This was written by Vincent van Leeuwen & Paul O’Connell.
After the large success of U.S. startups over the past two decades, several large European cities are striving to become Europe’s Silicon Valley. Amsterdam is no different in this quest. In true Dutch fashion, Amsterdam considers itself on par with (if not better than) startup hubs like Berlin, London and (to lesser extent) Paris. In reality, there’s a long way to go before we truly reach such a status.
For a long time we felt the urge to give insight on the true status of the Amsterdam startup system. Interestingly enough, when we finally decided to sit down and write this post, a European startup manifesto (ESM) was released. The ESM is a great initiative by industry leaders like Daniel Ek, Niklas Zennström and Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten that deserves a lot of credit. There is one big difference though besides their manifesto and ours. Where the ESM has been written by industry leaders, this one is written by young and insignificant entrepreneurs. Scrappy entrepreneurs who know the system inside out. We’ve seen the sink. And unlike most industry leaders, we experience each pain point almost every single day.
Before we kick off though, I’d like to stress one important thing: it’s not all wrong. Looking at the relatively small size of the Netherlands, one could argue that Amsterdam is doing quite OK. There are currently just a lot of issues that prevent the ecosystem from growing further. Issues that could be fixed if they get the attention they deserve. Which is why we co-wrote this manifesto.
Here are the pain points in the Amsterdam ecosystem that deserve our attention:
Entrepreneurial education sucks.
Amsterdam is not a startup hub in Europe (yet) for many reasons, including the lack of: i) an interconnected ecosystem of prominent startup influencers, ii) platforms to create entry points for upcoming talent and iii) basic knowledge of what startups are.
Higher education entrepreneurial courses are insular and swimming in an ancient educational system that lacks a connection with the actual community of companies. We as startup representatives have a responsibility to step in and exemplify. We know that students are slow to embrace startup life because of its risky nature but do they see the opportunity that exists? Too often and too easily talent is lead into the corporate realm.
A solution could be to commit a couple of hours a month where established entrepreneurs like Michiel Muller and Kees Zegers talk to students about the relevance of Dutch startups such as Springest, Layar, Human, YourKarma and others. The end result would be a definite recognition of the opportunity and freedom that a startup brings. This doesn’t have to be only higher education students but talking to children in elementary school who probably use startup tools too.
Showcasing startups and the people building them will start to create more entry points for getting into startups and help to develop a higher density of new companies beginning.
Start at the beginning. Bring startups into schooling systems at an early age. Expose the ‘opportunity of startup’ that’s available to them here and now.
Think fucking differently.
It seems like we Dutchies have forgotten our true roots. The songs kids are taught at school are songs about Michiel de Ruyter and Piet Hein, both famous pirates. Well, entrepreneurs are pirates. But it seems like we’ve all forgotten just that. Climbing the corporate ladder gives you more street-cred than starting your own company. We now live in some fucked-up society where grad-students ultimate ambition is to work for a foreign-owned strategy consultant or investment bank. The brightest talents (I’m talking physicists and mathematicians here) too often waste their talent on making some algo trading house even more money. Or they’re busy figuring out how Shell can destroy the world’s natural resources even further. Instead, these great minds could be solving real issues that make the world a better place.
We were once a proud country built on risk-taking and entrepreneurship. We even managed to rule the world for a short while as a result. Let us hope that some of that mentality returns, because otherwise we’ll end up even further behind than we already are.
We badly need more venture capital and a long term vision from investors who understand startups. To benefit from this style of investor and VC we need people creating startups who think differently. More great teams and talent come first then you will see the money appear. Programs like TechnoPartner are already an excellent start, let’s hope that this trend continues.
Embrace, don’t segregate.
How do we encourage thinking differently? Bring people together to talk, collaborate and this can be done simply by sharing a drink. It seems simple right? Well it doesn’t yet happens as much as it should.
Our ecosystem is peppered with sporadic events and once-offs. We have a yearly Startupweekend, Hackers and Founders monthly, Rockstart Answers and Pitchrs (bi-monthly) though Appsterdam does hold weekly drinks and workshops. For startup-run consistent events, we are poor. We are in desperate need of more startup initiated events where learning for startups happen. On a positive note the future does hold new initiatives to bring us together like Silicon Drinkabout and Host the Startup Keg aimed specifically at Startups. Let’s show early stage entrepreneurs and potential startups how we do things differently.
Amsterdam has the advantage of having a healthy base of startup evangelists and a strong international community. These people want to be involved in the scene and we should be embracing them. We have a tendency to look at them as ‘wannabes’ but they are as part of the community as you and I. Let’s use the ripple effect of these evangelists to help promote new styles of doing business and people trying ‘batshit crazy ideas’ because they want to change the world for the better. Embrace, don’t segregate.
Where are the crazy people with crazy ideas?
So what is a good example to go forward then? When people talk about a ‘successful’ startup ecosystem in continental Europe, fingers usually point to the same direction: Berlin. I find this strange. When you plainly look at resources, culture, attitude and lifestyle, both cities aren’t very different. Then, why is it that Berlin is so successful and Amsterdam isn’t?
I believe it’s the crazy people.
It’s that simple. Amsterdam needs more batshit crazy people. I strongly believe that this is the key difference between Amsterdam and Berlin when looking at potential for a successful startup ecosystem. Amsterdam is not a city for students, entrepreneurs or creatives. Amsterdam as I’ve come to know it, is a city filled with Yuppies. If ever our goal was to compete with Berlin as a startup ecosystem, this has to change. Look at housing for instance: An area that’s severely spoiled by Yuppies who pay anything for B and C locations. If you’re a creative looking to come to Amsterdam, it’s next to impossible to live within the City ring for less than €700 a month.
