Behind Amsterdam’s strong ecosystem and the organizations that got it there

11 min read
29 Dec 2019

s a mature startup ecosystem that’s growing quickly, Amsterdam has the resources to become one of the best homes in the world for entrepreneurs, and it is leveraging that power toward doing good for its community and the world.

Cycling through Amsterdam, you’ll swiftly be charmed by the picturesque canals, the mix of Golden Age and modern architecture, and the overall welcoming atmosphere of the Dutch capital, which manages to be both bustling and relaxed all at once. Slow down for a moment and you’ll see a vibrant culture of art, business and discourse and more. 

And that’s before you even dig into the now highly ranked and well-regarded startup ecosystem the city is cultivating. For entrepreneurs and innovators looking for a new place to hang their hats (and ready their pitch decks), Amsterdam seems close to ideal. 

According to the 2019 report “Employment in Amsterdam’s Tech Ecosystem” conducted by and supported by StartupAmsterdam, there are 1,661 tech companies in town, from startups raising their seed rounds to big players like Booking, Adyen and Takeaway. The city ranks fifteenth in Startup Genome’s 2019 report “Global Startup Ecosystem Report,” moving up four places since 2017. Startup Genome identifies Amstedam as an ecosystem with impressive growth – and as one to keep your eye on. The report also highlights that it’s fourth in agtech and new food startups, and second in cleantech startups, based on a ranking of 135 ecosystems. 

Specialized schools such as Growth Tribe, The Talent Institute, BSSA and THNK offer educational courses to help entrepreneurs upskill, while programs and incubators such as Rockstart, Startupbootcamp and Fashion for Good provide competitive opportunities for startup acceleration, along with plenty of highly trained local and international talent. Spaces such as TQ, Startup Village and B.Amsterdam offer a variety of coworking membership plans and often have their own roster of programs. Everything is an easy ten to thirty minutes of leisurely bike riding away. With its access to excellent education and talent, all within such a small yet thriving urban package, it’s no wonder that startups like Tiqets, ace&tate, virtuagym, MessageBird, Swapfiets, Backbase and the fast-growing Picnic have flourished in Amstedam’s ecosystem. 

What the city also has, which comprises the focus of this spotlight, is a community of dedicated ecosystem builders and contributors. Amsterdam’s ecosystem is booming, in large part because of the organizations that foster local talent development, attract people from all over the world, drive impact innovation and create environments for entrepreneurs to thrive. 

Two such drivers of Amsterdam’s scene are Impact Hub and StartupAmsterdam. In this piece, we dive into the experience and learnings of the minds behind these two organizations, exploring what it is that enables Amsterdam to foster such a strong ecosystem and what the future holds for its startup and scaleup community. 

Photo: Nick Scheerbart / Unplash

Our efforts as citizens and entrepreneurs should continue to contribute to our collective well-being

A growing acceptance of failure

Considering Amsterdam’s current positioning as a strong ecosystem, and given what resources are now available, the central focal points that entrepreneurs and other actors in the ecosystem may want to focus on turn to civic engagement (how well do the different stakeholders communicate, and how can this be improved in the development of the ecosystem?) and impact. Impact, in this case, can be defined broadly, from diversifying the community of founders to adopting more sustainable business practices.

The Netherlands is home to a very comfortable society, with affordable education and healthcare, a tolerant culture, and the admittedly high taxes that keep the entire country well-maintained. Entrepreneurs living and working in Amsterdam are met with plenty of civic support, whether they succeed or fail.  “When you look at the Netherlands from the outside, it looks like one of the most advanced societies in the world,” says Tatiana Glad, the cocreator of Impact Hub, a global support platform for impact-driven founders. “You have to ask yourself what social innovation, policies and practices have led to this state. We are under sea-level but not underwater. We are many diverse cultures densely packed in but not at war with each other. Our efforts as citizens and entrepreneurs should continue to contribute to our collective well-being.” 

Amsterdam’s Impact Hub opened its doors on the Westerstraat in 2008, eight years after the initiative started in London. Since then, more and more buzzing hives of influential impact entrepreneurs have opened around the world. Tatiana explains that Impact Hubs thrive on bottom-up efforts coupled with a peer-to-peer association global governance model: the 105 Impact Hubs are not owned by one parent company, meaning “one vote per Hub no matter the economic or seniority status so that [they] create equity across diverse contexts.”

