Blog by Robbert Lohmann, Chief Commercial Officer
Only the great leaders amongst us can leave the big stage with a reference to their (nick)name and a mic drop. Kobe Bryant in sports (Mamba), Barack Obama in politics (Obama) and Carel van Helsdingen (the Big Kahuna) in 2getthere. As part of the transition to ZF, Carel recently stepped back as CEO. Obviously he has never referred to himself as the Big Kahuna (I have behind his back), nor has COVID-19 given him the chance of a dramatic mic-drop-exit (I will for him in public).
Bear with me as this blog I am not going to rant about autonomous vehicles, but about just one person and what he’s meant for autonomous vehicles. 2getthere. Its employees. And me … 😊
The Big Kahuna
You might know the Big Kahuna from the 1999 movie, very appropriately about three sales representatives trying to land the deal of their lifetime. Carel has always been chasing the next big deal – and successful at it, in part because the focus was also on people and relating to them, just like the movie. The result is that Frog Navigation Systems originally (now Oceaneering AGV Systems) and 2getthere later, are the pioneers plotting the direction of the developments and guiding the market forward. The companies leave their footprint in automated – or if you like use the sexier autonomous – applications worldwide in all kinds of industries, directly or indirectly as a subcontractor to other companies:
From Australia to America and steel coils to car chassis in glass factories and lego’s.
Theme parks, check:
From Disney to Universal.
Autonomous transit, check:
From the world’s first PRT at Masdar City, Abu Dhabi to the first autonomous vehicles without safety steward in Capelle aan den IJssel.
Some have tried to follow or are trying to follow, by introducing knock-offs. We have seen them come. And go. Almost all are gone, or on their way out.
You wonder why? It is not about having a vision. It is not about having the technology. Or an USP. It is not about finding the right people. It is not about being a leader. It is not about creating energy and enthusiasm. It is not about knowing the way to market. And deliver. It is not about giving everything you have (and more). Never giving up. It is not about doing all of the above, but about BEING all of the above. When you are at the forefront, you live you work carrying your heart on your sleave.
And that’s why the original meaning of the Big Kahuna is even more appropriate. It goes back to Hawaii, where it is defined as ‘a respected person who has moral authority in society; a “priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, minister, expert in any profession (whether male or female)”. As such it is an apt nickname for Carel. And whenever I was using it behind his back it wasn’t a derogatory term but an expression of respect. With some sarcasm mixed in, of course!
Livin’ on the Edge
OK, cue the music here before continuing to read. I am waiting… Come on, really. It makes the reading even better. I am sales guy, trust me 😉
Bringing innovations with cutting edge technology to market requires a truly entrepreneurial spirit. Risks are there to be taken, conquered and resolved – not to scare off. Where Aerosmith sings ‘You can’t help yourself from fallin’ (did you cue the music!?), they were wrong. You can. But you have to be all in and fully committed to being all in – not halfheartedly. Carel’s motto is ‘never give up’. When we were still Frog and on the edge, it was illustrated by the frog being eaten chocking the stork to prevent him swallowing. It is even on his coffee-mug as a daily reminder.
When 2getthere was delivering the project at Masdar City, incoming payments were delayed, an application for innovation credit from the Dutch government was denied as we had already started working on the project (the logic of companies waiting with their deliveries until all bureaucratic processes have been fully completed is beyond anybody’s logic!), and costs were greater as a result. We were living beyond the edge, for months… Facing the situation I asked Carel if he would step out with zero loss if somebody came in and took over. The answer was simple and short: ‘That’s not why we started’.
You are either an entrepreneur or not…
Entrepreneurs and managers are two very different animals. There are entrepreneurs that can manage somewhat, but frankly: it is a waste of their real talent. And there are plenty of managers that think they are entrepreneurs and really aren’t. It simply is not their talent. Carel is the first category: an entrepreneur at heart. The evidence? It is so much in his blood that all 3 of his kids started their own (highly successful) businesses: Flow Real Estate, Top Hat Classics and NXT Museum. Strong genes (good looks credit to their mother, of course)…
As founding father Carel has also left his mark on another child of his, despite the lack of blood-lines. 2getthere’s vision is to continually develop the landscape of automated transit technology by maintaining our entrepreneurial spirit. It has worked for us for all these years and will continue to work for us moving forward. 2getthere ‘reeks of entrepreneurship’ (still) we were told recently. And yes, we are f*!*king proud of that! We’ll never wash it off. It is a major reason ZF acquired 2getthere last year.
