Podcast Digital Leadership: Jeremiah Albinus (fonQ)

20 October 2021

Newpeople has interviewed a number of digital leaders in a series of podcasts, in search of the true meaning of this. In every podcast, the unique story of a digital leader is at the forefront.

Jeremiah Albinus – CEO at fonQ


Podcast

From the REM Island in Amsterdam, Newpeople is on the hunt for digital leadership, my name is Hanneke Rinkes.

The digital world demands a different kind of leadership. We live in turbulent times and the coronavirus pandemic has only served to increase the pressure. Just waiting around is not an option. Why is digital leadership so different to leadership as we know it? Why give it a special name? Make no mistake, it is not because everything is going online now. If that were the case, every leader would be classified as a digital leader.

As a step in Newpeople’s journey to find digital leadership, I’m talking to Jeremiah Albinus. Jeremiah Albinus is CEO of home webshop fonQ. After starting out as an intern, Jeremiah climbed the ladder to CEO in just fourteen years. The Telegraaf fittingly calls it a business fairytale. Particularly because with Jeremiah as its leader, the company is making a profit again for the first time in seven years. Jeremiah, welcome, nice to have you here at the REM island.

Jeremiah: “Thank you, and thank you for inviting me, it’s great to be here. What a wonderful location.”

Hanneke: “We always start this podcast with the digital dilemmas segment which involves me presenting you with ten dilemmas that you have to choose between. Here we go, CMO or CEO?”

Jeremiah: “CEO.”

Hanneke: “Interior or exterior?”

Jeremiah: “Interior.”

Hanneke: “Homeware boulevard or home webshop?” 

Jeremiah: “Home webshop.”

Hanneke: “Ikea or designer furniture?”

Jeremiah: “Designer furniture.”

Hanneke: “Track record or potential?”

Jeremiah: “Potential.”

Hanneke: “Sabbatical or signing on for an additional seven years?”

Jeremiah: “Signing on.”

Hanneke: “Connector or facilitator.”

Jeremiah: “Connector.”

Hanneke: “Giving or receiving feedback?” 

Jeremiah: “Receiving feedback.”

Hanneke: “Amazon or Bol.com?”

Jeremiah: “Bol.com.”

Hanneke: “Data or intuition?”

Jeremiah: “Data-driven intuition.”

Hanneke: “To start off with the first dilemma: CEO or CMO. Like I said, you being made CEO has been called a business fairytale, since you started out as an intern thirteen years ago. Later you became CEO after having been CMO of fonQ, how did you do that?”

Jeremiah: “By continually reinventing myself and trying to get everything out of my surroundings that I possibly could. A long journey preceded that. The quote that we used a lot in the organisation when online demand increased after Covid is “luck happens when preparation meets opportunity.” That’s also applicable to my career, there was a leadership challenge where they were looking for someone in the marketing field or where they were looking for someone as general director and at those moments I happened to be ready. That’s luck, it certainly plays a role.”

Hanneke: “But you did immediately execute.”

Jeremiah: “Yes I did act on the luck immediately and I’ve worked with a lot of great people in my career who have taught me a lot and who helped me build up the organisation. I also think that my connection with the organisation and the leadership within it, ensured that I was able to take on that kind of role.”

Hanneke: “Because you actually wanted to take a sabbatical right, what made you decide to stay after all when they asked you “do you want to be the CEO”?”

Jeremiah: “The reason for my sabbatical was that I had been marketing director at fonQ for 4.5 years and at some point you start seeing a cycle, you’ve done everything at least once by that point. As marketing director, it’s nice to have worked with a variety of advertising and media agencies, it’s nice to be able to put together your own team, to be able to combine on and offline and to be able to apply the digital skill set yourself in category management. So I felt that I had seen everything which was the reason for me to take a sabbatical. But also because I saw that the strategy that we had drawn up together a couple of years back was showing regression which made me realise that perhaps it wasn’t my place, but someone else’s place to challenge that. Then I was asked for the role of CEO and of course that was an offer that would have been difficult to refuse. Not even necessarily because of the role itself because it has never been my dream to be a CEO, it was my dream to be the best marketeer with a digital background so I thought that was very cool. But, I’m also so enamoured with fonQ and the potential it brings with it to become category leader in home & living because I really think fonQ can do that. To ensure that we really make a difference with our shop proposition when it comes to both interior and exterior, but mainly interior. The potential is still there, it just needs to become clearer. But who would harness that potential? I thought I was a suitable candidate to take on that challenge.”

