UvA Classics alumnus Raphael Hunsucker never thought he would become an entrepreneur. It was not on the radar, he said. However, after his experience in the UvA Humanities lab, his idea of organising sustainable train trips to Italy grew more and more. Together with his business partner, historian John-Alexander Janssen, Raphael is now co-founder of Italië Centrale. At IXA, we were curious to find out about his entrepreneurial journey.
When did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
My job at the university had ended (I worked as a researcher, PhD student and lecturer), I couldn’t find a house in the Netherlands anymore and was offered a house in Rome, so I moved there. Because I knew quite a bit about Rome, I became a Tour Guide, an unintentional introduction to entrepreneurship. Eventually I started my own business, thanks to the University of Amsterdam (UvA). In 2019, I followed a bootcamp at the Humanities Lab AVS, which is a platform for education about entrepreneurship. It was an exciting experience, because it was new to me that there was a program specifically for Humanities. There, for me something familiar (my study background) and something relatively new (entrepreneurship) came together. I learned a lot in one week, and that’s when the journey actually started.
How did you come to start Italië Centrale?
The idea started during the week at the Humanities Lab. It became clear to me that I wanted to do something with Italy, and during the bootcamp, I really had to focus on researching what the market needed, which turned out to be train trips from the Netherlands to Italy. There was a lot of demand for easy, cheap and sustainable ways to travel to Italy, but no supply: this resulted in the Italië Centrale. When potential customers come to us, we provide them the best route to their destination, an attractive price, and if they approve, we can organise the entire journey from door to door, without unforeseen costs. We are situated at the Amsterdam Venture Studios at the University of Amsterdam and focus on tourists, but also business travellers, researchers travelling for work, expats, and high schools organising trips to Italy.
How have you experienced coaching in the different phases of your startup?
I really experienced the help of the Humanities Lab as a warm bath. I knew absolutely nothing about entrepreneurship when I started the bootcamp, but especially in the months thereafter it was crucial to be able to discuss the next steps with Robert Meijer as business coach and to get advice on all sorts of things. He has taught me a lot about business models, but also about the terminology used in the business world. That makes interacting with suppliers, business partners and corporate customers a lot smoother. You are then no longer the odd minded academic who knows nothing about MVPs or the BCG matrix. Also, the community of fellow entrepreneurs in the Humanities Lab was a nice environment to grow in, and the trainings and events they organize for “their” startups were really helpful. Lastly, Robert has constantly inspired me to persevere with great ambition. That’s important too: the coaching doesn’t just consist of factual information, but also of enthusiastic support for what you’re doing!
How has the pandemic positively or negatively influenced your business?
Initially pretty negative. I started in January 2020 and the first trips were supposed to begin in March, so due to the lockdown these bookings all fell through. That was a tough period. I noticed that it did eventually pick up a little bit; In the end, I was still quite satisfied with the results for 2020. 2021, however, surpassed everything, because when it slowly became clear towards the summer that people could travel again, things went crazy. I constantly got bookings and had to cancel my own vacation to manage these. Lots of people went on vacation in Europe because of the pandemic, I think that was an absolute win for us. The reactions were also very positive, people said this way of travelling was really a revelation for them.
What were your biggest hurdles up till now?
The biggest hurdles right now are mostly the uncertainties and ambiguities with the train companies we buy the tickets from. Because of the yearly changing timetables, it is often uncertain until shortly before the trip when you can buy certain tickets, so you sometimes have to reassure your customers and cope with these uncertainties behind the scenes.
What is ahead of you now?
Our expansion plans for Italië Centrale mainly lie with offering organised trips to Rome for schools. Besides being good business for us, we really want to help keeping the tradition of ‘the Rome trip’ alive, but in a sustainable way. Also, an academic contribution is added to helping the schools in making sustainable choices: we also assist teachers with the program of the trip. Besides this, I am now working on a new company called Choo-Choo, which I recently set up a B.V. with an associate and an investor, with the ambition to organize train trips throughout Europe. It is a really hot topic, with the broadening of good train networks in Europe and governments stimulating the use of trains.
I think for entrepreneurs in general, but certainly for people at universities who are considering a business, there is a huge challenge in terms of sustainability, but not just in the form of technology. That’s the mission that I also have: of course we have to come up with all kinds of technological solutions, but the trains, for example, they are already there. This is about people’s mentality, and bringing about a change in mentality, rather than technology. I hope, for that matter, that we are not the only ones wanting to help people to make sustainable choices.
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