back to our roots. But for most city-dwellers, a camping trip or an away day can take a great deal of planning and organising. That is why Tom van de Beek’s KantoorKaravaan caught our attention — it hosts caravans that function as off-grid micro offices, which travel around beautiful national parks in Amsterdam.

The self-sustaining units are complete with wifi, coffee machines and conference rooms, and essentially provide a way for city workers to retreat back to nature without losing the convenience of modern-day technology. Tom himself is the definition of a ‘social entrepreneur’, juggling multiple agendas, from bee-preservation projects, to providing consultation for sustainable startups in Bushwick, and working on businesses like SustainsVille, which — much like the caravans — creates connected ‘hubs’ in the wild for people to work in. We catch up with him to find out how he balances life and work, and what he considers the key to becoming a successful entrepreneur.

1. Where did the idea for KantoorKaravaan come from?

The idea behind it comes from the longing of the people in our team to be more deeply connected with nature. We humans have been living in the wilderness for hundreds of thousands of years. Only very recently we were separated from it, but inside of us there still is that sense of longing to be unified with nature, because we are part of it. In times of technological innovation and wireless connectivity, we’re providing the ultimate combination: getting back to nature and self-sufficiency in terms of food and energy, whilst still being able to do our day-to-day business. In other words, we can now create the 21st century equivalent of the garden of Eden.

2. Do you have any tips for city-dwellers who are trying to incorporate more nature into their daily lives, and achieve more tech/nature balance?

Get a dog! 😉 This forces you to go outside more and makes you value nature more. Otherwise, I would suggest seeing if you can visit KantoorKaravaan in a setting near your city. If it’s not around, why not start it up yourself?

3. Can you describe a typical working day?

I don’t really have typical days. What every day has in common though, is that I try and be outside for a large part of it. Meetings shouldn’t be longer than one hour, and preferably outside. Besides that, if I have a passion for something I can easily work from 7 am until 11pm — as long as there’s enough variation, it doesn’t even feel like work. So I work at the beach, or in the forest, or on our office boat in the city. All quite relaxing places.

4. How do you unwind or relax when you’re not working on KantoorKaravaan?

I have several projects and companies running, so I’m always juggling with time to fit everything in. But the very fact that the KantoorKaravaan exists makes me meet a lot of interesting people in a relaxing setting. So often I find myself in the hammock making phone calls, using Skype, or going through my emails. Also, I love riding my bike to unwind, both through the streets of Amsterdam as well as in the dunes at the coast.

5. What’s the most important characteristic of being an entrepreneur?

Having the mentality and perseverance to make the enterprise a success, which means doing whatever it takes to make it happen. If that means no weekend off, it is no weekend off. And that also means taking risks and uncertainties in terms of income for granted. If you’re not willing to do that, you may consider a proper job. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but it’s about what drives you and what fits you best.

6. What drove you crazy when building your business?

Mostly the bureaucracy and unwillingness of (local) governments to provide us with a ‘yes’ to go on with what we do. Sometimes it takes so much effort and time to get the support of the government that it’s quite frustrating. We can’t do without them and we don’t necessarily want to, but it feels like we’re living on a different planet sometimes.

7. What motivates you to keep going? What do you do when you hit a block?

When hitting a block, I’ll try and make sure to just leave it for a while, go for a stroll and then look at things from another angle, and then solve it. What motivates me to keep going is that it brings so much reward to see and meet people who appreciate what you’re doing.

8. If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Everything so far has gone just like it should have, and all the things that could’ve been done better have been part of the learning curve that life is. So I guess I wouldn’t do things radically different if I were to start over.

9. Do you have any habits or routines, which help you in your working life?

I try and answer any message I get within 24 hours, so that it’s out of my system and I keep my mind clear/clean. That really helps me to stay fresh and creative.

10. What book are you reading, or writing now?

There’s a very interesting book I’m reading now, which is A Short History Of Progress by Ronald Wright. It describes how in human history, civilisations collapsed merely by making the same mistakes over and over again. Wright explains the ‘progress trap’ and how innovations often lead to harmful side effects that make new innovations necessary. Now we have reached a moment in history when a tremendous amount of people have stepped in the progress traps of our current culture, and this could actually mean the end of the human species altogether.

But, as Wright says it, “we have the tools and the means to share resources, clean up pollution, dispense basic healthcare and birth control, set economic limits in line with natural ones. If we don’t do these things now, while we prosper, we will never be able to do them when times get hard. Our fate will twist out of our hands.”

11. Where do you see your business in five years, and how will you get there?

In five years time, KantoorKaravaan will be a flourishing international network of natural meet-up platforms, perhaps in a franchise structure. This could be in the form of ‘off-the-grid mobile micro-offices’, but eventually these places could evolve into permanent business communities, located in awe-inspiring natural places around the world. Countries now on the list include Portugal, France, United States, Sweden, Germany, Costa Rica, and the UK. But that list is growing every day.

12. If you weren’t working on KantoorKaravaan, what would you be doing?

I would probably be buzzing around with one of my other enterprises: I Love Beeing. This an international movement of people who recognise the importance of bees for the pollination of much that’s on our plate. We instigate positive action to ensure the long term health of the global bee population.

13. Tell Springwise a secret…

There is this really great documentary (No One Said It Would Be Easy) about an environmentally conscious band called Cloud Cult. It tells the amazing and moving story of how the band members deal with the sudden loss of the two-year-old son of the singer and his wife. Every time I watch it I can’t help but have tears rolling down my cheeks. Definitely a recommended film, also because the music is very good too.

14. How did you get your initial round of funding to get your company off the ground?

Our approach is always to start small and get just enough funding to get things off the ground. We do this by getting a bunch of partners from different industries aboard. They all pitch in an amount of money so we can start the project. For KantoorKaravaan we have partners like ASN Bank, Sungevity and Interface. After this initial round, we went on with a ‘launching customer’ package for early-bird clients. This gave us the possibility to run the business and improve the products and services. Next step is to get new investors, as well as starting a crowdfunding campaign. This will take place in early 2016.

15. How do you feel about your journey ahead and do you have any wise words for aspiring entrepreneurs?

You can think and talk about your business idea for months, but you can also just take off and go for it. Time will tell if there’s enough demand for it to scale it up. Another one I would like to add is you can have a great plan, but without a good team it hardly ever succeeds. The opposite often works too: a great team can even turn a vague concept turn into gold.

You can read more about KantoorKaravaan here.