Sabi from Sendcloud: ‘money is not our focus’

If you’ve been following tech-sensation Sendcloud a bit, then you are no doubt familiar with its co-founder Sabi Tolou, with his long, jet-black hair. When we met up with him, there was very little left of his locks. “I lost a bet,” laughs Sabi. “I didn’t think we’d reach 100 million with one round of investments. My partners Rob and Bas thought we would.”

Text: Paul van Vugt
Image: Scala Fotografie

Sabi lost the bet. And his hair. Sendcloud’s coffers were filled with 160 million euros. At least there’s that. Sabi tells us about it with a twinkle in his eye. It says a lot about his passionate entrepreneurial spirit. About the fun that he and his fellow partners had with their friendly wager. Boyish, energetic. Soberly enjoying sitting on a pink cloud with Sendcloud. Very high up.

A real gem based in Eindhoven
Founded in 2012, Sendcloud is one of the fastest growing tech companies in Europe. Its mission is to make sending packages as easy as possible for webshops. As young adults in their twenties, Sabi, Rob and Bas came up with a platform that could manage the entire shipping process. They convinced web shops and transporters, followed by several successful investment rounds. And now, the Eindhoven business community has one more jewel in its crown. And its current market value? Although the company does not make any official statements on the subject, according to a recent study Sendcloud is well on its way to unicorn status. “But we aren’t really that concerned with that,” explains Sabi. “Money is not our focus. All of our energy now goes into strengthening our business and platform. Our goal is not to cash in fast, but to build a sustainable business for our employees.”

Dreaming of 100 euros a day
The nine-figure market value has well exceeded the founders’ boyhood dreams. They were just twenty, Sendcloud didn’t even exist yet. Sabi and Rob worked at T-Mobile, Bas at Mediamarkt. Being the enterprising types that they were, they also ran a few web shops. All three of them still lived at home, blissfully unaware of what life actually costs. On Fridays, they would go to the pub. Making plans for their future.

“The question that consumed us at the pub was how we could make money. ‘What if each of us could make 100 euros every day? Then we could live like kings, couldn’t we?’, we imagined out loud. Naive, of course, but we also had no idea that there were things like sewage taxes and other expenses that you had to cough up every month.” As naive as it may have been, that 100 euros was what sparked their entrepreneurial drive.

‘What if each of us could make 100 euros every day? Then we could live like kings, couldn’t we?’

Success from an unexpected source
The brilliant idea that eventually evolved into the Sendcloud platform came from an unexpected source. It was a solution born out of necessity, not a quick and easy financial bull’s-eye.

“At the time, we were selling phone cases through one of our webshops. The shop was doing very well, but shipping was a disaster. We were spending way too much time retyping names and addresses into the transport companies’ systems. We were really surprised that there was no link between the systems. So we decided to develop the link ourselves. At first it was just for our own shop, but then we realised that a lot of other businesses were having the same problems. We picked up the phone and started approaching webshops. They all had the same problem. The market was right at our feet.”

Time to reap the benefits. Things got rolling, the pace started accelerating. Yet it only slowly dawned on Sabi that they had actually struck real gold with Sendcloud. He was still running the webshops, and at night he drove a taxi to make a little extra cash. “At one point, people started asking me: ‘You’re from Sendcloud, right? What are you still doing here, driving a taxi? At that time, we already had more than forty employees.”

Risk versus security
Up until four years ago, not even Sabi’s family was aware of the serious business he had. “My mother always said: go and find yourself a nice job working for someone. Then you can pay the bills and you won’t have to worry. Why take the risk?” One day some acquaintances told her: ‘Your son is in the paper sometimes, isn’t he? And he’s even been on TV’. Then I invited my parents to the old municipal offices in Eindhoven here where about 400 people are now building the Sendcloud platform. They didn’t understand what they were looking at. ‘All of these people work for you?’

“My parents’ need for financial security is deeply ingrained in me. We had lived in survival mode for a long time when we were still in Afghanistan. My father worked at the bazaar, where it was sometimes minus 10 or 20. With icicles hanging from his beard. When the war broke out, we fled to Tajikistan, and then to Russia. From Moscow I went back to Afghanistan with my mother, while my father left for Kiev, together with my brother and two sisters. I lived with my mother for two years.”