Hanneke: “And you decided not to do the sabbatical? And sign on for an additional seven years?”

Jeremiah: “No I didn’t sign on for another seven years, maybe I will do a sabbatical in seven years time, only time will tell. I definitely think it would be interesting to take one at some point in my career. I think it’s a good thing for anyone to do, particularly when you’ve worked at one company for a long time, so you can reflect and look back. What also played a role was Corona. Taking a sabbatical was, practically speaking, travelling and exploring the world. That became impossible. I had already decided to stay on at fonQ a little longer as marketing director and then this came along.”

Hanneke: “So this was simply a great opportunity?”

Jeremiah: “Yes, it was an opportunity.”

Hanneke: “Was it difficult for you to lead people that used to be your peers or maybe even people that you did your internship with?”

Jeremiah: “That’s not something I’ve typically struggled a lot with in my career. Of course it’s a bit scary when you have to lead people who might be ten, fifteen, twenty years your senior or who have a totally different background and different experiences to you or who have seen more of the world. You also lead those kinds of profiles. Ever since I was a teenager, I have always taken initiative. It was visible already when I was promoted from stock clerk to the leader of the stock crew. My career in the supermarket, but also my time in a student association where I took a lot of initiative to develop new things and do new things, and of course also within fonQ. I always start out with an idea, a concept, a goal, but never a hierarchical model where we look for who will be the leader and who does what. We always start out by working on an idea, looking for (in modern terms) a moonshot or a behack, which used to have a different name but essentially comes down to a cool idea that we all support. How will we achieve it, this is the goal, let’s go. Usually I’m one of the people that challenges the most, meaning that I automatically start to lead. But, that’s definitely not always the case, sometimes I also see other people rise up and take the lead in certain aspects. That’s why I have never had any difficulty with being a leader because I don’t start out thinking hierarchically, but you do have to look at accountability and the division of tasks and responsibilities, so it was actually secondary for me.”

Hanneke: “So it was a very natural process?”

Jeremiah: “Yes, definitely.”

Hanneke: “How do your employees see you? Do you know that?”

Jeremiah: “I know that a bit, from 360o feedback but also from direct feedback that people give me. It’s mixed. I think that lines up with the fact that I can be a chameleon from time to time. I have a round profile, we touched upon drivers and colours earlier. I can be very red/blue when there is a crisis or when there is no structure. In those moments, I quickly step into the leadership role with “we need structure, we need to make a choice in that.” But, if that’s not necessary, I’m quite well-rounded and try to facilitate more and look for the connection. In that I don’t see myself as political exactly because I’m managing ideas, but I’ve also heard from colleagues that I can be that when it’s necessary, to accomplish certain things and to make sure that my colleagues can also start working on something. Aside from that, I also get ‘connecting’ as feedback a lot but also that I can be a sphinx in terms of people not being able to read me well. I find that surprising because I always feel like I’m quite open and transparent. But, what I can imagine is that I always try to listen and to observe people particularly if I don’t know them that well, so there might be something in that.”

Hanneke: “So you actually do something with the feedback you receive?” 

Jeremiah: “Definitely, that learning mindset is what a company like fonQ needs and it needs leadership. I have a personal coach that challenges me in that regard. I also tell my coach all the feedback that I get from my personal environment and say “this might be something you can use, or this might be less useful.” I constantly learn from it and it makes me a better person. That is also why I give feedback to my surroundings, I think it helps them be better.”

Hanneke: “When we were talking about being a connector or a facilitator, you said connector. You’ve kind of touched upon it already but how would you describe your style of leadership?”

Jeremiah: “I would say very involved and I think I can also be very hands-on. My weakness is that I can be a bit too hands-on from time to time. I think that’s partially due to the fact that I helped build up the company so I know it inside and out. Despite there being teams that still manage to show me new things on a daily basis, I definitely know the basic principles and processes of an e-commerce company. I can be hands-on and detailed but at the same time I also hear that I can be trusting and give people lots of freedom. It depends on the situation. the extent to which I go, or the extent to which I burden someone, also depends on the maturity of a team, or the maturity of a manager. I can be a demanding leader. I’m very output-driven so I expect that we work together to achieve certain goals, but if someone shows me that they’re really going for it, I don’t mind if mistakes or made or targets aren’t achieved from time to time, but the driver and the intention does need to be there.”

