CEO Marc van Buren's inspiring story of how he built his own successful company
When entrepreneur and CEO Marc van Buren decided to quit his well-paid job at the Ministry of Defence in 2004 to start building a miniature world called Miniworld in the centre of Rotterdam, it was a life-changing moment for him. After his mother died, three days after 9/11 in 2001, he decided he wanted to follow his dream and his passion. "One of her last words was that she said I shouldn't wait to follow my dreams, because it was already too late for her," says van Buren. "It was that moment when I started rethinking my life and wondering if I really wanted to work in Defence until my late 60s." It was the beginning of what would become the largest indoor miniature world in the Netherlands. WUAS interviewed Marc van Buren just after he finished his inspiring lecture to the Wittenborg students at the Spoorstraat building.
Before van Buren decided to take the big step and start Miniworld, he took six months to decide what he really wanted. He left his former job as an electrical engineer at the Ministry of Defence because the work was becoming less, and less people oriented. "It became very technical to increase communication between the workforce, but I saw that the humanity was lost in the system." Six months after his mother's death, he suffered from burnout and, when he returned to the Ministry of Defence, it didn't feel the same to him. "I came back with a completely different perception and that this job no longer suited me," he says. "I could sit at my desk until retirement and earn a good amount of money for the rest of my life, but I couldn't take it anymore." He decided to focus on a more people-oriented job. He applied for many jobs that seemed interesting but was not hired by any of them. Meanwhile, he rediscovered his passion for building model trains. In his attic, he spent hours and hours creating his own world and this passion grew so great that he decided it could no longer remain just a hobby and Van Buren thought it could become something much bigger, like a business. A plan emerged.
A long and rocky road to success
The moment the idea of a large indoor miniature was born was when Van Buren noticed that a similar attraction had been built in Germany. "At first, I felt defeated because my new original plan no longer seemed so unique and original, but when I heard that something similar didn’t exist in the Netherlands, it inspired me to build a smaller version of Rotterdam myself," says Van Buren. "I looked for 5 or 6 other people to help me write my business plan and when that was ready, we realised we had a potentially working and sustainable idea for our own company." However, it took Van Buren a long time to make a final decision on whether to realise his big dream or not. "It is an extremely big and dangerous step to take. It was now or never, but I had to give up a well-paid job while my girlfriend at the time and I were dreaming of having children." He says, "I couldn't afford to let this go to waste."
Van Buren was determined to make this plan a success, but if you want to start your own business and make it big, you have to overcome setbacks, straighten your back and stand up again and again. Van Buren had a very difficult start while building Miniworld. Shortly after their official launch, the 2008 banking crisis spread around the world and would eventually affect the Netherlands as well. "We had to change our whole business plan. We had to reduce the number of employees we would hire for this period and we relied more on volunteers, of which we fortunately got plenty," he says. However, Van Buren never doubted Miniworld's success: "You always have to keep believing that you are working on something that will eventually become successful. Otherwise, your mindset changes irrevocably, and then things go wrong." According to Van Buren, overcoming setbacks is not only essential for your business to prosper, but also to gain the experience and confidence to face problems in the future. "My shareholders said at every setback that we have already been through so much that we can do this job," he says.
Hard work pays off
The result of years of hard work and 11 months of construction paid off on 30 March 2007 when Miniworld opened its doors. Currently, it is the largest indoor miniature world in the Netherlands with 85,000 visitors a year, although the numbers have dropped somewhat since a global pandemic and inflation made people stay home. "Our goal is to get those 85,000 visitors a year back," he says. Miniworld soon expects to welcome its millionth visitor since opening 15 years ago. Van Buren: "What really makes me love my job is when I am among people and they share memories seeing the models. Currently, I get interns and staff who used to go to Miniworld as children. My goal is to ensure that Miniworld becomes a place of memories for future generations and that they take their children to this place to talk about the first time in their lives they came to Miniworld."
Van Buren had one last piece of advice for Wittenborg students: "I could say that you should follow your dreams, but you should always remain realistic. Understand what you are doing and what opportunities are available within the field you want to work in." Van Buren adds, "For example, Miniworld operates in a niche market and we have been extremely lucky to get this far, but you have to work hard to take advantage of the one opportunity you get in your life."
by Niels Otterman