It’s been a bad month for statues. But anyone witless enough to carve European tech founders in stone might consider Jitse Groen for the second plinth, once Daniel Ek is fully polished. Anyone serious about winning in tech needs to study the example of the relentless Dutch billionaire as closely as the visionary Swede.
When Just Eat Takeaway’s acquisition of GrubHub completes, Groen will lead a circa $20bn company. How did he do it? First and foremost, by being a great operator. Surveying our global footprint in early 2012, a year after I started as Just Eat’s global COO, it was clear we were winning in virtually every market we’d entered.
Whether in Ireland, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland or the UK, we stuck to our playbook against dozens of local competitors. We defended, attacked and won repeatedly, putting Just Eat on track to becoming the leading player in Western Europe by a distance.
“A crazy Dutch guy”, I was told on my first day, was the only fly in the ointment. However hard I pushed our team in the Netherlands, it was clear that whatever we tried, wherever we went, the guy would not go away. Thanks to Groen and his team’s relentless attack, sorting out some problem in the Netherlands was on my to-do list as Just Eat COO virtually every day.
North star metric
Having set up Takeaway.com as a student and worked on it his entire professional life, Groen understood in his blood not just that “number of orders sent to restaurants” is the north star metric in the industry, but that there are two key ways to get there: dominate restaurant supply, and be top of mind for consumers. Everything else – including the question beloved of bankers of who does the delivery – is noise.
Groen’s Thuisbezorgd.nl (“deliver to the door”) brand was level-pegging with Just Eat when I joined in 2011 and for about a year afterwards. From mid-2012 onwards, as bright orange Thuisbezorgd.nl jackets became ubiquitous on streets around the canals of Amsterdam, we could see Thuisbezorgd pulling gradually and then more rapidly into the lead.
“Crazy Dutch guy”
For the next 4 years, Jitse doubled down consistently on restaurant supply and brand awareness, using every tactic possible to win at both. At Just Eat, we went into our IPO pitch in 2014 saying “market leader in 12 out of 13 countries”. The “crazy Dutch guy” making his presence felt in the unlucky 13th.
2 years later it was clear there was no route back for Just Eat in Holland. I travelled to Utrecht, told the team we were selling, and met Jitse across the road to shake hands over a beer. He was warm and gracious in victory. It didn’t feel right – I was used to doing this to other people, not being on the receiving end. As I literally handed over the keys to the office, I looked for the first time into the eye of someone who had out-operated Just Eat.
But nobody becomes a billionaire merely by being an operator. The second big reason for Groen’s success is that he stuck to a clear global strategy, centred on Germany. It was evident from that conversation over beers in 2016 that neither of us rated Delivery Hero, the other big European player, as operators. The only major Western European country where Just Eat didn’t occupy the top spot was Delivery Hero’s home market of Germany, which we had never entered.
While Just Eat and GrubHub became the first players in the industry to IPO in 2014, instead of subjecting himself to public market scrutiny Jitse instead saw the opportunity in Germany, raised a big round, and bought Lieferando (at the time the no. 3 German player).
Pour profits into Germany
For the next 4 years Groen poured Takeaway.com’s profits from the Netherlands into Germany. Germany became everything. Selling the somewhat improbable story to public market investors that he would win the German market as decisively as he’d won the Netherlands became the cornerstone of Groen’s own IPO pitch in 2016.
Delivery Hero – weaker operators, stretched across dozens of markets – lacked the same clarity of purpose. Month by month, Groen’s promise to investors became real. Lieferando strengthened its position, and in 2018 Groen ultimately forced Delivery Hero into the humiliation of selling up on home turf.
The acquisition from Delivery Hero of Lieferheld.de and Pizza.de left Groen’s Takeaway.com as the overwhelming leader in Europe’s second largest delivery food market.
As importantly, victory in Germany had given Groen the quality public markets crave: credibility. Making one simple, if unlikely, promise, and emphatically delivering on it, turned Groen in the eyes of investors from a risky unknown quantity into a leader they could rely on. Delivering on a clear global strategy – using profits from Holland to win Germany – meant from now on, investors would follow Groen anywhere. Groen’s credibility was the real currency that funded the acquisitions of Just Eat and now of GrubHub.
But there is a third and final ingredient of Groen’s success, without which Just Eat would long ago have bought his company rather than the reverse. Groen is – how to put it delicately? – not lacking in self-esteem. I enjoyed his one-upmanship at NOAH 2017 where we were on a panel together. Making small-talk beforehand, someone was moaning about the indignities of air travel. Jitse responded proudly that he’d piloted his own light aircraft to Berlin that morning.
Buying the company
Before the Takeaway.com IPO, Just Eat discussed buying the company, just as we’d acquired circa twenty other businesses around the world. The deal we had in mind would have made Groen personally several €hundred millions. He walked away and backed himself. That is the kind of chutzpah it takes to go from a bit-player on the global scene to the most powerful figure in the industry.
So Jitse Groen won through executional excellence, strategic clarity, and boundless confidence. But the key thing is: his qualities come in that order. His operational strength gave his global strategy teeth. And his self-confidence served his strategy, not vice-versa. While all the action I’ve described was taking place in the Netherlands and Germany, Takeaway.com had small businesses in the UK and France. A rampant narcissist would have tried to win everywhere. Instead, Groen focused his energy and his ego on the battles that really mattered.
Second place, first loser
Anyway, the story isn’t over. An old playground taunt says “second place is first loser.” Jitse will not enjoy the metaphorical second plinth. The food industry is vastly larger than the music industry. Daniel Ek might want to keep an eye out.
Guest Author: Adrian Blair is the CEO of Receipt Bank. Prior to this, he was the Global Chief Operating Officer of Just Eat and the only executive team member to serve throughout the company’s transformation from start-up to FTSE 100. Before this, he led business development for Spotify in Europe and spent six years in commercial roles at Google in California and London. He is also the Co-Founder and Chairman of Circl, a next-generation leadership development programme for students from deprived backgrounds. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Oxford, and an MBA from Harvard Business School.
This is a guest article, previously published on LinkedIn.
Image credits: Takeaway.com