Hanneke: “And how has your new role changed your style of leadership? has it changed it?”

Jeremiah: “Yes, definitely. Because I’m even more broadly responsible, I have to take a step back. It forces me to think more consciously about which buttons I have to press or which people I need to change things.”

Hanneke: “Did you find that difficult?”

Jeremiah: “Yes, I found that difficult. it’s not necessarily in my nature. Like I said, I have a round profile so I can take the lead in a general sense but I can also go more into detail when I see there are improvements to be made. I think the phases of growth that fonQ has been in, have asked that of me, to sometimes really act firmly as a leader. I think clarity is still important but I do believe in the Socratic way of leading, so asking a lot of questions, listening, giving space and connecting between different disciplines, because that wisdom is in the middle.”

Hanneke: “It’s rare for someone who started out as an intern to have this position now. It sounds like a childhood dream and a nice fairytale, but it’s special because you’ve managed to reinvent yourself every time and continue with that next step and that’s not something you see often.”

Jeremiah: “For me it’s not as special because I’m just riding the rollercoaster. People from outside tell me it’s rare that I stay in the rollercoaster. By nature, which I think is typical of a marketeer, I like change. I have to change to stay the same.”

Hanneke: “You thrive on variation.”

Jeremiah: “I challenge the dynamic and I’m persistent so if I see that something is in there but won’t come out, I keep shaking until it does which is also the case with fonQ. So, if I see that there’s still a lot in there that won’t come out, I don’t just give up.”

Hanneke: “Despite the resistance that might be there.”

Jeremiah: “Despite the resistance, yes I am sensitive to resistance, that’s something that plays a role.”

Hanneke: “What do you mean sensitive to resistance?”

Jeremiah: “Resilient, so I can handle a lot. If I’ve had a rough day, I’ll go to sleep and the day after that I’m there again.”

Hanneke: “And then it’s gone?”

Jeremiah: “Yes then it’s partially gone. There’s always some residue but mostly I can handle it. I’m relatively good at letting it bounce off me and not taking it too much to heart. I think you also need to be given the chance. That’s why I call it luck, you need a bit of luck. You have to see it in yourself and dare to take the risk. The moment I was put into a managerial role, the role of director and then as general director, someone is taking a risk. You have to dare to take something on. Then you have to prove it.”

Hanneke: “And looking at leaders, do you have certain heroes or certain sources of inspiration? you mentioned having a coach but are there also people that make you think “wow, I would love to be that kind of leader someday”.”

Jeremiah: “I can give you a long list of names.”

Hanneke: “The usual suspects maybe.”

Jeremiah: “Real names but also fictional names in terms of sources of inspiration from movies, books, series, so also from that perspective. There is not just one. I can start with my youth, my parents were of course an inspiration, they were entrepreneurs in the field of communications, they had a publishing company together so I learnt a lot from that. My family in general is quite entrepreneurial. I’ve never seen myself as an entrepreneur because I thought marketing as a specialisation was far too interesting to delve into other wider ranges of things. But I’ve said goodbye to that. Not that I’m not interested in marketing anymore, but I need to have a wider role and view on leading the organisation. In my youth I also found Michael Jordan very interesting. Last year the documentary ‘The Last Dance’ was released which talked about his basketball career but also his will to win. That’s fascinating. His talent on the field, but also how people like him lead on the field. I’m 1.77m so I’m hardly a basketball player but that is why I started playing basketball because I thought that was interesting in my younger years. What I’m trying to say is when you add everything up, inspiration comes from everywhere. Deep in my heart, I’m someone who wants to understand the zeitgeist, who wants to understand consumer behaviour. That is a key aspect of a good marketer in my eyes, someone who absorbs their surroundings well. I take inspiration from books and films so stories mostly. That could be a Phil Knight biography, founder of Nike called ‘Shoe Dog’ that I read recently for example. or of course the stories surrounding Apple’s existence, surrounding Steve Jobs. One of my favourite authors is Ayn Rand who wrote ‘the Fountainhead’, the characters in that are fantastic. And, not unimportantly, when I’m having a conversation with my colleagues, but also with you now for example, I learn things from that as well. That doesn’t mean that you have to change your mind every day, that is not the process, you constantly have to sharpen your mind. That’s something that I’m trying to bring across to my management team, that they keep learning from each other and also from the outside world.”

