Bas Urlings | The Atypical Ecommerce Entrepreneur

You got into business for yourself to gain freedom and enjoy life. But then you get busy… and it never ends. 

It is possible to travel or do whatever else brings you joy, while still running a profitable ecommerce business, says Bas Urlings. In today’s connected world it’s easier than ever. 

Bas has a virtual team. But to truly achieve the financial and time freedom you want, that’s just the start of the changes you have to make to your business model and mindset.

We get into all the details, including…

  • The best research tools to figure out what products to sell online
  • Practical ways to mix travel with running your ecommerce site
  • The most overlooked and undervalued element of ecommerce
  • Dos and don’ts of working with a business partner
  • The importance of sticking to your core values

Listen now…

Mentioned in this episode:

Episode Transcript:

Joris Bryon: Hey, this is Joris of the Ecommerce Excellence Podcast and today I’m really excited to talk to Bas Urlings. It’s hard to summarize what Bas does in just a few sentences, but I’ll give it a try. He’s an avid traveler and an entrepreneur. And he calls himself the entrepreneur of flip flops, which I really like. He runs a few ecommerce businesses, was a winner of the fastest growing cross border ecommerce company in the Netherlands in 2018. 

But, above all, he’s very passionate about running a business without having to sacrifice the joys in your life. And as an example, he traveled around the world for two years while he was running his ecommerce businesses. So for those who want to have their cake and eat it, too, well, stay tuned, because I’m sure you’ll learn a lot today. Bas, welcome to the podcast. Great to have you here.

Bas Urlings: Yeah, thanks Joris. Thanks for having me.

Joris: Cool. Yeah, let’s get started. I’d love for you to tell about your story. Tell a bit more about your background. How did you get started in ecommerce? How did you end up at this point?

How Bas Became a Digital Nomad

Bas: Yeah, well, I grew up in the side of the Netherlands. And I was 17 and moved to Harlem for a technical study called Business Engineering. And while I was like finishing the engineering degree, I started my first ecommerce company, and actually, it was in wine. So this was maybe 15 years ago. So it was the early days of the internet. I had a business partner and we started very small. 

There was a wine shop, and next to the wine shop, there was a little post office and we installed a printer actually in the wine shop so people could design their own label online. So you could upload a photo, put text on it, and then you could ship the bottle of wine with a custom label. That was my first internet business actually. But yeah, after that, it ended up in a little fight with this business partner, and then actually I opened a real brick and mortar store in Utrecht. That’s a city in the Netherlands. 

Joris: A beautiful city by the way. 

Bas: Yeah, it’s a beautiful city. Definitely. And yeah, there was a brick and mortar store called Tours and Gifts. And I had a workshop with it as well. And every day I would walk like to the post office from the store because it wasn’t the middle of the center with all the parcels are were ordered online. So it was a very nice experience for me. And I was, yeah, I was still pretty young and Utrecht is a nice city also to drink a few beers, etc. So that was very nice. But yeah, after that the crisis came in 2008 and we had to close the store. And I actually moved on with another business partner to build out the original webshop of the brick and mortar store. 

And we did that. And I built many many niche webshops as well. Like, we went into the iPhone accessories like the cables, earphones, all these kind of stuff, cases. And so I made many niche webshops for that as well until I had another fight with this business partner and that ended up in court. So that wasn’t really a nice experience. So and this low brought me back to my kitchen table, and I was still renovating. I bought a two-floor apartment in Utrecht, actually. It was built in the mid-30s. And I was renovating it myself. 

So I stripped down the whole place myself and I built everything myself from like electronics. Everything I did myself. So I was on the kitchen table in this kind of mess and I didn’t have that much money at the time. So I started over with 300 euros and I started importing, yeah, it’s called a samurai watch. I don’t know if you know it but it’s a kind of like watch which displays the numbers and big LED. Yeah, numbers on your, as a watch. 

Okay, it’s not that I opened a new show for it as well and it starts selling and then yeah, yeah, I grew that storage side too and I start selling everything and nothing so I just imported everything I could sell and then at some point it had a lot of traction and I was selling a lot of stuff. And then I started I rented a little office hired six players you call this trainees like when you do an internship? Yeah. Yeah. 

