Can successful companies stay grounded and do good? After seven years in advertising, Max Wohlgemuth Kitslaar needed to find out. Strapped to the back of a 40-year old motorcycle it took him 10,000 miles, 32 companies and six months to find out.
Wait, you quit a well-paid job?
– Yes, about two years ago. I left the company I had been with since 2008, initially a friend’s startup that had rapidly grown into a multinational with offices all over Europe. We specialised in online advertising and I was responsible for setting up a new business unit for our operations in Latin America, a part of the world I have always been particularly passionate about.
Crepes&Waffles employs single mums to provide them with the stability of a job.
So why did you quit then? You were like living your dream!
– At first I was. We were building a state of the art technology to optimize online advertising budgets by serving banners. We were constantly innovating and doing new things. But something was missing. Literally all decisions in the office were money-driven. I have nothing against being profitable and making money, but this was just too much. I started feeling a lack of meaning and after a while I quit.
What happened afterwards?
– I went on a short holiday to Mallorca, to relax after seven intensive years in a hyper-commercial industry. There, I read a book about a guy riding the same type of oldtimer motorcycle I have across the Americas. The moment I finished that book, I had an epiphany and made a Big Decision: I want to do the same.
Nevertheless I also decided immediately that I wanted my trip to have a broader mission, a broader meaning, which I had lacked in my previous job. So I decided to visit companies that work towards a better world and to share their stories through my site and through social media.
Max’s tips for how to convert ideas into reality
- Start small
Don’t get overwhelmed by the big players everyone keeps talking about. Start something small-scale, overcome the obstacles that get in your way and gradually build your business.
- Don’t let your insecurity stop you!
Max doesn’t know anything about mechanics, and had zero experience of writing and self-publishing a book. And yet he successfully reached New York, and is selling his book all over the world. Don’t allow yourself to be the biggest naysayer.
- Partner up!
Remember that there is always at least one other person in the world with the same ideas as you. Go through your network and find that person and start improving the idea together.
- Learn how to sell your vision
You will always face criticism – make sure to be able to thoroughly defend your plan and vision from the very start. Define the value of your idea and how it’ll generate money.
- Make money
It’s a spinning wheel – by being profitable, you stay in business, which allows you to continue and to reach even more people.
Did you face any naysayers?
– Most people found it an incredible idea and were very happy and supportive. My dad though became so nervous that we got into a huge fight. He was sure – and didn’t hesitate to tell me so – that I would not survive the trip.
He also pointed out that I was committing economic suicide by leaving a well-paid job in the Netherlands and get off the radar for 6 months. Only after seeing the first videos of me on the road having a great time, he loosened up.
How did it go?
– Four months after the Big Decision I started my bike for the first time in southern Chile, only to get off at Times Square in New York City, 10,000 miles and 6 months later. Along the way I got the chance to speak to dozens of entrepreneurs, all with an inspiring story. It thrills me to show a positive side of Latin America. Media when reporting about the continent tend to focus on stories about drugs, violence and corruption. Or in the best case football. But there’s so much more to it.
Laboratoria was born out of anger of how poor people mainly have access to poor education.
– Every single day I met people with great ideas on how to improve things and to have impact. On a large scale Crepes&Waffles, the largest restaurant chain in Colombia, is a great example. This company employs single mums to provide them with the stability of a job. Also it supports small-scale farmers to grow their produce organically by paying fair prices and by providing agronomic assistance.
On a smaller scale – the two sisters with whom I stayed with in Argentina is an inspiring case. In Argentina I stayed with two sisters, both teachers and in their twenties. In their school they saw kids drinking an awful amount of soft drinks – and dispose the plastic bottles by simply throwing them on the streets as waste. To raise awareness among these kids, they let them collect 6,000 bottles off the streets within 1 week. With these bottles they built a big playhouse. Just like that. Everybody can make a difference.
Everyone has ideas. The ones who take them into action are the ones who make a difference.
Interesting! What other kind of companies?
– In Lima, Peru I met the founders of Laboratoria, who showed me why and how they train young women from the urban slums to become web developers. After finishing the programme, Laboratoria helps them to land jobs at tech giants like LinkedIn, Google and IBM where on average they earn about three times more than before. Founded only three years ago, today they have offices in three countries. Last year, Mariana, the founder and CEO, was in a panel at Stanford University together with Mark Zuckerberg, lead by president Obama. Amazing!
What’s your overall take?
– The entrepreneurs I met, tackle social problems, while still making a living. A better world is neither a political issue nor a bottomless pit for (government) subsidies. If we put our minds to it, we can all help bring about a better world. It’s a matter a rolling up our sleeves and get started.
What does your life look like after the trip?
– After the trip I wrote the book Miles Ahead, that was self-published in English, Spanish and Dutch. Miles Ahead on the one hand is a road story about my 17,000 kilometre-long journey on a 40 year-old Moto Guzzi from Chile to New York. On the other hand it shares the inspiring stories of the 32 social entrepreneurs that I met along the way, that are offering a profitable and positive alternative, full of hope.
With the book – and the lectures that I give at companies like IBM, Tommy Hilfiger etc. – my aim is to prove to others that it’s possible to take action to work for a better world while earning a profit. And to inspire my readers to think about the one thing that everybody can do to make a better world.
Thanks for chatting with us and good luck!
– Thanks, let’s stay in touch!
Max Wohlgemuth Kitslaar accepts card payments thanks to iZettle and is the author of the book “Miles Ahead”. The book is also available online at Amazon (in English and Spanish). Dutch iZettle users can redeem a 10% discount by using the promo code IZETTLENL through this link.
Max spoke with Andy Forsyth at iZettle. Andy has neither crossed the Americas nor does he have a motorcycle license. But he shares Max’s ethos of doing meaningful and good things – like providing entrepreneurs with the tools to build and grow their own businesses.