This governance structure “reinforces the Impact Hubs’ mission towards a just and sustainable world while finding ways to learn from each others’ local ecosystems and collaborate for innovation.”  However, achieving this in Amsterdam has not always been easy.

“When I started, I found a lot of complacency here,” says Tatiana. At the time, people in the Netherlands were “often able to solve their own issues simply,” and challenges outside the scope of individual responsibility were often taken up by institutional bodies. The quality of life was, and still is, rather high, which means that compared to in other cultures, it’s far easier to just leave problems behind for the day and “shut down” at 5 PM, thinking someone else will help you solve it later. 

Tatiana points out that toward the beginning of the current entrepreneurship boom in Amsterdam, there was a strong aversion to risk and failure. “There was a fear of being marked for life should you fail as an entrepreneur,” she says. To enable a conversation around this and around learning from failure, Impact Hub created Fail Forward, a public event where impact entrepreneurs are invited to share their stories. In this way, it hopes to show that failure is part of the journey and to dispel the idea of the hero entrepreneur, a notion that causes unneeded stress on people whose ideas have great potential but who carry the burden of expectation when it comes to entrepreneurship. 

“In our own journey, we try to show that it takes a community to build entrepreneurial individuals and teams,” says Tatiana. As more Amsterdammers accept failure-driven learning as essential to the process, more of a community can be built around giving fellow entrepreneurs and startups the space to swing big and learn from their mistakes. 

Making an impact, locally and internationally

In the Dutch startup ecosystem, as is true in many entrepreneurial communities, the urgency around some of the world’s most pressing issues is lacking. One contributing factor to this, says Tatiana, is the high quality of life, which leads to people “not feeling the pain so much here.” But at Impact Hub, “Our community holds each other to a sense of activism.” 

We’re building the capacity for people to tackle societal issues through entrepreneurial action

Impact Hub works to be a vital part of the entrepreneurship community in Amsterdam. Anyone in the ecosystem can attend the Impact Hub workshops and events, utilize the coworking space, apply for the variety of accelerator and incubator programs and meet the many companies that work out of Impact Hub office spaces. 

“We’re building the capacity for people to tackle societal issues through entrepreneurial action,” says Tatiana. Impact Hub ignites in its community the “energy of citizenship and engagement.” Its membership includes diverse entrepreneurs tackling issues such as circular economy, plastic waste, inclusion and sustainable food. “To have an innovative city, citizens need ways of participating in society and becoming what we call ‘citizen entrepreneurs.’ Entrepreneurship and experimentation are urgently needed in society.”

Impact Hub is not alone in the efforts to build up Amsterdam’s ecosystem and bolster engagement in the issues that matter. Founded in 2015, StartupAmsterdam is a city-sponsored support initiative and program for entrepreneurs. The program grew out of the ambition to evolve Amsterdam from a city with pockets of entrepreneurship into a well-connected hub sporting a true, robust startup culture.

StartupAmsterdam works to connect public and private stakeholders, creating strong connections and networks in a once fragmented scene. The initiative empowers local entrepreneurs, attracts international founders and potential innovators, and creates opportunities for people who may not have as easy access to the entrepreneurship world. It also aims to cultivate diversity in terms of Amsterdam’s talent growth. 

“What we’re trying to do is help Amsterdam be mapped out internationally as a tech and startup hub,” says Sabine Müller, who’s in charge of communications and marketing for StartupAmsterdam. Sabine’s focus is to help entrepreneurs better understand how the ecosystem works, who to approach, and how best to make these connections. 

There is a shortage of tech talent all across Europe, including in Amsterdam, which is why StartupAmsterdam engages with a variety of talent groups. “We work on growing and diversifying the tech talent pool in Amsterdam,” says Sabine. With so much latent talent in the Netherlands, the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Amsterdam can only benefit from new ways to connect people, especially when it comes to reaching those who may struggle to connect due to cultural or societal barriers. 

