First published in AMS business magazine. Author: Bert Bukman
Photography: Mike Roelofs
"Companies that can adapt the fastest today are the winners of tomorrow" - Ruben Nieuwenhuis of StartupAmsterdam
The next Booking.com, TomTom, WeTransfer, Adyen or Takeaway.com. This is what Bas Beekman and Ruben Nieuwenhuis would like to see materialise. ‘Amsterdam should should be the city where great ideas are born,’ Beekman says, ‘from where they spread all over the world.’ This is the startup model, as defined by Silicon Valley: ‘A startup is an organisation formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.”
Remarkably, companies such as these often have their roots in Amsterdam, ‘which is a good thing for us as a city,’ says Beekman. ‘Startups bring dynamism and strengthen Amsterdam’s reputation with the rest of the world. The local economy also benefits, not least because these innovative companies create new jobs. A recent study by the OECD showed that startups provide four times greater employment growth than other businesses. And, when it comes to the labour market, we need to be able to meet this demand in the coming years.’
When it comes to providing an example of this contribution to employment, Nieuwenhuis doesn’t need to think twice. ‘Recently, Bas and I were at the Marineterrein, a rapidly developing part of the city,’ he says. ‘We had a meeting with the CEO of Catawiki, Europe’s fastest-growing auction house. It’s an ambitious startup that experienced tremendous growth in 2015 and, naturally, the CEO wants Catawiki to continue to grow, but he needs more staff for that. “I’m looking for 120 good people, and I need them now,” he told us. That attitude shows just how important such a business is for the city. But it is also a challenge to find these kind of people so quickly.’
Helping them flourish
Beekman, who is connected to the Amsterdam City Council’s Department of Economic Affairs, and entrepreneur Ruben Nieuwenhuis are programme directors of the StartupAmsterdam initiative. StartupAmsterdam is a vision and action programme designed to position Amsterdam as one of the top three startup hubs in Europe. A public-private initiative, StartupAmsterdam represents the joint ambitions of the Amsterdam startup community and the City of Amsterdam to accelerate the startup scene. The framework of the programme consists of fifteen measures that are based on the five pillars a startup needs in order to flourish: talent, users and customers, content, capital and a startup-minded environment. The programme is operated and overseen by a quick-response team, which works to ensure that these measures are implemented.
It’s no coincidence that the post of Programme Director at StartupAmsterdam is a shared job. ‘The collaboration between public and private parties is essential,’ says Beekman. ‘As a municipal government, it is our job to support and assist new, emerging businesses. We create the conditions in which they can flourish, but it’s the companies themselves that have to do all the real work; we’re not the appropriate party for that – no matter how much we would like to be. For economic growth and prosperity, you need entrepreneurs. They know the market, and they know what is – and what isn’t – possible. Moreover, they speak a different language than we do; a language you need to be able to speak to achieve your goals in this dynamic world.’
An important word in that new language is ‘pivot’, Nieuwenhuis explains. ‘That’s a change in strategy that every startup must be able to make, and make fast. Only then will you have a chance of success. Such a change of course can cover all parts of the business – the sales model, revenue model, partner strategies or approach to distribution, to name a few. Essential to a pivot is “trial and error”. Everything is new in this market, and no one knows in advance what exactly you need to do and show. The only way to find out is by putting ideas into practice. It’s a matter of experimenting and adjusting your course until you’re on the right track.
‘Companies that can adapt the fastest today are the winners of tomorrow. Take the success story of YouTube: nobody remembers, but YouTube began as an online dating site, and look where they have ended up now.’
StartupAmsterdam aims to further improve the ecosystem for new businesses. ‘This ecosystem reflects the resilience and pioneering spirit of commerce that Amsterdam is renowned for,’ writes Kajsa Ollongren in the foreword of the vision and action programme. ‘These qualities have always been part of the city’s DNA.’ Ollongren, who is the alderperson for Economic Affairs in Amsterdam, immediately embraced startups after taking office in June 2014. ‘Amsterdam is an international city that’s constantly in flux. Rapidly expanding companies in the technology and creative industries are vital to the city’s economy. It’s a fast-changing, dynamic economy that presents opportunities to all entrepreneurs, innovators and great minds who feel like an Amsterdammer but think on an international scale.’
To make the startup a real success, however, requires more than just resilience and entrepreneurial spirit. You need investors, for example, because it takes money to take a new business to great heights. And that’s something most novice entrepreneurs don’t have – or at least, don’t have much of. Venture capitalists who see opportunities and who want to set the market in motion can take such entrepreneurs a long way down their path.
