Econometrics graduates are often faced with a plethora of overwhelming career options to take up. This time, we set out to gain an insight into the world of Econometrics master students Marten Koole and Geert Oosterbroek, together with Nick Mutsaers as they journey through their startup: Oosterbroek & Koole Consultancy.
To start off, could you give us a brief idea about your company?
Marten: Geert and I founded this company with a mission to make the techniques of data analysis, mathematical optimization, machine learning, and artificial intelligence accessible to everyone and all organizations. Recently, Nick Mutsaers also joined OKC (Oostbroek & Koole Consultancy). We’re a startup in the area of data analysis and mathematical optimization and intend to deliver very high quality and personalized service. That's the core of who we are and what we do.
Geert: It’s also nice to add that the project so far have had a widely different scale and scope, from small projects for student organizations to relatively large companies that employ thousands. You could say that we’re all over the spectrum.
Now moving on to some of the questions. What made you realize that you wanted to set up your own company and why was it specifically consultancy?
Geert: Marten and I collaborated multiple times during our bachelors and noticed that we had an ambition to apply the knowledge that we gained during our econometrics/economics bachelors in practice. We also did some case studies where we got a preview of that. We saw that we could go beyond what was asked of us and apply our quantitative expertise in practice. The next step was putting ourselves out there. While we didn’t have a tangible product to sell, we realized that we could lend our expertise to other companies. That’s how we automatically landed in consulting. In addition, we wanted to gain some experience as entrepreneurs. As students, we could do this at relatively low risk. This means taking on a lot of responsibility. At the same time, we got the satisfaction of executing projects from A to Z and got a lot of insights into all the facets that go into a company, which is very interesting.
For many students, it’s a struggle knowing which field they want to work in. Would you have any tips for students on how to really figure out what’s best suited for us?
Marten: That is a challenging question. We agreed that it’s important to get in touch with different companies to see how they operate and experience the companies’ cultures. This may be a bit more complicated now during the Covid crisis, as in-house days and internships are all online now. Nonetheless, I believe it's very valuable. Nick, Geert and I also did internships and discussed our experiences. This allowed us all to get a feeling about the internships the other two of us were doing, which gives quite a nice insight into these companies and the fields in which they operate. Try to do what you like and talk to friends about how they experienced it. Also, realize that the choices made now do not make or break your career. Hence, if you really don't like what you're doing, there's always a possibility to switch.
Geert: While it's important to think about what you want to be doing, at the same time don’t stress too much about it. If you're confident in your abilities you'll find your place, so make sure to enjoy your time as a student. And, as Marten indicated, if you think you want to do investment banking for example, apply to some summer internships.
Could you describe what a day in your life as a relatively young businessman look like?
Marten: Our business is not that big yet, so it's quite flexible to manage alongside our studies. The three of us have some kind of a pattern that we stick to. For example, we have weekly meetings in which we openly discuss everything related to OKC. Besides that, the workload depends a lot on the amount of projects going on and if we want to update the website and the LinkedIn page. In addition, we need to write some legal documents and keep track of our bookkeeping. We work on such things every week but are flexible in terms of which days and times we work. Finally, I think we both certainly noticed that the amounts of phone calls we had to make increased exponentially since the start of the business. I definitely did not make this many phone calls per day back then.
Geert: It varies a lot over the weeks. If there’s a big project, some of us might have to sacrifice quite some of our time while the others have to take over the overhead of the business.
Seeing what goes on behind running a company, beyond just providing a service, has also been a great insight for us. You need to do marketing, draft legal documents, and manage the website. There’s a whole array of factors that go into running your own startup which are all things that go into our day to day.
Do you feel as though your bachelor’s degree was sufficient in equipping you with the right tools to set up your business?
Geert: I think that the knowledge we gained during our bachelor's is most certainly the foundation of what we do. We learnt the basis of our quantitative expertise and developed a critical way of thinking, which perhaps is even more important than the course material itself. This perspective certainly is something we incorporate in our work. The execution of our projects doesn’t only rely on knowing econometrics, statistics and machine learning. We apply this knowledge in practice, on which there is not much emphasis during our study. For instance, we have to create a software or an application in our projects, which isn’t a skill we learnt during our studies. There’s a lot that needs to be picked up outside of econometrics, but it’s surely an excellent starting point.
