Exploring the Amsterdam Startup Ecosystem with StartupAmsterdam – Starting to Scale Ep. 1

To kick off our new podcast series with some big names in the Amsterdam startup world, who's better to talk to than StartupAmsterdam? They know the city and its startup scene inside out – you would hope so with a name like that!

In the first episode of Starting to Scale, we get into why Amsterdam attracts so many entrepreneurs, why mentors are a vital lifeline for founders, the importance of getting the right investor, and everything that StartupAmsterdam does to help startups succeed.

Our very own Sales Manager Will Aldred was lucky enough to sit down with Dieter Oude Kotte (Lead International Business) and Alexandra Belicova (Partnerships & Events Lead) from StartupAmsterdam. They certainly know what they're talking about, and their passion for their city really shines through.

StartupAmsterdam is an action programme run by the City of Amsterdam that supports startups, scale-ups, entrepreneurs and other players in the local ecosystem. It has helped the Dutch capital become a major player in the global scene.

You can listen to the episode on, or check out Starting to Scale by Oakwell Hampton on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, or YouTube.

Not much of a podcast listener? Carry on scrolling down for a handy written roundup of the conversation to read.

Alex, what’s your background and how did you come to work at StartupAmsterdam?

Alex: So, I began my career at a startup based in Amsterdam – surprise, surprise – where I learned the ropes of the startup world. Back then there were eight people. They were doing courses and classes for people to learn digital skills of the future and they showed me what the startup ecosystem and the Lean Startup Methodology were.

My learning curve was exponential, and after that job I got referred to an organisation called StartupAmsterdam, which is backed by the municipality of Amsterdam, so it's part of the local government. And since my background was in marketing, I began as the Content Lead / Marketing Communications Lead at StartupAmsterdam and have been there ever since. I pivoted a little bit in my role, but in general, we call ourselves the spider in the web of the Amsterdam startup ecosystem because we map out the ecosystem and create a narrative for it so that people not only locally but also internationally are aware of what's happening here. That's me in a nutshell. 

Dieter, tell us a little bit about your background.

Dieter: I come from a financial and business economics background, and I also studied policy science. When I started my career, it was more in the financial industry and later on more to IT – traditional IT, old mainframe systems. I moved to Belgium where I lived for eight years. I worked in the life sciences industry.

And then I moved back to Amsterdam, started to work for Economic Affairs, Foreign Investment. And that was when I really got to understand how companies are expanding and scaling, why the Netherlands is attractive and Amsterdam especially. And over those years, the focus was mostly tech companies. And so, I got to see a lot of tech companies and I also saw the market landscape changing in the city. Since 2015, more and more startups and entrepreneurs from all over the world started to set up companies here and I supported them.

Dieter, you’ve done quite a bit of travelling in your time, so why Amsterdam for you? And what do you think the appeal is for entrepreneurs? 

Dieter: Connectedness with the rest of the mainland, the rest of Europe. The talent pool, which is actually a European talent pool and abroad. There is the fiscal climate, there is the ease of doing business, there is the presence of a lot of multinational companies, corporates, potential clients – so, it's easy to scale. And it's also the fact that everybody speaks English, as do the government and websites. We are well equipped to support international companies here.

Alex, for people that don’t have a clue about StartupAmsterdam, what’s your aim as a business?

Alex: Our origin story goes back to 2015. Back then, the municipality looked around at other ecosystems around the world, taking note of what other governments were doing in order to support their business ecosystems. They looked at New York and London, San Francisco obviously, and they invited key stakeholders back in the day to the table and asked them: "What can we do in order to help you grow into unicorns, to strengthen and fortify the ecosystem here?” And that's how StartupAmsterdam as an action programme was designed and came about.

We set ourselves a goal to strengthen the ecosystem, looking at five pillars. So, what does an entrepreneur need in order to grow? For startups, it's access to capital, launching customers, talent, a startup-minded environment, and online and offline content. So, based on these five pillars, we designed our projects and initiatives and campaigns. That's how the StartupAmsterdam portal came about. That's how our Amsterdam startup map came about, which is, I think, one of the most useful tools that helps us keep a finger on the pulse of what's happening. That's how the Amsterdam Capital Week event came about, which is a yearly event connecting startups to investors and other forms of fundraising, and so on and so forth.

