The blue dress shirt, the blond hair, the preppy past, the successful startup and the political leanings toward the liberal right: he really is the poster boy for Erasmus University alumni. And yet, all is not what it seems, as one hectic day in Vincent Karremans’ busy life reveals.
NAME: Vincent Karremans
STUDY: Rijnlands Lyceum Wassenaar (1999-2005), Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam (master Economy (2005-2011, cum laude) & master Law (2005-2012).
CAREER: founder and CEO of career site Magnet.me, candidate-leader VVD Rotterdam, occasional speaker about entrepreneurship at Erasmus University.
HOBBIES: strenuous physical activity (crossfit and running), history (from antiquity to the World Wars), going out to dinner with friends (to spot Vincent, typical Rotterdam watering holes like de Ballentent or de Ooievaar are your best bet) and watching Feyenoord play.
Two days for the price of one. That’s how it feels to try and keep up for twelve hours with Vincent Karremans, founder and CEO of career site Magnet.me as well as politician. His diary, provided in advance, displayed a dazzling array of activities that run from doing crossfit at dawn, to a debate on tv on the Pauw show, late at night. What would exhaust a normal human being, however, seems to be a way of life for the 31 year-old entrepreneur. It started as early as grammar school in Wassenaar, where he combined his regular homework with an International Baccalaureate. Even at Erasmus University Karremans chose the road less traveled, by doing a double master and bachelor Economics and Law. Now it’s once more into the fray as he combines running a business with running for leading candidate of the local branch of his political party, the (fiscally conservative but historically socially liberal) VVD.
‘At 16 I locked myself out of the mourning process for my mother. It cost me dearly later on’
Vague notion becomes hit
‘It’s been like this all my life. I want to double up on things. That’s the problem with entrepreneurs, they have this urge to be productive. I would be unhappy otherwise.’ But, insists Karremans, working hard means more to him than just satisfying his soul. ‘I’m not on a mission so much, as I have this idea that I can offer help. To the city, for instance. In much the same vein, I didn’t start Magnet.me to make money, but because I’m on a mission.’ Karremans explains students in higher education looking for a first job or internship often have to rely on the usual suspects, such as Shell, Unilever or Deloitte. ‘Marvellous employers, but there are plenty of wonderful companies outside of those narrow margins. Problem is, those are harder to find. That’s why Magnet.me was founded.’ It’s a big hit. What started with an email to a friend in 2011 containing some vague notion (a conversation now proudly framed and displayed on the wall in the meeting room at Magnet.me in the Industriegebouw), proved to be a viable business that currently has 30 people on payroll, including those at the London office. ‘We get tons of messages every week from people who found a job or an internship at companies they would never have been able to find without us. I think that’s awesome.’
Anyone who’s visited Rotterdam in the last little while probably knows who Vincent Karremans is, even if they’re not aware. His face graced the VVD Rotterdam election posters that were plastered all over town. Fitting, because after all, he is the poster boy for Erasmus University alumni. The preppy demeanor, the dress shoes-jeans-blue dress shirt combo, the boyish blond hair, he’s the whole package. Even his profile matches one hundred percent – grew up in Wassenaar, did grammar school without a hitch, Economics and Law at University, former president of the Rotterdam Student Corporation, successful entrepreneur. Vincent Karremans is everything you expect from a politically active business owner.
‘I thought, I’m going to get everything out of life I possibly can’
And yet there’s more than meets the eye, because Karremans is not simply the golden child who always had it easy. In Wassenaar, he didn’t grow up in a villa, he was the son of a leftist art teacher (who once handed out flyers for the now-extinct Political Party of Radicals, but these days is happy to help his son put up VVD signs) and a homemaker (who used her spare time to make cardboard pen holders and sell them; Vincent says she’s his entrepreneurial source of inspiration). The rest of the family also resists fitting the mold. His younger brother is a designer (at Magnet.me), his sister trained to be a hairdresser, then became an au pair. On top of that, his life was hardly a walk in the park. When he was 16 his mother passed away, and everything changed. ‘I thought, damn it. I’m going to get everything out of life I possibly can.’ And so, Karremans maniacally embraced life. College, soccer, side hustles: whatever he could take on, he took on – and generally succeeded. ‘That’s how I locked myself out of the mourning process. It did cost me dearly, later on. I couldn’t talk about my feelings because I had this aversion to pain.’ Among other things, it led to the demise of a romantic relationship. But these days things are better, partly because of some good long talks and professional help. ‘Yet it remains a part of me. It’s a scar that won’t heal.’
This morning, before the debate circus commences, Karremans is a ‘regular’ CEO. He’s in a conference with his international team, where five twentysomethings present their idea to have British students become ambassadors of the business, for a fee. Karremans’ replies vary from a jubilant ‘Perfect, that’s fantastic!’ to a short ‘I would phrase that a bit more clearly’. A clear image of the dynamic arises - the team presents, Karremans instructs. Easy jokes aside, there’s no mistake he’s the boss. As soon as Karremans’ hand hits the table and he bellows ‘All right’, they’re done. Boom. One of the interns later admits he likes that pragmatich approach. ‘The team gets together to make decisions. We set things up, Vincent helps us decide. It works.’