So and like, ping pong table. Is that an English word? Yep. Yeah. and stuff like that. So was very nice. And from there on, I grew a bit more till Yeah, till the point is this business was kind of running smoothly, and I had a few people working at who could run it. And then I decided to travel. Yeah, that was my dream. I really wanted to travel Before I would have kits, so yeah, we took a one way trip to Moscow and they were started and we traveled around the world for two years. 

So yeah, that was my big goal. And after the trip came back, and nowadays we have three kids, so yeah, not anymore. And but still traveling a little with the kids. But yeah, the oldest one is getting is turning into five in a few months. And then they have to go to school. But yeah, there are ways to still travel. But yeah, that’s my story in a nutshell.

Joris:  Yeah. Well, cool. I love your story because it shows that there’s a lot of things are possible at the same time. I mean, you can build your business, you can enjoy your life, and that’s really great. But before we go on about your story, one of the things that struck me in what you mentioned now is that you have business partners twice, and that didn’t really end well. 

I know a lot of people who well, who might be considering taking a business partner on board or who have troubles with a business partner or, what’s your experience? Would you still do that? Or is there any advice that you can give to people who are thinking about starting something with a business partner?

What Does a Suitable Business Partner Look Like?

Bas: Yeah, well, my, I obviously had a few bad experiences with business partners. And it’s very important that you don’t have the same skill set because then you will argue about everything. So you need different skill sets in order to, yeah, then you have two pieces of the puzzle you can put together. I also always say, never start a business with family or friends. Because when it grows, it will most of the time it ends up in a fight and after a few years, you’re not friends anymore. 

But yeah, it’s obviously hard to tell because I also have some examples from friends who have business partners. They have a great relationship and also build big businesses together. But also it’s the same as a relationship if you’re married, you know? You have to do it together. And obviously, sometimes you fight, but you still have to love each other. But at the end in business that most of the time it ends in a fight and ending the business or whatever.

Joris: Yeah, I mean, I can relate to that. I used to have a business partner as well. And I think what he’s saying about the skill set, I think that’s right. Another thing that I would say is, and it’s hard to say that I mean, or to find out, but if you kind of want to have the same level of commitment to the business. And that’s, if you’re both equally committed to it and really want to make it work, now, then there’s a higher chance of succeeding with a business partner. If you feel like one of the two and that usually is the case one of the two is less committed to it, then it is, yeah, I think it’ll end up bad.

Bas: Yeah, that’s a very good point. I wanted the business partners and I told him my dream is always to travel around the world and just keep my business running. And when you would be my business partner, and I would say that to you, you say, Okay, yeah, then you cannot travel, I pay your salary and do nothing. So if you do it 100% for yourself, then yeah, these possibilities are? Yeah, they’re there.

Joris: Yeah, absolutely. So you sold quite a lot of different kinds of products. You had a lot of niche stores. How do you decide which products you’re going to sell?

Bas: Yeah, good question. We started selling a lot of different kinds of stuff in many different categories. And at one point, we obviously were testing 100 new products a month. And yeah, obviously, you have a lot of data online. So you have Google Trends, but also you have, I did also for instance, on AliExpress, I sorted like the most selling products. 

Or you can do some research on Amazon and you have many tools that would give you the right data that will show you if there is a market for it. And yeah, so you had all these data points you connect them together and then we start selling it and then we would put it on bol.com or Amazon and see if it will sell well on there as well. And most of it we tested actually on bol.com because it’s a small marketplace, it’s a bit easier to sell on Amazon. 

And once it starts selling then we started doing deals with daily deal sites and auction sites. You know, like Groupon is a big partner. We do business with them in eight countries. But there is a, then we started doing deals there with the products or bestselling on these platforms. And then you see that the traction is coming. So yeah, I think at the highest volume months maybe we did 80,000 orders in that month.

Joris: Yeah. So when you say you tested 100 products, that means you actually put them on bol.com and you see what happens or do you have other ways of testing where it’s going to work out or not?

Bas: We just start with small amounts. Just yeah, we buy 100 products and maybe between 10 and 100 each, put them on bol.com and see if it works. Try to make some deals with it and then, yeah, buy more and sell more. 