“That was a formative time for me. I gradually took on the role of my father. I had to be a man. I took care of my mother, instead of the other way round. Once we had found a safe home in the Netherlands, my father insisted that I go to university. I chose International Business Studies at the MBO level, but I couldn’t figure out how to translate theory into practice. School was too abstract.”

Creating time and focus with money 

Sabi dropped out of school and decided to put his knowledge to the test. In the Netherlands, the Tolou family was barely making ends meet. Some of Sabi’s additional income disappeared into the household budget.

“I have learned that financial security is necessary if you want to develop and achieve your ambitions. When you are at the supermarket, it shouldn’t necessarily matter whether a loaf of bread costs €1.50 or €2.50. If you are constantly calculating, you’ll stay stuck in financial survival mode. That makes you lose sight of your true ambitions. That’s why we take very good care of our staff. Everyone at Sendcloud earns above average compared to other players in our industry. The value we create by providing good salaries – and consequently with great employees – is time and focus for ourselves, as founders. It gives Rob, Bas and me the space to focus on the future of Sendcloud.

The future of Sendcloud

If you consider Sendcloud’s steep growth curve, then big and fast steps are the obvious choice. The question is not if, but when the IPO will take place. “I think we’ll be ready in a year or two. When we go for it, we’re going to do it right. That’s why our focus now is on improving our position in Europe and building a future-proof company. Create an even better product with Sendcloud. That’s why we prefer to grow autonomously with our own platform, rather than quickly inflating the value of Sendcloud by taking over European players. In that case, you have to deal with new systems that you have to master, and also with new people who are unfamiliar with our corporate culture. That’s when you build up the size of your company, but you ignore your core values.”

‘Not long ago there was a group from the Middle East. They took a jet over to Eindhoven, and turned up here with a private chauffeur. They offered us a blank cheque for Sendcloud.’

“We evaluate Sendcloud on its quality, not by counting our euros. This is the only way we can build a solid company that our employees can rely on. The same applies to companies that want to invest in Sendcloud. We don’t look at their pocketbooks, but at the people behind them. That determines whether or not we go into business with them…”

Sabi paused for a moment and then looked up with a huge smile. “I won’t name names, but not long ago there was a group from the Middle East. They took a jet over to Eindhoven, and turned up here with a private chauffeur. They offered us a blank cheque. ‘Name your price, we want you’.” Rob, Bas and Sabi already knew how to respond to the offer after just one beer. The answer was a resounding no. “Even if we could have the cheque made out for 2 billion. There was no click, so it wouldn’t work. Just imagine that you are taken over by a bunch of grey suits that you don’t relate to at all, and then you also have to work out 18 months in an earn-out. Not going to happen.

We only connect with people who are on the same level as us. People we can spend an evening out with. People who really feel the DNA of Sendcloud. We have to keep it that way, in every country that we’ll soon be active in.”

WATT’s next for Sabi?
Only time will tell exactly where the road to new markets will lead. But with 23.000 customers, Sendcloud is already well on its way in Europe, and in a few years’ time it might even be competing with the American giant Shippo. By that time, Sabi & co will certainly have reached unicorn status and Sendcloud shares will be traded heavily on the AEX.

By then, Sabi will have not only grown in capital but will also have probably grown a full head of hair again. The question is: WATT’s next?

‘You can’t expect powerful ideas that move the world forward from the established order. They don’t benefit from change.’

“Well, what do you do with millions in your bank account? Turn it into a billion? And then one and a half billion? That won’t make the world a better place. My investment plan for the future is already pretty much mapped out … I want to use my assets to create a favourable environment for young entrepreneurs. People who are at the bottom of society and don’t have the means to do something with their entrepreneurial spirit. And yet are bursting with powerful ideas for moving the world forward. You can’t expect that from the established order. They don’t benefit from change.”

“Discovery is so important for young entrepreneurs. When I see how much I had to learn. Negotiating, the unwritten rules in the business world … I really didn’t know much. I didn’t even know that you have to use the cutlery from outside-in during a business dinner. You have to have the freedom to discover. Financial freedom. That provides the oxygen for your head and your ambitions.”

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