Getting in that CEO or CTO position doesn’t happen overnight. Everybody started somewhere – be it a dusty garage like Jobs and Wozniak, a cluttered dorm room like Zuckerberg or, like many young minds of today, in a coworking space without money but a mind full of ideas. In this new series on Silicon Canals we interview successful entrepreneurs about their road to success: what does it take to get to the top, especially at a young age? First up: Daniel Gebler of on demand online supermarket Picnic.
On demand startups are booming. The convenience of getting your stuff delivered where and when you want, is getting more popular everyday in the digital age. While UberEats, Deliveroo, TakeAway and Foodora battle it out when it comes to delivering your dinner, Picnic conveniently delivers your groceries as well. Picnic is not a delivery service for existing supermarkets; it’s a supermarket that only exists online. Because of the low overhead, Picnic can deliver at regular, affordable prices.
Picnic’s CTO Daniel Gebler has an impressive resume with a PhD in Computer Science, two masters in both Computer Science and Business Administration and even a short stint at Stanford. After his studies, the talented whizkid became a postdoc researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and was the director of R&D at software company Fredhopper, where he started a few years earlier as a software architect. With this background, it looks like Gebler was preparing for a managing position from an early age. “Early on I was interested in both technology and business,” Gebler says. “During high school I was actively involved in the demoscene where value gets created by finding the right mash-up. Hence, it was just natural to follow two master studies. Studying for two degrees simultaneously also offers you a practical lesson in effective project and time management.”
Business or academics
When Gebler chose to pursue a PhD in Computer Sciences, he had not yet decided if he wanted to make a career in business, academics or both. “I knew that most successful technology ventures combine latest science with cutting edge engineering. Therefore, I had to become deeply invested in science as well. After finishing my PhD I stayed actively involved in academics. This helps us now to get exceptional talent from top Dutch and European universities.”
After his PhD, the young IT prodigy started as a software architect at Fredhopper. In a few years he worked his way up to a development manager and quickly became director of R&D – two big promotions in just a few years. “I absolutely loved the product and was very fortunate to work with an exceptional team that shared my vision. Then it just became natural to take on more responsibilities. We had a really great time by building a culture around engineering excellence. As a result, we formed a very strong and lasting team that became one of the most valuable tech networks in this country.”
Just like Picnic, Fredhopper works on targeting software to optimise the shelves in online stores. While at this company, Gebler made some important connections and gained some vital insights that proved to be helpful when starting Picnic: “I worked closely with leading E-commerce companies such as ASOS, Debenhams, HP, Otto.de, Toys’R Us, and Urban Outfitters. From those projects I gained deep insights into all aspects of digital shelving which now forms the basis of our online store. However, Picnic operates also a whole supply chain including an entire warehouse and a fleet of delivery vans. The integration of store and supply chain systems is a very exciting new dimension that opens up unprecedented potential to optimize in real-time merchandising, trading, and operations. We can unlock this potential in Picnic since we rethought the entire supply chain independently from the legacy of bricks-and-mortar stores.”
Gebler left Fredhopper in 2011 to go back to the academic field. For three years he became a postdoc researcher at VU University. He chose to take the academic path again in order to get a fresh look at the long term trends of software engineering and software science. “Over the last 20 years, software engineering evolved mainly by process improvements like Agile, Lean, Scrum, and Kanban. However, there is exciting new research in AI for software engineering and software correctness by construction. This will fundamentally change the way how we build software products. In the broader context, this research has the potential to converge and marry software engineering and data science. Then software product engineering becomes a new process of composing AI modules that are configured by supervised and unsupervised learning.”
Always be at the core of a company
When we ask this successful founder for the most valuable lessons he has learned as CTO of a startup, he has a clear answer straight away “One of the best pieces of advice I got early on was to work at the core of a company: If it is a product company, then be a product engineer, product owner or product operator. If it is a service company, then do the service for some time and later productize it. Another great learning was that after your idea is validated, stick to it and focus on execution.”
Key ingredients of a successful startup
When asked for the definition of a successful startup, the Picnic founder has a handy shopping list with key ingredients ready: “The key ingredients of a successful startup are an exceptional team, a great product, and a major market opportunity. Product adoption, commercial success, and societal impact all depend on execution and timing. At Picnic we define success by how much money our customers save when shopping with us, how much time they win back, and how much ease it brings to their lives when a routine task like grocery shopping becomes a job well done.”
The importance of having flawless analytics in place
When thinking about things he could have done better, Gebler points at Picnic’s analytics. Although they function great now, it wasn’t always like that: “One of the really interesting lessons we learned is related to the different maturity requirements of consumer products vs. data analytics systems. While customers are happy to give feedback on an early version of your product, the analytics and reporting systems need to be flawless and robust from day one. Initially we aimed for building the analytics across all our products, services and systems in one go. It quickly became clear that we needed to focus on the mission-critical operational systems first and on the strategic and growth systems later. By now our engineering process ensures that each product feature and operational change has analytics and performance measurements in place at the time of launch.”
Advice for other young entrepreneurs
With hs vast experience, Gebler obviously has handy advice for his fellow entrepreneurs: “I would give the following advice based on the key dimensions of market, product, and team. Play to win instead of play to not lose. Build a strong product and market vision and take external advisory with a grain of salt. Build the right team, nurture it with a strong technology vision, and then get out of their way and let them build it. Establish a champion mindset but stay humble and don’t fall into the trap of arrogance from early success. Last but not least, enjoy the journey and get comfortable with the unknown.”
Gebler has a clear idea for his future and that of Picnic. “There are many exciting technology trends like AI, IoT, mobile, finance and quantified self that will shape the coming years. I’m looking forward to push these technologies to the next level and use them for impactful products that customers love”.