A Trip Inside the Amsterdam Startup Ecosystem

This blog details how Team Eternal Students planned the Ed-tech SSUP tour to Amsterdam, and what we learned about the Amsterdam startup ecosystem. With over 2.7K startups at different stages, Amsterdam is ranked as the third tech hub in Europe. With a long history of trade, innovation, and culture, a trip to Amsterdam was an easy pick in the SSUP tour.  

As the first step to any interested entrepreneur or SSUP participant, the first question anybody has is: how do I find the startups and would they even talk to me? This blog is a summary of how we found enthused founders and investors without ever meeting, and our take on why the Amsterdam startup ecosystem is so buzzing and vibrant. 

The Power of Cold Call 

Prior to SSUP, none of our members had any experience or connection to the startup world, and definitely none from Amsterdam. We had a clear vision of the topic we were interested (Ed-tech), but we were far from the outside and didn’t have an easy way to break in. For the record, we had a petroleum engineer from Canada, a family business lawyer from Russia, a consultant from New York, and a banking manager from France. No one was cool and hip like a startup guy. So when we were selected for SSUP, we were ecstatic, but then the hard work began. How do we find ed-tech startups in Amsterdam? 

We were not afraid to reach out to strangers, but where do we find these strangers? We found that among all the resources available, the most effective and efficient ways to find leads were cold calling. Specifically, we used 2 sources for cold calling. 

  1. Google search ed-tech companies based in Amsterdam 

This was the most effective way to get leads. There are tons of promotional materials online ranking and promoting ed-tech companies. We simply searched for lists online and got names of startups. Once we had the company name, we searched for employees that worked in these companies on LinkedIn.  

The cold call email on LinkedIn had to be short, unless you have a premium account. The message itself was polite, but straight forward. We introduced who we are and why we want to talk to them. The “ask” was a very simple 1 hour interview with the team, the purpose was to learn and promote the startup and the greater ecosystem. In total, the message was about one paragraph long. We then attached our SSUP pitch deck (8 slides) introducing who we are and the SSUP program.  

We found that the founders and C-suites were the most responsive people. We would usually messaging 2-5 people per startup, and they would respond usually within a few days. Some startups had follow up questions, and even phone calls to clarify what is expected of them, which we gladly answered. We messaged 20 startups and received 10 responses, of which 5 turned to an actual meeting. So, the yield rate is 25% success.  

  1. Eventbrite 

Amsterdam ecosystem is buzzing and vibrant. It seems that people in Amsterdam really like to attend mixers, because there are at least 2 events per week in Amsterdam for different topics. The tickets were sometimes free, and other times not but it came with drinks and appetizers. If you are serious about breaking into the ecosystem, we highly recommend you attend these events. Unfortunately, we did not attend Ed-tech Eventbrite events due to time constraints, but we were able to get names of startups advertised and message them directly on LinkedIn for meetings. Other SSUP teams had a lot of success and fun attending events in other cities, so we highly recommend it! They had a fun night meeting people from the startup scene, but these contacts also became leads to further introductions, so the experience was invaluable!  

Leveraging our networks 

Leveraging networks is all about quality over quantity.  Even though it might be hard to put yourself out there, take advantage to be open and transparent about what you need. Reach out to a wide breadth of contacts, cast a wide net, and ask them to keep you in the loop if they hear of anything fitting. We found that the following three sources were effective. 

  1. INSEAD professors  

If you take any entrepreneurship electives, the best resource for contacts are the INSEAD professors. They are often mentors to current startup, sometimes investors, and otherwise very connected individuals deep in the ecosystem. If you are targeting certain topics, cities, or organizations, it would be very wise to reach out to the professors in person or in email, and have them introduce you to some potential leads. 

  1. INSEAD alumni 

Alumni are a great resources in theory, but the reality is, there are thousands of alumni and it is difficult to filter the contacts for the specific leads you need. On the INSEAD Entrepreneurship Club website, we found a spreadsheet that had names and email addresses to past INSEAD founders. It was a simple excel spreadsheet dating back 10 years, so the information might not be up to date. Upon glancing through the spreadsheet, we would pick out names of the relevant individuals, and then find them on LinkedIn. The message was similar as before, a clear introduction of ourselves and a clear ask. Overall, we would say this was not only moderately effective, as the yield was low.  

