How to move from university course to a real company: the story of Innabox

The company Innabox was formed when five students met at an entrepreneurship course at the University of Amsterdam. As part of the course, they formed a team, designed a product and pitched their company at the course final event in July 2012. Unlike other teams, they did not put their company on hold at the end of the course, but continued to launch their product and are now working on the second release. In this interview we talk to Thom Rietberg (COO) and Tobias de Graaf  (CEO) about how they moved from course to real company.

For the readers not familiar with Innabox, what is your product?
We publish special limited edition gift boxes with items selected by a famous person or artist, in support of a good cause. We just finished the shipping of our first box, with items selected by Dutch singer (formerly Room Eleven) Janne Schra and are now working on a second edition with a yet to be announced celebrity.

The company was created as part of a course that ran in the first half of 2012 and is now finished. How much time are you still spending on the company?
Each of us is spending between 6-8 hours per week on the company. We meet 1 morning per week, the rest of the time we work individually and flexibly. We are all still studying and the company does not give us much income yet so working full time was not an option. We all continue because we want to gain the experience of running a company.

What came first in your case, the team or the idea?
The team came together first. We were one of the first teams formed in the course, because we all met at the first organized drinks sessions. Not many people attended these sessions, so we could really talk and connect to each other.

How did the idea arise?
With the team in place we participated in an offsite weekend, organized as part of the course. While other people were forming teams, we could focus on a good idea. We were encouraged to stay away from software since it is hard to create a software product without developers in your team. One idea we pursued was the creating of old-fashioned LP’s with songs selected by people themselves. However not may people have an LP-player.

At the end of the weekend we had to pitch the Innabox idea in front of a jury that would decide if the idea was good enough to pursue during the course. Luckily our pitch was a hit: we could see the jury getting excited during the pitch and Q&A and got a positive verdict.

Has the concept changed during the course?
The idea to give money to a charity selected by the celebrity was added later on. The first idea was to just have celebrities endorse sustainable products. Adding the fundraising made it more attractive for celebrities to participate, and also  made it more attractive for us: raising funds is something that we also thought of as valuable.

You just shipped your first product release, the box with special items selected by Janne Schra from Room Eleven. How did it go?
We sold about 60 boxes. Our official target was 100, but since this is a first launch we are happy with the number we reached. It is especially important for us that every box has been sold to someone outside our network of friends and family: they were sold because people like the product.

We are also sold out, because we sell the boxes before we create them. Therefore we have no leftovers and are not throwing anything away.

Are you satisfied with the sales so far?
Our motivation is to make a good product first. The sales will grow automatically as long as the product is good. So we are satisfied because we like our initial product. We will continue as long as the sales are growing with every edition.

It seems that you are the only company that is still active from the ‘companies’ started during the course. What is your secret?
The secret is that we have a good team and that we have a company that can be run with a small number of hours per week. Our initial idea was to make an edition every 2 months. We scaled this back slightly to once every 3 months, since this allows us for more time for learning: there is a one month sales period, a one month learning and adjustment period, and a one month preparation period before the sales of the next box starts.

Innabox at the finals of the ACE minor on entrepreneurship on June 28th. From left to right: Director Erik Boer, entrepreneurs Bart Gout, Alexander van Aken, Tobias de Graaf, Julie Donders, Thom Rietberg, coach Camiel Selker and associate Dieuwertje Beunk

What legal structure did you choose?
We are a Dutch VOF, a partnership. There are no outside investors and each person has an equal contribution. The ownership structure was chosen at the beginning and has not been changed. At the beginning of the course we had a choice to start a VOF or operate as part of a general purpose legal entity from the course. We decided to start our own since that way we did not have to ask permission when making expenses.

How did you get celebrities involved?
By contacting them directly, either via mail, phone, twitter or Facebook. At first we approached charities in order to get in touch with their ambassadors. This has the disadvantage that for large charities, our impact is not very significant. We contacted Janne directly and learned about the small charity De Vrolijkheid that she wanted to support. During the course, we contacted about 20 celebrities.

Your five person team is large compared to other startups. How does that work?
In a five person team, you have to spend more time communicating information to all members if a subset of the team had a meeting. The CEO has an important role here. For the rest, we work quite well together.

Could you have started this company without the help of the entrepreneurship course?

In theory we could since we had all the skills we needed in the team. In practice we would not have met each other and would not have started. The support you get, for instance from a coach is really helpful. We had a great support from coach Camiel Selker and Dieuwertje Beunk, both from Focus Orange.

How much did it cost to start your company?
The total investment was € 1000. We all invested € 100 each and received € 500 from the university. There are no plans for getting more investments in. We do not need the money since we have a lean business model. For the same reason we are also not active in any contests: we prefer to focus on sales.


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