Many entrepreneurs may describe their paths to success as a jungle. Few began their journey in an actual one. Martijn Atell, CEO and founder of VoteBash, learned some of his most valuable life lessons aged 18, stranded, alone and naked, in the Amazonian wilds of Suriname.
Atell was raised and educated in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. But he was born in Suriname, a former Dutch colony in South America. And, having completed his studies, Atell’s parents took him across the Atlantic to undergo a local coming-of-age ritual: surviving for a fortnight in the Surinamese rainforest.
Of course, Atell tells Red Herring, his parents were keeping watch the entire time. But he didn’t know that–and the lessons those two weeks taught him have helped propel the impressive corporate and startup career that followed.
“I learned three valuable lessons in the jungle,” says Atell. “The first was learning to focus, because in the jungle it’s all about survival. The second is pivoting: learning to change and adapt.
“And finally I learned never to give up,” adds Atell. “It’s easy to give up when things are tough. But when things are tough you gotta double down and persevere. You can overcome anything. From the Amazon jungle I went into the corporate jungle with a whole new set of eyes, a whole new way of doing things. So I studied hard and did engineering and computer science.”
Having emerged from his Amazonian adventure Atell returned to Europe, where he landed a job at German automaker BMW. It was 2001 and the the dot-com bubble was bursting: jobs were scarce, and Atell sent “about a hundred letters” to tech companies before getting the role, which included supply relations on the company’s leading-edge innovations.
Navigating the strict, corporate hierarchies of Germany was tough, Atell says. “Electrical innovation in cars was very new,” he adds. “People were very skeptical at first. I had to learn the new rules of that jungle, and focus on the things that mattered to move forward.”
But after over a decade at the manufacturer Atell wanted something different. Having taken part in accelerators and events, he decided he liked the speed and flexibility of the startup world. And besides, there was a niche he felt he could feel.
VoteBash, founded in 2011, is a real-time research tool, which allows brands to reach survey takers in online and social media spaces and get real-time feedback on products. The Raleigh, North Carolina-based firm speeds up and incentivizes survey taking with rewards like coupons. It claims to increase reach by 1,000 times, with participation over 90%.
“I noticed there was a lot of surveying of customers and studies,” says Atell. “Those are the things that moved the automotive industry. And they were being done days after customers had bought from the firm. It was a very slow process, and information wasn’t very helpful.”
Then the 2008 US Presidential election happened. Atell saw a groundswell of opinions from the grassroots level. He thought it would be great to found a movement like that with customers, rather than voters.
Atell had learned the auto industry “inside-out”. But founding a startup was a completely different challenge. “Corporates take much more time to make the turn, and you better make the right turn because you don’t get chances.” With VoteBash, however, Atell pivoted several times while, he stresses, keeping the vision for the company big.
“You have to think big,” he says. “I don’t want to do something good for one company, or one region–I want to do something that’s good for the world.”
One pivot, for example, involved basing the company in Raleigh, NC. The state capital has emerged as one of America’s most promising tech hubs in recent years. But it was a far less digital reason that first attracted Atell.
“I was in South Carolina working for BMW, and took my wife to Raleigh for a zumbah class,” he says. “We knew a little about North Carolina as being a nice place, but we didn’t know much about the startup scene. I had briefly thought about moving to a more mature hub like San Francisco. But I thought Raleigh was a very compelling value proposition.”
VoteBash now has over a thousand brands as clients, and hubs in 30 countries. Competition might include larger firms such as SurveyMonkey and Playbuzz. But VoteBash’s enhanced, interactive platform adds far more value, says Atell.
Armed with $400,000 of investment he is planning a period of growth in 2017. That will bring its own acute challenges. “I don’t think the (company) structure is as important as the mindset of your first hires,” he says. “They need to be willing to take action, and be prepared. Corporations are executing on a business model that has been proven. Startups are looking for a business model to fit them.
“People sometimes give up too early,” he adds. “They have the right idea to start something, but they get discouraged through their experiences. You start second-guessing yourself, whether you should push this thing forward without knowing the outcome. That’s 80% of startup life. Luckily I came in with the mindset of a survivor, and I knew things would be hard from the outset.”
From the unforgiving nature of Suriname to the cut-throat world of tech startups, Martijn Atell has learned a lot from life. With VoteBash he is sure he can bring energy and drive to a sector ripe for disruption.