Fuckup Nights International

This is a recording of the presentation I did at the Fuckup Night International Edition, April 29th, 2021.


I am Sander.

Way before this story starts, I was an old school physicist. And I forgot pretty much all of it, but not this. This is the symbol for entropy and that relates to the second law of thermodynamics.

It’s the most devastating force in the universe. It’s the reason why order will never exist for very long, and chaos always wins.

My story is about exactly that.

By the end of the nineties, I stumbled onto the internet scene. So, I was there when the first dotcom bubble appeared - and also when it collapsed in 2001. Pretty much everybody in the industry went broke. And so did we. It was my first taste of entropy.

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. We produced thousands of unique books a day, making millions. In 2010, the company was acquired by Vistaprint for close to 80 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. The Peecho platform powers apps and websites that sell digital content as customized prints. It’s the backbone to start businesses like Albumprinter. Also, it offers a revenue model for websites with lots of great content - like Rijksmuseum.nl and Issuu.com.

It’s a super scalable business model and we were on a roll… well, at least in the beginning.

Things got out of hand quickly. 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. My co-founder Martijn and I got featured in Quote Magazine (a magazine about rich people) as “new heroes” not once, but twice in one year. Wired Magazine crowned us the Hottest Startup of Amsterdam, with a big spread photo.

That’s probably when it got to my head. I really believed I could do anything. I felt invincible. Immortal almost. And then, entropy hit us, much harder than before.

For context: bad decision-making is often caused by being over-confident. If life goes really well for a while, it creates an illusion of control. In my case, it lead to what scientists call “overplacement” - which is basically heavily overestimating your own capabilities. So, I started taking risks that I shouldn’t have… and it was only a matter of time before something would go drastically wrong - either professionally or in my personal life, whichever came first.

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 permanent. 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… In the meantime, Peecho bounced back. Under new management today, it is doing really, really well.

On top of that: I am currently co-founder and CEO at yet another startup. It is called Unless. It’s a user experience optimization platform. In a very simple and intuitive way, it allows you to test and improve the UX of your existing website with personalized content and features. Check it out at https://unless.com.

So, what have I learned from this?

I am trying to accept that everything changes and nothing lasts forever, even if it seems so. It may seem obvious to you, but I finally realized that no matter how perfect your life is, it will not stay that way - because the second law of thermodynamics cannot be stopped. So, no matter how successful you may seem now, it will end - and you will have to go with the flow in the meantime. This is a humbling thought, but it makes me enjoy the Now a lot more than it used to.

As for sports, I am a bit more careful these days. However, I still teach a kung fu class in a park in Amsterdam, kickbox occasionally and grapple 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.

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

Published 29 Apr 2021