How can entrepreneurs be driven to success by hospitality?

The Hague, April 2024

An interview with the Founder and Chief Reverse Engineer of Start Reverse - by Julia Kobiolka

We would like to introduce you to Andre Wiringa, a former Hotelschool The Hague student. After spending numerous years in the hospitality industry, Andre decided to look at everything in reverse and help build companies up from within. This is how his company Start Reverse, came to life in 1987. Starting in the hospitality industry, they have since expanded their reach globally, working on major projects on an international scale.

What did you do after graduating?  

I wanted to work in different hotels, so I did. I first started to work for a group of Holiday Inn hotels in different positions. Then, I decided I wanted to do my master's. So, I went to Florida International and got my master's in Hospitality Management. During my studies, I worked for Marriott. Then, I was approached by Hilton International for a role at the Vista Hotel, Kansas City, as part of the pre-opening team. For this role, I was trained at the Vista Hotel New York (WTC 3). My next role was to lead a task force for an opening in Madrid and to become the deputy GM of the first Crowne Plaza Hotel in Europe (based in Amsterdam), in combination with a Head of Sales position in The Netherlands for the same group.

After four openings, I realised that I wanted to build rather than manage. Initially, we were mainly consulting and training teams for opening hotels for about ten years. I also realised it was more relevant to first build culture and leadership. Which makes change more sustainable than just building skills and transferring knowledge.

When did you discover your passion for starting your own company?

I had my first company when I was 12. It may sound crazy, but I was washing cars and got too many clients. Then I thought, okay, but if I have friends that wash cars, I can keep the clients. Before I knew it, I was putting brochures in the whole area where we lived. So, within months, all my friends were washing cars, and I was running a little business. I'm a kid from an entrepreneurial family. My grandfather, my mother, my uncle, my cousin, my brother. They're all entrepreneurs, so I guess I was meant to become an entrepreneur.

How did Start Reverse start, and what was the main idea behind it?

That's the biggest breakthrough in my life. We were really focusing initially on opening hotels. Yet, we are reverse engineers at heart. What that means is that we help companies define or redefine their purpose and create a journey to live that purpose, which is way more relevant. We have a model where we actually illustrate that you should not start by designing the foundation. You first need to design the roof and then work your way to the foundation. First, you need to define what the brand you want to build stands for. What is the essence? What's the purpose? How does a brand want to be experienced? All of this needs to be defined before you can start building the foundation, which, in essence, is where reverse thinking starts.

Years ago, I participated in so many management meetings of Dutch Hotel groups that I came to a point where I thought I knew exactly who was going to say what to whom about what and why and when. I thought this was not productive and essential anymore. At that time, we probably ran 80% - 85% of hospitality training in The Netherlands from a soft skills point of view. We then decided to become more international and focus on retail, automotive, banking, and aviation. We realised that we shouldn't run academies but help our clients set up and run their own academies. We support the development of context; we can find trainers, but the transformation within the company needs to come from within.

When Hans Meyer and Michael Levie approached me with the game-changing concept of citizenM Hotels, I got excited, and we got excited again about the development of hospitality. As a team, we created an experience blueprint for Citizen M Hotels. Just like we have done for Ikea, Nokia, and Nike, and realised this approach works in every branch. Since our start, we have created more than 325 blueprints. The blueprint is a compass for transformation or evolving a company to a breakthrough in guest experience and engagement, as well as team engagement and retention.

Above, you see the Reverse Print of Start Reverse. The Experience Blueprint will vary from brand to brand, as well as how it is referred to. For instance, KLM calls it their Compass, Radisson Hotel Group calls it their Roadmap, and KPN calls it their Greenprint (in line with their brand identity).

What kind of obstacles did you encounter so far, and how did you overcome them?

2002 was a hard year for us, and we had to restructure our approach. That also triggered us to not be overly dependent on hospitality because it's a vulnerable business. Hence, the diversification also made more sense to us. 2008 also was an impactful year. We had two Black Mondays on Wall Street, a tremendous crisis, but the nice thing is we always came out stronger. Of course, Covid brought the biggest challenge. We had to reinvent ourselves and basically start over, which was painful but also insightful. We're now far more diverse, both in terms of gender diversity, ethical backgrounds, and generational diversity. We're also way more tech-savvy; earlier today, we ran virtual workshops with teams in three different countries. Technology really sped up for most companies, but also for us. AI is already making a big difference in our learning design and activation. Just imagine that we can type text, which is converted to pictures, as well as audio files. We can clone voices, which can then be used to translate these spoken texts into the necessary languages.

The reality is we are now grateful for all the insights the pandemic brought; we are, in fact, now more successful and more impactful than ever before.

In our restructuring, we said we needed to change our purpose. So, our purpose became 'to bring relevance to the world', meaning that everything we do needs to be relevant. It needs to matter because there are thousands, hundreds of thousands of training companies. So, we're not a training company; we are a boutique consultancy firm. Now, in fact a leader in terms of cultural transformation and leadership development. Yes, we do training where needed, but that's not who we are. We are reverse engineers.

Would you say it's harder or easier to have a start-up nowadays?

I think it's easier because there is so much access to knowledge and experience. I mean, social media. We have the internet where you can just look things up on ChatGPT. When we first started, we had no internet. You cannot deny that things are easier now, with AI as the driver of our design and implementation work.

What achievements are you most proud of?

The rebirth of our company after Covid. I'm very proud of our team. We grew from being totally irrelevant because of COVID-19 to finding new relevance and propelling it, and that's only because of the strength of our team. What we created for Nike was something I was super proud of. We still have the three-level program in place and made it contemporary. I am still also very proud of what we created for Nokia Global Retail at the time. For instance, the Nokia flagship store in Hong Kong got three years in a row the award for best customer experience. In fact, the same designers of those flagship stores (Eight Inc. from NYC) are now designing Apple stores. I'm proud of what we did for Ikea, which was a global sort of pre-pilot in Japan and later piloted in The Netherlands. Super proud of our contribution to CitizenM Hotels (in terms of people & culture) and what they accomplished. We have also built the culture and engagement at Rove Hotels in Dubai (one of the most successful and relevant brands in the Middle East).

What is your favourite book?

The 'Heart of Change' and 'Good to Great'

What was the last movie that you saw?

Barbie (with my daughter)

Are you a morning person or a night owl?

Believe it or not. Neither morning nor night. I can do 24 hours.

What is your biggest dream in a few words?

Leave a legacy whereby Reverse Thinking & Engineering is growing in impact and relevance.

Name one thing on your bucket list.

Travel to New Zealand

Name one thing that you like to do in your free time.

Spend time with my family

What is your favourite place to visit?

Anywhere close to water and beaches

What is your favourite aspect of living in The Netherlands?

I think the authenticity of people. The honesty of people.

What would be your advice for students graduating in 2024?

Think reverse, to go beyond!