This year Solid Online Nederland celebrates it’s 25th anniversary and Solid Online India celebrates it’s 15th anniversary. The three driving forces behind Solid Online, Pieter Hoekstra, Roos Schabracq and Nandakumar Ranganathan take us into the development of the company.
“When I was 9 my father had an administration office with a computer, which was quite special at the time,” says Pieter. The first computers were also sold during this time. “I wanted to have one for myself and my father was very happy with that, because then I would at least stay away from his,” he says laughing. “That is where the passion for computers actually started.”
Although he was a good student, Pieter did not do much at school. He therefore went to the Luzac college where he attended school from 8 am to 6 pm. He often finished schoolwork quickly and then had time left in the day. At one point, the director found out he was nifty with computers and asked Pieter to help him with the automation. In addition to his own school, Pieter also automated the 30 other branches and the large employment agency where they were located. That is how his own company was created. At that time, he was 17 years old. He founded Solid Online in 1993.
Roos joined Solid Online on August 1st, 2001. “My sister-in-law was already working at Solid back then and she had arranged an application for me. I remember that my job interview took place via ICQ, which was very modern at the time,” she says.
Solid started building applications on Exact software. After 15 years, they stopped and developed their own product, named Solid Online. “When we started, we did everything that had to do with ICT. If we went to a customer, we solved all ICT problems. Nowadays we focus on 3 standard products, Solid Robotic accounting for the automatic processing of receipts and invoices, Solid Dynamic converter, temp agency software and Solid Leisure, fitness software. But with our platform, we can still implement organizations and deliver custom software where necessary,” says Pieter.
Solid started in India when Pieter got several large projects and could not find programmers for that in the Netherlands. He got in touch with a company from Belgium that rented out programming capacity in India. After gaining experience with outsourcing, Pieter preferred to retain employees and train them to become solid professionals. In 2003 Pieter decided to start his own company in India.
Nandu started his career as a multimedia teacher. “After that I worked in Singapore and Brunei for 3 years in software and web application development. When I got married, I was looking for a job in Chennai. My brother-in-law worked for Solid Online and through him I started as director of Solid Online India in 2003.”
“We had the organization of the company organized by a Dutch manager in India. We had a lot of faith in him, but it turned out to be very difficult to find an office in a foreign country,” says Pieter. They enlisted the help of Vijay Kumar, the trade advisor for the Netherlands in Chennai. Vijay Kumar is married to Mahalakshmi Vaddadi, the current Vice President of Solid Online India. Solid started a business apartment in Chennai, where the company spent a few months. There they ran into a few things, for example, that the power went down every day. “It was not the worst that the power went out, but we were not used to having a technician cut a cable so that he could then fix it and earn money again”, Pieter continues.
Nandu remembers the challenges of communication at the beginning. “Because there was no Skype at that time, all communication went via ICQ and e-mail. When Skype came up, it caused some confusion in the beginning. The employees in the Netherlands spoke very quickly, which was difficult for the Indian employees to follow. And the other way around it was difficult for the Netherlands to understand English with the Indian accent. By talking more slowly and listening carefully, this ultimately worked out well.” Roos adds that Skype has also ensured that the Netherlands and India understand each other better. “As we began to involve our Indian employees in customer demos, it became clearer to them what our customers’ expectations were. Now, we are at the point where we recognize each other by voice and often we already know what the person on the other side is thinking before it is said out loud.” Nandu mentions another major cultural difference that has been overcome over the years. “We often found it very difficult to say “no”. If an assignment came from the Netherlands, we would always say “yes, let’s do it”. But if we did not have enough time for this, it was either not finished on time, or the quality was not satisfactory. This is of course unacceptable for customers. Now we make a more realistic estimates of the time we need for projects. For us that felt like “no”, but it is nice to make a real promise to the customer. “
“Nandu and I have invested for years in developing a perfect process that we have continued to optimize. That has resulted in a proprietary project management tool in Solid Online, derived from Agile,” continues Roos. Nandu adds: “We now work in a more structured way. We used to make long days, but now, partly thanks to the efforts of Roos, that is no longer necessary.”
India now feels like a second home to Pieter and Roos. “When you first come to India, you only see the chaos. Nothing is straight and everything is dirty, but now that I have been there 70 times you get used to it. When I am at the office in India now it feels familiar and pleasant, like a family”, Pieter says enthusiastically. “It is easier to work together because we got to know each other and each other’s family well. That creates a bond,” says Roos. Pieter continues: “We have of course also experienced a lot together. I remember well that during the Christmas of 2004 the tsunami took place. The tidal wave in Chennai reached 2 kilometers from the office. I was with family in Suriname and saw the images on TV. Immediately I tried to call everyone, hoping everyone was safe. Some of our people had lost a lot. We helped them to make sure they had a roof over their heads again. It was very special that after the tsunami people quickly walked through the water with their laptop above their heads to go back to work. A whole different world.”
Many things have changed over the years, such as the recruitment of employees. In the beginning we looked at technical skills. You must be able to program, you must be technical, and you must have followed an ICT course, those were the requirements that you as a potential employee had to meet. These days we look more at communication skills. You also have to be able to explain the not so fun things to customers and that has to be done in a professional manner”, say Pieter and Roos. That also applies to India. Nandu continues: “If you work at Solid Online, you must have both technical and communication skills. We are always looking for people who have both aspects. Our team is loyal and dedicated, both in the Netherlands and in India.”
Administrative software is a vague concept for many people. Solid wants to change this in the coming period. Roos explains: “We have shifted the focus from customized solutions to solid products. We have invested in three product lines: Solid Robotic accounting, Solid Dynamic converter and Solid Leisure.” Solid Robotic accounting automatically processes receipts and invoices, Solid Dynamic converter focuses on temp agency software and Solid Leisure deals with leisure and fitness. Pieter and Roos also want to continue to invest in new technologies with Solid. “Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning will be used more in Robotic accounting so that we get even smarter systems that recognize invoices. And with the help of AI an even smarter schedule can be made with the temp agency software. I certainly see that happening,” adds Pieter. Roos concludes: “The software development process has setbacks, but we will not let that fool us. This allows us as a small company to realize large projects. We continue to make the impossible possible.”