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How an Economist became a Tech-preneur

An interview with Carst Vaartjes

An interview with Carst Vaartjes, Chief Product Strategy & Co-founder of visualfabriq
Originally an economist, Carst Vaartjes embarked on what would turn out to be an 18-year career as a business consultant, mostly to major FMCG and Retail companies. On the side, he had always had an interest in, and a flair for computer programming. As a business intelligence and analytics expert, Carst found himself also designing, creating and implementing innovative analytic solutions in Working Capital Reduction, Pricing Optimization, Supply Chain Visibility, Procurement Analytics, Integrated Forecasting, Trade Promotion Management and Sales & Marketing Performance Management, and several of these were award-winning projects.

In 2001, Carst first met his visualfabriq founding partner, Jaco Brusse. At that time, Jaco worked for a major Dutch FMCG company, and he became a client of Carst’s. They found that they shared similar frustrations at the difficulties in managing trade promotions effectively without real-time business insights to inform decisions, and at the lack of solutions for this in the marketplace. They were also alike in that they found the idea of finding solutions to improve business performance incredibly inspiring and both have a passion for excellence.
In 2006, Carst joined Deloitte Consulting and continued to work within the FMCG and Retail industries which were still battling with same Big Data issues. At that time, integrating internal and external trade promotion data was still technologically very difficult and expensive, requiring considerable investments in the likes of servers and database licenses to just get started, never mind the implementation. If you were a big company with billions of records that need to be inputted; your brand-new, very costly system would inevitably turn out to be incredibly slow because the technological infrastructure available could simply not handle Big Data effectively and quickly.
Years passed, and with technological advances, cloud computing with its limitless capacities became more available. In the background, Carst started to experiment with these new technologies; learning what they could do and looking for how they could be used to solve seemingly intractable problems.

In 2013, he found himself in discussions with Deloitte’s to become a director partner. “That’s when I did some soul-searching,” Carst says “I asked myself two questions – what did I want and what can I do? The role on offer was really a material function, and there would be a lot less problem-solving and finding solutions, which is what I really like. In addition, while the consultancy model based on selling hours is still well in place, I didn’t then, and still don’t believe that it is a viable, sustainable model for doing business in the future we are heading towards.”

This period of reflection saw Carst in an exploratory, open frame of mind. He attended an Advanced Analytics for FMCG conference organized by Deloitte’s and happened by chance to meet up again with Jaco. They started talking about how much data handling had changed since they had last worked together. Carst knew from playing around with the latest technologies that so much more was possible when it came to dealing with Big Data. He remembers: “Before we didn’t have cloud computing, but in 2013 you could build on top of this huge, flexible infrastructure and put in as much data and functionality that you want without effort. You didn’t have to get out your screwdrivers and start installing new servers that cost a lot of money anymore. The whole environment had changed, and Jaco and I were very excited about this. I had already decided for myself that I wanted to make solutions, not sell hours. We also both had good networks, and before long, we decided ‘Let’s do this’! That’s how visualfabriq came into being.”
There are numerous areas where FMCG and Retail companies need better handling, processing, analyzing and insights from their Big Data, but Carst had a client who wanted a trade promotion solution and was not happy with what was available in the market. He relates: “They said, ‘You built things like this in this past, don’t you want to do this?” And that’s how we got started with the development of what was to become Trade Promotion Master™.”

visualfabriq launched Trade Promotion Master™ into a developed market-place where they would compete against really big, established companies like SAP and Oracle. It was a start-up, yet its first clients were major FMCG and Retail businesses. How did this happen?
Carst laughs, “Well it wasn’t because we ticked the checkboxes about ‘How big are you?’. But we believe that it is because we think differently and do things differently. visualfabriq uniquely marries our deep industry-insider knowledge and experience to our appreciation and understanding of the best, latest technologies available. We are winning against those older companies, due to a number of reasons. First of all, we have been able to build a very modern architecture that is all scalable. So, we can do things in terms of performance that no one else can. Then, it’s a SaaS solution, so that gives us a lot of agility in terms of development. You have endless potential when it comes to upgrades, and you can provide one upgrade for everyone at the same time ensuring that everyone has newest version and the newest functionality at the same time. They don’t have to use it, but it is always there. And of course, a lot of the big companies that we compete against are more-than-ten-year-old companies, which means that they are caught up in old technologies and old infrastructures that restrict what they can provide.”

An early sign of visualfabriq’s game-changing capacity was when the Promotion Optimisation Institute (POI) included them in a pre-evaluation with over 25 companies. Evaluators witnessed visualfabriq’s capacity to load tens of thousands of promotions, and draw instant, accessible insights. “The conclusion from the POI software evaluation experts was that we have the only tool in the world that can do this, and this, of course, makes me happy,”Carst smiles.
This early stage evaluation of visualfabriq’s Trade Promotion Master™ has been solidly backed up with the recently released 2016 PO Institute TPx Vendor Panorama which awarded ‘Best in Class’ distinctions to visualfabriq for both Financial Orientation and Post-Event Analytics, as well as presenting a particularly favourable overview of the company.

