Updated: Nov 8
This last year has been tough for us all. We have been encouraged to connect less with our fellow humans, to withdraw, to be more self centred. There have been some positives though. Air pollution has dropped, many of us are spared the morning commute and most importantly, there has been a massive resurgence in the desire to return to nature.
My name is Ruben Vanhees. I am a 34-year-old Dutch-Belgian startup entrepreneur, with a new enterprise that ties into this joyful return to nature. On the cusp of ICEWIM becoming a tangible reality, I wanted to let you know the story of my entrepreneurial journey.
The Bera Tricotage Factory, Weert (Netherlands)
The entrepreneurial spark seems to be in my DNA. By all accounts, my great grandfather, Frans Beeren was a remarkable man. He started his entrepreneurial journey as a teenager selling underwear from door-to-door. This passion grew and his interest in the textile industry led him to co-found a knitwear factory in 1927.
The assembly lines mostly produced underwear and bedding for the Dutch army, but by the time the factory closed its doors in 1967, they had been producing swimwear for a local brand called Linofra. It is amazing to have some of his marketing materials, which now hang on the wall in my office, inspiring me every day.
I was born in 1986 in Weert, the same city in the South of the Netherlands where my great grandfather's factory had been. With my grandmother starting to need regular care, we would have to travel to visit her, but rather than have us under her feet, most times my mother would send my brother and I to the tropical waterpark close to my grandmother’s house called the ‘Iron Man.’
It was here that I fell in love with the water and always looked forward to getting back there, to immerse myself in the warm waters, diving, spinning underwater, holding my breath for as long as I could.
As a teenager, I joined the scouting youth organization. Those were the best days of my life. We spend days camping in the woods, connecting with each other as well as with nature, bringing a sense of peace that I never really noticed at the time, only knowing that while I was out there, everything felt just right.
‘here I am near the iron man pool where I spent my best hours in water’
The Academic Life
Like many kids of my era, school was a constant battle. Not being able to be outside and to run free, to be told to spend most of my life indoors was difficult for me. This is where the struggle started.
High school and University were not easy for me. It wasn’t the academic side, I was smart and worked hard, so passing the tests weren’t the hard part. It was the sitting inside on a chair, staring at the outside world like a caged animal that was difficult for me. It was all just there, but I couldn’t get to it.
The Start of Escapism
The first official job I ever got was in the office of the Bank of New York Mellon. After a month I got fired because walks in the park during the lunch break were getting longer and longer.
After I got fired, I decided that the world of work wasn’t ready for me, so I packed my bags and took off to explore the world. As a student, I had learned about Couchsurfing, which was a great way to meet people and reduce my budget, since having spent only a month at the bank I hadn't built up many savings.
During my studies, I did an exchange program ('Erasmus') where I lived in Montpellier for a year, my first time abroad for a longer period. I decided to travel back there and make my way around the Mediterranean sea, which would allow me to swim regularly along my trip. A bit over 3 months later, I ended up in Egypt, passing through a total of 13 countries on my way. When I arrived in Egypt, I decided to take up scuba diving, which was one of the best experiences in my life.
The Corporate Job
In Bosnia, I met Walter Reynders, a senior SAP consultant, who helped me to get another chance at the corporate world. So, a few months later I started my training to become an SAP HR specialist. I made it through the end of the training, but they couldn't get me on a project because I didn't pass the official SAP exam, so once again I got laid off.
I sold myself at a recruitment event for Deloitte and joined them as a business analyst on an ERP implementation at the Belgian Railways. Shocked by the 'bureaucrazy', I asked to be transferred to another project. As a result of the economic crisis, there were not many options and after a few failed attempts to make me feel good at the company, I got laid off again.
Understanding the Principle of Value
In 2015 I joined a program called the Brussels Young Exports Program, which tries to help Belgian SMEs open new markets abroad. After a two months intensive training in sales, business development and international trade, it was time to put the theory into practise.
I chose to collaborate with World Natural Care, a startup active in green solutions for the cosmetics and pharmaceutical. The company was on a mission to develop organic ingredients to replace the petroleum-based ingredients contained by 'healthcare' product. Combining customization with permanent innovation, WNC took on the mission. These are highly carcinogenic. Since chemistry and biology were my worst subjects at high school, I had little understanding of what happened in the lab.