Hanneke: “Good to hear, now to touch on something else, if you look back on your time at the company, so thirteen years, lifetime employment is a thing of the past but you’re the example that it is possible in a tech company. How do you ensure you keep that outside-in perspective?”

Jeremiah: “Very simple things really, ensuring you stay up to date by reading relevant media articles in the field, personally I read e-commerce blogs every day but also TechCrunch and Mashable and NextWeb so that’s looking at what’s changing in the world. That requires some energy because it takes about half an hour/an hour to do it on a daily basis but you can reap the rewards in the form of knowledge. It’s something I always ask those around me, “are you staying informed?” Besides that, staying in contact with your network and going to events. If someone is stuck on something I also don’t immediately know the answer to I ask, “have you spoken to some peers in the market yet? Just look for your counterpart at another company and ask them how they tackle similar issues.” More often than not, people are open to a cup of coffee to share their knowledge. fonQ is increasingly becoming part of an ecosystem, a technology ecosystem but also an interior one. We have 700 suppliers so we get a lot of information from that since we’re in contact with them, but also where technology is concerned we have quite a lot of suppliers with whom we do our marketing, our purchasing, with whom we design our ERP and our processes and we gain a lot from that. If you go to those events you tend to bump into other e-commerce directors or other purchasing directors. So, in that way.”

Hanneke: “So by always keeping an open mind?”

Jeremiah: “Yes.”

Hanneke: “And your customers? Before this podcast, we talked about the customer journey a bit already. How do you stay in touch with them?”

Jeremiah: “Again, a wide range of ways, starting with the customer service that distills information. The information they gather has to do with data analytics so closely examining behaviour within a platform, what do people buy, what don’t they buy, which categories are frequently looked at, which aren’t and why? And, we have a customer experience team that is specialised in the customer journey, that conducts more qualitative research and that delves even deeper into the reasons for not buying, what are the obstacles? What’s missing? What can be improved upon? What technology do we need? All simple communication because technology is a tool, but logical design or smart copywriting can help a customer just as well as other technology in some cases.”

Hanneke: “The company made a profit again for the first time in seven years. When you were asked to become CEO, in what state was the company and what did you do to ensure it was profitable again.”

Jeremiah: “The company was on the right path. In 2018 we made the decision to say goodbye to the proposition of a department store. In 2010 off the top of my head, we were taken over by RFS holding. At the time the ambition was to become one of the biggest e-commerce companies in the Netherlands, so fonQ together with Wehkamp and a couple of other companies. At the time, the choice was made to make fonQ into Wehkamp’s pretty sister, having slightly more luxurious brands and more luxurious propositions, but still the full range of product categories. In hindsight, that turned out not to be a good business model. It means you know too little about any category because you can’t place enough focus on it to become good at it, so you’re dividing your attention over about 200/250 different categories, which is how many we had at our peak.”

Hanneke: “So in the end you’re trying to juggle too many categories?”

Jeremiah: “Yes, you become a kind of Winkel van Sinkel. The whole idea was that we would have the nice version of every product, the more luxurious models in every category. At some point, we decided that model didn’t work. That’s also partially due to the fact that it doesn’t resonate with a typical online shopper journey. That’s less focussed on a target group but more on the longtail of a product group. We’ve gone back to basics because before, we had a longtail strategy, but in the end which category do you choose. In the end, both qualitative and quantitative research amongst customers showed us that there was one category in which we were extremely strong. Customers came back to our shop for that and also arrived at that category after a direct search, and that was the home and living category because we were already focussed on taste and style so we continued along that path. We turned all our attention to that category, including all our communication and all our people, and we’re now specialists in home and living. That is the choice that we made at the time and that is what we’ve continued in the past year. In all honesty, we were fairly lucky in that people were stuck at home and started working on their homes a lot more which was advantageous for us. At the same time, we also had some problems with the supply chain because people wanted to work on their homes but if we can’t get the products, we also can’t bring it to customers. So, we were lucky, but at the same time we also faced a lot of new challenges. That strategy did help us to make a profit.”

Hanneke: “And was it difficult to say goodbye to the other categories?”

Jeremiah: “Definitely it asked a lot from the organisation because it’s more than just a bit of agile working, it’s saying that we’re stopping half of what we’re doing now and making our communication completely different. Certain people that were busy working on selling fashion accessories and sunglasses have said we have to switch the focus to chairs, tables, lamps, bins and garden furniture. That was the foundation that had to be laid.”

