Stiply, founded in 2014 by Joost and René Kuhlmann, is on a mission to replace printed, signed documents by digital signatures. The company has already abolished a lot of paperwork in the children daycare sector. Founder Joost Kuhlmann explains why he quit his job as a lawyer and became founder of Stiply.
How and why Stiply got started
Paper, I have seen lots of it. Stacks and stacks of printed sheets, stuffed in orders and boxes, representing yet another legal case. I was unpacking and copying these files when I worked a student job as a clerk at the District Court of The Hague. A few years later, being an IT lawyer, I would produce all these written words in ink myself. Yet another contract or angry letter, drafted and printed in twofold, threefold or sometimes – in case of court documents – in fivefold to be sent off by courier or fax. Crazy old-fashioned, I am well aware.
Having both a degree in computer science and law, I have always been fascinated about ways to make stuff more efficient with the help of tech. Legal tech is a big thing nowadays and next to a lot of startups in this space, also the courts put effort into digitalizing their processes.
Considering all this, I really wanted to contribute to reducing this endless stream of paper, and started building Stiply.
Idea extraction and starting up
Meanwhile, my brother – already an entrepreneur – was structurally calling companies for new business ideas and stumbled upon a problem in the childcare business. You’ve guessed it: the offices of childcare organizations send endless signup forms, contracts and terms and conditions to their clients: the parents of young children. A very time consuming process: printing and sending the contracts (sometimes in stamped envelopes), calling after parents who forgot about their contract, resending papers when errors had occurred, etc. Not to mention the hassle for the parents: printing, signing, scanning and returning contracts. It turns out lawyers are not the only paper-pushers around.
So, on a Saturday early 2014 I brushed off my somewhat rusty programming skills and started coding. And boy, did I like it. Before I knew I was coding early in the morning before work and late in the evening after work. The goal: to create a digital signing service for childcare organizations, that would be extremely easy to use and would smoothen the process of sending and signing contracts. It would result in faster contracting, a far better signing experience and less paper usage to help save the environment.
My brother started approaching clients and partners and after six months of hard work the first customers paid for the use of our (very) minimal viable product. Approaching clients and partners is not easy. My brother has iron discipline to pick up the phone and start dialling. You need to do this, or you need someone to do this, but take it from me that clients won’t find you by themselves, especially not in the beginning.
And yes, the beta version of our software crashed a lot. But with endless patience from our amazing first clients we managed to make the software a whole lot better.
The lawyer entrepreneur
It was a bit of a challenge to shake off the risk-focused mindset you get having worked as a lawyer. An entrepreneur sees opportunities instead of risks, right? This has led to interesting discussions with my brother who is much more commercially oriented than I am. Should we activate the users of a company whose manager has not yet signed our license agreement? Or should we wait for the signature? You won’t fail to see the irony in this.
However, you do need to spend some time on legal questions. You should figure out your corporate structure and your licensing model and you should managing your intellectual property from the beginning. In a software company your intellectual property is the value of your company. You wouldn’t want the intellectual property of your software accidentally residing with that freelance programmer you have hired somewhere in the past, would you? Also identifying legal risks early in the game is very much worth the hassle because otherwise they can come back and kick you in the tail. Having legal aid also makes it easier to deal with larger customers, who have in-house legal counsel.
After a testing period of six months we officially launched Stiply and after a while I started working full time on the company. This made it a lot easier to make progress.
We extended our services to other branches than child care organizations, such as recruitment and placement, advertising, retail (webshops), etc. We also started exploring possibilities outside of the Netherlands. With the help of a German partner we tested our software in Germany and in this process we had the software translated into German and later into English, Spanish, Danish, Polish and Italian.
It may sound like stating the obvious, but I am going to anyway: you need to make sure that your software and server infrastructure is capable of handling a large increase in usage in a very short time. Somebody told us this early on: if your main issue for scaling up quickly is your IT then you should fix that now. Well, that proved to be very valuable advice, and even while being prepared our servers crashed once because of a sudden burst in usage.
We are ambitious and set the bar high. Stiply wants to be the company for digitally sending and signing contracts and faster deal making, so we plan for a whole lot more of scaling up this year, which I am sure will throw new challenges our way.
But when I look at our usage dashboard, and see that people sent and signed thousands of contracts through Stiply last month, I like to think that we help to reduce the endless stream of paper, just a little bit.
Image by Stiply. Left on the picture: Joost Kuhlmann, right: René Kuhlmann