This month, we talk to Erik Jan Verhulst of Scribe. He has found a real gap in the market with online communities. Nowhere in the world is there anything like his product. And it is paying off, with big companies as clients: Boskalis, KLM and PostNL, among others.
Erik Jan takes us through the origins of Scribe, how Boskalis became its very first client and how he gets in touch with his clients. Read the whole article! ↓
What is Scribe?
Scribe provides online communities for companies that want to give an unforgettable farewell to a colleague retiring after years of loyal service or when celebrating anniversaries. But online communities by Scribe are also there for sad events to commemorate, such as the death of a colleague.
Through the online community we set up, colleagues can reminisce, leave a personal message and offer condolences. All messages left behind are transformed into a beautiful book (in the company's house style) that the company will hand over to next of kin or the colleague.
The aim is for the valuable colleague to enjoy retirement with a precious memory, and for everyone to remember how much that person is worth to the company. Or as a heart to heart for relatives of a deceased colleague: how that person is remembered and what that person has meant to the company and colleagues.
Can you tell us a bit about the origins of Scribe?
I personally like that story! It's a long story though so sit down for it, haha. Scribe was not just an idea; there was a good reason and it gradually developed further when we saw that there was potential in this service.
Around 2005/2006, something started itching and I wanted to start for myself. This was partly because I like to be at the helm myself and find it difficult when others determine what I should do. Fortunately, around that time, I was approached by my two future companions who wanted to set up a business with me in the funeral industry.
Now doing business in the funeral industry seemed a bit strange to me at first, but eventually I took that step and we set up Requiem.
Requiem was a marketing platform for the funeral industry. For example, we distributed magazines to funeral directors. But: the most important thing about Requiem was that we allowed you to offer online condolences in a closed environment.
We offered online condolence to the funeral directors who had joined us. They could offer this as an extra service to the bereaved. It turned out to be a hit: a million people a year visited our online communities to show support in this way.
One of the users of our online community turned out to be an HR employee of Boskalis, a large international dredging company. They build ports and entire islands, among other things. A colleague had died while that person was on a ship somewhere far away on the ocean. So Boskalis asked us if we could also create an online community for this person so that colleagues could offer condolences.
That sounded very interesting to us. Until then, we had only set up our communities for private individuals who, for example, wanted to send condolences to an uncle, friend or acquaintance. We then adapted the product slightly to make it possible for Boskalis.
So people from all over the world could leave their condolences. All of them colleagues. A month later, Boskalis came back with a new case.
That was the moment when we looked at each other and wondered, "How often does that actually happen in the Netherlands? That people die while at work."
That turned out to be as few as 10,000 people a year.
So the need for an online platform really seemed to exist. A place where you can come together as colleagues and grieve together, reminisce and process the loss of a colleague.
Two years after we created the online community for Boskalis, we thought: If we do this when a colleague dies at big companies like Shell, KLM and Boskalis, why not at retirements and anniversaries?
And that's how Scribe was born and our new business model: pure coincidence actually.
What is the need that Scribe fulfils?
People like to celebrate and commemorate moments. If you work with project teams all over the world, an online community like this is of course a logical way to reflect on these moments. But we also see this need locally. For example, with insurers, colleges and municipalities.
We serve many large companies. Each of them has an internal communication platform on which everything is shared. On it, for example, there are messages like "Marloes is going on holiday next week and Henk is moving house and we have a new customer." Only to then read below that message that a colleague has died. Of course, that doesn't fit in there. In addition, such a platform also offers no space to process this or respond at all.
For example, you often cannot post pictures, or respond at all. That just doesn't feel right.
With Scribe, you leave a message for a dear colleague who is retiring, or to offer condolences to the bereaved. The messages posted here by colleagues are turned into a real book. This way, all those messages are not just lost but have real meaning.
Such a book, what should we think of?
We design all the books we hand out ourselves. They are always designed in the house style of the company where the colleague worked and are also tailored to the person, so every book is different.
A professional designer designs the book, so you can be sure that it is really beautiful. We get nothing but rave reviews.
Just look at the example below! ↓
How many people work at Scribe?
I still largely do this on my own now. Some time ago, in 2012, we sold Requiem to funeral directors. My associates then went on to do something else and I continued with Scribe.