  1. Startup Bootcamp – Antler 

If anybody is interested in entrepreneurship, we highly recommend you take the Startup Bootcamp offered by Antler. It is an intense crash course, but honestly, it is one of the best $250 I spent in INSEAD. It was 48 hours of intense learning, pressure cooking, and experimentation. At the end, you will present your project to a team of real investors and founders, which could lead to many potential opportunities! We reached out to the Bootcamp instructor, and voila, her connections at Antler and other incubators led to  5 startups that are directly relevant to our topics. So, the yield rate is 100% success. This was extremely helpful and we are so glad to witness the real magic of the entrepreneurship ecosystem.  

Why Amsterdam has so many startups 

When we compare European startup hubs, we see that there are clear reasons why founders flock to Amsterdam. Amsterdam has a long history as a successful business hub and leading centre of trade, so there is an established infrastructure of progressive thinkers, technology, and networks. This makes the city a breeding ground for startups and an ideal place for validating business models. To add to that, there are five ‘not-so-secret’ secrets that make Amsterdam a gem for a startup hub. This is what Team Eternal Students have found.   

  1. Government Incentives 

The Dutch government is by far the most supportive and generous agency when it comes to offering a range of financial incentives. There are fundings by the local and national levels, as well as tons of subsidies and tax credits to attract new businesses. For example, there are subsidies on sustainability and innovation projects, tax credit on research and development, credit guarantees for any Small-to-Medium Enterprises (SMEs), growth facility schemes that provide protection to investors with venture capital, and proof-of-concept funding. These benefits sit on top of an open and transparent economic system, where headquarters of businesses qualify for 100% exemption of applicable dividends and capital gains, and skilled international workers get 30% of their salary tax-free. 

  1. High Concentration of Talent 

Due to the financial incentives set out by the Dutch government, Amsterdam naturally attracts a pool of talented and innovative entrepreneurs from all over the world. With the English-speaking locale, lower cost of living, and central location, Amsterdam has been a top choice for founders seeking partnerships and experimenting with business ideas. When Team Eternal Students stopped in Amsterdam, we were surprised by the number of co-working spaces built throughout the city. Every time we stepped into a building, banners of house-hold startup names will pop up by the elevator directory. In big co-working spaces, as many as 50 startups will be crammed into one building. They had nice espresso machines, cool lounge chairs, and lots of funky meeting rooms where creativity is oozing off the walls. People seemed to know each other very well, and the atmosphere was relaxed yet cutting-edge. It was in these common halls that business partnerships were formed, ideas were iterated, and friendships were made.  

  1. Close-Knit Community 

The best charm of Amsterdam is that it combines the advantage of being a cosmopolitan European capital with a village-like community. Instead of vast underground tubes such as the likes of London or Paris, everyone knows that the main method of transportation is cycling in Amsterdam. That is the a tell of the size of this active city. With over 2.7K startups at different stages, all events and places are in biking distances. This makes networking, connecting, and communication super easy and accessible. A quick search in Eventbrite will show that people in Amsterdam really like to attend mixers, because there are at least 2 events per week for different topics. The tickets were sometimes free, and other times not but it came with drinks and appetizers. If you are serious about breaking into the ecosystem, we highly recommend you attend these events to meet people from the startup scene, and let the opportunities take you wherever it may lead.    

  1. Work-Life Balance 

The Dutch is known to be liberal and progressive. And this certainly applies to their views on work-life balance. With a world-class universal healthcare, well supported childcare solutions (95% covered by the government), maternity and paternity leave, and free education system for children, Entrepreneaurs have a few less things to worry about as they make a huge career risk by venturing into startups. In addition, with a long history of trade, arts, and culture, it is no secret that the Dutch love to party. There are multiple festivals every weekend, for all age groups. Finally, Amsterdam’s cycling culture is perhaps another key ingredient to a happier and healthier lifestyle. Cycling with the wind in your hair, after a day in the office, will surely help you clear your head and wine down.   

  1. Spirit of Innovation 

Perhaps the most important part of any startup hub is its locale’s reception to change. Amsterdam is dynamic, creative, and progressive. Catalysed by a huge pool of diverse, cosmopolitan, and open-minded residents, entrepreneurs see Amsterdam as the perfect hub to test ideas. Amsterdam is small enough of a testing ground to roll out new features, yet large enough to scale globally. The product can be built in English and ready to scale to Europe and the rest of the world very quickly. For example, energy transition, smart mobility, circular economy, and sustainability are high on the agenda. A cheerful and supportive community that celebrates the spirit of innovation is exactly what ambitious founders need. 

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