One of the notable achievements of visualfabriq is that it has been highly successful in convincing major FMCG companies and retailers to put their trust ‘in the cloud’. How has this happened?

“Well, firstly,” says Carst, “It is the way things are moving. If you are not in the cloud, you are going to fall behind. But of course, how your partner secures your data in the cloud is extremely relevant. With our insider background, visualfabriq takes this very seriously. You can imagine that we are uploading contentious data containing the exact details of all commercial negotiations – all pricing, discounts and trade terms that a client has in place. So, security is something that gets a lot of attention.”
Carst points out that there are three vital aspects:

· Physical Security – it is essential to partner with a cloud provider that has the full capacity for physical security. “This is the capacity to deploy armed guards to protect the infrastructure that you would never organize yourself,” he points out,” visualfabriq partners with global cloud-provider, Amazon, and we build on top of their infrastructure for optimum security.”;

· Absolute Client Privacy – while functionality is shared, every customer has separate encrypted data sets and they can only access their own sandboxes, which they can never get out of. “The platform is highly structured in terms of encryption,” says Carst, “Great attention is paid as to where files are kept to ensure one that no client can access what any other client can see.”;

· Ongoing Penetration-Testing – In line with cyber-security best practices, the visualfabriq platform undergoes continuous penetration-testing to keep abreast of the latest threats. Carst says: “We have nice hackers that we hire all day and every day to bombard our platform with tests that include all the latest hacks and attacks. Our servers are constantly under-fire so that we know we are up to date.”
Peace of mind that data is protected by the physical security service that Amazon provides; that penetration-testing is happening to make sure data is always safe and not vulnerable to hacks; and that clients are confined to their own sandboxes so that it is physically impossible for them to access anything but their own data sets the foundation for changing to latest technologies.
However, these are the hygiene requirements for visualfabriq, and the exciting stuff comes in its wake. As Carst points out, “The process of planning a promotion sounds very simple but it is actually deeply complex with more stakeholders involved than many imagine. What Trade Promotion Master™ does is eliminate any need for cumbersome, separate, discriminating tooling when it comes to all the different aspects of a trade promotion. From planning to discounts and forecasts all the way to post-event analysis, the trade promotion process involves many stakeholders, and it is a singular advantage to bring them together on one, highly readable screen in the moment. While we don’t customise our solution for every client, we have lots of configuration options which should address the most common requirements that you see across the world, even in the most complex markets.”

Integrating all internal data sources also goes beyond eliminating separate tooling; it embeds vital insights from the point of planning, through every phase of the promotion cycle to post-event analysis. “This is critical,” points out Carst, “Because the moment that you are really going to make a difference with this promotion starts when you are creating a promotional proposal for your client. From the moment you are conceiving the promotion, that’s where you need the system to start guiding you.”
The visualfabriq system provides machine learning prediction models so that you can tell you the most likely outcomes of the particular promotion you are planning. “Right at the beginning of your process you are able to assess the results,” says Carst, “ The system will tell you, okay, you think you want to do this; well, these will be the volume effects and these will be the financial effects. It will show you the likely outcomes from your point of view and the likely outcomes from the point of view of your client, the retailer. So, it really supports the entire negotiation process from start to finish. Instantly, Trade Promotion Master™ can show you that last year you tried these promotions, and this is how they performed, and this is what your competitors were doing. What it means is that these vital insights for optimizing a promotion are ingrained throughout the process providing a clear win-win for you and your retailer client, and that’s very unique in our market.”
Another unique aspect of visualfabriq that is testimony to their DNA as a company is that they have achieved remarkably rapidly. Carst reflects: “Our first clients in year one were really big companies, Tier One FMCG giants. This means that from the technological perspective, we had to have significant capacity from the very start. We were working first with the kind of clients who plan half a billion Euro’s of spend just for one market. We started with having to address large scale, and this was a bit different from the experience of many tech start-ups. It was a mixed blessing. On the one side it was a good thing; on the other, I did not sleep for two years!”

Now that visualfabriq is moving steadily from start-up to scale-up it faces different challenges. “What is normal is for us to work out how best to how to roll-out self-service consultancy support to new markets, standardizing the roll-out process in the best way possible,” says Carst, “New people have come on board, some specifically to bring greater structure to the organization and properly manage the growth phases that companies typically go through. All signs are that our transition from start-up to scale-up is going well – I just took my first holiday in years, and the company is not just still up and standing, we’ve also had significant industry confirmation that what we are doing is valuable while I was away. With standardization and increased capacity for growth, we can now once again focus on creativity. We believe we currently have the best tool in the world for revenue management. But we know from our deep insider experience that we don’t yet address all aspects of revenue management in the FMCG and Retail industries, and we want to do that. So, now is the time for us to also extend and build the tool. This month we are starting to work towards a new release that contains more self-service features and advanced analytics. We are far from a one hit wonder. There’s much more to come…”