Fuckup Nights Amsterdam

By popular demand, this is a re-recording of the presentation I did at the Fuckup Night at the Oracle headquarters in Amsterdam, in December 2019.


I am Sander. Way before this story starts, I was a scientist - a physicist, to be more precise.

The symbol that you see here, is the most frightening physics-thing I can think of. It’s the symbol for entropy and that relates to the second law of thermodynamics.

It’s the most devastating force in the universe, and it works like this: given enough time, everything that was once ordered will return to a state of chaos.

My story is about exactly that.

I never became a real scientist, though. By the end of the nineties, I moved into the internet business. So, I was there when the first dotcom bubble grew and burst.

When the internet industry collectively collapsed in 2001, the company that I worked for went bankrupt as well. Lots of drama! But to me, it was all a great adventure and I could tell you many stories about that time. But not today.

Today I will share something way more personal.

Anyway, a few years later, around 2005, I was asked to become chief architect at a tiny startup called Albumprinter.

This company allows you to order physical photo books from digital photos. You may know it under its new name Albelli.

It was a huge success. At some point, we produced over 20000 books a day, with an approximate value of 100 Euro each. We were the fastest growing company in the Netherlands for two years in a row.

Finally, in 2010, the company was acquired by Vistaprint for over 60 million Euro in one of the biggest exits in The Netherlands at the time. I used my modest share of that money to start Peecho, together with the former commercial director of Albelli, Martijn - my co-founder.

Peecho is a platform that powers apps and websites that sell content as customized prints. It’s not only the backbone to start businesses like Albumprinter, but also offers a revenue model for websites with lots of great content - like Rijksmuseum.nl and Issuu.com.

The startup scene was not as developed as it is today… and we had the perfect background, a great business model and superior technology. So, pretty soon, we became kind of famous. We won competitions from The Next Web and the Accenture Awards. We were covered by Techcrunch, Venturebeat, The Atlantic, The Economist, and even on CNN.

Then the paper publications joined in. For example, Martijn and I got featured in Quote Magazine (a Dutch magazine about rich people) not once, but twice in one year. Also, Wired Magazine crowned us the Hottest Startup of Amsterdam, with a big spread photo as well.

That’s probably when it got to my head. I really believed I could do anything. I felt invincible. Immortal almost. And then, entropy caught up with us.

A short sidestep: one of the biggest reasons for bad decision-making is to be over-confident, usually on the back of some success. If life goes well for a while, it creates an illusion of control. In my case, it lead to what scientists call “overplacement” - which is overestimating your own performance and abilities with respect to others. So, I started taking risks that I shouldn’t have. It was only a matter of time before something would go drastically wrong - either professionally or in my personal life, whichever came first.

So, back to the story. You know, besides technology and start-ups, I am obsessed with sports. In particular fighting. I started off with kung fu and gradually increased the level of violence to end up with MMA at the time of this story. MMA stands for Mixed Martial Arts - that’s essentially cage fighting.

In the summer of 2012, at the peak of all the media attention, a training session went horribly wrong. I had an accident in the ring and ended up having a big stroke a week later. I lost about a third of my brain that day. I could not speak or walk anymore. It took me two years to recover, with the help of doctors, physiotherapists, neurologists and even a foundation to help me cope with the social impact of brain damage.

And some damage is here to stay, even today. You may not notice, but I still have trouble speaking. I feel nothing on the right side of my body. I have only partial vision in my right eye. The worst thing: I have virtually no short term memory, so I may not recognize you - even if we just met.

Anyway - in the meantime, my co-founder worked overtime to keep Peecho up and running. I kept my head down and focused on our technology, avoiding other people as much as I could. But… slowly, things got better.

Back on my feet, I eventually left the company to become CTO at great companies like Sumis and myTomorrows. And… Quite recently, I jumped into a new adventure. I am currently co-founder and CEO at yet another startup. It is called Unless.com, and it’s a predictive personalization platform, aiming to make websites respond like humans would. I am pretty sure that it is going to be a huge success!

On top of that: in recent years, Peecho bounced back. We celebrated our ten year anniversary in December 2019 - and although it is not yet the global success that we initially envisioned, it is doing really, really well.

As for sport, I am a bit more careful these days. However, I still teach a kung fu class in Amsterdam, kickbox occasionally and grapple almost every week. I even picked up a new hobby: Obstacle Course Racing. And that is going very well. I participated in both the European and World Championships multiple times now - without breaking my neck, so far.

So, what have I learned from this? I learned so many things from all of this that I had some trouble to come up with the best ones. But… besides trying to stay alive, I added the following rules to my personal playbook.

I am trying to accept that everything changes and nothing lasts forever. It sounds bad, but it’s okay. It makes bad things temporary and good things more special. And if something is special, you should enjoy it. So - although that is not always easy - I try to enjoy the moment.

Secondly, I realized that it is impossible to avoid disaster entirely - because the second law of thermodynamics cannot be stopped. You may dodge some bullets if you are careful, but entropy will kill you in the end anyway. But as long as you are still alive, there will always be new opportunities and second chances. So, I don’t stop. Ever.

That was my story. Thank you for listening, and I hope it will help you in some way, too.

Published 7 Jan 2020