Hanneke: “How do you get people to join you in that? Because I can imagine that to someone who might be working on a certain category and is completely immersed in it, it might come as a bit of a shock.”

Jeremiah: “By making it very clear that we’re in the game because we’re able to win it. We laid out what we expect the retail and e-commerce landscape to look like in a few years and that the gap between generalists and specialists will only continue to widen and if you do want to position yourself somewhere in the middle, you have to take a very different approach and frankly, just choose a category. In every category you see a couple of players rising up that could take on an Amazon or a Bol.com, but everyone in between is having a difficult time. That is our take on the e-commerce market, not only now but also in future.”

Hanneke: “That was exactly my question, you have talked us through your journey but what are the next steps and where do you see it heading?”

Jeremiah: “Let’s say that in every category you have a generalist. The generalist dabbles in every category, to take an example outside home and living, when we’re talking about pet food, you could go to Zooplus which is a true specialist or you could just buy cat food on Bol.com or on Amazon. The moment that a purchase requires low consumer involvement, it’s very easy to go to a Winkel van Sinkel like Bol.com and Amazon where they definitely have it and to order very quickly. The moment that you do have high involvement, to revert back to the cat food example, you might want to have more luxury cat food or advice about which cat food is suitable for your cat, you would go to a specialist. That’s step 1. Step 2 is that every specialist in its category looks for a way to fulfill the needs of a customer in a broader sense than they do now. So, every category leader, whether it’s in home and living in which we have the ambition, or whether it’s ZooPlus or Pets Place in animal food, or whether it’s Bax Music in music goods, I expect that every category will have a platform model where vertical chain integration and ecosystems are also examined. To return to fonQ’s business model, we look at how we can advise our customers even better when it comes to choosing products in the interior section, but also perhaps with more general advice, or how we can help them by offering a better transport service or maybe even by installing products. Every category offers an opportunity for specialists to root themselves in further, to use the supply and demand ecosystem and to facilitate it further. Doing everything on your own doesn’t work either, you need to work with partners to be able to do that. To name one very practical example, we have a partnership with VT Wonen, one of the biggest home and living brands in the Netherlands and we do the e-commerce side of things. That means we’re partnering up with a strong brand in our category where we deliver the e-commerce side and VT Wonen is the best in making content.”

Hanneke: “And as a consumer will I be able to get advice from you about furnishing my house? 3D models?”

Jeremiah: “Who knows. That is the direction we’re heading in now. Very simply put, if we don’t do it, we’re left with the generalists, “what are we bringing to the table?” So something has to happen. Every specialist will have to make choices in future.” 

Hanneke: “Those are fonQ’s ambitions, what are your personal ambitions?”

Jeremiah: “Continuing to sharpen the mind, so continually improving and getting the most out of the company that I can. So, the picture I’m painting now of what the future could look like and what the position of fonQ could be within that needs to become a reality. Rumour has it that Bol is actually a clone of Amazon, they copied everything that Amazon did only ¾ years later. Try and execute it, it’s easy to paint a picture of the future, it’s difficult to actually implement it and make it a reality. Realising the organisation’s potential is an ambition of mine and my personal interest still lies in digital transformation, marketing and technology. I think that’s something I can use in fonQ in the next couple of years.”

Hanneke: “So maybe someday somewhere else but for the time being, seven more years here.”

Jeremiah: “Exactly, a good MT, a good enterprise and great colleagues that will help me realise this.”

Hanneke: “Lastly, do you have any last insights or advice that you want to share with listeners? You’ve already given us many great insights, are there any more?”

Jeremiah: “From my e-commerce perspective, choose what you want to excel at, choose where you can make a difference. It’s a cliché, I know, but it still doesn’t get chosen enough.”

Hanneke: “And from a leadership perspective?”

Jeremiah: “From a leadership perspective I would say that a growth mindset is the most important thing in the tech/digital world, but I also think a modern leadership mindset is important, trying to be better every day, being a better version of yourself than you were yesterday. The same goes for whatever you’re trying to realise in your organisation, that you ensure you’re actually able to create it and that you make the organisation a better one than it was yesterday and thus also develop the people around you.”

Hanneke: “On that note, let’s round off. Thank you for listening and Jeremiah, many thanks for your contribution.”

Jeremiah: “You’re welcome, thank you for the invitation.”

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