What fascinated me most about the startup was the CEO, Stan Idelsen, who could talk endlessly about Value, I concept which I could hardly remember from my MBA classes. Coming from the corporate world, where timesheets and chargeable hours were all that matters, suddenly all that seemed to matter was value. I wanted to know more about it. Where previously co-workers talked with much enthusiasm about their promotion or their upcoming holiday, lunchbreaks were now about how the results of the R&D in the labs could potentially provide more value to the customers.
We agreed that Stan would provide me with several hours of training per day during two months and in return I would spend the next two months in Stockholm to prospect the Swedish market. Stan more than kept his promise. Every day Stan invited me and his right-hand employees to the meeting room for hours of training about Customer-Value-based Management, Business Ethics and Value-based Selling. Never had I felt so excited for my next day at the office.
Stan explained why Scandinavians, being highly educated, best understand the concept of value. What it came down to was that people in Scandinavia don't mind paying 3 times the price or a cosmetical or pharmaceutical product, if the product would not be harmful to their body or the environment. Together with a modest lifestyle, those were and still are the values present in the Scandinavian culture. Little did I know that years later, I would be creating my own startup that represents exactly the same values.
My assignment in Stockholm was interesting. I scheduled meetings with managers of spa centers and beauty salons to interview them about their needs. Some of the most exclusive spas were located in breathtaking natural surroundings of the Stockholm archipelago.
Whenever I was free, I went hiking or camping. But to my surprise I missed my days at the office. I recorded the interviews and send them back to Stan, who would listen and provide me feedback.
All Good Times come to an End
Since the R&D phase wasn't finished yet, Stan couldn't give me a job in sales yet after my internship. I searched for jobs in Business Development or Sales that would allow me to travel, but my brief experience in the field was not enough to land me a job.
Not interested in going back to an IT job, I enrolled in the Teachers Degree at the University and started looking for jobs education or professional training.
At Ingram Micro where I went on an interview for the role of Business Developer, they were interested in my passion for education. I was told I could become a technical trainer if I was willing to learn about their products. My actual title was 'Consultant in Software Enterprise Solutions'. Soon I found out that there would be little teaching, but my main task was to pass technical IT exams, in order to obtain certification. I learned about Virtualization (Citrix), IT Security (Symantec) Automation and so on.
Although the content of the job wasn't interesting, my manager allowed me to work from home and travel from time to time to attend training. I lasted for more than 2 years, until my desire to connect to nature overwhelmed me once more.
I asked permission from my manager if I could work remotely for a period of 6 months while living in Colombia and amazingly he agreed and so I packed my bags and boarded another plane. As a result of a restructure of the management, I was asked to return earlier, but I didn't want to. The argument ended up in a court case which lasted over two years and significantly reduced my savings.
Disgusted by the corporate world, I decided to try my luck as a freelancer at HTG, a British boutique technology consulting firm. I agreed with Kevin Howell, the founder and managing director of the company, that I would lease my IT certificates to his organization if he'd be able to try and give me some remote work while I was living in Colombia. Having little interest in the job itself, I showed little results. After two months, my contract didn't get extended.
The Good Life
Feeling hopeless, I decided to leave the corporate life behind for a while and join those who live life to the fullest. I threw myself into salsa nights in Cali and tropical beaches in San Andres. Colombia had it all and the sky was the limit.
Every day I was in the city I would still escape to the local swimming pool;
When I wasn't, I was exploring some other 'cascada' (waterfall).
But, all good things must come to an end and my good life came crashing to an abrupt end for two days in February I can never forget. I was kidnapped, drugged and robbed by a gang from a poor neighbourhood in Medellin, a feeling of utter hopelessness and terror that I hope nobody reading this will ever have to endure.
It was a wake-up call. I needed to get myself back together and find meaning in society, or my life would not end well.
Getting Acquainted with Entrepreneurship
The first book about entrepreneurship I ever read was probably the biography 'Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future', from which I have both the hard copy and the audiobook version. Later many books followed, such as the '4-Hour Workweek', 'Predictably Irrational' and many others.
The book that had the most impact on me was Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert T. Kiyosaki. It clearly describes how different paths people can take in life impact their physical and financial freedom.
Where employees and freelancers change their time for money (linear growth), business owners and investors build processes that make money (exponential growth). I learned about the concept of value. It was that simple. Those who provide value through services or products are compensated most in a capitalistic society.
Why did they not teach this in the MBA classes? I was stunned.
In the end all entrepreneurial gurus are advocating the same. Do not sell your time for money, but build a process that can generate it. So, I started to think about a product or a service that I could provide.