One of StartupAmsterdam’s goals, therefore, is to bring startups and investors together. This is done mainly through the networks of all the people involved in the programme, but also through initiatives such as the Amsterdam Capital Week, an event full of pitches, workshops and all sorts of festivities, as well as a cycling tour where startups hop on their bikes and visit 30+ investors in their offices.
An event like Amsterdam Capital Week makes it clear just how important it is to create places where people can physically meet. In this digital day and age, getting together online is all well and good, but it makes no less sense than before to have a place where you can speak to each other face to face, exchange ideas, make plans, drink coffee and crack a few jokes. All of which takes you one step closer to achieving your goal.
Such places can be found dotted throughout the city, and they have the most dynamic names: TQ, Hackers & Founders, StartDock, Spring House, Startup Orgy and B. Amsterdam, to name a few. And you won’t always find these co-working spaces in the most expensive locations. On the contrary, B. Amsterdam, one of the largest and most successful examples, can be found in the Riekerpolder, a business park on the outskirts of the city by the A4 motorway.
Dam on the Amstel
So what really makes Amsterdam so suitable as a basis for successful startups? According to writers such as Russell Shorto, the acclaimed American author of Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City, it has something to do with the culture. People like him praise the spirit of creativity and openness that has been so characteristic of the city’s citizens for centuries. In fact, it goes right back to the 13th century, when a dam was built at the mouth of the river Amstel. This dam, from which the city takes its name, turned the area into a perfect trans-shipment harbour, and this resulted in Amsterdam quickly becoming one of the largest and most prosperous cities in Europe.
In addition to the psychological component of creativity and openness, there is also a physical factor: the scale of the city. Despite the growth of the past few centuries, the spatial arrangement of Amsterdam is still influenced by human considerations, such as the fact that almost all locations are accessible on foot or by bike. Add to that the large English-speaking population, excellent international accessibility via nearby Schiphol Airport and the overall availability of exceptionally fast Internet, and you understand precisely why so many innovative digital products and services see the light of day in Amsterdam.
Moreover, the Dutch capital is an attractive and affordable place to live, compared to other European capitals. ‘One of the biggest advantages Amsterdam has in the tech world is that it’s a place where people want to live – and can actually afford to, even on a startup budget,’ writes TechCrunch, an online publisher of technology industry news.
A place in the top three
The main goal of StartupAmsterdam is to secure Amsterdam’s spot as one of the top three startup ecosystems in Europe. The organisation wants more international early-stage startups to opt for Amsterdam accelerators and incubators. At the same time, it is important to convince businesses already a little further down their growth path of the opportunities and benefits Amsterdam, with its convenient location, offers them as a European hub.
And it’s not just the rest of Europe that is within easy reach; there are also many areas in the Netherlands itself that can contribute to a startup’s success. Amsterdam enjoys strong links with other major tech clusters in the Netherlands, at Eindhoven, Twente, Rotterdam, Utrecht and Delft, which are all less than 90 minutes away. As Ollongren writes: ‘The Netherlands has the largest startup ecosystem in Europe, and Amsterdam is its calling card.’
For all these reasons, StartupAmsterdam is closely involved with the national programme, StartupDelta. With former European Commissioner of the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes at the helm, StartupDelta is a government initiative dedicated to establishing a thriving and competitive ecosystem in the Netherlands and making it the largest startup ecosystem in Europe. ‘Having successful ambassadors such as Neelie Kroes, as well as Mayor of Amsterdam Eberhard van der Laan and Alderperson Kajsa Ollongren, behind us is of great value to StartupAmsterdam,’ says Beekman. ‘They know the ropes and know who and what we need to be able to move forward.’
‘Apart from money and talent, a fertile environment is also an important factor,’ adds Nieuwenhuis. ‘Inspiring people who all have the same goal, who understand what it’s all about, and who are willing to invest not only their money but also their time and energy – those are the people we need at StartupAmsterdam. People from the industry, knowledge institutions and government. People from the “Triple Helix” collaboration.’
StartupAmsterdam is now in its second year, and the first successes can already be seen, says a satisfied Beekman. ‘It’s hard work,’ he admits. ‘We have the support and commitment of a small and dedicated team that has gotten a lot done, but there’s still a lot more to do. We still have years of work ahead of us. Our goal is to show what we, as a city, can do for each other.’
For Nieuwenhuis, the successes achieved and the appreciation of all the parties involved make all this effort worthwhile. ‘It’s become so clear to me that we can really make a difference by bringing people together. At StartupAmsterdam, we also have to move fast, just like the companies themselves, but when you get results, you get such a fantastic feeling. You’re doing something for a reason. And ultimately, there’s nothing more satisfying than that.’