BTW: obviously above reads freaking as there were three letters missing. My mom might also read this after all. LOL 😊
True entrepreneurs see opportunities early and where other people don’t. Frankly, other people probably didn’t even realize that there was an opportunity until everybody else jumps on the bandwagon. Kinda like with autonomous vehicles actually…
2getthere first autonomous vehicles were operational, carrying passengers and intersecting with other traffic and pedestrians in 1997. Approximately 7 years before the first DARPA challenge and 12 years before Google got into the game. By that time Carel had spun out 2getthere as an independent company already and we had secured the contract at Masdar City. The first presentations by Google compared what they were going to be developing with what 2getthere already had – ultimately we developed in very different directions.
Our focus has always been on public transit applications. Not cars or ride hailing. Although cars are fun (toys) and sometimes actually the most practical form of transportation for journeys, they are a very bad fit with the needs of cities. Even when deployed for ride hailing. The illustration by Michael Colleville-Andersen illustrates this perfectly – you have to love his twitter indicating he’s putting the f*ck-you back into urban design as well (his words, mom, not mine!).
We have been critical and skeptical of self-driving cars from the start and remain so today. Disagree? You are wrong, obviously, but we are happy to discuss 😊 Read our white paper first though… (yes, more reading: like this blog isn’t enough, already).
Where 2020 was envisioned for self-driving cars, and should have been objects in the rear view mirror, they are much further off than the appear. Autonomous vehicles for public transit are operating today, on dedicated lanes, and are coming to mixed traffic within the next couple of years. Way before self-driving cars are here. Why? Because one is technology push and the other has a viable business case while addressing current transit needs. Perhaps that explains why 2getthere has been around for so long: the focus on what can be delivered today.
It all starts with the first ‘no’
For somebody that has the motto ‘never give up’ it is not surprising to hear that the approach to sales opportunities is that it all starts with the first ‘no’. Where a no is often a reason for sales to switch to other opportunities, 2getthere’s sales on the contrary are switched on further. After all, when somebody says no, they have considered the proposal and have specific reasons. Reasons that you can address and resolve.
The unfortunate part for Carel (his successors and basically everybody else around me, and – in all honesty – many other colleagues) is that this part of the training resonated so well, it gets applied internally also. Through our 20 years of cooperation there is nobody else that I could disagree with as fiercely. And both walk away without any hard feelings (at least I think). I’ll miss that. Seriously.
Thank goodness there are still 60 others at 2getthere that are almost just as stubborn and focused on delivering the projects and products the way they are convinced it should be done. It’s created a company culture where challenging beliefs is accepted, collaboration is expected and commitment is given by everybody. And we have fun while doing it – another aspect fostered by the founding father: there is always a place for humor.
Not accepting no by looking at it as an opportunity is a switching in thinking and approach. Before ‘omdenken’ became popular and a brand in its own right, it already was a basic operating principle at Frog and 2getthere. The refusal to accept negative news and use unexpected events as opportunities at first appears ‘not normal’, but when it produces results time-after-time it can’t be down to just dumb luck. Evidenced by the fact that Carel is yet to win the motorcycle/sportscar for the first time after all the times he participated coming through Dubai Airport – probably could have almost bought the thing by now.
Most founders ultimately walk away from their baby and see it grow and prosper under the wings of somebody else. Their company is their legacy. I disagree. The company is just a vehicle, the people are more important: they carry the legacy forward beyond their journey and the vehicle life span.
Thanks Chief; happy to have the opportunity to work with you for a couple of more years. And look forward to our next disagreement 😊
Disclaimer: 2getthere’s blog is a podium to share opinions and views of our industry, products and everything related to it. And being Dutch, there’s one thing we are not shy of – having an opinion. Everybody’s got them, we just express them a little more directly. OK, a lot more directly. To the point that if you aren’t used to Dutch people being Dutch, you’d think we are plain blunt. Which is not our intent. Or sometimes it actually is, but in that case we just say we’re Dutch and couldn’t help ourselves…
This Blog has been started to provide a proper podium to share our opinion, with a little bit of humor along the way. The opinion shared is that of the author, not necessarily of the company, and is obviously completely objective and should be taken very very literally. Should you beg to differ on the view expressed, please don’t hesitate to engage and share this article with your thoughts on your social media channels: if there is one thing the Dutch appreciate it is a healthy debate – no sarcasm here.