During my times of escapism, I taught English in Thailand and Colombia. What frustrated me was how difficult it seemed for students from other countries to learn to pronounce the English language. During my childhood, almost all the TV shows I watched and computer games I played were in English, making it my second language without much hard work.
I began working on my first startup, Bey Academy, with the intention to create an innovative language learning system that would let students create captions and subtitles for the multimedia industry. I built a team and learned about presenting a pitch deck, building an MVP and trying to find a product-market fit. I met with Thomas Holl, the founder and CEO of Babble, Europe's biggest language learning platform. Eventually we won the Demium Startup Hackathon in Kyiv after I pitched the idea to a jury of venture capitalists.
Unfortunately, the required investment was never obtained and a few months later our team fell apart. During the training of Demium I found out that only 1 out of 10 startups succeed, so I decided I had to try more. I started pitching ideas about software development solutions and physical product developments and met with technical and creative profiles from different industries. I was well and truly bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.
The Creation of ICEWIM
My traumatic experience in Colombia made me more sensitive to urbanization and technology. I often felt wanting to escape from it all. After a holiday in the Peloponnese region of Greece, my girlfriend and I decided to spend the winter near Athens. Addicted to the water, I kept swimming throughout winter and so did many locals. We met people from the local swim club near Vouliagmeni. Experiencing the uplifting effects of the cold water, I remembered hearing about Wim Hof, a Dutch extreme athlete noted for his ability to withstand freezing temperatures.
The startup life can be rather stressful and I was surprised how well my breaks in the cold water helped me to relax. I researched more about the topic and discovered the numerous physical and mental health benefits associated with cold water exposure.
My typical 'sunny beach' swimming trunks reminded me of the swimwear produced by my grandfather, which didn't feel well-suited for the lifestyle I was living. Moreover, I constantly struggled trying to find my belongings after a long swim in the water. I discovered a subculture of people that enjoy immersing themselves in cold, open water, but didn't find a brand that represented them. This is when I decided to create the ICEWIM brand. I still remember the day, when I was walking on the beach of Varkiza, a small fisherman's village nearby Athens. I immediately knew what I wanted the brand to represent. Mental and Physical Health, Ecotherapy, Biohacking, Cold Exposure and Meditation. Those would be my values!
The Right Product at the Right Time
ICEWIM is founded to promote mental health through ecotherapy, thus the slogan 'Connect with Nature'. In the early days, it was purely my gut feeling that pushed me to keep working on the project. As the project evolved and I learned more about the niche market of open water swimming and cold exposure, did I find out that the ideas would soon become mainstream. The first indication was the news that a Hollywood movie is being made about the life of Wim Hof, featuring Joseph Fiennes.
Almost daily new articles appear promoting everything from the physical benefits of cold showers to the mental benefits of open water swimming. Covid situation has tremendously increased the popularity of open water swimming as a way to deal with mental struggles.
'From ice swims to knitting: Europeans seek ways to ride out Covid winter', you can read the article here.
My Life Today
I am in contact with my current manufacturer in China every day, and building a new relationship with potential future manufacturers in Taiwan. On UpWork, I am connecting with several freelancers online from videographers to pay-per-click specialists.
A few weeks ago I pitched my project to Innerfire (the company behind 'Wim Hof'), who I later proposed an influencer collaboration.
Today I am writing about the past of my entrepreneurial journey and wondering if my days at the waterpark turned me into this hydromaniac I seem to have become.
'A hydromaniac is a person who is fascinated by water, intensely attracted to water, or loves to play in water.'
Moments ago I finished a call with a Community Engagement Manager from the Jed Foundation, a charity organization focused on protecting emotional health, and preventing suicide. It looks like we will work together as ICEWIMS nominated charity.
During the next few weeks, I'll be planning and executing the video production for the crowdfunding campaign, which will be shot at Skógafoss, a waterfall from the Skógá River in the south of Iceland.
It has all come together, it has all lead me here, to this moment, and I could not be more excited about bringing ICEWIM, a product that is genuine, that has a place in the world to help people reconnect, to help alleviate the internal hell of mental anguish and reconnect with nature.
Have you personally experienced a positive impact on your life from open water swimming or cold exposure? We want to hear from you! Share your story with us by emailing an audio or video testimonial to firstname.lastname@example.org. and get a chance to be featured on the ICEWIM Instagram account.