Director Strategic Growth
Kantar Millward Brown
Netherlands: the perfect startup delta
This summer I read “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” the bestselling book from Yuval Harari that – among its many insights – happens to explain why the Netherlands became so wealthy in the 17th century. During that time, a radical shift happened: mankind started to believe in a better future, leading to the extension of credit, rising levels of investment, and fast economic growth.
And guess what: the Netherlands was a very good place to invest your money. Give your money to a Spanish king, and he would go to war and your money would be gone. Give it to a Dutch trader, and your money would be invested in a piece of land somewhere and your money would come back with interest. The result was massive investment in the Netherlands, a so-called Dutch “Golden Century,” and the establishment of the Dutch East India company, the world’s first multinational company.
Times have certainly changed since, but I think the Netherlands is still in a good position to stay relevant and competitive. I see our politics, our economy, our educational system, and above all our culture, as catalysts for a startup-oriented, sustainable future.
Unlike the USA and UK, the Netherlands has a parliament consisting of many diverse political parties, all with their own backgrounds and policy programs. To pass a law we need a majority; to get this majority our parties need to find consensus. That leads to a predictable, stable, and reliable political climate, which is good for entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurial climate is further supported by government innovation policies that offer tax incentives for companies that invest in R&D; by financial support for innovative companies through government programs like the Seed Capital Arrangement and the Dutch Venture Initiative; and by extensive public, private, and academic collaboration.
Innovation-friendly government policies have helped the Netherlands achieve a fourth-place ranking on the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness index. Unemployment is very low, and consumer consumption is up year after year.
And while this all happens, we have stayed true to our roots of being a country of traders, open to different cultures and visions. We are a magnet for expats. This openness has enabled companies like Takeaway.com and Booking.com to rapidly grow beyond Dutch borders. And it makes companies like AkzoNobel, Unilever, and other non-Dutch multinationals want to base their regional offices here – often near Schiphol, one of Europe’s largest airports.
Dutch children begin receiving English instruction starting at age four; this makes Duchies great English speakers who are able to communicate with the whole world.
When it comes to education and choosing a profession, Dutch citizens can be who they want to be. The whole educational system in the Netherlands is centered around this principle. University is largely accessible for all, and is heavily subsidized by the government.
Taken together, Dutch universities rank among the top 2% of all 17,000 universities worldwide. We have produced Nobel laureates in econometrics, chemistry, and biology, and our technical universities win the World Solar Challenge (an electric vehicle race through the Australian desert) year after year.
The education sector is also defined by close collaboration with industry. A couple of miles from the first Philips factory, the high-tech campus of Eindhoven University of Technology connects students to innovators from Philips, ASML Semiconductors, and other leading tech companies where smart young scientists are inventing the next big thing.
Dutch mentality and culture
The saying goes that God created heaven and Earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands. Our biggest achievement is that we live in a country snatched from the sea. And if we can solve that engineering problem, we can tackle anything. The history of business in the Netherlands is full of Dutch entrepreneurs solving everyday problems in straightforward, pragmatic ways:
- Philips: We want to have light everywhere in our house; Let’s start a bulb factory!
- Boskalis: We have successfully managed water; Let’s help others as well!
- Bloomon: Consumers get really old flowers; Let’s deliver direct from farm to consumer!
- Swapfiets: We ride lots of bikes, but fixing a bike is annoying; Let’s make a subscription service!
So, what does the future look like? With 17 million inhabitants on a little piece of engineered land, we need to collaborate to stay competitive. Our biggest challenge is never forgetting that we became a leading country through trading, accepting other cultures, and learning from others. Even in an age of rising nativism, it is more vital than ever to work together.