We first met Maria at a party in April 2013. There are only good things we have to say of her: she's funny, a total overachiever (did you see her bio?!) who's still super down-to-earth, inexhaustibly passionate, generous - we can really go on forever. We visited her at her office to talk about her inner nomad, the process of setting up and running Clubvivre - a platform for customers seeking bespoke private dining & premium catering - and how working for an international non-profit organization before she turned 21 has made her the person she is today.
Q: What was your first job?
A: My career has been rather unordinary. I studied at St Petersburg State University of Economics and Finance. I started volunteering at AIESEC’s local chapter during university before assuming a full time role as the president of AIESEC in Russia. I moved to Moscow during my last two years of school; I never attended classes during those two years and remember trying to pass. I even walked in during exams wondering who the professor was.
I was later selected to join the AIESEC HQ in Netherlands, overseeing Central Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia for strategy, operations, and country development. I was flying almost weekly, and visited 27 countries in 1 year across Europe and Asia.
I gained so many life experiences during that period of time – I would lose my luggage or not have a visa at a country’s checkpoint and there would be no one to complain to or ask for money from. Situations like these really train your resilience and creativity because you no longer define what you can or cannot do; you just solve the problem when and where it happens.
Q: So what happened after AIESEC?
A: After 4 years in AIESEC, I decided to volunteer in Egypt for a couple of months, just to slow down and think about what I wanted to do next. It helped me put things into perspective; I was in Alexandria alone volunteering for a charity with no strategic work involved, I started speaking ‘human’ language again – no KPI talk here!
After Egypt, I moved to Singapore for a consulting job (to the same company as my then boyfriend, Andries, who is now my husband). You can say I came here for love.
Q: How did your first job shape your career?
A: I owe a lot to AIESEC (and gave a lot during my terms as well!) because by the time I was 22-23, I had visited more than 35 countries mostly for work, gaining leadership and life experience, interacting with people from all over the world, understanding their culture.
Once I was out of AIESEC I was on my own – I was no longer working with super passionate people and I really had to motivate myself because it’s often less supportive and inspiring outside of AIESEC.
Q: Was going around the world and doing your own thing always something you wanted to do as a child?
A: I was always interested in adventure and travel (besides designing dresses) but my dreams and desires unfolded gradually once I saw the world.
Q: Was there anyone who influenced what you wanted to do?
A: My dad is one of them – I’m definitely a daddy’s girl and resemble him a lot. He was encouraging but also always asked ‘what’s next?’ – he never allowed me to get complacent.
There were a lot of very interesting people within the AIESEC alumni community: Hannes Chopra is one of them. He used to be the president of AIESEC in Germany and after travelling to different countries, ended up in Russia and became the CEO of Allianz Group. He is a strong advocate for ethical leadership and entrepreneurship as a style of life and I admire his willpower and passion.
And finally my husband – he inspires me to be a better person everyday.
Q: You and Andries run Clubvivre together. We know you must get this all the time, but tell us – is it difficult working together as a couple?
A: Lots of people ask about that but I really have nothing to benchmark or compare the experience against. It has been absolutely great so far because we’re both super intense – when we go for something, we go all-in, with all our heart and soul. I suppose if one wasn’t as intense as the other it’d be hard for us to connect and spend time together.
We can discuss work anywhere (which is all the time!). People say we should separate our work and personal lives but I’m completely okay with this arrangement and anyway, separation doesn’t make sense for us. We did try to initiate a couple day where no business-related conversations were allowed but it died down after 2 dates.
Q: Any tips for couples in business together (or for best friends like us)?
A: Some people start working together because they are friends or have complementary skills but forget to discuss their fundamental values, vision or differences at the beginning of their collaboration because they focus only on the business model.
It’s not that Andries and I don’t argue! We definitely do argue but we are at that point where we don’t have anything to prove to each other. Ultimately we know what to expect from each other and how to deal with each other in both good and bad times.
Q: Earlier on you said that you sleep 8 hours a day and work the rest, even on weekends. How do you keep going?
A: The thing is I never question this – there were moments where it was depressing but even then I don’t remember ever thinking to stop.
Something else that keeps me going is planning for the future, as it helps me map out our personal and professional goals. At the end of 2013, we went to a tea plantation in Kerala, India, to reflect on the past year and it was fascinating to look back on our experiences: the things we learnt, what happened, and why. This realization alone keeps me going because life is short – a year passes by so quickly, and it’s great to realize you’ve become better, changed, and that you’ve done all these new things for yourself and others.
