Realizing the American Dream: Three lessons on entrepreneurship from Annemarie van Gaal at #MIE12

At the end of the second day of the Marketing Information Event 2012 (Twitter), keynote Speaker Annemarie van Gaal shared her version of the American Dream with us. Inspiring and encouraging: from a fairly naïve girl, raised in a southern province of the Netherlands, Annemarie developed herself to a successful international self-made business woman.  Her success started in an unconventional market in an unconventional time: Gorbatsjov’s Russia in the nineties. How did she manage to create her own road of success, and, more importantly: what can we all learn from that?

The American Dream in Russia

Van Gaal is a very good storyteller: she tells about  her youth in Heerlen, which she has experienced as not very dynamic and challenging. After her graduation the big city of Amsterdam seduces her and this is where she starts her business career: at VNU she starts working as an executive secretary. Being a woman, single mum with no education does not keep her from going to Russia for VNU, to start up Moscow Magazine. Unfortunately, this is not a success and she decides to try it on her own: in 1992 she starts Independent Media and within 5 years she has 700 employees and sells 20 magazine and newspaper titles.

The secret of success

Why did selling magazines for VNU not work and selling magazines for Independent Media did?  Van Gaal shares the context of both periods in her life with us and derives 3 golden rules for successful entrepreneurship from them:

  1. Give responsibility to the people that represent your eyes and ears in the market. Don’t keep responsibility in higher management levels or even worse: at a HQ-office, which is not in the same market you are in. She illustrates this by the fact that VNU HQ was not in Russia and did not understand the Russian market well enough to appreciate business plans from ‘Annemarie in Russia’ in their original intent.  In the end, plans were changed so much by the many managerial levels that implementation was either too late or not fitting the market anymore. Today, her investments are screened on this criterium. Is there a HQ that does not give responsibility to the ones closest to the market? No investment there!
  2. No experience.  Having neither education nor experience forced Annemarie to tackle every problem from a fresh perspective and with a lot of creativity. For example: distributing European magazines in Moscow through the standard logistical system was not easy.  Most of the magazines never made it to the kiosks on the street. Instead of putting a lot of energy in improving this, Annemarie looked for other possibilities. This ‘out-of-the box’ thinking led to a very own distribution network of youngsters that sold the magazines in the streets: at the subway and at traffic lights. Giving these youngsters their own responsibility over selling price encouraged them to become entrepreneurs as well.
  3. Be loyal.  To the market you’re in as well as to your employees. When the crisis hit Russia in 1998 (!), bancs went bankrupt, doing business and living there was not a picnic. Many companies decided to leave Russia, but Indepent media stayed. Despite the fact she had to fire 200 employees, she stayed.  Together with the 500 employees that were left, she worked until Independent Media was big business again. She rewarded loyalty as well: when there were a million profits to share, the number of months of employment determined the share.  Regardless of the level an employee worked in: the assistant who had worked there for 10 years was able to buy a new car, the high potential sales manager who had worked there for just a year, only got a small amount of money.

I really liked her story. Especially Van Gaal’s No.1 Golden Rule is what we at Insites Consulting believe in very much. By giving responsibility to the ones that are closest to the market (US, UK, Netherlands, Belgium), you protect yourself from making all kinds of interpretation mistakes, either upwards in the organization or downwards into the market.  Bringing the consumer into your boardroom and letting the consumer be a peer, a colleague, an advocate or a judge offers you a lot of opportunities to become (more) successful, we think.

Fotocredit thumb: MIE/MoaWeb.

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