That's our reason to exist basically, to look into the Amsterdam market, see what's missing, and which gaps the government can fill by stepping in. That's what we've been doing so far. And I have to say that we've been pivoting in what exactly we need to address. In fact, after four years, we were renewed for another four years, so we're now in the second or third phase of our second term. That brings other challenges, but overall our goal is always to support the ecosystem and create meaningful connections for all the ecosystem stakeholders involved.

Dieter, what do you think the biggest change in the landscape in recent years?

Dieter: The biggest change that I've seen is that there is more and more software development here. If I look to international companies that pick Amsterdam for doing software development, building products, that has to do with the war on talent worldwide. For example, look at North America. It's very difficult if you're a startup or scaleup and you don't have the name – Facebook, or Uber or Netflix, or whoever – the competition is fierce over there to find the best talent.

And at the same time, the US was always very good in attracting talent from everywhere, but they also have more closed borders, so there is scarcity. Not everybody is willing to move to the US because of the changing political landscape over there, and the society is not always compelling. And so, there is a bunch of talent in Europe and in the rest of the world, and then it comes to cities that are able to attract that talent.

Companies have seen that, and they also see that it's not only engineering, but it's also the combination of business mindset. To create new business models, to work very closely together, to have this commercial spirit and these engineers around, and then together to be able to move fast. Amsterdam has proven to be very attractive for that. Also, it has to do with migration, it's very easy to bring in highly skilled migrants.

Alex, do you think that the government incentives for relocation are a big part in why Amsterdam attracts top talent?

Alex: Definitely. Dieter mentioned in the beginning among the reasons why Amsterdam is so attractive is because the lack of red tape, right. The ease for people to come here is definitely there. To illustrate this, we have the startup visa, which was created a couple of years ago. It allows non-European entrepreneurs to make their case. If they have a very good business idea, they can set up their business in the Netherlands. And just recently, literally this summer, the government has also allowed essential personnel from non-EU countries to be hired by startups with less of a struggle.

So, they're looking into not only the founders themselves, but also the founding teams that they need in order to grow their business. I think that is absolutely amazing for all this talent to find their way to Amsterdam.

We keep talking about the startup ecosystem, but what exactly does that mean?

Alex: It's not only the startups, it's the bigger companies, scaleups and corporates, the innovation managers within the corporates. It's also coworking spaces, accelerators, incubators, tech academies – both private and traditional universities. It's the investment landscape, it's the research institutions, it's event organisers for the tech community. It's all of these players that comprise, in our eyes, the startup ecosystem of Amsterdam. And not only Amsterdam, around the world that is becoming a clear definition of it.

In terms of talent, Amsterdam is alongside London, San Francisco and New York. What makes Amsterdam attract great talent compared to Eindhoven or elsewhere in the Netherlands?

Dieter: Why not Eindhoven or why not Rotterdam or Delft? Amsterdam has always had this attraction, there is something extra in it. It has to do with the fact that there are a lot of creative minds here, that this is a vibrant city that is appealing for many people.

And at the same time, the cultural offering is all in English. I mean, that is something Eindhoven for example would like to have, such a cultural offering to the internationals that are working from there. Don’t forget that there are a lot of internationals working there as well, but it’s nice that we have this complete offer. And it’s a liberal city, it’s a weird city, it’s a business city. It’s a magnet in itself to attract brilliant minds.

Do you think remote working will affect the equilibrium and how attractive Amsterdam is?

Dieter: Of course, we have seen in the last one and a half years, that there are companies that we were working with in the pipeline that set up entities here, but they're waiting a little bit before setting up the office. But at a certain point, if you're a new company here that has come from abroad and you have 10, 12, 15 people working remotely, it’s very difficult to maintain that startup culture. We all want to see each other, so maybe it will be a hybrid model in the future.

But I've also heard people talking about possibly having an event manager permanently. Normally, it was only for Christmas time that we organise an event for the team, but now we need something every month to get people together, to share knowledge, ideas, to collaborate, and to have fun, you know 

There are going to be challenges, so how would you prepare people if you’re helping them to relocate?

