Thijmen Kaster is the co-founder of Sweav. Before Sweav, he worked at SparkOptimus and enjoyed the life as a freelance consultant for a while. In this article, we explore Thijmen's background and aspirations for both himself and the company Sweav.
Tell us something about yourself, your background and how you got into consultancy
During my studies, I remember my first experience with the consulting world was participating in a workshop by BCG. Tackling the most challenging problems of large organizations, engaging in a variety of activities, working with the best and brightest and traveling the world - all the cliche aspects of strategy consulting had me hooked as an ambitious 20 year old. SparkOptimus proved the perfect jumpstart for my career, as it combined the digital/tech world with consulting.
In high schooI I ran a little computer repair service company and towards the end of my studies I had my own e-commerce business. At SparkOptimus I could apply this interest in the digital world at a much larger scale. It had the additional advantages of consulting like developing a structured mindset in solving business problems, learning more practical digital skills and working on (mostly) interesting projects with a fun team, many of whom I call my friends today. The company was really enjoyable to work for and I felt like I could be myself. It definitely felt less corporate and rigid compared to what I had seen at other (consulting) companies.
Why did you decide to quit your job?
At some point, the novelty of working as a consultant wore off. In terms of the contents of the job, it started to feel like more of the same routine. After five years, having worked with all the people who were above me in the pyramid, I found myself answering the question “Do I want to be my boss?” with a no. There was only so much I still could but also wanted to do and learn as a consultant, especially since I was eager to delve more into the realms of entrepreneurship again.
I have always felt like the consulting world depends too much on analysis and too little on creativity, imagination and human connection. After five years of analyzing and advising, therefore, I felt like I wanted to give more room to my EQ rather than IQ and to finally build something myself again.
This wasn’t axiomatically a logical phase in my life to quit my job since it was mid-Covid and I was planning on starting a family. However, I saw how projects seemed to come easily to Joeri (co–founder Sweav red). This gave me extra confidence that freelance consulting could be a viable option for me as well. We were expecting a baby about a month after I started freelancing. Since projects were not an issue, I luckily never had any stress about the fact that I was not on the payroll anymore.
How was working on projects as a freelancer different from working at a consultancy?
Working as a freelance consultant differs substantially from traditional consultancy, and I had to adjust to various aspects of this form of work. For instance, there is a difference in the final product: in consultancy, it is all about delivering slides as a final ‘product’. But for my freelance clients I actually had to go beyond the slides and execute the plans myself as well.
Working as a strategy freelancer has enabled me to take on projects I could have never done if I had continued to work for a big firm. Like working in the scale-up context for a fast growing fashion company or helping festival organizers to sell their business. I found it inspiring and enjoyable, and I was learning many new things while maintaining the same pay I had in my consultancy days.
Working part-time as a freelancer gave me the time and mental space to truly think about what I wanted to do next, which I knew would be entrepreneurial. I thought a lot about what kind of new company I wanted to start. Freelancing also opens up a lot of space and energy for figuring out what you truly want. I would advise any freelancer to always keep room in the agenda, to truly consolidate free time and allow for rest, and contemplation. Creativity happens when doing nothing. Last but not least, freelancing provided me with more flexibility in my personal life, e.g. spending the mornings with my daughter and further focusing on my passion of electronic music.
What is the biggest misconception people have about being a strategy / M&A freelancer?
From a client’s perspective, there still exists a prevailing image that self-employed professionals lack motivation since they stepped out of their traditional career. Opposedly, independent strategy professionals in fact have a lot of ownership over their work seeing they are the sole person responsible for it and there are no managerial checks.
Simultaneously, the biggest misconception among potential freelancers themselves is the belief that they may struggle to find projects whereas actually most strategy / M&A freelancers find themselves in the position of having to turn down opportunities for work.
Why did you start Sweav?
Ultimately, I started Sweav for two reasons.
Firstly, I have a personal passion for bringing people together and connecting individuals. I believe that those connections can lead to coincidences from which beautiful things emerge. A friend of mine calls it ‘engineering serendipity’. As all my colleagues at Spark can confirm, I have always valued humor and raillery with colleagues. That aspect of work was missing for many freelancers, which is why I believe in the Sweav community so much. In the end, the idea of starting a business that brings people together and provides an opportunity for them to achieve enhanced freedom in their lives is something I love to get out of bed for each morning.
Secondly, Sweav was a logical business opportunity. I noticed a demand for professionals with our specific skill set in a context where they typically couldn’t work due to monetary and flexibility limitations (e.g. scale-ups, SMEs). I am convinced the traditional professional services industry does not have what it takes to cater the future needs of both their clients and workers. Sweav creates a new way of working together that allows for more freedom and impact.
What is the biggest difference between freelancing and running a start-up?
Freelancing is more short-term oriented. You can achieve great things and earn good money in the short term. However, you’re less occupied with building for the long-term and perhaps less invested in what you build. That’s also the main reason why doing strategy freelance or interim work is a temporary endeavor for many people. The contrast with entrepreneurship, for me, lies in the fact that there is more value in the future of what you do, and you do it with a long term perspective. Even though my day-to-day work does feel very short-term, I always maintain the sense that I am building something for the long haul.
Furthermore, as a (freelance) consultant, you often spend a lot of time and effort weighing options meticulously designing scenarios for decisions that involve significant financial implications. In contrast, entrepreneurship doesn’t always allow for such structured decision making. The best entrepreneurs don’t overthink and rely heavily on intuition. This can be a painful truth for many consultants. Switching to that mindset took some getting used to, but now I can combine the two more effectively. The most challenging part of running your own business is having the freedom to do anything, so you have to make choices.
Finally, people assume that entrepreneurs work 80 hours a week and that it’s the only thing they do. That’s not the case for me. I think about it a lot, and I do ponder it on weekends and evenings. However, it doesn’t feel like I’m working so many hours because I genuinely enjoy it.
What is your endgame career wise?
My ultimate goal with Sweav is not necessarily tied to specific numbers. I would be thrilled if Sweav could shift the landscape of high-end professional services towards a more flexible model, where there is less reliance on rigid management structures and more emphasis on autonomy, collaboration and trust. Achieving that would require us to grow to a substantial scale. As independents we have no conflicting restraints and interests. It would be great if we could play a role in reallocating talent to tackling the large challenges of our time, like migration and climate change. If we can accomplish this all, it would essentially be the culmination of my career.
What would be your advice for people with your background considering going freelance?
Maybe it sounds cliche, but just go for it. Just do it and join Sweav! Fill out the form on the website, and projects and great connections with fellow members will follow!