Prince Constantijn Van Oranje-Naussau, an advisor at the European Commission and more recently one of the main initiators of StartupFest Europe, turned to entrepreneurs when he saw that they make innovation happen. “I am very inspired by the can do mentality of entrepreneurs”, says the younger brother of the current Dutch monarch, King Willem-Alexander in this interview with StartupJuncture.
“In governments there are a lot of mechanisms to make sure that things don’t happen. Entrepreneurs are actually doing something and building things”, says the Prince at co-working space B.Amsterdam at the outskirts of Amsterdam.
Constantijn has been a long time official at the European Commission. Most lately as the Head of the Cabinet of the EU Commissionaire for the Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes. “I felt that we were trying to reinvent the wheel too much”, he says about the tendency of public organizations to spend a lot resources on research about how innovation can be promoted. “So instead, we went to the entrepreneurs themselves” – already innovative and service oriented.
A focus on enabling entrepreneurs and startups to do what they do best is what guides Constantijn’s current efforts in the Dutch startup ecosystem. To date, these have culminated in the organization of StartupFest Europe. An event set up with the support of Jim Stolze and Neelie Kroes of StartupDelta – that aims to celebrate Dutch and European entrepreneurship. But also to forge connections between startups, investors and the captains of global tech industry, such as Tim Cook, Travis Kalanick and Eric Schmidt.
In this interview Constantijn talks about the Dutch startup ecosystem, its similarities with the Netherlands during the Golden Age, and Silicon Valley. In general The Netherlands is “punching well above its weight”, he says. But challenges lie ahead as well.
Why is entrepreneurship important?
“In politics there is a lot of talk, but entrepreneurs actually build things, develop new businesses, drive innovation and create jobs. That’s why entrepreneurship is important and that’s why we have to stimulate entrepreneurship in the Netherlands if we want to be competitive in the long run.”
How can entrepreneurship be stimulated?
“In a number of ways. For instance by incorporating entrepreneurship more into our education system. It’s not a given that every talented individual becomes an entrepreneur. It’s important to inspire and support people that have a knack for entrepreneurship at an early age. The overall regulatory environment should furthermore be more favourable towards entrepreneurship. Right now it’s over-regulated. Other obvious things like the influx of capital to entrepreneurs and a supportive banking system are also needed for the promotion of entrepreneurship.”
In what ways is the regulatory environment in the Netherlands over-regulated?
“First of all I think it’s important to note that some regulation is essential. To safeguard a clean environment for instance. At the same time you want a regulatory environment that provides legal certainty, is predictable and not overly cumbersome. Some of the hurdles are more related to government services. If you for instance need a permit it can currently take days or even months to get it. Or if you want to hire a programmer you have to adhere to a number of visa requirements. The question is how fast can you do that? Timing is important here, because the people you’re recruiting might have other choices and go somewhere else. These things should be improved in the Netherlands to promote entrepreneurship.”
You allured to a more supportive banking system. They are not popular for their support of SME’s and startups.
“I would disassociate startups from SME’s in the traditional sense. Because a lot of problems they have in getting financing or organizing their banking requirements is because they grow so fast. They don’t fit in the traditional mold of banks. It’s very interesting to see that the Dutch banks joined forces under an new initiative New Dutch in order assess out how they can service startups better. For instance, in the Netherlands we don’t have something like a Silicon Valley Bank where you have debt financing as well as equity financing of startups and enterprise growth.”
The Netherlands has in the past been a leading country in the global economy. It build the likes of Shell, ASML, Ahold, Philips and Unilever and contributed to groundbreaking inventions and research. But in the 21st century digital world it lags behind, especially compared to the USA and China. Why?
“I don’t know if you can compare the Netherlands with China or the USA. The magnitude and scope is completely different. We are 17 million people. If you would compare us more realistically with Baltimore and Illinois than we are doing really well. The Netherlands is punching well above it’s weight. It’s has indeed big multinationals, a very stable economy and a government that is mostly reliable. The challenge in the Netherlands is to allow people to stand out from the crowd and excel.”
How can we resolve this specific problem?
“I don’t see it as a problem but rather as a lack of ambition. It needs people that want to stand out, but maybe they don’t because things could be too easy in the Netherlands. At the same time I think it’s important that there are people around you that tell you this is a big idea. You can go global, you don’t need to think Dutch or local. You need to have exposure to people that have done that before. That’s the great thing about the USA. You have people that take very calculated risks. For instance Intel invested two to three billion in a production plant while the chip they were going to produce wasn’t fully designed yet. That really requires forward thinking. We have seen this as well at ASML; they have been co-financing their new machines with their customers and suppliers. We can and should do much more of that.”
The story of Silicon Valley seems to be story of the Dutch in the Golden Age when it was a safe haven for free and independent thinkers. How can the Netherlands become that country once again where the overall political debate is not ruled by a sense of fear but by a sense of opportunity?
“Silicon Valley is actually experiencing some of the same problems. They are more closed to immigrants than they have been in the past. In the Netherlands PhD’s and entrepreneurs can now stay for an extra year. I think this is a very good development.”