Alex: Looking back, I remember we were counting around 2000 events per year in Amsterdam taking place physically in person on a yearly basis. And that would always be my go-to advice for fresh founders coming to Amsterdam – get out there. Go meet people, go to the hubs, go to the places where like-minded people hang out.

Now it's a little bit like, okay, what do I do? So, just recently I actually spoke to a founder who just moved here, and it is now online communities as well. Seek out the communities that moved online and have online channels on Slack or Discord, or Facebook groups even – I found my first job in Amsterdam through a Facebook group. And coworking spaces continue to operate, so try to get a spot there or at least go for a tour of it and check out multiple spots.

Also, we like to say that in Amsterdam everybody's very accessible, everybody's a coffee away. So, don't be scared and discouraged to seek out thought leaders in the ecosystem who are very outspoken about what's happening, and just invite them to pick their brains and get some initial connections. I met so many people who are actually now friends, because they just simply reached out to me on LinkedIn, looking for their first steps. 

How important do you think it is for entrepreneurs or founders to have a support group to lean on and get advice from?

Alex: When you’re just at the ideation phase, having your peers around you as soundboards is absolutely crucial. That’s why incubators work so well. That’s why coworking spaces have a very nice offering. Try as much as possible to surround yourself with like-minded people, because that’s what’s going to move your idea from an idea to an actual MVP (minimum viable product) and then to a business.

How would you help someone not yet in Amsterdam to seek a peer who can help them and guide them?

Dieter: I always have personal contact, I always have a call upfront with people that have these ideas, and I sit down and listen to their story. And then I try to break down what the steps are that they have to take in their situation, what is most important right now. And then I take them by the hand because the added value of us is the network that we have. We have a very deep network in the tech ecosystem here and I know every aspect of where an entrepreneur can encounter obstacles, so I can help.

And that help is very varied. It goes from the nitty gritty things like procedures of getting into the country, to helping them to find a house, for example. Maybe if it’s a nice person then I’ll even take my bike out on the weekend and show them some nice neighbourhoods. I just open doors. I really help them to speak to the right people and get them to know some other people from the same country or who have been in the same situation.

But I have to admit, most of the time I have to deal with companies that already have a product. They come from abroad, they’ve raised money, and they come in. And also, for these companies, it sometimes makes a difference to which city they pick or which country they pick, to see how much effort we put in to make them feel welcome and to give them a soft landing. It’s really, really appreciated, and it can be small companies of 40-50 people to companies with a couple of thousand people. It’s always appreciated.

StartupAmsterdam opens doors for investment as well, right?

Alex: Yes, we try to create an infrastructure where it’s easy for founders to access all of those potential capital sources. We curate events, and there are a lot of pitching events happening in Amsterdam online as well. There are monthly recurring events where founders can actually meet investors.

We also invest in a lot of guides and online sources with tips and tricks on where to look, which organisations, which hubs, which people specifically. Also, I mentioned the yearly event earlier, that’s kind of the flagship for us when it comes to capital. All of this is set up in order for entrepreneurs to orientate themselves easier.

Dieter, have you got any insights into what someone should expect from the relationship between an investor and the founder? 

Dieter: That’s a difficult one for me. At the end, I step out of these conversations, but as Alex said, we give them opportunities to orientate. And sometimes, when they have really cool companies, where I think this really has potential and these are really smart guys, then I open my network personally to some investors. I’ll say that I think it’s worthwhile to talk with this entrepreneur about what they’re doing, and then I bring them together. That’s very nice to see if they then make a deal.

Do you think it's important for people to get the right investor? Someone could offer you a lot of money, but do you need to find someone who has experience in growing your kind of products, Alex?

Alex: Yeah, that's the thing in the Netherlands that we've noticed. Investors are not just investors, they also become your mentors. A lot of them even help you grow your team or get marketing support, they'll set up partnerships with other organisations that not only help you when it comes to money, but also all the other factors that influence your growth.

And if I can add how a relationship between a founder and investor looks specifically in the Netherlands: I remember we were discussing this with people who went through the fundraising steps in Silicon Valley, for example, and they said that because there's so much there, a lot of the time, investors have to fight to see one startup. In the Netherlands, it's much more accessible. There's not too much competition when it comes to this, so founders get easier access to an investor.

