‘If you are going to be an entrepreneur, start as young as possible'

‘If you are going to be an entrepreneur, start as young as possible’

Things went wrong during a trip through the United States. It was December 2018 and Stijn Koster had just sold his Rotterdam hosting company i3D.net for millions to game developer Ubisoft. Koster, who wanted to tell the news personally to his American customers, collapsed. Overtired.

He flew back home and slept fourteen hours a day for three months. “The doctor said: ‘you have mononucleosis’. I didn’t even know,” says Koster in the boardroom of his office in Capelle aan den IJssel. “I was always busy with work. The rest was secondary.”

Koster (37) born in Kerkrade, Limburg, is one of the most successful young entrepreneurs in the Netherlands. As an 18-year-old, from his room in Rotterdam, where he studied economics and computer science, he started screwing together servers, which he used to play games against others via the internet.

When his friends asked if he couldn’t build a few more servers, he had his first clients. After a year, his company i3D.net had a hundred servers, of which Koster rented out the capacity.

In the years that followed, i3D.net (90 employees) grew into one of the largest gaming hosting providers. With dozens of data centers around the world, the company facilitates the online infrastructure for playing the largest games in the world, including the American billion-dollar companies EA, Epic Games and Discord.

The corona crisis gave a huge boost to online gaming. Koster’s company grew with it: in 2020 the turnover of i3D.net doubled. Officially, it does not report any figures, but according to Koster, “it has been profitable since its inception”. This year the turnover, somewhere between 100 and 200 million euros per year, is growing again, by 50 percent.

Read more about the crowds on the internet: ‘Quickly some extra servers to handle the online crowds’

When Koster sold his company to Ubisoft – one of his most important clients – in 2018, he was 34 years old. It is not known how much money Koster, the sole shareholder at the time, received: estimates vary from 100 million to 250 million euros. Part of the deal was that he would remain director of i3D.net. That now falls under the big Ubisoft as a kind of subsidiary.

The sale has given him peace of mind. Koster has lost forty kilos, sports a few times a week, “can’t see the sun rise anymore” and can “turn off the computer a little easier,” he says. And he finally has time for his family with young children.

“I can recommend it to everyone: if you are going to start a business, do it as young as possible. Then you can live to work,” says Koster. “But all those long nights, sacrificing a private life, always have to be there: at a certain point that is no longer healthy.”

fighting hard

The fact that Koster built up a successful company at such a young age therefore had advantages, but also disadvantages. He says that he sometimes had to fight to be taken seriously. „The first ten years of my company I had to explain what I was doing and I often heard: games? That’s for kids,” he says. “I had to explain to the bank: these are listed American companies with a turnover of billions. Fortunately, that has now turned around: gaming is bigger than Hollywood and a huge growth market.”

The trick is to transfer your vision in such a way that others pass it on to their people

As his business grew, Koster also had to learn to lead. The first years it was simple: i3D.net was located in an office in the center of Rotterdam. “A real start-up. Everyone was free and unfettered and in the evening we went to dinner together. You did everything as a group: there was no formal leadership.”

As the company grew, Koster’s role changed. “You lead a group of managers who are close to you, and they lead the group below. The trick is to transfer your vision in such a way that others pass it on to their people.”

Koster had to learn that he had to communicate less directly. “I have always had a strong opinion and was used to thinking in solutions and acting quickly. The bigger the company, the more intimidating it can be when someone has a conversation with the CEO,” he says. “I enjoy discussing with people and I can learn a lot from resistance. But as you grow, you also employ more people who find it difficult to have those kinds of conversations. Nowadays I am more often the last person to speak in a meeting.”

Koster has used the extra space in his agenda to start studying again: this year he followed a course for supervisory directors at Nyenrode Business University. His ideal is to do something “new that I am not yet able to do” around the age of forty, says Koster. “But as long as I enjoy my work, I want to keep doing this. The moment when my agenda and my head are empty has yet to come.”

A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of September 25, 2021

‘If you are going to be an entrepreneur, start as young as possible’
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