Marten: What we also saw during our masters is that there’s still a lot left to learn. After your bachelor’s degree, the basis is there. If you wouldn’t want to pursue a masters but still would like to learn the material, you could still study it independently if you find the right sources. The world of data certainly goes beyond statistical analysis. For instance, there’s also the deployment of machine learning algorithms. You might be able to write the perfect algorithm but to deploy it in practice or to work with a lot of big data sets and manage how you store this data on your own server is quite a challenge. Those are components that are more closely tied to IT than to what’s taught in econometrics so you do have to find your way to work through that.
To what would you attribute your success?
Marten: I think this is a difficult question as we’re not billionaires yet, as you can probably see. But well, success is relative. We've landed some clients and had nice projects. Generally, I think that our success is attributed mainly to a combination of luck and hard work. It’s always a bit of a challenge to get new clients, especially in the beginning. That’s where luck comes in.
Geert: I’ll give an example of what luck entails, as Marten alluded to. We don't have a lot of work experience and lack an extensive professional network. However, we've had instances where one of us knows someone, who knows someone working somewhere who might have something for us. Such connections have brought us new projects.
What are some other challenges that you have faced so far?
Geert: I think the main challenge revolves around the sourcing of new clients. As we don't sell a tangible product but rather our knowledge and expertise, it’s difficult for clients to know that we are knowledgeable in our field. We need to build up a reputation and prove how we stack up versus the competition among the plethora of consultancy firms out there. We do believe that we have our edge, otherwise we wouldn't have started in the first place. We're young, eager to learn, flexible and confident in the skills that we have, but to also convey that to the rest of the world, that’s where the challenge lies.
How has the Covid pandemic affected your business so far or have there been any specific impacts?
Marten: It's difficult to say whether there are very specific impacts, but we believe that there are both threats and opportunities related to the coronavirus for our company. Most importantly, we see that many organizations are a bit more cautious to start new projects or may be tempted to rely on companies that they’re already familiar with.
You’ve already mentioned that an additional person joined your team but are you planning to broaden any further and how so?
Geert: The first step is to expand our customer base and have a steadier flow of projects. Then, we’d want to scale up to some extent. For instance, right now we don't have a designated office space. Especially in these times that's actually not needed too much as we can easily work from home, but it would be nice to have an office eventually. We have some medium to long term goals such as going international with OKC, and we’ve already been in some contact with firms and recruiters abroad. But our primary focus right now is really solidifying the business that we currently have towards a steadier path.
Marten: An advantage of starting early is that we still have 40 or 50 years until we retire. If you look at that time horizon, it would be really nice to have a large consultancy firm in which all three of us may have our own division, for example. But it should be emphasized that the first step is way smaller than that, as Geert indicated. Obviously, building a solid firm that we can actually rely on to gain a steady income is our main priority. It would also be nice to rent some office space, hire an employee or start with one or two interns.
So what final message would you have to share to our fellow econometricians reading this? Any tips or advice that you would like to share?
Geert: Perhaps some good advice for our fellow econometricians is to not undersell yourself and be confident in the skills and abilities that you gain during your studies. Realize that you can make a contribution to the real world. What many of us ask ourselves is “How am I ever going to apply what I learn to the real world?”. What we have seen is that there are things that are logical to us that are not quite as straightforward to people with a less quantitative background. You definitely don’t apply 100% of what you learn, but you should know that whatever you learn now is a massive benefit towards whatever you decide to do afterwards. Also, to perhaps reiterate what I said earlier, do not stress too much about where you end up and just know that econometrics gives you a solid foundation. And the last message, very important to end with, make sure to keep up with us on LinkedIn and check out our website (linked below).
Marten: What I find really motivational is the reactions we get from the clients we work for. Most of them are not econometricians. They’re really surprised by the performance of the algorithms that we can offer. Last week on the phone, I got a remark saying “well for what I'm used to working with, I press the start button, get myself a cup of coffee and once I’m back the computer is already done. But for you guys that just isn't the case. I cannot even get out of my chair because it's done.” In another optimization project, we considered millions or maybe even billions of possible solutions to a planning problem. Before, they made a planning by hand and considered only one schedule. It was really gratifying to see their reaction that this is actually possible within minutes.
Thank you Marten Koole and Geert Oosterbroek for sharing your experiences and advice with us!