At that time, Scribe was still a hobby that had gotten out of hand, but I went full steam ahead with it. It didn't amount to much yet; I couldn't make a living from it.
I was still doing everything myself back then, including designing. Fortunately, it has reached some size in the meantime. I have now outsourced the design work to freelancers. They do this a lot better than me anyway, haha. The web development is also completely outsourced. Apart from that, I do everything myself: marketing, administration and, of course, customer contact. That is what I like best.
Why hasn't Scribe grown bigger in all these years?
I don't really know. I think as a company you have to be ready to use our service and you also have to happen to find us when a colleague has died.
I also noticed how difficult it is to get in touch with the right person. I approached more big companies to explain my service, but I often don't get hold of the person I need to talk to.
Sometimes I also speak to an HR employee and then I ask them what the current policy is if someone dies on the job. Then they can often just suppress a yawn. It's not always a priority and they often don't think about it at all.
Besides, I don't necessarily have to become very big. That is not my ambition, so I don't want to force anything. If it comes naturally, it's a bonus and growing is fun, but it's certainly not the most important thing.
Although 20 years ago I was very different about it. But now I actually like the way things are going. Work has to remain fun. As long as we do nice things for people and we can make a nice living out of it, for me that is already a definite success.
How do you get in touch with companies that want to use your services?
In the beginning of Scribe, we called a lot of clients. That did bring in some big clients, who are also still customers. But other than that, our clients mainly come from the network.
In the beginning, because of Boskalis, I had a lot of Rotterdam companies from the maritime sector as customers. They all hear about it from each other and think, "What a good idea, I want that too!" That word-of-mouth advertising has caused most of the growth.
This is also because in the community not only direct colleagues respond, but also people they have worked with from other companies. Then you already know that within a year that company where that person works will also become a customer. That spreads like wildfire within such a sector. For us, that's a great way to grow.
What are you most proud of?
That we have developed something that simply does not exist yet. Nowhere else in the world does something like Scribe exist.
But what I am also proud of is the fact that we have developed a channel where people can be emotional in a business environment. A safe place where they can release their emotions. Now this is probably a process that has been developing for some time, but I think it's nice to be able to play a role in this with Scribe.
How has corona had an impact on Scribe?
Since the start of the pandemic, I think we have grown three times. And I'm really talking about new clients, not even assignments.
Colleagues are looking for a way to stay in touch with each other. Before corona, they probably would have thrown a party and none of that is possible.
So now when an anniversary or retirement is celebrated, they look for a way to still make it remotely personal.
Now you offer both subscriptions and one-off orders. What is the split between these?
Companies that are just becoming customers usually start with one-off orders. During the corona crisis, for instance, you noticed that a lot of one-off orders came in. For example, many companies then first asked for a community and a book for a retirement and a few months later they had an order for a death community.
Overall, I think we now have more customers who take out subscriptions than those who do one-off orders.
What makes Scribe unique?
First of all, we are unique anyway, because no other company in the world does what we do: collect collegiate memories and design a book from them. In that respect, we are truly unique.
But, what I also like is that we provide really good service. If a customer asks for something to be adjusted, we always do it immediately. Customers really like that. Last weekend, for example, a director of a large company wanted an anniversary book and I worked through Saturday and Sunday. That's a piece of service I've never really experienced at other companies.
What are the future plans for Scribe?
Basically, I just want to continue on this footing. Just keep growing without putting too much pressure on it. We have sometimes thought about taking the gamble and introducing Scribe abroad. In Belgium, Germany or England, for example.
Again, it would be nice if it could be done quietly, but here too I don't want to force anything. So I haven't taken that leap yet. And there are also so many other things that are fun to do.
On the other hand, such a concept really doesn't exist in any other country. In the past, we researched funerals in Europe and it showed that we in the Netherlands are really ahead in the funeral world.
With us, things like personalising a funeral and emotions are already quite normal. In many other countries, funerals are much more sombre and dark. Emotions are harder to discuss there so they don't do much with that yet.
So I think the process is slower there than in the Netherlands. So I don't want to say it won't happen, but I don't expect it all to go as fast as in the Netherlands.
Erik Jan Verhulst - Owner
Got his MBA in 1991.
Worked in banking and as a management consultant until 2006.
From 2006 to 2012 co-owner of Requiem.
Founded Scribe in 2010.