What can the Northern Dutch startup ecosystem do to take things to the next level? And what do startups need to achieve high growth rates sustainably, while remaining a regional symbol for entrepreneurship, further reinforcing the local startup ecosystem? Investor Ton van ‘t Noordende and startup & investment analyst Thomas Mensink discuss the importance of access to an international investor network and its implications for funding round dynamics, and why the focus should be on the base of the pyramid, rather than just the top.
Ton van ‘t Noordende is the founder of PHX, founder and former CEO and partner of deep tech investment fund 01 Ventures and is also the Investor in Residence at TechLeapNL and QuantumDeltaNL. PHX provides access to international investors (a.o. Venture Capital funds) and support startups and scale-ups in their fundraising journeys. Thomas Mensink works as a Startup & Investment Analyst at Golden Egg Check, where they do screening, analysis and market research for both startups and investors. Golden Egg Check also hosts StartupRoulette, a monthly online speed dating event for selected startups and relevant investors.
The downside of “home” advantage
Ton thinks a combination of both local and international players will ultimately create a healthier market and more opportunities for startups. “Don’t get me wrong, regional investment agencies and local investors have an important role to play in an ecosystem, but sometimes their home advantage is actually a disadvantage. They have the luxury of patience, sometimes being too patient and too conservative.”
“International VCs can offer a different perspective”, Ton continues. “If they see early potential in a startup, it will also convince local investors to invest sooner and take a chance, where they would otherwise maybe wait a year. Competition is global and no idea is truly unique, so startups really benefit from the head start in capital. Early stage startups in the US with a similar idea will have less trouble raising larger amounts faster.”
That dynamic of waiting and seeing needs to be reversed, Ton believes. “Not just for something like a pre-seed or angel investment, but to create a dynamic and build momentum for all the investment rounds. A classic mistake is to say: here’s some money, we’ll see where you’re at in six months or a year and then we’ll discuss follow-ups. It’s about creating deal hotness, getting other investors on board and interested in the next round, before that round needs to happen. Having a couple of interested parties on board will also make it more attractive for other investors to join. Sure, startups fail, it’s a risk, but you can probably make a very good educated guess about where a startup will be six months from now, so why wait? The last thing you want is a high potential startup running out of funds, with little room to negotiate good terms because they’re desperate.”
As an investor in residence at QuantumDeltaNL and founder and former partner at Deep Tech fund 01 Ventures, Ton is no stranger to working with startups active in highly specific niches and new tech frontiers. These highly specialized startups also need equally specialized investors, who are familiar with their market. “Aside from just capital, these startups also need expertise and guidance, which they probably won’t get enough from local or regional investors, because they tend to be generalists or specialize in broader markets like digital, or maybe medtech.”
“So that means that sometimes these startups can’t raise any funding because their business case is too complex, even though they could be the next unicorn”, Ton continues. “Or they work with the wrong investor, who, with the best of intentions, gives the wrong advice. That’s why interconnectivity is so incredibly important. If you work hard on building an international network, it’s easier to find the right experts who are able to help create real success in new frontiers.”
Focus on the best conditions
But what if a big Bay Area VC lures promising startups to Silicon Valley or Austin? So, rather than contributing to the local or regional economy, they drain the talent pool? “I get a little frustrated when I hear that argument”, Ton says. “What are you gonna do? Close borders? Stop international trade? If it happens, it happens. Instead of worrying about that or trying to prevent startups from leaving, why not focus on the question of why they would leave in the first place? Why not focus on creating the best conditions right here?”
Ton says you could also argue the opposite: “When Booking.com came back to Amsterdam in 2012, all of us entrepreneurs there were really worried and pissed off that they would hire all the talent, which was already getting scarcer by the day. They had the money to offer great wages, we didn’t. But after about a year and a half, most of that hired talent would go on to start things on their own, use their skills and capital, contributing to the ecosystem again.”
“Part of that same problem is the tendency we have to mostly focus on the bigger and already successful companies”, Ton continues. “They’re the ones who get access to big capital and an international network. But if you look at the really early stage startups in your region, what’s happening there, what kind of funding they have access to and the experts they can connect with, I think you’ll be really shocked. Help them. If they’re able to grow fast in the region, have access to an international network, already have a Dutch holding company and Dutch shareholders, why would they need to leave?”
The state of play right now
So what is currently happening in the Northern Dutch ecosystem? “If you look at the number of investments in 2020, despite the pandemic, it’s been a record year”, says startup & investment analyst Thomas Mensink. “There were a couple of things that we thought were interesting. First off, about two thirds of the deals in 2020 were done by local investors, Carduso Capital being the biggest. For the first half of 2021, about a quarter of investments were from local players and Carduso was less active. Furthermore, if you look at the companies that raised the most, like Catawiki and Slimmer AI, they also have offices in Amsterdam.”
According to Thomas, a healthy startup ecosystem is a lot like a pyramid. “In this case, companies like Catawiki and Slimmer AI would be somewhere at the top, which is great for your ecosystem’s marketing. Big players like that attract more investors and more capital. But for a big and successful pyramid that can produce real unicorns, you also need a really good foundation, of course.”
“So you need a wide base of early stage startups that can grow and rise to the top”, Thomas continues. But if you’re in a situation where you have a handful of local players doing the lion’s share of investments, it can become problematic to sustain that wide base if one of those funds becomes less active or disappears entirely. More angel investors are essential, whether they are successful entrepreneurs with an international network giving back to the region, or of course international VCs, who are currently mostly active in Amsterdam.”