Photo: Adrien Olichon / Unsplash

A cycle of reinvention

Amsterdam’s strong network of support platforms, existing companies (both multinational and new startups) and burgeoning entrepreneurs with exciting ideas all adds up to an ecosystem with the resources needed to make real, disruptive change. The community has grown immensely in the last five to ten years, showing that the drive is there. The next step is to leverage Amsterdam’s maturation toward different kinds of impact. 

Entrepreneurship should be fuel for social change and be in-service of making an impact. “To evolve as a city, you need people reinventing it,” says Tatiana. “The more we start taking those risks, the more people see what’s possible.” 

Of course, not every entrepreneur has to go in for an enormous system change. For StartupAmsterdam, impact can mean making use of the already robust ecosystem and seeing where there’s room to contribute. “Get engaged with the major players, go to events, to benefit the ecosystem and your business,” says Sabine. “If you’re working in your little bubble, then you are missing out.”

Amsterdam has this unique quality of being able to reinvent itself

Joël Dori, the startup liaison for StartupAmsterdam, uses the example of EVBox to illustrate the benefits of startups engaging with the ecosystem and broader culture. EVBox, an Amsterdam startup that grew to become one of the largest suppliers of EV charging stations in the world, puts on a yearly conference where ten startups are given the chance to exhibit their technology.  These kinds of initiatives not only help startups present their impactful ideas to one another but also show people how entrepreneurship can be put to good use solving real challenges. Startups can create opportunities for existing talent and open doors for people who are passionate about impact but haven’t yet had the opportunity to exercise their skills and abilities.

“We have challenges that we face within the city of Amsterdam where we need the expertise of startups,” says Joël. These challenges leave open an exciting potential for the startup ecosystem to step up and address them, both within the city and beyond. 

“Amsterdam has this unique quality of being able to reinvent itself,” says Sabine. “You can feel the shift throughout the system. More entrepreneurs are thinking in the long term via sustainable projects and ambitions.”

From 2019 to 2022, StartupAmsterdam will continue the support work it started in 2015 and focus on strengthening the already mature ecosystem. Joël and Sabine point to the still insufficient talent pool and real estate for growing companies, the relatively small market (and access to bigger international markets) and the potential tech knowledge gaps as challenges to tackle in this coming period. 

By building on the strengths of the ecosystem, StartupAmsterdam is working toward the goal of raising Amsterdam’s international ranking as one of the top ecosystems in the world. To achieve this, StartupAmsterdam will focus on a few key areas, such as strengthening the ecosystem for companies with fast-growth potential, encouraging startups to add value to Amsterdam in innovative ways, activating more target groups (thus fostering a more inclusive ecosystem) and expanding regional cooperation efforts. 

The Startup Genome report indicates that in Amsterdam, only twelve percent of founders are female, a statistic that StartupAmsterdam also wants to improve upon. “We support initiatives that empower women entrepreneurs, and we engage in the discussion about new emerging technologies and their consequences on our society,” says Sabine. 

Tatiana and her team at Impact Hub are inspired to step into this next chapter of Amsterdam’s ecosystem journey. In thinking about the future of the city, Tatiana highlights the Amsterdam Economic Board’s 2025 goals. One such goal is that by 2025, the area will be one of the most successful in the world at attracting and retaining talent. More specifically, Impact Hub in Amsterdam actively works to support four ecosystems: food, circularity, plastics and inclusion. Tatiana says that the 2025 goals, as well as the Hub’s ecosystem-specific approach, are inspirational for entrepreneurs in Amsterdam to connect to and innovate for the wider world. 

StartupAmsterdam and Impact Hub have lofty goals for the short- and long-term futures of their home city, both in local and international contexts. Though their roster of initiatives, events and programs are extensive, neither platform can act alone. Amsterdam’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is at the stage where unicorns and just-opened startups have the resources and connectivity to make real change. 

It’s time to leverage this strength so that when the likes of Tatiana, Sabine and Joël do achieve putting Amsterdam at the topmost spot on the map, the legacy of startups, scaleups and entrepreneurial organizations should be inclusive, sustainable and overall positive impact. 

To learn more about Impact Hub, StartupAmsterdam and the many organizations looking to support startups in Amsterdam and overall raise the level of impact coming out of the city, check out the Amsterdam edition of Startup Guide