Artwork by Jean Jullien.

“I’ve Got 99 Problems But Failing Ain’t One”

What I’ve learned from digging into the Dutch startup scene.

I’ve spent the last couple of months in a frenzy; digging through, analyzing and interpreting the Dutch startup scene. I scraped through roughly 13.786 tweets from the most visible startups in the Netherlands. I searched for specific patterns in their social and linking behavior. Also, I tried to grasp the overal tone of voice, analyzed the content and media sources that were shared the most.

It was a hell of a job, but somebody had to do it.

Finally, I stumbled upon what I would coin ‘the Dutch startup scene’: an ‘online’ network of young internet companies, founders and startup experts that use a similar storytelling to describe a way of thinking in how their business should grow.

But wait, there’s more…What is happening on Twitter, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s happening in real life (and thank god it doesn’t…). So, I turned off my computer and went out to have real-life conversations with key figures in the Dutch startup scene. This really helped me to cross-check my findings and grasp the actual context that startups are operating in.

‘Why?’ You may ask. Well, for one the Netherlands, as small and flat as we may be, is booming when it comes to startups. There’s a good work-life balance here with many young, high-educated people and skilled professionals eager to work. Entrepreneurs are very welcome; our government spoils them with all kinds of advantages. With incubators such as Rockstart, Startupbootcamp, Aimforthemoon and of course Startupdelta, entrepreneurship in any field of work is highly encouraged.

While trying to find out more about the culture within these startups specifically, I was surprised by the lack of reliable resources. Sure, there are tons of startup maps pointing out where startups are located, but that doesn’t say anything. As a researcher in New Media and Digital Cultures and as a digital native, I’m extremely curious about this tech driven subculture. Knowing these startups are responsible for the way technology is implemented in our society, triggers me to get to the bottom of the Dutch startup scene.

TL;DR

Here we go. For all those interested in the details of my research, please do get in touch. For those who think it’s already taking too long, here’s a not-so-shortlist of 9 things I’ve learned from the Dutch Startup scene.

  1. It’s a men’s world.
  2. Learn by failing, fail by doing.
  3. Fear nothing.
  4. ‘New’ is major key.
  5. The role of role-models.
  6. Medium is the message.
  7. Space is the place.
  8. Make it rain.
  9. Bubble trouble.

1. It’s a men’s world

Today 60 to 70% of employees in tech companies is male. Out of 500 companies, there are only 24 female CEOs. White males make up a staggering 75% of the STEM workforce. I learned that it’s not any different here in the Netherlands. I didn’t find any — not even one — female Twitter account that made impact in the startup scene. Women are practically invisible within this network, with the exception of Neelie Kroes of course — our queen of Startupdelta.

Artwork by Jean Jullien.

2. Learn by failing, fail by doing

In the startup universe, failing seems to be the only way to innovate. The overall thought is that because you’re doing something that has never been done before, you must fail in order to learn. You can’t get it right, right away, but you can improve your business — whatever it is — by failing. It’s called the Lean Startup-method and it relies on iterations.

This brings me to another point. Because what you’re doing is ‘new’ and therefore ‘innovative’, the best way to learn is just by doing. Not by reading, not by studying. “If it’s ready, ship it, if it’s not ready, ship it.” The world is too complex to take into account all things when founding something new. You should just go in — head first — and f***ing do it.

3. Fear nothing

I learned that because your startup will probably fail, founders and their teams need to be positive thinkers, driven by future outcomes and believing in endless possibilities. During my talks with a couple of them I noticed how enthusiastic they are about the future of technology. How technology, when implemented the right way, will create better services, beautiful designed smart products that will improve our standards of life.

All we have to do is improve and we will get there. After all you’re just a ghost driving a meat covered skeleton made out of stardust riding a rock floating through space. Fear nothing.

4. ‘New’ is major key

As I mentioned before, in a startup, everything you’re doing is ‘new’. In order to stay on top of the ‘newest’, you will always have to be hunting for the latest trends in tech and design. Not surprisingly, Product Hunt showed up as one of the most shared websites on Twitter. Founders also have major interest in fellow founders, especially when it comes to who got investments by whom. It’s really important to be up to date with the latest news in the (international) startup scene to be able to associate yourself with it.

Artwork by Jean Jullien.

5. The role of role-models

I learned that the only way to get through to people especially in the startup scene, is to lead by example. Steve Jobs, Peter Thiel and especially Elon Musk is what (aspiring) founders look up to, in the Netherlands as well. These men, besides having built innovative and highly successful businesses, are above all thought leaders that inspire others to make an impact.

The role of a founder within a startup is undoubtedly inevitable. They are the ones that set out a vision, define the problem, attract a team and build the product.

6. Medium is the message

Startups are eager to learn from people who know the drill. In other words, startups are more likely to learn from their role models, instead of relying on scientific reports and statistics. They rely more on experience than on knowledge.

Medium is the go-to place for this kind of content: experience driven thought pieces, how-to’s and reviews. It turned out to be the most shared resource within the Dutch startup scene followed by Business Insider, The Verge and The Next Web. With only one or two shares, local news appeared not to be interesting at all.

Wondering what was the most shared article on Medium? I suppose you guys like a reality check once in a while ;).

7. Space is the place

I learned that there’s an above average interest in StarWars and everything space related in the startup scene. Yeah, people do really want to explore life on Mars with SpaceX. And for a reason: Space is related to innovation, disruption and the possibility of an utopia far far away from the limitations of this earthly existence.

Space is the future, stupid!

Until that happens, there’s of course…cyberspace.

Artwork by Jean Jullien.

8. Make it rain

I learned that startups are those who call themselves startups. I came across a startup for happy socks, the Uber of home cleaning, the AirBnB of manufacturing tools. I’ve even found a ‘startup’ selling razor blades online. In the end, they all want to become a scale-up and work towards a profitable exit, even the razor blades do.

It’s kind of a bummer. After having talked to quite a lot of founders, you get the idea that startups will make the world better, more beautiful, more efficient and more intelligent. But I don’t see how an online business card exchange service will do so.

9. Bubble Trouble

Know ‘the Filter Bubble’? It’s the effect that takes place when searching for something new on Google. Because Google only shows results based on earlier search queries, you will never bump into something ‘new’, something surprising.

I found that startups rely a lot on the people around them… the people in their circle, the people they look up to and everything within this network. They all associate themselves — more or less — with the same media, interests and key figures. Leading, in a way, to some kind of bubble where it is hard to stumble upon a new perspective.

Artwork by Jean Jullien.

This is a shame, because I do believe the startup scene is up for something ‘new’ and ‘refreshing’. Not the kind of ‘new’ that is defined by disruption or impact, but rather a ‘new’ perspective or approach: What happens after disruption? Does innovation have a history? What does it mean to have ‘impact’ within a society? Things that go a lot deeper than memes or .gif’s.

During my research I stumbled upon a tweet from Anil Dash that I think sums it up pretty well:

We’ll write 1000-word thought pieces on Medium about the font choice in a new logo but not examine whether every app we’re funding ignores underserved communities or marginalized people, and that’s got to change.

Anil points out that we have to develop a culture of thoughtful, strong self criticism. I can imagine this to be difficult for most startups, since — as my research suggests — they are very future driven. There is a great trust in technology to move us forward. Yet, I believe a little self-reflection wouldn’t hurt anybody.

Sometimes it’s good to look back at the past and learn. In fact this is what failing is all about.

…Hit me!


Special thanks to Bits of Freedom, Studio Spomenik and the SIDN fund for supporting this research.