Joris: Okay. Yeah, cool. Okay, so back to the type of entrepreneur you are and traveling and stuff. And I promise I won’t go into all the countries that you’ve been, although I’d love to but this is an ecommerce podcast. So I’d love to talk travel, but that’s going to be after the recording probably. What triggered you to become this kind of entrepreneur, instead of the typical entrepreneur that puts in like, a lot of hours?

Bas: I was maybe 14,15 years old, and I had a like maybe one or two years that a lot of people died, and that made an impression on me. So I started thinking where is this life about? And yeah, the time is limited what we have on this planet and why would you even waste that many hours on your work, if you will die at the end? I mean dying rich is even still poor. Just by the time and I defined it for myself that I want to spend as much as possible with my friends and my family and then doing adventures with these people. 

So that is at the end, what I was aiming for. And yeah, I think you need a lot of freedom to do that,  that you can enjoy the most because yeah. And also, the generations are so different. You know, you see our parents, they had very different lives than we have and different opportunities. And the internet opening up so many opportunities and yeah, I took them and created the freedom I wanted to travel and have adventures with family and friends. Yeah.

Joris: Yeah. I really like that because at the age of 14 or 15 having that kind of realization, that’s enormous. I mean, most people think about it well, when they retire or are really sick or something else happens in their life at a later age, or they look back at their, yeah, wasted years in their career. So that’s a, yeah, that’s really cool. So can you tell me a bit about what businesses you run right now?

What Bas is up to Right Now

Bas: You mean the current business? Well, yeah, we’re actually in a kind of transition right now. Because I was selling many different things. And at one point, we had more than 2000 SKUs. And like an inventory level of around a million euros and I was scratching on my head. I thought How am I going to sell all this stuff? So obviously, that is a big, big problem in ecommerce I think if you have this inventory. It’s that this inventory management is very undervalued, and it’s very important to have a healthy business. 

So, yeah, some of my energy was also leaking on the product we were selling because it was just simply buying stuff from China and sell it in Europe for a little more. And I did technical study. I’m an engineer, so I always, yeah, was my dream to develop my own product and sell that one all over the world. So right now actually, I’m in the process of building brands. And we started with the first brand more than a year ago. And it took off very well because we were already bestseller in Germany with it. And it’s a bicycle accessory brand, and I really liked that process. 

So right now I’m making the product better based on the reviews, based on our own experience. And, yeah, in my perfect world, I have a very simple business with three to five products where I sell all over the world and I could sell to the same customer. So that makes Yeah, that makes it so much simpler because yeah, I had at one point, I had 30 people here in the office doing around 7 million revenue. It was so stressful, you know? I always say the best entrepreneurs are the worst managers and I’m one of them. 

You know, I hate managing people and at one point I hired a CEO. I thought okay then I can have more freedom but in the end, he didn’t do the job that good. So I had to fire him, cost a lot of money and, yeah. Very stressful period to eventually fire everyone literally. I have one guy left and he’s managing the virtual team right now. And that game, I really love. It makes me so light and it makes me so feel in control. You’re so in control when your virtual team because you pay them for what they do. And if they’re not doing it right, you find someone else. I really love that concept.

Joris: Yeah, and you only have to talk to one person. And that’s it. Yeah, good thinking. How did that go? I mean, downsizing a team of 30 people. Did you do it all at once or was it gradually? 

The Skillset of Firing

Bas: Yeah, it was gradually. I wish I could do it all at once. But yeah, you know, you have running contracts and it obviously costs a lot of money to pay them off. But yeah, so I just like started firing people and we had our own logistics as well. So there were maybe eight to 10 people working in the warehouse. And we started there through sorting that out. So that was the first like, 10 people leaving the office and then yeah, just one by one. And I fired them or I gave them other opportunities or give them a chance to leave.

Joris: Wow. That must have been a really hard time.

Bas: Yeah, definitely was. It was very stressful. And that’s the reason why I really appreciate this, yeah, where I’m kind of moving into right now with this virtual team. One guy managing it. And I mean, the biggest lesson is that you need to be flexible, but you need to be flexible to grow but also to scale down. And maybe that one is even more important then to grow. Because everyone can hire people and put a lot of people in an office or hire them. But firing is a different skill set you need.

