For someone who didn’t actually know what he wanted when he finished his degree, Thomas Plantenga has done well for himself, and that is an understatement. This alumnus of the Department of Biomedical Engineering is now into his fourth year as CEO of Vinted, Europe’s largest online marketplace trading in second-hand clothing. Aimed at consumers, this platform was worth more than a billion euros at the end of 2019. But money is not his primary motivation. Sustainability and keeping our world habitable come first for Plantenga, and he calls on students to take on their future role of stewardship.
A modern Don Quixote in second-hand chain mail – bought on Vinted, of course. Thomas Plantenga, CEO of Vinted and alumnus of TU/e, has no intention of playing the moral crusader, but he does feel a strong sense of responsibility for ensuring that in a hundred years’ time the world is still a great place. Universities – especially universities of technology – have a fundamental role to play in this respect, so Plantenga believes. By way of the knowledge they generate and, in particular, the engineers they produce.
“We carry the responsibility for improving the world and society. This is both important and useful, I feel. I get shots of energy and happiness when I know that what I am doing is useful, that it makes things a little better.”
His career at Vinted amply provides this feeling of happiness since this is somewhere that sustainability is highly prized. This is reflected in the slogan of the successful startup: ‘Make second-hand the first choice worldwide’. “I’ve spent the past six years of my career mostly in second-hand sales, and I’m really happy here,” says Plantenga, who in 2009 took a master’s degree from the Department of Biomedical Engineering.
“In ten years’ time people will find it incomprehensible that there was a world in which you bought all your clothes new”
Thomas Plantenga – CEO Vinted and alumnus BME
“The fashion industry creates a massive amount of pollution. If we can make it circular by selling clothes we no longer wear, the impact will be immense.” Making second-hand the first choice has been Plantenga’s primary motivation in recent years. “When I joined Vinted in 2016 I wanted to prove myself, show that I could get a rapidly growing company back on the rails. But there comes a point when you have earned so much that you are no longer doing it for the money. Then other elements become the reason why you are working late into the night. Within our team we believe that in ten years’ time people will find it incomprehensible that there was a world in which you bought all your clothes new. That’s why I have no trouble at all sacrificing another weekend for the greater good.”
Vinted is the largest online customer-to-customer-marketplace in Europe for second-hand clothing, having a community of 37 million users spread across 13 countries: France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Luxemburg, the UK and the US. The European startup is headquartered in Vilnius, and has offices in Berlin, Utrecht and Prague. It has more than 600 employees in total.
Despite his packed diary, the CEO of Vinted takes time for an interview with his alma mater. “Normally speaking, the amount of time I invest in PR is determined by the impact an article or the medium can have for us. This is low impact, but I still feel a sense of attachment to TU/e and am happy to make this exception. I feel very grateful for the time I had at the university.”
“The work I produced to graduate from Fluid Dynamics & Soft Tissue Mechanics was certainly decent, but I wasn’t the department’s next high flyer. I wanted to make myself useful and bring about a change for the better. My future didn’t lie in science, but neither did it lie with a Shell, for example. I decided to take a year off and spend it surfing. I was an enthusiastic surfer, was even keen to perhaps turn professional.”
The internet has already captured Plantenga’s interest when he was propelled further in that direction by a good college friend. “He said, ‘that programming you learned using Mathematica, you can also use it to build an internet company and website’. Together we built websites and we got to know some guys who had spent time in Silicon Valley. They showed me how the business of building up online companies relies very much on a highly analytical back-end. The knowledge I had gained by modeling processes using differential equations can also be used for this purpose. When it came to this work, all that knowledge and the way of thinking I had learned at university turned out to be really valuable.”
After eighteen months of surfing and pioneering in the world of the internet, the penny dropped for Plantenga. “Programming, looking for solutions, optimizing online processes; it all fascinated me. Effortlessly, I was spending weeks on end delving into some or other issue, finding it hard to drag myself away from my pc. In science there were any number of people who would make better professors and postdocs than me, but this I was good at. I could see myself holding my own in the top echelon.”
“We need leaders with technical understanding”
Thomas Plantenga – CEO Vinted and alumnus BME
This top echelon is also where he sees a place for students of universities of technology. “I know that people don’t necessarily expect TU/e students to become the heads of companies, but I am convinced that people who have done hardcore technical engineering are precisely the people we need in the top echelon. They are the ones who innovate, who know what’s going on on the technical side of things. Similarly, it seems to me an immense shortcoming that in Dutch national politics virtually nobody has a technical education. Then you can’t hope to win against other countries and regions where graduates of math and sciences have a strong presence.”
