What are the must-haves in order to be an entrepreneur?

An interview with the Co-Owner, Client Director and Social Entrepreneur of ESSENSOR– by Răzvan Dumitru

Many businesses started from the vision or initial idea of their creators, becoming more grounded and stronger as the picture became clearer. However, entrepreneurship requires more than having a vision. It requires being resourceful enough to take advantage whenever an opportunity arises and having the courage to deal with the obstacles that come along the way. This week, we would like to tell the story of Jan Willem Steunenberg – a Dutch entrepreneur of our alumni network. His graduation in The Hague, in 1988, represented the outset of his career during which he started multiple companies. Today, he is a co-owner of ESSENSOR – a sensory market research company that employs the human senses of smell, taste, vision, hearing and touch in their daily research, mainly on behalf of the food industry

What did you do after graduating?  

I started working right after graduation for a trading company, not in the hospitality industry. At that time, it was one of the major Dutch players in the international trading sector, representing companies like Fokker Aircraft and DAF Trucks abroad. I joined as a management trainee in the Amsterdam branch, aiming to work abroad later on, in Africa or South America. Unfortunately, as things do not always go as planned, the Gulf War started in 1990 and international trade took a considerable hit. As a consequence, I lost my job. Even though it was a major setback, instead of seeing it as something dramatic, I started looking for other opportunities.

And so, after being introduced by a friend to PepsiCo's fast-food division, I joined them. That represented a professional turning point since PepsiCo was one of the most renowned companies in the fast-food industry of that time. After initially being involved in the Benelux market, I later started to work for their European market. I used to travel a lot during that time as I filled five different roles within five years.

When did you discover your passion for entrepreneurship? What are must-haves in order to be an entrepreneur?

My family and background played an important role in discovering my calling for entrepreneurship. My father has been an entrepreneur his entire life, running an international trading company. I believe that some people are somehow born with an entrepreneurial spirit, having a natural predilection towards it.

I consider that perseverance, endurance and creativity make a great entrepreneur. Given that starting a company implies dealing with many ups and downs, knowing how to stay calm and focused during less fortunate periods is crucial in order to be successful. Secondly, you need to say goodbye to the usual nine-to-five. Entrepreneurship is a 24/7 job that requires a lot of energy and involvement but also implies realising when it is time to rest. Moreover, do not try to be the star of your own company. Make sure that you get the same involvement rate from all of your employees as this can take its toll on your success. Lastly, stay open-minded in looking for solutions. For instance, hiring better people than yourself for certain positions enables you to develop your business and bring it to the next level. Being an employer of many people comes with great satisfaction but also great responsibility!

How did it all start with ESSENSOR?

It started by selling For All Finance, another company that I built in 2009, and staying involved in it for a couple of more years. After enjoying the financial freedom and flexibility that came along with the sale, I realised that I wanted my own company again. From that point, I knew that I could either start a business from scratch, the most difficult option, or do a management buy-in (MBI).

Eventually, I came across ESSENSOR. At that time, it was involved in the same industry as it is today – market research that employs the human senses. As I was looking for a specialized company that was operating in a niche market and could be further developed, this company caught my eye. The management consulting company that guided me through the MBI process took care of the introduction with the founder. Three months later, I bought 50% of the shares and we have been working together successfully ever since. Today, we are still a team and run the company together! My partner handles the research side while I am working on the commercial and business development side, bringing value in different ways but working towards the same ambitious goals.

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

Soon after I joined, we acquired another company and merged it with ours, establishing one brand identity, defining our mission, vision and brand promises. It was not an easy time as our position in the market was not strong enough yet and therefore, we were losing money. Even though we managed to tackle this by 2019, we started experiencing the consequences of COVID-19 in 2020. We had to close down all of our branches since inviting consumers to our research centers was not allowed due to the restrictions. Thus, we had to rethink our activities and instead of conducting research in our locations, we adapted to the remote trend that emerged. This is how he started to get involved in Home Use Testing. After a period of reorganising, cost-cutting and reconsidering the human resource within our company, the business started to pick up again in July last year.

COVID-19 represented a great challenge for most of the industries, including ours, as it implied having to deal with the less pleasant business activities such as lay-offs or rethinking logistics. Most importantly, this crisis also offered a great opportunity for us to be creative and find solutions to keep our company up and going.

How do you see the future of incorporating senses into customer experiences?