Of course, warm introductions always lead to better results, when the intermediary really understands what the startup needs and what the investor is looking for. But then, the process more or less doesn't look any different. Due diligence and all of that still happens.

Are there any trends that you're seeing in the market currently? In terms of the type of businesses or the type of people relocating to Amsterdam?

Dieter: Yes. A lot of fintech companies are moving in and companies related to the life sciences industry. That also has to do with the fact that we got this wonderful institute from the UK, the European Medicines Agency. But there has always been a strong life sciences industry here. Also, because the bio industry connects more and more to data and the IT industry, so it's coming closer together and you see a lot of life science / eHealth type companies starting here, which is very nice to see. Besides that, ecommerce always has been strong, and still is. Energy, clean tech, agri and food tech.

Is it just startups that are finding a home in Amsterdam?

Dieter: A beautiful thing that I forgot to mention earlier when you asked what has changed over the years is that a couple of years ago you saw big corporates knocking on our doors asking to get guidance in the tech ecosystem because they want to leverage what's going on here. That's even from companies that don't have operations here, just to get access to the ecosystem.

But at the same time, big companies that have already been operating for a long time here, foreign companies, that are also very eager to get closer to the startup industry here, but also to the knowledge institutions. They want to keep up with the innovation. And this is something that we are also doing. StartupAmsterdam connects with corporates, so more and more I help large corporates to understand what their innovation agenda is. What does their strategy look? Then, do they really understand the beautiful innovation ecosystem that they are operating in? Because sometimes they don't, because there are from abroad, or they have changed location and they are operating here because they wanted to do logistics out of the Netherlands, or set up a European headquarters, but they never thought about really leveraging the innovation ecosystem.

So then, if you have this discussion about what their innovation strategy looks like, then it really becomes exciting, because that is so cool to do together. We also take them by the hand to see what is interesting for them and guide them to the right people.

Do most people understand the startup ecosystem? 

Alex: You'd be surprised. It's not only corporates that sometimes are unfamiliar with what the scene has to offer, but also tech people. Because, for example, they start working at a big tech company with two or three thousand people and you ask them, "are you aware that all this exists for your development and your networking?" and they're like, "no, my company is my ecosystem."

So, there's always work to be done, to give these 'aha' moments to people and tell them that, you know, there are coding academies where you can volunteer and teach kids coding, or you can donate your time and be a part of this community or that community. It's my favourite thing to do, to shed light on it.

To do a small plug, we're actually working on a platform right now that will allow for easier CSR (corporate social responsibility) contributions from big companies, both local and international, to let their employees participate in the ecosystem within each means. It's in the pipeline right now, it's quite a coincidence that we came to this!

Are there any other upcoming projects that you're really excited?

Alex: We have a wonderful initiative being worked on now which is the creation of a hub for female entrepreneurs and women in tech. It's already online, it's already a digital hub, but there is work now being done on finding a physical place for those activities, so we're really looking forward to that.

Another project is in cooperation with a lot of other partners and the national government as well, and that is the digitisation of SMEs (small to medium enterprises). So, those business that need to be brought online quicker will be connected to startups that are offering those kinds of solutions. So that is something that the municipality is backing and supporting.

Dieter, what do you see as the future for Amsterdam? Is there something that you expect to evolve from Amsterdam?

Dieter: I think if you look to the global challenges and local challenges of cities, we see that our city government is really expecting more contribution from companies that are operating in this wonderful city with its wonderful infrastructure.

Okay, they pay taxes, but they really would like them to do more for the challenges that we are facing in this city, to keep it accessible, to keep it clean, to help people from underrepresented communities. Also, keep up with wealth, to avoid the split in society. There is an effort to activate companies to become more responsible for the community and to activate their CSR agenda locally. 

Thanks for checking out our first episode of Starting to Scale. There's plenty more to come with some real value and insight into the Amsterdam startup world. Make sure you're following Will Aldred and Oakwell Hampton on LinkedIn to keep up with the show.

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Will Aldred

11th November