“We all agree that talent should find its home in the Netherlands. But in the public discourse we don’t appreciate enough the lower end of the skill spectrum. That impacts the way we are perceived and how hospitable we are. It’s very difficult to say that we are very nice to high skilled programmers that we want to have and very nasty to the family that want to come along or nasty to their fellow countrymen that come through other routes.”
“I think we have to try to regain this open and tolerant society that we once were. It’s a different world, we shouldn’t be naïve. But I do think it all starts with an interest in the other. If we want to attract the best talent we have to make a community for them in which they can thrive and that’s not a place where people are talking about getting rid of foreigners or a place that is foreigner unfriendly. Typically that’s not a place where people want to go. Having said that I think if you compare the Netherlands to other countries it’s doing pretty well. It’s has an open society and an open economy, but it’s up to us to acknowledge that it’s our strength and not our weakness. Sometimes you hear in the political discourse that it has been a weakness, but as you said correctly the Golden Age was build on migrants and Silicon Valley is built on migrants. And that kind of dynamic and diversity is extremely important for innovative economies.”
You’re the chairman of StartupFest Europe. What’s the purpose of this national event?
“StartupFest is a moment in time, a week, in which the Netherlands will be all about startups. It’s part of the Dutch presidency of the EU, we are six months in the lead of Europe and we want to use that to showcase to Europe and the world what’s going on in the Netherlands, but also offer startups in Europe a space in the Netherlands to promote their startups. At the same time we want to demonstrate to international startups that the Netherlands can be their launchpad in Europe.”
“During the week there will be matchmaking events across the country, in 14 different cities, with the objective to create connections between startups and corporates as their launching customers, but also between startups, investors and international startups with which they can partner. So it’s all about dealmaking and about those interactions and connections that startups really need. We can only do this by building on the current strength of the Dutch ecosystem and using StartupFest as a catalyst to strengthen that even further, to further internationalize, to further support startups and moving them from startups to scale-ups.”
StartupDelta has been quite successful in getting the Dutch startup ecosystem on the political agenda and in mainstream public media. What will happen when StartupDelta closes it doors? The commitment should be long term.
“I fully agree that the commitment among government, policymakers and supportive industries should be long term. The question is: do you need an external spark plug like StartupDelta to raise awareness, build bridges and link up the Dutch ecosystem? It’s also important to consider whether it’s a public or private sector function. A lot of what StartupDelta has initiated will continue, but the form in which that will happen is not yet clear.”
What would your answer be?
“Ideally, what StartupDelta has initiated will be continued in a sustainable way by the actors that are most relevant to them. So that you get pension funds providing more capital to entrepreneurs and that the tax system is made more favourable by the government. So all of the things that have been initiated have their own momentum and they don’t need a central organisation to keep pushing that.”
Many members of the community are afraid that the ecosystem will be scattered once again when StartupDelta ceases to exist.
“It’s sad if that would be the case. The hypothesis is that it’s beneficial for everybody and because it’s beneficial they will continue doing it. But I am not naïve. I know that everybody has their own frames of reference and it’s sometimes difficult to step out of them and collaborate. So it’s also something that the community has to voice. So if the community clearly voices we need something like StartupDelta, I think the ministry will acknowledge that. But the community can also do it by itself. They can join forces and create a StartupDelta from the bottom up. It doesn’t need to come from the government.”
A number of members of the royal family are involved in entrepreneurship and startups. You yourself, Maurits van Oranje with The Source and your brother the King Willem-Alexander last year visited Startupbootcamp XL in Eindhoven. Where does this interest for startups and entrepreneurship come from?
“I can only speak for myself. What I have seen when I was working at the European commission was that we were talking a lot about innovation, a lot about improving the climate for business and investing in research and innovation. All of that is nice, but I felt we were trying to reinvent the wheel too much instead of going to where innovation was happening, going to the entrepreneurs and basically talking with them about what they needed and be more service oriented. By doing that we found that innovation was happening everywhere, in education, healthcare, agriculture, in every sector, but that they innovators were struggling everywhere. Because they have to fight the system, the existing processes, in essence, everything that works against them. So with Neelie Kroes we really worked to go to those innovators and give them support, give them backing and say we are not idiots, we are actually on the good side and we have the European Commission behind us.”
“I found our encounters with entrepreneurs very stimulating. These people were actually doing something, they weren’t talking about it. In government there are a lot of mechanisms to make sure that things don’t happen. I am very stimulated by the kind of can do mentality of entrepreneurs. That’s why I am very keen that to make sure that can translate into real relevant output.”
Talking about a can do mentality, you recently started your own company C22. Can I call it a startup?
“You can’t call it a startup. It’s a business. For me a startup is a business that has the ambition to become a big company, maybe not big in size of headcount, but definitely in scope. With a significant purpose as well. I haven’t found a model that would support that kind of ambition, yet. I am still a kind of consultant.”
“It’s about solving how to go from a traditional linear company to something that’s more decentralized, more focused on continuous innovation and experimentation. That’s a space in which a lot is happening at the moment. I find it very interesting. So my work on StartupFest also fits in that. I really would like the Netherlands to excel in giving startups and also in combination with corporates a much better place to grow and that’s where I am focusing on at the moment.”
Image credit: Peter van Beek