Joris: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s not an easy skillset to have. Over how many months did that go? That downsizing? Because I’m trying to imagine the day to day like, okay, you coming into the office, people know that they’re going to get fired, probably. I guess so. That must have been like, a really difficult situation that you want to keep as short as possible.

Bas: Yeah, you want to be that as short as possible, but this whole transition to more than a year. Yeah, Okay.

Joris: Oh, wow. Probably the hardest year you had.

Bas: At one point, you know, I’m always on kilter. You know, I really like when guys having fun and doing nice things in the office and laughing, but yeah, at this point, no one was laughing anymore. And yeah, I mean, that makes it a little hard to have enough energy to go to the office. So

Joris: Yeah. But yeah. Anyway, I mean, you have the end goal in mind, and then you just have to go for it. So, let’s go back to the fun part, running a business while traveling. What’s the hardest part of doing that?

Difficulties of Running a Business While Traveling

Bas: Yeah, at the end, it’s all about people and trust. So yeah, that is you have to trust the people whether in the office, and you need at least one very good guy or manager who runs the business that will let you make profit and that you still can pay your salary while you’re traveling. And that happened. So I was very fortunate to, yeah, to make it happen. 

Joris: Yeah. So you didn’t really have to work every day because someone was responsible in the office.

Bas: Yeah, yeah. I was traveling on my laptop and yeah, obviously just want to refresh the dashboard to see if the curve is still going up. But yeah, that is but yeah, I was doing some things, obviously. while I was traveling, but most of all the operations were handled. Yeah, I was not involved in it.

Joris: Yeah. Cool. So just on a practical level, how many hours a day or a week did you work while traveling?

Bas: Yeah, I think it differs. I think when we had like good numbers and good deals running, etc, then I would work less and ever feel a little bit of pressure to make more revenue than I would work a little more.

Joris: Yeah I mean it depends of course. It’s probably not going to be one average for the two years you were traveling. I get that. What are the practical things that I’m thinking of? Like, okay, so you’re the boss. What would you say like, hey, screw this. I’m off for two years. I’m going to travel. People stay behind in the office. How do you motivate your team to, well, keep working? Because I can imagine for them, it’s like, he’s off. He’s traveling. He’s having fun. He’s making the money and we’re here working. How do you handle that?

Bas: Yeah, well I’ll tell you two stories by that because I had one guy working for me and he just finished his studies and he was very motivated to run the business. And like, he had almost no holidays for these two years I was traveling and arranging a lot of stuff. Even he moved the office three times while I was traveling to other locations and so that, he was just the best man in the business and he was running it effectively while I was away. And I had another guy working for me and he thought the same. He did oh, what Bas is doing, I could do this well, you know? He is running a business and traveling. 

Ah, I want to try it as well. This guy ended up stealing from me for like products. He took them home trying to start his own business. And like, I had someone gave me a tape on Facebook. Hey, Bas, this guy is living at my place and he’s trying to sell all your products. This is not good. So yeah, then the whole circus started, you know? Yeah, to go to the police and fire him and all this kind of stuff while I was in Korea. Yeah, I had to call these other guys. Are you in days as well? Because yeah, it could be that they’re both started for themselves.

Joris: Yeah. Good thinking.

Bas: Yeah, but that wasn’t the case. So he helped. He really helped me a lot to settle this down. And, yeah, this guy came to the office on Monday with a few boxes and he could leave. Yeah,

Joris: Yeah, well, okay. It’s normal. I mean, it well that they’re stealing that’s not normal. But I mean, if you’re away for two years, stuff like that can happen and you have to handle it from a distance. But I’m just trying to imagine that moment where you announced it in the company. Like, Hey, guys, I’m going away for two years. How did that go?

Bas: Yeah, it was always my dream. So I think I was talking about it more often. And that’s Yeah, so this guy, he really saw it as an opportunity to. And I really think that he grew like, a lot in these two years. I think he learned the most while I was away because he had to figure it out all himself. And yeah, I really believe that you then grow the best. When I would be there I would say alright, do like this. Do it like that. Do it, but yeah, he just figured it out himself. And that’s why he learned a lot in these two years.

