ND Founders Profile #43: A Coding Prodigy at Age Seven, this FouNDer Is Taking the Netherlands’ Retail Food Market Online

Author: Melanie Lux

Facebook Web Nd Founders Eric Klaassen Eric Klaassen (MBA, class of 2006) co-founded Crisp in 2018


Company Founded: Crisp Year Graduated: 2006
Title: Co-Founder Degree: M.B.A.
Location: Amsterdam, Netherlands Residence Hall: Off Campus

As a young child growing up in the Netherlands, Eric Klaassen wanted to start his own restaurant. He had a name and was literally creating order lists for forks and spoons when he discovered a new passion: computers. At the age of seven, he taught himself how to code and found that building things in a digital world fit his precocious personality.

“Toys bored me, but computers…the pace of developing and the ability to expose a new concept to the rest of the world within seconds was something I found—and still find—amazing,” he says.

During his undergraduate years at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, Klaassen launched a comparison site for dating sites. At the time, there were about 200 different places to find a partner online in The Netherlands. He did everything on his own, from design and marketing to coding and administration. The website was a success and led to other digital enterprises, including a comparison site for summer holidays and a subscription commerce site for pet food. He eventually launched a strategy consulting firm, which provided valuable insight of how businesses work.

Says Klaassen, “I cannot imagine a better start of my career. In general, I have always believed businesses stand out because they have really great products and service; as opposed to those that focus on efficiency and low prices. I prefer working on creating maximal value for customers.”

Klaassen also enhanced his business know-how—and an appreciation for rural America—by earning a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from the Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business. He learned of the program through his alma mater, Vrije Universiteit, which has a relationship with Notre Dame.

“When I arrived at Notre Dame, I quickly formed a tight bond with my fellow MBA students and together we discovered the particularities of South Bend. People in Amsterdam who know Notre Dame will mostly know it for its reputation in sports, especially American football. What I discovered, in addition to an excellent business school, was a different America, more rural than the metropolitan life that is usually portrayed in media,” he says.

Fast forward to 2018 and Klaassen, now with a family, noticed something paradoxical about the food industry: good food is hard to get, while bad food is easy to get. While the Netherlands produced a diverse abundance of food, much of it was exported. An idea to create a company that offered immediate access to high quality foods began to percolate in his mind.

“We wanted to make it easy for people to get high quality, locally grown and produced food virtually on demand. High quality and high convenience became the core of our value proposition and ultimately the basis for Crisp,” he explains.

Klaassen describes Crisp as a two-sided marketplace where supply and demand come together in a new digital domain with carefully curated offerings. The Crisp team follows strict guidelines per category to select the farmers, bakers, and makers who can deliver the quality its customers love and expect. Conversely, Crisp gives producers access to a much larger customer base and a platform where they can build a loyal following of fans of their unique products.

Crisp’s promise of next-day delivery of online orders sets a high bar for customer service, but it’s a bar the Klaassen has stacked the deck to win by leveraging his deep digital experience. The company combines house-built software with an operational setup that is not reliant on maintaining a heavy inventory. Meticulous tracking keeps products moving in and out rapidly. The end result is customers receive fresh products and the company avoids food waste.

Customer response to Crisp has been overwhelmingly positive. The brand’s super fans send photos, letters, and messages on WhatsApp every day expressing delight. Klaassen calls the Crisp brand “soulful” and one customers happily relate to and actively recruit others. The power of word-of-mouth advocacy has fueled the company’s growth organically since inception. Little is spent on paid marketing.

Like other online retailers, Crisp has benefitted from the COVID-19 lockdown. Many new customers traded in-store shopping for the safety of Crisp’s digital platform. Klaassen admits the pandemic-fueled growth was more than anyone anticipated and somewhat of a challenge.

“We had to quickly scale our total operations. Fortunately, right before the pandemic started, we moved to a bigger warehouse that could accommodate the increase in volume. This was sheer luck, but still we needed to get all hands on deck to make sure our customer’s orders where fulfilled in the right way.”

In just two short years, Crisp has grown to more than 250 employees, impressive growth for a startup by any measure. However, Klaassen considers the biggest win to be the thousands of customers—and growing daily—who get their weekly groceries with Crisp and not just for special occasions. “That is the best compliment we can get,” he says.

Klaassen predicts a bright future for Crisp. “We believe customer demand for fresh, healthy, convenient, and transparently sourced food will only grow stronger. Today’s fragmented value chain in food retail will be disrupted by customer demand for trust and quality, and a push from technology that will redistribute margin across the new chain. That is what Crisp has set out to do and the market response is very positive.”

Reflecting on his company’s success, Klaassen credits his people. “A small team with a good combination of skills and shared values is able to beat a much larger team that lacks these characteristics. Nothing is more important than creating a culture based on autonomy and responsibility with a strong growth mindset. Good personal relations, business ethics, and trust are the foundation for any good business.” 

Klaassen offers this advice to those considering starting a company. “There is a high value in having a strong educational foundation and learning how to work in another company before starting your own venture. Find out what type of company suits you best by speaking with other entrepreneurs and continuously use your curious mindset to find out why things are the way they are, and then challenge that by finding where there is room for optimization. Use your analytical capacities to determine whether there is true market potential. If there is, let nothing hold you back from starting today.”