“Innovation is not the invention,” says Jan van der Tempel. “Innovation is getting your invention to market and making it work.” As the founder, inventor and CEO of Ampelmann, the Delft-based offshore access specialist, Jan is no stranger to the ins and outs of running a fast-growing company.
It was back in 2002 when he came up with the idea of leveraging technology, commonly used in flight simulators, to develop a system that would make the transfer of personnel from a vessel to an offshore platform safer and more efficient. Since then, Ampelmann has been among the leading players in the offshore access industry.
More recently, Jan has also been running his second business, DOB Academy, providing courses and educational resources on the full scope of offshore energy projects.
And while he now has more than a decade of entrepreneurial experience behind him, he never planned to become an entrepreneur.
Walking the line between technology and business
“Entrepreneurship has grown on me over the years, but starting my own company was never a goal in itself,” Jan says. “It happened as a means to bring my idea to market.”
With a background in engineering, including a Ph.D. from the TU Delft, Jan has learned to navigate the worlds of technology and business. There is a difference between being a good entrepreneur and a good inventor, he says, and the former tends to be a fair bit harder.
In other words, coming up with an innovative idea is not as difficult as bringing it to market and turning it into a successful business.
“Still, our systems are a hardware innovation and steel takes time,” Jan says. In the case of Ampelmann, it took him about five years of product development and testing before he started the company. “We used this time wisely and got to know the industry, our potential clients and their needs.”
In 2007, the first prototype was there and ready to transfer people offshore. And once it did, it was only up from there.
“The first few years of running the company were a rollercoaster,” Jan remembers. “We grew more than 100% each year - both in terms of people and the number of systems. This is the kind of thing that keeps you on the edge of your seat.”
As exciting as it may be, though, such exponential growth is also something to keep an eye on. After five or six years of going full steam ahead, Jan realized that they had outgrown themselves. He had more than 150 people working for Ampelmann, yet the company was still operating largely as a startup.
“We work in a very safety conscious industry, so from the start there was already a lot of structure around us. Now we needed to build our own company structure, too.”
Life is about continuous learning - and improvement
Jan is the type of person who embraces every opportunity to learn new things and become a better version of himself. When you ask him what he would have done differently in his entrepreneurial career, he says “not much” - and not because he thinks he has done everything right, but because he takes every challenge as a lesson he can learn from.
“Sure, if years ago I had the knowledge I have now, I would have been able to accelerate things faster. But I believe you need to learn and take the time to process it.”
It was when Ampelmann needed to grow in terms of internal processes and structure that it got a new shareholder on board. “It was my ask to step down as CEO, as I wanted to focus on new things and develop myself,” Jan says. He didn’t know at the time but 2.5 years later, he would be back in the position to lead his company.
It was during that time that he started DOB Academy and combined his love for technology with his passion for teaching. The reason he started this second business is because he wanted to create an educational platform for professionals in the offshore wind and, more generally, the offshore energy industry.
“It’s inspiring to take everything you have, all your knowledge and links to the industry and share that with others,” Jan says. “And in doing so, there is also a lot to learn from the people you interact with.”
Over the course of the past years, Jan has continued to develop DOB Academy while also driving Ampelmann forward as its CEO. There, too, he has learned a valuable lesson.
“Stepping away from Ampelmann taught me a lot and changed me as a CEO,” Jan says. “I am a hands-on person, but I now know that being a CEO is also about taking a step back and letting your team take the lead.
It is about having the right people in the right places, being aware that they are the experts in what they do, and creating an environment in which they can focus on that and thrive.”