#FoundersFridays: Meet Koen Droste
Meet Koen Droste, co-founder of Polarsteps. Founded in 2015, Polarsteps is the all-in-one travel app to plan, track and relive your travels in a smart and beautiful way.
Founders Fridays is a new StartupAmsterdam initiative that showcases local entrepreneurs who help strengthen our ecosystem. By inviting founders to answer five questions, we want to shine a light on our ecosystem’s most inspirational stories and role models. We hope that by providing startup founders a space to share their insights and experience, we’ll all learn and grow together.
This week we spoke to Koen Droste, the co-founder of Polarsteps. Polarsteps is helping millions of travellers across the globe to plan, track and relive their travels in a smart and beautiful way. Crafted by a team of avid explorers with a passion for clever technology and cool design, the all-in-one travel app features a travel planner, a personalised digital map, and, at the end of it all, can be used to turn memories into a hold-in-your-hand Travel Book. They also have a new, very exciting feature about to be released (more on that later).
How did your career journey lead you to found Polarsteps?
I have always been fascinated by technology. In fact, I started building websites when I was 15. I gradually grew my hobby into a part-time business and (although I didn't know it at the time) this was my first step towards creating Polarsteps because it was here that I met Job — he was designing my websites at the time but would eventually go on to become a fellow Polarsteps founder.
Still, l had more experience to gain, and so I went off to study. Once I graduated, I joined TMG, one of the largest publishers in the Netherlands. Here I helped to create the news website Upcoming.nl, which quickly grew to millions of visitors with zero marketing budget. This was where I really began to understand the excitement and ups and downs of starting something from scratch - something that would serve me well later on. But, perhaps even more importantly, it was here that I met another would-be Polarsteps co-founder, Maxi.
Of course, having the urge to start something of your own and having met amazing, smart people to work with isn’t enough to start a business. But then something happened that gave me an idea and, potentially, a product...
I knew Niek, our final co-founder, through mutual friends. He was, like me, a lover of tech. He was also an adventurer, and I followed his tales on a website that he had built to track his travels for the people back home. It seemed to me like an idea that could not only go far but become something much bigger. And so I got in touch, brought the guys together, and, well, the rest is history.
Why did you choose Amsterdam to start and grow your business?
I think it’s essential to be in the middle of the action with any startup, and Amsterdam has already (quite rightly) earned its international reputation as a startup hub. That means there is a higher availability of world-class talent and, to us, talent is the most important thing. On top of all that, there is just a great vibe to this city — a healthy work-life balance, lots going on, and plenty of places to relax with a cold beer at the end of the day. This, along with a strong product and brand, means we are better able to encourage people to move here to work with us.
How are you approaching diversity and inclusion as you build your team?
With plans to grow quicker than ever before diversity is, of course, a topic for us right now. While we have already made steps in the right direction (in the time that it has taken us to get from four to 23 people, we have gone from an all-male team to having a 50/50 gender split), we know that diversity is about more than gender and so we have some more work to do. This starts with an open, frank, and ongoing company-wide conversation. From there, we are deciding which concrete steps to take to make sure that the talk gets translated into everyday action. Because we believe that diversity — be it age, race, sexual orientation, physical ability, ethnicity, or gender identity — makes the workplace a better place, and we want to be part of that.
What has been a recent “win” for your business?
Surprisingly, one of our most recent wins was, not caused by, but revealed to us by the pandemic. Of course, when something completely halts all travel you would expect a travel-based company to be at the top of the list to falter but, while we definitely felt the impact, it also helped us to realise one of our strengths — our travel books. These are the photo books that our users turn their digital travel memories into (including text, travel stats, and their personal map) and despite the fact that people weren’t travelling they continued to order them. It was a heartwarming reminder of the importance of travel, as people were obviously using lockdown to reminisce about past adventures and mentally escape the boredom of lockdown!
What has been a recent “challenge” for your business and what have you learned from it?
Of course, the answer has to be the pandemic. It may be a cliche now but the situation was truly unprecedented, and having travel activity plunge to such extremes was a scary moment in our journey. With far fewer active users on our platform, we had some tough choices to make on what to do next. However, to throw another cliche out there, every cloud has a silver lining, and we were quickly able to find ours. The lack of activity within the app gave us something that startups often lack — time to stand still, outside of the day-to-day stuff, and decide our next step.
For us, it was obvious — we wanted to finally round off our offering. We’ve known for a long time that we wanted to be the all-in-one travel app — this means helping travellers every step of the way. Until now we had only catered to the tracking and reliving of trips but this lull gave us a chance to create something new (and up until recently, secret) to inspire and plan those adventures as well. Polarsteps Guides are a collection of the world’s best travel destinations and insider tips, meant to put the most exciting, glorious, weird, interesting, quirky, adrenaline-filled places and experiences into travellers’ hands (and pockets). Now, when the world is slowly opening its doors again, they are almost ready to launch — and we couldn’t be more thrilled (which is why we created a short teaser video). Watch this space!