Our company is involved in both the food and non-food sectors. The senses that we primarily work with are taste and smell, either through our consumer or expert panels. However, we are looking into ways to develop their use even further. In that respect, ESSENSOR and Wageningen University & Research have joined forces in November 2020 for food and consumer research. We have been conducting joint research into food taste and experience, food appreciation and consumers' food choice behaviour already. Thanks to this collaboration, scientific knowledge can be used more quickly to develop healthy products that are appreciated by consumers. For instance, consumers started getting used to plant-based dairy and meat more easily and this speeds up the protein transition! And this aspect is completely in line with the vision of ESSENSOR: “To a world with better products and a healthy and sustainable business.

What motivated you to become a member of the supervisory board of the Utrecht Centraal Museum? 

Since I have been an active citizen of Utrecht in many different forums for more than 20 years, I was asked to join the supervisory board and advise them on the commercial side. The goal that I am working towards is convincing more people to discover and enjoy the art, architecture and fashion exhibitions that this museum has to offer. This position enables me to have more diversity in my career and the main driver behind this decision was my willingness to explore other sectors and domains. It is an honour to work together with my colleagues on the board and see the museum being successful through our collaboration!


What achievement are you most proud of? 

I believe that one of my greatest achievements is that I was able to build a company from scratch together with my business partner at that time – For All Finance. Our value proposition enabled us to become the market leader in The Netherlands. The best part was that we were able to sell the company in the middle of the 2009 financial crisis to a company listed on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange. I still consider it one of the major milestones of my career to this day!


What do you consider your biggest failure?  

Back when I was working for PepsiCo, I was asked to join Gauchos Restaurants and become their General Manager for The Netherlands and Belgium. I decided to leave PepsiCo and take advantage of this opportunity as I thought that my chances of growing within this company were limited. However, during my exit interview, I was told that all I had to do was ask and that I would have had chances of being promoted. In short, the lesson is that you should never be afraid to ask and stand up for yourself. A discussion at the right time can be life-changing.

After hearing about the ups, downs, happy moments and accomplishments of Mr. Steunenberg, we wanted to get to know him on a more personal level. Let’s see what his favourite aspect about living in The Netherlands is and what is his advice for future graduates!

What is your favourite book?

That would be 40 Tchaikovsky Street by Pieter Waterdrinker. He takes the reader on a journey through Russian history and his own life. The story is very captivating!

What is the last movie that you saw?

I haven’t been to the cinema in a while but one series that I enjoy watching on Netflix is Fauda. This series provided me with a better view behind the scenes on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.

Are you a morning person or a night owl?

Even though I used to be a night owl, I started to become a morning person.

How do you prepare yourself for a successful day?

I plan my day based on the Eisenhower Matrix. I divide my tasks by deciding what is important and what is urgent. I plan what is important but not urgent and I try to delegate what is not important but urgent. This way of doing things helps me in striking a balance and being structured.

Another thing that I do in the morning is watching tutorials within The Power MBA program that I have enrolled in this year. You are required to watch microlearning tutorials every day, being offered compressed knowledge. The topics covered range from Business Model Innovation and Digital Marketing to Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Finance.

What is your biggest dream in a few words?

My professional dream is to develop ESSENSOR even further and step up to the international scale, eventually acquiring foreign companies.

On a personal level, my biggest dream is to see my three daughters follow their dreams, grow and become happy adults!

Name one thing on your bucket list.

I definitely want to visit Japan again. I last visited it more than 20 years ago with my wife and I enjoyed it so much that I am longing to see it again. Besides its modernity, I am fascinated by their organisation style, culture and focus on extreme hospitality – “omotenashi”.

What is one thing that you enjoy doing in your free time?

I think it is important to meet and spend good time with friends. I always enjoy a good discussion over dinner!

What is your favourite place to visit?

That would be Antwerp! I lived there for a couple of years, and I would not mind moving back there due to the excellent restaurants, culture, art exhibitions, architecture, fashion and the overall vibe of the city.

What is your favourite part about living in The Netherlands?

Life in The Netherlands is very organised, safe and comfortable. You have your friends and family within close reach, and it is easy to travel from the Netherlands to many different countries.

What is your advice for students graduating in 2021?

Follow your dreams, dream big-scale and do not forget that you can become whatever you want! This is also what I tell my daughters – the maximum that you can grow depends to a great extent on yourself.