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Meet Claire Bénard: founder of Merqato, the company accelerating the transition to a sustainable food system!

Hi Claire, FEM-START is happy to have you with us today! Tell us, what inspired you to start your own business, and how did you come up with Merqato? 

I always knew I wanted my own business, as I come from a family of entrepreneurs. I first wanted to learn a trade and gain experience before establishing my own venture – so I became a data scientist. About a year ago, I quit my job as a data science consultant to make some time to find the right idea and a co-founding team. When I met Thomas and Jan-willem (my co-founders) they were in the middle of a pivot with Merqato: originally they wanted to create a marketplace for fresh produce surplus, but after a few validation weeks, they realised that it was not addressing the right problem. When I met them, they wanted to pivot to a data platform and a forecasting engine but neither of them had data or ML expertise. So we decided to team up and test the feasibility of the idea together.

What are some essential steps and actions you took to get your business off the ground? 

While I always knew I’d take the plunge at some point, I wanted to first take the time to build up my skills and experiences so that I would bring something tangible to the table. I was also very motivated to start a company that would have impact at its heart and not as an afterthought. And it had to be related to data and AI. So that narrowed down my search a bit. 

Once I had found a team and a problem space I loved, I spent a lot of time validating the problem, with potential customers. To start with, we were not asking the right questions and not asking them in the right terms so it took some iterations to get the insights we needed. Once I had a clear idea of the problem, I built a proof of concept to address the main objections people had to our proposed solution. That definitely helped get customers excited about a pilot and that was key to kickstart the fundraising process to fund a proper MVP.

Was there a specific time or instance where you had to pivot your business model? Or maybe quickly implement changes in how you work as a tech co-founder and with your team?

It’s still very much a trial and error process: we’re only 9 months old. One thing that helps me in the uncertainty is to know that if we are completly wrong, there are more opportunities in the same problem space so we can pivot to the next one and we have several pilot customers who can guide us with their feedback. So far the biggest pivot is probably the shift from a fresh produce marketplace to a data platform and it was a blessing for me as this is why I joined Merqato!

You have a socially responsible business that also promotes and enhances sustainability in many areas. How important do you think this factor is for the future of entrepreneurship? 

It is certainly important to me. Most of my career has been in the not-for-profit space. I’m not religious about it, actually I think many companies that are for-profit have a very positive impact on the world. In fact, because they make a profit, they can sustain their impact over time and do not depend on external funding sources. That is our goal for Merqato: if we succeed, there will be less waste in the food chain and this can benefit growers – who currently only get 27% of the value of the crops they grow. 

Regarding the importance for entrepreneurship: I see around me that more and more people are looking to find meaning in their work, so leading an impactful company hopefully makes it easier to find talent.

What are some of the biggest mistakes you made along the way, and what did you learn from them?

We are still very young so I am not sure which of the decisions we’re making now will turn out to be mistakes. I believe mistakes are unavoidable, it takes trial and error to get better. Rather than aiming to avoid mistakes we try to mitigate their impact. One thing I’ve learned is that when you’re a small company, each decision you make feels like an existential question but it’s helpful to zoom out and realise that a lot of decisions are reversible.

What is your biggest achievement since founding the company, and how did you get there? 

There is quite a lot to celebrate! We’ve had some commercial success, we’ve raised almost 400.000 EUR, I’ve been selected for the finale of the FEM-START award… It’s been an exciting few months! But if I zoom out, I think what I’m most proud of is to be pursuing my entrepreneurial dream. Also, the fact that I’ve found great co-founders in Thomas and Jan-Willem: most startups fail and most fail because of tensions between co-founders, so the fact that we’re still going strong after almost a year is a good sign. It gives me confidence that when inevitably times get tough, we’ll stick together and find solutions.

What advice would you give to aspiring female entrepreneurs, particularly those who do not seem to believe they can do it? 

Everyone is different but for me it was helpful to have the Antler programme as a trigger to help me take the step. I was in a secure consulting job and, I did not have the energy or head space to work on a startup on the side. I knew I needed to quit to pursue what I truly wanted. It was scary to quit, but having the Antler programme to structure the transition gave me the confidence to leave my job behind. One thing that I’d say to someone on the fence is that the leap looks bigger before you take it than after!

What’s next for Merqato? What can we expect?

We’ve just received some money from the Vroege Fase Financiering, which helps us build our MVP with our pilot customers. Next is definitely the recruitment of a team and the launch of a working product! Stay tuned.

If you would like to know more about Claire’s company Merqato, click here!


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