But students must work hard if they want to become future leaders, Plantenga is keen to stress. “Ask yourself this: do you want to stick to what you are good at and be treated with reverence, or do you want to really count? If so, your communication and social skills will need attention, you’ll need to leave your comfort zone. Show us those superpowers engineers have, come out of your shell and step up. Because we need leaders with technical understanding, just think of the energy transition.”
Plantenga is pleased whenever he sees TU/e people taking part in the media. “That’s somewhere that our scientists need to play a more dominant role. If you choose to study technical engineering, then you also have to take responsibility. We have problems to solve that aren’t easy: how do we shape the debate surrounding artificial intelligence? How can we solve environmental problems, and what about the energy transition? “
Exclusively technical staff
For years now Plantenga’s life has been in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, where the head office of the European startup is located. The majority of the staff are Lithuanian nationals and most have a technical education. “The same is true of our management team. I am pretty impressed by how strongly analytical and mathematical they are here, and how strong the engineering culture is in Lithuania. A remnant of the Soviet era, when exact sciences were held in extremely high regard. This is still the case, and it has hugely benefited us as a company. Having people who are so technically literate at every level of our company means we can run Vinted in the analytical and technical way we do.”
Plantenga is convinced that it was this technical knowledge that enabled Vinted to switch gear to home-based working when corona reared its head and so much was still unclear. “We did an internal analysis of how corona might spread and soon realized that working at the office wasn’t going to be possible for all of us.”
But corona didn’t leave Vinted unscathed. “At that stage we didn’t know how quickly the virus spreads nor how harmful it is.” Nor whether it could spread via the clothing that was changing hands via postal packages. “That would have had a huge impact, and so we shut down our largest markets until we had the assurance that sending packages wouldn’t cause a problem.” The platform came to a halt in France, Belgium and Spain – together much of Vinted’s sales market – for six weeks. “From these countries we were receiving conflicting messages from government bodies about whether it was safe, so we decided to err on the side of caution. We didn’t want to become a spreader.”
In addition, they kept a close eye on academic publications relating to COVID-19. “Another benefit of having a management team with a technical education: we have no difficulty in understanding articles like these and we aren’t scared of statistics.”
“Taking the decision to shut down Vinted, that was real leadership under great pressure”
Thomas Plantenga – CEO Vinted and alumnus BME
During this period Vinted made a loss of tens of millions “compelled by moral responsibility. To be certain we could offer safety to our communities. Making that choice, taking that risk, was hard for us, that was real leadership under great pressure,” says Plantenga, reflecting on that period in the summer of 2020.
When it became clear that the virus couldn’t spread via postal packages themselves, the flow of packages was taken in hand in order to prevent the collection points becoming crowded: “Operating at reduced volume and setting up a system whereby customers received their package later but delivery staff are safer. People were understanding about our having to do things differently. It was easy enough to explain, it was about their safety. It won us a lot of customer confidence.” This became evident after Vinted’s restart, when profits were even higher than before the shutdown.
A million for corona research
“When it became clear that we’d pull through, we decided to donate a million euros to fund research into the spread of coronavirus. We want to help in the battle against coronavirus. It’s not only about ‘second-hand first choice’; you try to do more to help, and we want our employees to see us leading by example. Together, we have all worked extremely hard to keep the lights on at Vinted and we are proud of how our team has managed to survive. This is what we wanted to reward by making this gift.”
So it was that the Louis Pasteur Institute in Lille received a large donation for scientific research into corona, and another sum went to Leiden University Medical Center for research. “We asked the governments of the countries concerned which institutes could make good use of the money.”
Lack of time – like the rest of us, Thomas Plantenga is bound to days of 24 hours – is the reason why he currently plays no active role within TU/e’s alumni community, although he clearly sees its importance. “Alumni who are successful serve as examples for students. What’s more, a strong network of connected alumni can help the university to make even more of its role in society. But at the moment my diary is full of matters that are keeping Vinted on track. There will come a time when my work and personal life are more balanced, but right now it’s a real challenge being a good son and brother and making time for friends.”
He rounds off with a message for our students. “Your student years are, of course, the best time of your life. It’s a magical time and you shouldn’t take everything too seriously.” But at the same time he makes a moral appeal to the engineers of the future. “You get the chance to learn incredibly valuable knowledge during your years at TU/e. Make sure you develop as a person so that you can use this knowledge in a useful way. Challenge yourself to do this, you owe it to yourself. What’s more, you will be at your happiest when you feel you are useful, contributing something to make the world a better place.”