Startup Amsterdam: can the Dutch capital catch up to Europe's top startup hubs, London and Berlin?

Europe's startup ecosystems can not really be covered from behind a desk. Robin Wauters spent a few days in Amsterdam to dive into the local tech startup scene, and understand its trials and tribulations.
Startup Amsterdam: can the Dutch capital catch up to Europe's top startup hubs, London and Berlin?

Mature technology startup ecosystems will always have a number of things in common; what I like to refer to as the necessary ingredients for a well-rounded and tasty startup dish.

To wit, healthy European startup hubs typically have a combination of good technical and business schools, a critical mass of people that want (and are able) to start their own companies, a sufficient supply of talent to help turn those companies into viable businesses, a supportive government (or at the very least one that doesn’t make life difficult for founders and investors alike), space for growth companies to physically expand, and a good mix of accelerators, angel investors and VCs that can assist young promising startups in growing into ‘scale-up’ mode.

Obviously, there are more things that require a bustling ecosystem to grow into a mature, substantial tech startup hub (things like a well-rounded city lifestyle, well-connected international airports, a good balance between cost of living and income, etc.) but those are the requirements, generally speaking.

After spending a few days running around (or more precisely, cycling around) the beautiful city of Amsterdam meeting with tons of entrepreneurs and other industry stakeholders, I’ve become convinced that it already has many of the ingredients cited above, and that its existing ecosystem is working hard to remove many of the obstacles that remain.

(Hat tip to Peter van Sabben from GrowthTribe, who took care of scheduling a whirlwind tour for me through Amsterdam this week, and did a kick-ass job.)

Update: first interview (with Silk co-founder and CEO Salar al Khafaji) is up.

Also check:

Meet Blendle, the Dutch startup building an 'iTunes for journalism'

The unicorn of Amsterdam: Catching up with Adyen co-founder and CEO Pieter van der Does

3D Hubs aims to 3D print its way to the disruption of manufacturing (video interview + photos)

TravelBird is a European scale-up to watch: 650 staff, €95 million annual turnover, and just getting started

Amsterdam startup The Cloakroom wants to help men dress better (video interview + photos)

Inside global startup accelerator Startupbootcamp’s offices in B.Amsterdam (video + photos)

Join the club: Human app encourages people to adopt a more active lifestyle (video interview)

silk Holland

In the space of just three days, I’ve met with many of Amsterdam’s most promising fledgling tech companies (the likes of Blendle, The Cloakroom, Peerby, Human, 3D Hubs, Zazzy) and some that are well on their way to growing up (such as Silk, 22tracks and Usabilla).

I also had the opportunity to sit down with the founder of scale-up companies like TravelBird, met with the CEO of ‘unicorn' Adyen, paid a visit to Uber’s EMEA HQ in central Amsterdam and had a chat with Product Hunt’s European community manager (also the guy behind Startup Stash).

I visited and talked to the people behind great workspaces such as Spaces, B.Amsterdam and Rockstart Spaces, and startup accelerators like Startupbootcamp and Rockstart; and had a very informative dinner with investors from firms like Peak Capital, SanomaVentures and Holland Venture.

Top top things off, I also met with the deputy mayor of Amsterdam ('wethouder' Kajsa Ollongren) to talk about the Startup Amsterdam initiative, as well as the team behind the steering wheel of Startup Delta, which very ambitiously aims to put The Netherlands at the very top of tech startup-friendly nations with power woman Neelie Kroes as part of the crew.

As you can imagine, there was a lot of information to absorb, and in the coming weeks I will be posting video interviews with many of the people I’ve met over the course of these three days.

(Also check out our earlier deep dive into Stockholm's startup scene)

Welcome to Rockstart

But the key take-away from my little field trip is that Amsterdam has a LOT going for it: top-class education, an appealing city where people from all over the world want to come work and live, a government that is aware of the importance of startups and innovation and actively contributes, an international airport around the corner (Schiphol), great co-working spaces and accelerators, and the presence of a major international tech blog and conference (from my former employer, The Next Web, but also UPRISE) as well as local startup blogs such as StartupJuncture and Silicon Canals.

A lot of the aforementioned ingredients are clearly already present and/or developing.

But if Amsterdam truly wants to top the rankings for people to start tech companies in Europe, it’s also very clear that some things still need to change.

For one, I have learned that there’s a lack of serial entrepreneurs pumping cash and knowledge back into the local ecosystem in the form of angel investments and consistent mentoring. I also believe that, while accelerators such as Startupbootcamp, Rockstart and ACE Venture Lab do a fine job of picking and challenging promising young startups, I don’t think they are truly equipped to handle the influx of young local and foreign talent booting up their companies in Amsterdam.

Startup Bootcamp Startups wall amsterdam startup ecosystem

A more specific problem is that the city of Amsterdam, given its size and the way that it is structured, often poses challenges to companies that are growing up fast. Those startups that are expanding their teams very rapidly often need to move 3-5 times in the space of just a few years, and that is obviously an unwelcome hassle for its founders and management.

Those limitations are very difficult to alleviate and will be an even bigger challenge as some of the aforementioned young tech companies mature into scale-ups.

There was also agreement in the local community about the fact that growth capital (Series B and beyond) is extremely hard to come by domestically, forcing founders to look for investment elsewhere to scale up. This isn’t really a problem that’s specific to The Netherlands; in fact it is a recurring refrain among founders in otherwise promising startup ecosystems such as Barcelona and Stockholm (just to name a few examples) and decidedly one of the key issues in Europe.

And yet, it’s worth noting that The Netherlands is an inherently wealthy nation, and that only a fraction of that capital is currently flowing to innovative startups.


Finally, I would add that the Amsterdam startup scene isn’t as cohesive as it could (should?) be.

There are plenty of meetups and other occasions for people to get together and share knowledge and best practices, but there are also apparently plenty of key people who aren’t playing along, for whatever reason. There are obviously exceptions, but Amsterdam is home to several successful entrepreneurs and businesspeople who - rather openly - do not wish to consider themselves part of the local startup scene, and thus don’t participate.

That’s a cultural thing, and much like the Dutch mentality of keeping a low profile (“doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg”) I believe that it is holding Amsterdam back from truly morphing into a mature European tech hub like London or Berlin.

In conclusion, though, I would like to reiterate that the Amsterdam scene is growing up fast, that its community is seemingly well aware of where it falls short, and that people are rolling up their sleeves to improve things wherever and as fast as possible.

Foreign investors with an appetite for investing in European tech startups would be foolish to leave Amsterdam (and by extension, The Netherlands) off their to-watch list.

More in the coming weeks and months in the form of video interviews and photos!

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Featured image credit: Dennis van de Water / Shutterstock

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