The Vanhulley brand is in every fiber of its founder. Jolijn Creutzberg built a company on the core values "guts, fun and own" and managed to create a movement that still surprises, moves and inspires her in entrepreneurship. In the Groningen sewing atelier - in the midst of a new batch of employees - she talks about her organic development path.
Jolijn studied psychology and business administration, ran her own project agency Creutzberg for nearly two decades, and always had entrepreneurial ideas. One of them was making boxer shorts from shirts that are no longer worn, but are too good to throw away. Since then, Vanhulley's boxers have become a household name and the company makes many other beautiful products from (company) textiles that otherwise disappear into landfills. Just as unique as the collection, is the annually changing sewing team: every summer a new group of women starts, who with an education and work experience at Vanhulley take a step into the labor market.
'From the moment I started talking to others about my idea to start a local boxer factory, a journey was set in motion along roads I didn't even know about beforehand,' Jolijn says. 'It was a commercial plan and what stands today is a social enterprise. But one where the customer is king, because without sales we cannot make an impact. The surprising twists and turns along the way have taught me that there is little point in setting a business plan in concrete. You just have to start and be open to what comes your way. Follow the flow. And keep innovating, because even though Vanhulley has a great favorability factor, our business is fragile.'
'That vulnerability surprises most people. We have a beating story that appeals to many, get regular publicity and have a nice client base. Yet we have to work hard every year to get enough paid assignments. One of the biggest lessons I learned with this business is: kill your darlings. For me, the boxer shorts were sacred, and that focus got me far in the start-up phase. But to stay afloat, a broader collection was needed. Working business-to-business with corporate textiles turned out to be a golden move. There is still the heart of Vanhulley in everything we make. Even in the mouthguards we made in large numbers last year. As dire as the occasion was, it brought us profits with which we are reinvesting in new opportunities.'
Make a difference
As a forewoman, Jolijn gets the best out of herself at Vanhulley. 'With this company everything coincides: from my love for people and entrepreneurship to my need to be versatile. My intention was not necessarily to start a social and sustainable business, I simply had an idea and I saw a market. As soon as I started working with women eager for work experience, something happened that I did not foresee: they grew so much in their development that I realized where we could really make a difference with Vanhulley. From that moment on, my mission shifted and the commitment of motivated women took center stage. They deserve a chance and it gives me great satisfaction to see the movement we set in motion.'
'Vanhulley changes lives. Every year I see it happen again and yet that impact surprises and moves me every time. It's almost addictive to bring about something like that. Besides making beautiful products, a great quality of Vanhulley is that we give women a push that really works. The fact that they take new steps in their lives inspires me in turn to keep taking steps with Vanhulley. We can do things here in Groningen that can be done elsewhere, which is why we are investigating the possibilities for a second studio in Rotterdam. There are plenty of women we can help. Another point of development is more interaction with the local business community, for awareness of the importance of social entrepreneurship. What we do here is the new normal.'
Besides making beautiful products, a great quality of Vanhulley is that we give women a push that works.
Jolijn Creutzberg, Vanhulley
Lesson in letting go
Talent development is an essential part of the journey employees go through at Vanhulley. What about Jolijn's own development since she started this company in 2012? 'As an entrepreneur, I've really grown with it. Especially how it works with municipalities, public administration, politics and regulations was a voyage of discovery. I still learn from what comes my way along the way. Although by now Vanhulley is deep in my fibers and I know exactly how I want it. With the pitfall of making the company too dependent on me. On that point I am still evolving, especially as I approach sixty.
'The advantage of growth is that - besides the seamstresses, volunteers and interns - I have gathered around me a great team of five professionals, including a manager for the organizational side. I still guard the brand and the look, even though it is sometimes terrible that I have explicit ideas about everything. That remains a lesson in letting go. At the same time, I am happy with the space the team gives me. Continuous development is what I like to do best. That is why I am increasingly speaking out about the social role of social enterprises. We are a bridge between women who want to work and the tight labor market. This makes us - apart from the fact that we reuse materials - an essential link in a sustainable society.'