A possible (top-down) solution could be to put more emphasis on housing for the creative sector. We’ve built entire container blocks for students every X years. Why keep this for students only? Why not build container blocks for creatives and entrepreneurs as well? I believe this would be a huge boost to the ecosystem.
We need more systems and services to help (expat) integration and facilitate working spaces. We already have examples of these such as Rockstart Spaces, Venture Lab and Bouncespace. The government also takes some steps to encourage entrepreneurship but falls short of involving startups into this process. You have inept money-less systems like Syntens and a growing disillusionment that a symbiotic relationship can exist. Or even worse: The most ‘successful’ startup competition that’s out there in the Netherlands is actually (co-) hosted by McKinsey & Company.
Seriously: McKinsey? WTF do they know about starting your own company?
I say we build our own startup cycle of replenishment.
Through a solid groundwork we can keep the original dutch startups that have emigrated to resource rich countries, here in the Netherlands. Stop wasting government funds on large corporates writing bullshit businessplan books. Instead, start injecting talent, cash and knowledge back into the system. If we build it they will come (back).
There’s not just a lack of crazy people in the Amsterdam ecosystem, there’s also lack of crazy ideas. Amsterdam seems to be filled with small investors who are determining that revenue positive startups (insta-money) are the future. These startups are cool in their own right, but are not likely to drive attention and growth the way SoundCloud did in Berlin. We all agree that companies like Booking.com and eBuddy are great and profitable businesses and sure, they probably solve problems for a lot of people. But we all know that its companies like Napster, Skype or SoundCloud who inspire future generations (notice the lack of Dutch examples on that list).
The good news here is that there seems to be a shift in mindset. I believe not so much in Amsterdam yet, but definitely in the Netherlands. There seem to be more and more crazy ideas popping up. CulturedBeef is cultivating it’s own beef through cell transplantation. Mars One is organizing a suicide mission to Mars and are even getting paid to do so. Although still in their early days, these are great examples of crazy stuff that could have a large impact.
Don’t let anyone tell you that something is crazy or impossible. It’s the crazy ideas we don’t get today, that can be made obvious in a few years.
Your Culture is not your Business plan.
Culture means “socially transmitted behaviour patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought”.
The culture of a startup will happen whether you guide it or not. For me the core attractiveness of a startup has always centred on taking risks, transparency and a willingness to share success and more importantly failure. Transparency in pay structures and process will help share knowledge and offer insight into methodology you might not have had.
A deliberate culture will bring in the right talent and set you apart as a company that people want to work with and admire. Concentration in the Netherlands focuses on lean business methodology but rarely on what the startup culture is or could be. A young business is a balance of business and culture. It is the culture of the startup that separates it from its corporate counterpart.
Through knowledge gained at Dutchstartupjobs I’ve discovered that the value proposition young companies use to attract new talent, focuses on all the wrong areas that I believe a startup should focus upon. The texts generally centre on the product and not the team who are creating the product. It’s a rare occasion they explain who the team is and what it means to be an integral part of this small collective of single minded, passionate people.
Finding talent that fits your team is as important as finding investment and deserves the same attention when putting your proposal together. Sell the culture, team, product and potential. I suggest creating a talent pitch deck. The same ideas and criteria that would go into an ordinary Pitch deck for funding can be adjusted to create a deck for potential employees.
Define a culture and behaviours for your startup from founders to employees and the community surrounding it. Create a talent pitch deck outlining your culture, team, product and potential to better find a fit for your company.
Rip-off other startup ecosystems.
What can we cherry-pick and adopt from European startup hubs? What can we take from other countries that have gotten their small enterprise matrix hitting critical mass?
Paris, Berlin, London and Dublin have risen in the last few years due to acquisitions and attention grabbing techniques. This happened at the ground level and used tech blogs and international investors to evangelise the word. But it has been a natural evolution.
The London community has seen the government infuse money and assets to help drive more innovative startups and encouraging investment firms to create offices there but they do not lead the community. This has enabled London as having a really strong density of startups. We need the talk with the Dutch (almost a taboo suggestion) government and remove consultancy companies as the way the government understands startups. Participate and help develop the sectors of innovation and entrepreneurship in the Department of Economic Affairs.
The Irish startup scene has quickly risen due to a supportive tech community and the emergence of a multitude of Irish conferences (Websummit / Offset, Úll) which create energy and focus the spotlight on the Irish market attracting investment and European headquarters for big companies. There are people such as Eamon Leonard, Sean Blanchfield and Russell Banks driving local events and are actively involved in creating entry points for new startups. We in the Netherlands have the monster that is The Next Web conference nestled yearly into the bosom of Amsterdam. But their focus on startups revolves around their conference and as I found out personally, do not promote local events through their website (that is, unless you pay a sizeable lump sum). As a result, they exist (for the most-part) outside of the community.
This is maybe something that European’s as a whole lack: That zealous ambition that American and some middle eastern hubs seem to have in abundance.It is said that wartime is a peak time for innovative thinking. Could a deep recession have the same effect as it has had in the Irish ecosystem delivering a thriving need to make the startup scene work and be a powerful driver of change?
Grit our teeth and work with the government on what startups need to grow. Focus international attention on the community here by learning how to shout. Be an ‘American second-hand car salesman’. Talk ourselves (the startups!) up and forget the ‘just enough’ mentality.
In conclusion, there is no conclusion. We are part of the startup ecosystem in Amsterdam and the Netherlands and we all have a part to play. We haven’t spent weeks putting this manifesto together for it to be tweeted out and then forgotten. We all benefit when we look in the same direction and speak with one unified voice. If it’s only one point you agree with go spread the word and help make these ideas firm action. I have met many people who want to make startups and community work better. All they needed was a plan of action. Let this be it.