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Daniel Ropers
February 4, 2021
Interviewed by
Alexandra Jankovich
Alexandra Jankovich
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Spark’s first project: Daniel Ropers, co-founder and former CEO bol.com

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In 2010, bol.com faced a pivotal question: grow new product categories or expand into streaming? Daniel Ropers, former CEO of bol.com, talks about working with SparkOptimus on the strategy, and explains why you don’t always want straight answers to apples-or-oranges questions, but to go on a journey of discovery. Bol.com is now the Netherlands’ largest online retailer.

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Alexandra Jankovich: Ten years ago – and this is our tenth anniversary – was our first assignment for bol.com. My business partner, Tom Voskes, and I had Spark and Optimus join forces to do an assignment for bol.com. Perhaps you can talk about that assignment. You actually just wanted to be the new Netflix and Spotify, right?

Daniel Ropers: Yes. We had a choice either be a shop for physical products and rapidly grow into new product categories or invest in the next disruption and help with the transition to digital distribution by introducing disruptive, new and better alternatives for physical devices. Well, Spotify did not exist yet, but it was literally our idea to offer unlimited music streaming for ten euros a month.

We knew it could only be one of the two. If we tried to do both, they are such different paths, we would destroy the company, taking on too much and getting nowhere. Then we thought: We need to figure out quickly which category we could fit into. Which part of what we do well is useful here, and makes us better than our competition? On the other side, it would be hard to convince the content owners of the world. Disney Studios, big record labels and game developers, to grant us the rights. As that model would mean introducing something new to the Dutch market, we would also have to develop all of the technology. It would not have had any physical infrastructure. It is a completely different challenge to serve up content at scale for real-time consumption.

So, our initial position was: Okay, we know what our question is. What now? Many of us had a consulting background, so it was a point of honour for us to bring in a consultant. It pained us to admit that we then wouldn’t get anywhere. We asked several companies we felt would know the field. And we came up with these people we knew nothing about and did not know it was their first project, else we might never have hired them.

SparkOptimus came out of that. You remember, we spoke then. And we did it. And that was incredibly cool, because not only did you –  at warp speed –  help us to model the business side of things, but you also helped us to find people who had expertise on how it worked. You found an expert in video streaming, pretty much the only person in the world who knew about that. And he came in to help us.

Suddenly, we got all kinds of expertise we lacked, and we got colleagues, literally in our office, who acted as if they worked for bol.com. But it is a sign of how much enthusiasm there was, how much co-creation there was, and that you [as SparkOptimus] take the client seriously as someone who steers what you do, who has knowledge you do not have, and then you welcome input. So, you don’t say: “Let us do it. We have the expertise”. But you’re asking: “What knowledge can we get from the client?” And then in a very nice, natural way…

What I have often experienced and often did to clients when I was a consultant, is that you only have the big answer to the question all the way at the end. And it almost becomes a kind of show-down moment. It is like: “Tada, here is the rabbit”. Great, that is a nice surprise. But I do not like that at all. Because we do not just want to know, or discover, what the answer is to this apples and oranges question, a new category versus digital. It is a journey of discovery. It is not binary, and it is not suddenly having an answer all thought out. It is a matter of gradually shifting your attention to the more promising option and accepting that the other one is losing ground. You agreed, and you did it yourselves, too. That was incredibly efficient, because you did not go We have the results, and now we need to make decisions and process it all. No, we got there gradually. I cannot even remember the final presentation. It was such an afterthought. But it was great.