Now this sounds geeky but we also planned our personal and professional vision for the next 20 years. Of course these goals are not written in stone and will likely change but it’s powerful as a couple to go through this exercise; there are a lot of things that people want to do, especially now because we’re part of a generation who believes that we can be anything or anyone, at any point in time – you don’t have to love flowers at the age 5 to be a florist at age 65 but there are a number of hours you need to put into something if you want to achieve it. Pure talent or inspiration is not enough.
Q: So let’s look at some concrete numbers – what was your start-up capital and when did you break even?
A: Clubvivre went live in January 2013 and we were fully boot strapped until December 2013. We invested $30,000 at the start, and have put in about $120,000 of our own money to date.
We started making money from day one as that is the nature of our business model. We have achieved break even already and are profitable, though all profit is reinvested in marketing and Clubvivre’s backend infrastructure.
Q: What was it like going from being management consultants with a very comfortable paycheck to entrepreneurs with none?
A: We were downsizing our living standard gradually rather than dramatically at once so that helped. But when we look back, we cannot believe how much money we were spending! It’s not like we were smoking cash, but we had a beautiful apartment just for ourselves and were buying things without thinking. The good thing is we had so much stuff we didn’t have to buy much during the last 2 years, and luckily for us I don’t enjoy shopping that much. (Ed’s note: Unfortunately for us that’s something we’re struggling with!)
We also got married just before the launch of Clubvivre in 2012 and our wedding was held in 3 locations: Singapore (our adopted home), Belgium (Andries’ home), and Russia where I’m from; it was such a celebration that we felt like we had quite enough of pampering by the time we returned to Singapore and to reality.
It also helped that we did some consulting work on the side to continue paying the bills. This is definitely an option for budding entrepreneurs to consider, especially if you know your runway is many months.
Q: That’s an interesting point – were you doing freelance work at the start or are you still doing it?
A: We did freelance work only “in the middle” of the journey, which was a good thing because at the beginning you still have money and you think you have this beautiful business that everyone will know about tomorrow… the day after tomorrow you realize this is not the case.
While we started making money from day one, cash flow can be extremely challenging for entrepreneurs. For small companies, having a corporate client that pays 90 days later can be very painful. It doesn’t matter how much you are short on cash, the last $1000 can kill you. Whether you borrow money or take a loan, it takes a lot of time to plan and manage cash flow because it’s very risky.
Right now we’re at quite a dangerous point of growth for Clubvivre. We are experiencing a significant growth curve.
Q: Where do you see Clubvivre in 5 years' time?
A: There are two ways to look at it: whenever you start a company you must be comfortable with the idea that hypothetically you’ll be working on it for a lifetime. In this case we’d want Clubvivre to be a global company in major cities because we believe private dining will be very big in the global metropolises of the world.
The other scenario is that we become a venture-backed company and look for an exit / sell in the next 5 years, if we can find the right people to take over it – which is a big ‘if’ because it needs to be worth it, and maybe we won’t want anyone to have it!
But if we do sell the business, I’d probably venture out into developing art and creative clusters to support a bigger purpose. This has always been a big passion of mine and something I would like to explore further.
I’d like to be a mother of a big family too – one of our goals is to travel the world with our kids before our eldest turns 9.
Q: What are the best career lessons you’ve had?
1. You cannot outsource thinking jobs. While you can hire an expert for certain jobs, I learnt the hard way that no one will lose sleep over your ideas. If you outsource a thinking, problem-solving type of task and it comes back to you full of gaps, you will just need to put in the passion for improving it regardless of your skill in the respective topic.
2. Patience, because things take time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. I often want things to be done much faster and it doesn’t happen especially if it involves anyone apart from Andries and me – sadly (kidding!) you can’t enslave people J
3. Perseverance. Our generation has so much pressure from social networks to lead a perfect life – or at least have people believe they lead a perfect life – it’s how you ignore the ‘what-ifs’ and keep going at what you believe in, that will make the difference in the long-run.
Q: What does success mean to you and do you think you’ve achieved success?
A: I think success is to have freedom – freedom to do what you like, to be able to treat your families and friends in a way you want them to be treated whether it’s time, money, or emotionally, and to believe in what you want. People will always have something to say about what you should do, think – and worse – believe in, so success to me is to have freedom and confidence in your chosen path.