So what does Karremans do exactly, at Magnet.me? ‘Even my girlfriend doesn’t know. That’s because it’s so ridiculously diverse.’ He does, however, travel to London twice a week, where he’ll try to get companies interested for his business concept. His inner Rotterdammer rejoices as he reveals how he travels to London. ‘The airport is so close I can get there by bicycle. It’s brilliant. There’s no other city you can do that.’ In Rotterdam, Karremans mostly focuses on growth in the broadest sense of the word. He trains sales staff, coaches growth plan developers, writes strategies, and takes meetings. Many meetings. ‘My job runs my life. I have to sit down for fifteen minutes every morning to make a schedule, or I’ll go nuts.’ It’s no wonder he cherishes the weekend. It also means he’s dealing with 60 to 70-hour work weeks. Efficiency is of the essence. Proudly he points out a timer on the wall in the meeting room. Once time runs out, the alarm goes off. ‘I intend to hang one of these in our VVD party offices at city hall.’ It will be something else, Karremans at the Coolsingel.
His political double life starts at one o’clock, when a former VVD member of parliament and the party’s press officer show up at Magnet.me to prep Karremans for the debates that await him. In the afternoon he will cross swords with nine other party delegates during a student debate at Woudestein. Then at night, there will be seat at the table with his name on it during the special Rotterdam edition of tv show Pauw, taped in the Maassilo.
From this business of prepping, based on the five propositions to be made that afternoon, arises a different image of Karremans. As experienced and exact as he is as an entrepreneur, in his role as a politician he’s still searching for style and substance. ‘Give me some talking points,’ he’ll ask, while circling key words on paper. Part of the insecurity is rooted in the fact that the VVD aides keep correcting him, from ‘What you’re saying sounds too vague’, to ‘Keep it short, Vincent, period!’ On top of that, he’s getting tired. While both keep talking to him, Karremans’ eyes are turning red, he yawns and stares into the middle distance, his eyes glazing over. But as soon as he hears a subject to latch onto, he’s back. Running the subway during the night? ‘That’s incredibly expensive; D66 wants it, but they have no idea how to pay for it.’ And the proposition about how to help entrepreneurs - ‘Hey, listen guys, I was a starter like them six years ago, I know exactly what people need.’ While the substance is getting there, style could still do with some improvement. Two pitfalls threaten Karremans: he tends to talk too much and he sounds too angry. His press officer tells him to raise his voice to sound friendlier, while the former member of parliament keeps cutting him off whenever he starts holding forth. After three practice runs, the miracle happens: all of a sudden Karremans sounds more like a visionary. More human as well. And so, more likeable.
‘Becoming a city council member would be the ultimate springboard, but I’m not doing it. I want to be an entrepreneur’
Practised, but casual
As soon as he arrives at Woudestein, the VVD leader takes like a duck to water. The debate is a project of the student corporations, and being the former president of RSC, he knows a lot of people in these circles. In addition, he’s been on good terms with Rector Huib Pols ever since those days, and they spend considerable time catching up. Even if he were nervous at all, nobody would be able to tell.
Karremans scores his first win even before the debate begins, during an informal conversation with a NOS reporter who is trying to find out whether the elections are about more than identity politics and ethnicity alone. ‘Over the course of the last few months I’ve asked hundreds of Rotterdammers what they think these elections are about,’ Karremans, says, seemingly casual. ‘Not a single one said ‘wiretapping mosques’ or ‘islam’. People are worried about other issues altogether. That’s what we’ll focus on.’ The reporter asks if Karremans can stick around for an interview. Score. During the debate it becomes clear the prep work was all worth it. Karremans needs the bounderies set for him – if left to his own devices, he’d opine on every single subject. Preparation has taught him to keep it short, while staying positive and friendly. And even though his eagerness irritates his counterparts (‘Settle down, Vincent, other people want to get a word in’, D66’s leader admonishes him), the audience loves it. GroenLinks’ criticism that VVD used to oppose certain subjects that Karremans now advocates, are deftly swatted away. ‘Eight years ago? I was still in college at the time, right here.’ Applause is his reward.
But winning also takes it out of you. Afterwards, Karremans looks drained, and the debate at Pauw will not be until eleven that night. ‘I really need to get some sleep, if only for half an hour.’ But because the debate went into overtime and RTV Rijnmond wants to interview him as well, the moment passes. Nevertheless, he somehow manages to recharge, somewhere in between dinner and the second prep session. During the first round of the debate with Jeroen Pauw in Maassilo Karremans doesn’t impress, looking like the sidekick of Leefbaar Rotterdam leader Joost Eerdmans. But in round two, Karremans does better, representing the only right-wing party at the table, once he is no longer overshadowed by Eerdmans’ calm and eloquence. To boot, he manages to score some bonus points during the end credits. Because while the other politicians are staring ahead stoically or seem tired, Karremans – blue dress shirt and all – is laughing it up, talking with this and that person, clapping and singing along while the band, The Kik, plays. Their song: ‘Only in Rotterdam’.
Which begs the question, is Vincent Karremans an entrepreneur or is he a politician first and foremost? He laughs, beams, answers immediately. ‘An entrepreneur. I don’t want to be a city council member. Fucking amazing job, you make a fortune and it’s the ultimate springboard to move on up. But I’m not doing it. I’m a business man, that is where my passion lies. One hundred percent sure.’
TEXT: Inge Janse
PHOTO’S: Mark Uijl