Elvire Jaspers of WeAreBrain tells us about a multi-national technology company, and digital agency.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Elvire Jaspers: Thanks for asking. I must say, I have been very lucky so far, as my husband and I have been well and healthy. This has been a real blessing.
Also, we haven’t got any children, so working from home has been a lot easier than some of my colleagues who have to combine homeschooling with work commitments. Overall, I haven’t been impacted as much as a lot of people around me.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded WeAreBrain.
Elvire Jaspers: I’m the co-founder and CEO of WeAreBrain, a multi-national technology company and digital agency group headquartered in Amsterdam, with offices in Kyiv and Cape Town. I’ve been working in the tech industry for over 20 years and have been involved in several ventures, including a start-up in the beauty sector, which was sold in 2017.
WeAreBrain is a child of war. In 2014, Russian troops invaded Ukraine. Back then, Mario and Jack had already been talking about how to fund a new breed of company in the technology and digital consultancy space. Their dream was to create an environment built upon values that hadn’t been seen before in this industry. When the Russian tanks crossed the border, Mario and Jack helped our colleagues and their families escape the war. Soon after, they asked me to join forces with them. This was the start of WeAreBrain. Since then, it has evolved into something bigger than we had imagined.
I’ve also been included in the Dutch TheNextWomen100, an annual list featuring the 100 most successful female entrepreneurs in the Netherlands. And I’m also part of the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women Europe, an executive education program for a select group of founders.
How does WeAreBrain innovate?
Elvire Jaspers: We enable clients to create and execute successful strategies and end-to-end solutions for their digital transformation: from customer-centric design and marketing services to custom software engineering and intelligent enterprise automation. Our biggest strengths lie in e-commerce, SaaS, and marketplace solutions and in the field of AI and Data Science.
We believe it’s not technology but people that drive successful digital projects. This is why we choose a human-centered approach for our business and put the individual and the team back into the center of the action.
Culture and values are also a big part of how we work as an agency. Our internal culture is based on trust, transparency, and unlimited personal and professional growth. We invest in these principles not in word but in deed. We’re also big on ownership – in our work and in our business – that’s why each member of our team has shares in our business.
Finally, we have championed the cause of female empowerment and gender diversity in our business. We are passionate about seeing more women in leadership positions and more women break into the tech field. So, we have put intense effort and focus on gender diversity within the company, persistently promoting female leadership. You will not find a pay gap at WeAreBrain.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business, and how are you coping?
Elvire Jaspers: One week into the first lockdown, we had already lost 30% of our business. However, this was also when others saw their revenue evaporate by 80, 90, and sometimes even 100%. Approaching the end of the year, we somehow managed to crawl back from that initial punch in the face and beat our own 2019 revenue record by almost 10%.
Having been founded during a war somehow equipped us as a company to face adversity. There is definitely a lot of determination and resilience in us. We focused our efforts on supporting our existing business partners as much as humanly possible and advanced our plans to create and launch new digital service offerings into the market.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Elvire Jaspers: Against all odds (and maybe against any common commercial sense), we decided early on to stick to our guns and continue to stay true to our values and mission. We have always believed that our business has been a success because of the people who work with us daily.
We decided against forced lay-offs and salary cuts and doubled down on our initiatives to hire new talent and keep our existing team and client base intact, focused, and healthy. Also, we decided early on not to take any government support since we firmly believe that: a. other sectors and industries needed this money more than us and, b. situations like these are part of the inherent risk we take as entrepreneurs starting and running our own company.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Elvire Jaspers: Aside from the tools that everyone has become accustomed to in the past few months, like Slack which we use as our main communication channel, and Zoom for our team meetings, we truly believe that management skills and the shift to a ‘crisis leadership’ style helped us to get through this pandemic. I can point out 5 crucial management skills:
1. Being transparent
During times of crisis, nobody wants to feel left behind or inconsequential. It was crucial to adopt complete transparency from the ground-up to gain a sense of the ‘we’re all in this together’ style of teamwork.
2. Being decisive
Good and bad information flows quickly during times of uncertainty. It’s important to cancel out the background noise of unverified rumours and focus on the cold, hard facts to get a handle on the situation.
3. Being ready, nobody could always have predicted the ravaging social and economic disruption on a global scale caused by COVID-19. This was a big lesson for everyone about how important crisis leadership is and that’s it’s not a ‘nice-to-have’ for many leaders out there.
4. Being inspiring
During times of crisis, people turn to their leaders to safely guide them through uncertainty. Your job is to listen to them. When employees feel like their voices are being heard, especially amid a crisis, their willingness to go above and beyond what is required to mitigate the negative effects of a disaster will be bolstered.
5. Being adaptable
Adaptability is one of our core brand values. As leaders in the technology field, we know that those who anticipate disruptions take an early advantage in charting a new course to overcome obstacles, rather than trying old approaches to meet new challenges. We have learned to view these disruptions as new opportunities. With this mindset, we can adapt actively to change rather than reactively.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Elvire Jaspers: We don’t look much at the competition at all. We primarily try to listen to our customers. They often live in the here-and-now, and it’s our task to support them with our knowledge, skills, and expertise.
We also have always tried to build a diverse environment. As the 3 founders, we come from different backgrounds, countries, and ages. More than 50% of our senior team is female; we have 10 different nationalities in the office and consider every employee equal in terms of opportunities. With our Ukrainian office, we also have better access to talent and advantageous market rates compared to our competitors here in the Netherlands.
We believe we have been successful because we were able to build a great team around the values and philosophies that attract and retain our Brainiacs. Despite our size, we manage to maintain flat hierarchies, and our teams are high-performing and self-organized. That makes us deliver exceptional results to our customers. We are the living example of the fact that the whole brain is greater than the sum of its parts.
Quite frankly, we don’t know how 2021 will pan out, but we wouldn’t be who we are if we would just let a crisis go to waste. We’ll continue to further our agency group ambitions with the launch of 4 new labels in 2021, one of which is already live: Solving, our new design label.
On top of that, our marketing team will be launching a book on Artificial Intelligence written for company executives and entrepreneurs who want to understand and learn how to get started with this revolutionary technology.
Your final thoughts?
Elvire Jaspers: Despite enormous odds and incredible circumstances, we have been blessed by the success we have had so far. Aside from building cool and innovative tech (which is what we love doing), we also feel the need and the overwhelming responsibility to give something back. We would like to leave the world a better place than we found it and create a company that will outlast its founders.
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