Joris: Yeah, that’s the thing. You gave him a great opportunity to learn and evolve and probably learn more in two years than he would otherwise learn in I don’t know, five years. So that’s, if you’re smart enough to see that opportunity, then, yeah, it can end well. So for people who want to have your lifestyle, want to do this too, what would your advice be? Because where do they start? I mean, I can imagine that a lot of people think that it’s out of their reach. But it probably isn’t. I’d say it probably starts with a mindset. 

But I’ve been speaking to a lot of people who were inspired by the Four Hour Workweek. And then everyone at the same time says like, yeah, it’s nice, but it’s just, I mean, it’s never going to be a four-hour workweek. It’s always going to be a lot of work. I know where do people, what advice would you have for people who want to start this kind of lifestyle?

Bas: You were mentioning it obviously starts with the right mindset. I think you have to think big, instead of small. Some people think okay, we started little, small little business and then you could live off it. But you have to think big when you start. When you would start over again, I would just, like figure out what I really wanted to sell or do. And in my case, it’s selling physical products, but it could be anything else on the internet. And then find the expert in this particular niche or whatever it is. And buy a course or go and do mastermind. 

You know, I always say when you’re the smartest guy in the room, you’re in the wrong room. So you need to find people who are smarter than you and then learn from them and grow. And that’s how I did it. Yeah, and very important thing is that people, like they maybe try it besides their day job to start a business. And it, I mean, the easiest thing is to give up. Let’s be honest. When you start it after a few months, it’s not working, I give up. 

But then with this mindset, you will never get there. So it will be hard. It will be tough. You will have maybe no money in your business. Maybe you’re losing money in the first year or first half-year. And it’s very tough to start from scratch and from nothing and build something big, you know? It’s very hard, but yeah, if you never give up you will, you even have a bigger chance of getting there than if you give up. 

Joris: Yeah. Totally agree. I mean, was wrong about the Four Hour Workweek, whenever I’m talking someone it’s that people sometimes think like, it’s going to be like that from the beginning. No. It’s probably going to be like a 60 or 80-hour workweek at first to end up maybe at a four-hour workweek. And, yeah, I mean, it takes a lot of effort to get to that point. And as you say, just keep going. And yeah, never give up. What’s like, the biggest mistake you made?

Bas: The biggest mistake I made is stepping away from my core values, you know? Starting my business, and my core value was being a digital nomad. And like a kind of free entrepreneur who could travel all over the world. And I came back traveling, the business grew pretty quick. Like, yeah, we were the fastest-growing across all the ecommerce companies in the Netherlands in 2018. I had 30 people in the office then. While I had that, I thought, okay, is this what I really want? 

Because, yeah, I mean, it’s a lot of headache when you have 30 people to manage. So it was not part of my core values. So what I’m doing right now building this virtual team, and that is one of my core values, because I love to travel and have this freedom and running the business. So you have to stay very close to your core values and also define them. So yeah, I define a little more my core values and you just have to live through these core values, you know, that you are sure that you are living with them.

Joris: Yeah. No, I think that’s true. That’s really great advice because it’s probably something a lot of entrepreneurs can relate to. They start off with a really great idea, with a great vision to, well, usually it’s about some lifestyle they want. Is it a lot of money, a lot of freedom? But then five years and they look back and they’re like, Oh, fuck, I’m like right now. It’s not what I envisioned so many years ago. 

So I think it just, it creeps in at some point. You start making, I don’t know, yeah, some adjustments to what you’re doing and at one point your way out of, yeah, out of initial thoughts that you had and the vision you had. So I think that’s really, really, really great advice. Hey Bas, I think this is great to end with because we could probably go on for hours. But yeah, we’re running out of time and I just want to make sure that people know how they can find you. What’s the best place for people to find you?

Bas: Well, I have a personal page gold burlings.nl. And there they can find out more about me that I also run a kind of place where I sell e courses to sell more on Amazon or bol.com called plazatalk.nl. But my business where I sell the products is called Disqount International, and Disquont is with a Q. So you can also go to Disqounts with a Q dot nl. And I’m very active on LinkedIn so you can look me up for Bas Urlings on LinkedIn.

Joris: Alright, cool. Thank you so much for being here Bas. It’s been absolutely great.

Bas: Yeah, thanks a lot for having me.