'The City that Fits Like a Glove'

Pieter Zwart

Interview ea.

Pieter Zwart did’t get his degree in Business at Erasmus University – he left in his fourth year. Now he runs one of the fastest growing internet companies in the country. There’s one thing he knows for sure: he’ll never leave Rotterdam.

TEXT: Karin Koolen
PHOTO: © Dik Nicolai

 

Pieter Zwart (41) gets up and walks to the window. With his hands in the pockets of his navy-blue jeans he peers out at Rotterdam Central Station, right outside of the Coolblue offices. Zwart’s office is an oasis of calm compared to the offices outside the door where there’s a constant buzz of people typing, calling, attending meetings. Every desk is covered with blue boxes and coffee mugs with that now-famous orange dot. ‘It’s not strange that we ended up here,’ says the CEO. ‘Rotterdam fits us like a glove. We share a certain DNA – a core of honesty and transparency, of being communicative, of getting down to business.’

What does Rotterdam mean to you?

‘I’m originally from Zoetermeer, but my heart belongs to this city. I’m never going to leave this place. I sometimes say that Rotterdam is like whiskey. Just like you need to learn how to drink whiskey, you need to learn how to work the city. It has hidden gems, it’s not in your face. On top of that I just love the views. My office has a great view of Central Station, and from my home – I live at the Kop van Zuid – I look out over the Maas. I love the river. It’s the city’s vein, always full of life. At the same time looking out over it gives me serenity. I like that kind of tension.’

Why did you choose Erasmus University back in 1996?

‘I’ll be honest, it was a no-brainer. A degree in Business is incredibly versatile. And the Rotterdam BA had a good reputation. I moved out, got a room in Kralingen. I liked studying, but I liked the city and the nighttime even more...’

Did that have anything to do with the fact you never graduated?

Zwart laughs. ‘Perhaps, yes. I was already starting up as an entrepreneur and was spending most of my time doing that. Life is about making choices, that’s the only way you get anywhere. I started Coolblue with two good friends – the company was still called mp3man.nl back then. We’d often sit around smoking and drinking, coming up with plans and writing them on coasters. On one evening like that we were at café De Dijk, near Oostplein. We were bouncing ideas off of each other, and that’s when we landed on the idea. After a year I called my father: ‘Dad, I’m going to put university on pause for a year.’ At the end of that year, going back wasn’t even an option. Hundred of orders a day, people in employment. By the time we got to the second year everything was going at such a high speed that I never thought about going back to university.’

Did anything from your time at university come in handy while setting up Coolblue?

‘Not at first. I was missing the practical skills needed when you start as an entrepreneur. Now that the business is as big as it is, the puzzle pieces are coming together. Back then there was a lot of focus on digital skills during the course of the BA – that unfortunately seems to have lessened.’

You’re on the RSM board and the Hogeschool council, and you give the occasional reading at Erasmus University. What message are you sharing with the people?

‘The world is changing quickly and we have to keep up. We won’t do that by teaching tomorrow’s working generation French or Latin. Just teach them English at a high level and give them digital skills. This process is too slow as is right now. I’m worried about that because digital skills are going to be imperative later on. For everything. I’m really pleased with our connection to Erasmus University, by the way. A lot of Erasmians work here.’

  • Name: Pieter Zwart
    Study: Business Administration, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University
    Position: CEO of Coolblue

  • ‘Digital skills are going to be imperative later on. For everything.’