Our competitors thought I was mad when I unveiled TomTom

HOW I BEAT THE ODDS Corinne Vigreux survived the financial crash, the launch of Google Maps and massive debts.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 23 Sep 2015

I discovered I was a tech junky in 1993 when I went to work for a dairy. I'd been at British firm Psion before. I left because I fell in love with our Dutch distributor, as you do, and moved to Holland.

The dairy didn't work out. I missed the frantic adventure of breaking new ground. My new husband, Harold Goddijn, had two friends who were developing software and suggested I help them on the commercial side. That's how Palmtop Software was born.

We made programmes for handheld PDAs (personal digital assistants). It grew slowly. I wanted to make a consumer brand, but computing was still in its infancy.

In the mid 1990s I saw these navigation programmes for PCs in a New York store. This is crazy, I thought, you're not going to take your PC with you in the car. After a year of development, we unveiled our satnav device at the C-Bit trade fair. Our competitors said we were mad. Even our new, consumer-friendly name received mixed reactions. 'TomTom?' said the guy from Compaq. 'What do you make, teddy bears?'

A buyer at Dixons took a gamble and the things started flying. Our first million units sold faster than mobiles at the same stage, but at €800 each. Our turnover exploded from €42m in 2004 to €1.8bn four years later.

It was crazy, as if someone had put me in a washing machine on high spin. The retailers didn't know what to do with us. We'd created an entirely new category.

Naturally, there were growing pains. At times, it felt as if we were recruiting everyone in Amsterdam who could read and write. In 2005, we went public, because we needed to build the brand before everyone jumped in. It was the right move – by 2008, there were 478 rival products on the market.

That was the year it all went wrong. We had huge debts from buying mapping firm TeleAtlas for €2.9bn, Google released its free phone maps and then the economy crashed. As most people who wanted satnavs already had one, our sales plummeted.

People suddenly treated us as if we were going to a funeral – ours. We had to let a lot of people go. There were times we thought we were never going to get out of this. Throughout, the four founders all stayed close. We'd often meet up for dinner just to relax. On one such occasion in 2009, we decided to put our own money back into the business in a rights issue. We could have walked away, but we believed in our brand.

It was the right decision. Our turnover never fell below €1bn and now it's growing again. We sold five million satnavs last year, and we've diversified into wearables, built-in devices and big data. TomTom is the only major consumer electronics company to come out of Europe in the past 15 years, and that's something we're very proud of.

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