How to become a leading Startup Nation

A Startup (Events) Policy Template for Countries — case of The Netherlands


I wanted to share my thoughts here on Medium, because people keep asking me how I think Holland could position itself as the leading startup hub in Europe. It remains incredibly subjective, but I’d say in Europe today we’ve got 1. London 2. Amsterdam 3. Berlin … in that order.

Let me specify:

To me, a startup is

“A scaleup: A young technology driven company with a legal entity and a clear mission to change the world. It consists of a talented team that invests their lives in fixing one massive problem. They aim to solve it with their innovative product or service”. In case you’re wondering, a startup to me is not an individual with an idea, even though this divide is blurring.

The creation of 1 national startup hub policy for any small country like The Netherlands should be driven by a few simple rules:

Consistent nation-wide PR

The Goal. Goal of all PR activities is that everyone dealing with anything startup understands that we, as a country, are 1 entity in the eyes of foreigners. We shouldn’t want to come across as a fragmented entity.

This sounds logical, but it often isn’t for insiders: Cities in The Netherlands try to compete amongst each other and therefore have a micro-view on things that end at city borders. They often blame Amsterdam for taking (their) PR credits away, instead of thanking Amsterdam. Thoughts like this can kill any nation-wide effort even before starting.

Work With What You Have. Every hub / city in NL has already established its own added value, identity, and USP to some extent. My friend Ruben Nieuwenhuis worked out this nice visual map of the “startup skyline of NL”. I see initiatives like this as a healthy start of the above mentioned PR. Targeting this type of PR to politicians and other folk who don’t (yet) understand but work with startup to some extent already, would be a great beginning of creating 1 country-wide PR.

All hubs together is 1 Holland that at all times represents itself to foreigners via brand name “Amsterdam”.

The word Amsterdam is a very sticky brand. It makes anyone in the world smile. Such power of brand-name “Amsterdam” is still heavily underestimated and underutilized. Like “London” is not the only startup hub in the UK, it seems the word “London” as a brand is the single promotion done towards the outside world when referring to startups in the UK. The focus is not on other important startup hubs such as Cambridge or Manchester (from London you’re there in a whim).

New Names For New Things. Never compare a city or country with “the silicon valley of ….”. It drives me crazy to think how little the people who mention this seem to understand that you need to create not “leverage best practises”. It’s a meaningless term that my wife’s colleagues often mention in the big insurance firm where she works. New names for new things, always!

Driven by 3 key activities

Flagship Events. Maximum of 2 annual flagship events where all startup activity in NL should be concentrated and activated, including universities and related government organs. Create a reputation that’s comparable to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona or the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Provide A Place For Talents-Only. Build 1 offline home-base for entrepreneurial talent. I’m not talking about co-sharing spaces or incubator workplaces here — we’ve got plenty of those. What I mean is one cool space where (soon-to-be) successful founders can meet each other and at the same time connect with large services firms and other corporates. All in a fun setting. It’s a bit like what Richard Branson had with Necker Island for musicians to “hang and to jam”. He still uses the Island today to do exactly the same with hosting promising startups to understand and invest in new and serious global (technology related) challenges.

Places To Scout. Run lots of small / niche quality events up to 250 people, nationwide and globally, to empower the above.

Now is probably the time that you will ask yourself “hey, isn’t there something out there that already does this / we can learn from?” Indeed, there are cases and of course it’s a US initiative: Summit Series (see here their mission, for which I have lots of respect by the way).

Summit Series is a not-for-profit just like the WEF and TED for example. The U.S. government seems to understand really well that technology is changing the world — a long-term happening you can better actively be part of instead of “just looking from the sideline”. This is why the U.S. government has invested as well in Summit Series… These guys now even bought own their own ski resort for $40m!

Not For Everyone. It important to understand that no event should be targeted to anyone who pays for a ticket. The flagship events of Summit almost look like a Cirque du Soleil…. They also rented a cruiseship or a Boeing 747 to host events in. In short, exclusivity is key as well as entertainment for events with this size, but it has to be sold.

Recruitment of Talent. Scouts that are known as “insiders” in the global startup scene can be one efficient way to get to talent and invite them along in a personal way. I very much love this type of “unselling” as it’s personal yet scalable. I wrote a post about 7 years ago about “the art of unselling” but as my blog is offline I found someone here who talks about this concept in the way that I understand it.

Costs / The Model. The costs for all these type of quality events is high, but large services firms such as family offices, management consultants, M&A boutiques, lawyers, and any type of investors will pay good sums of cash to be part of the show (these are the guys who “buy” innovation as they can’t “make” innovation anymore). By bringing together both the existing and the new, you’d get a well-balanced and diverse yet pre-screened quality audience of Founders, Investors, and Services Firms together, that will talk about your event for a long time.

When The Netherlands manages to get to invest serious sums of cash and effort in such an approach and create a clear identity of their own during the process (remember to create and not follow — we are NOT any sort of silicon valley on this side of the ocean and never will be!) and focus on making it a truly global community that comes together in NL, leading but perhaps in partnership with Berlin and London, it has high chances to outperform any Summit Series soon, as their community is still heavily US centric.

I think there’s still a massive potential for a serious European initiative with a clear long-term vision to be a true leader in the startup ecosystem. The Netherlands (via brand name “Amsterdam”) could certainly claim this position, permanently!

Feel free to get in touch or post a comment if you’re looking for a dialogue.