Amsterdammers are regarded as liberal, laid-back, humble and honest. They’re also the reason the tech industry in the city is booming.
“Technology is not about the ones and zeroes, the bits and the bytes, the software and the hardware. It’s about humans, about the impact of technology on humanity.”
So says Boris Veldhuijzen Van Zanten, founder and CEO of The Next Web and creator of TQ, the tech hub situated in the heart of Amsterdam. For Boris, if you want to understand why the tech industry in the city is thriving, look to the people. “The mentality of Dutch start-ups is very human-focused,” he continues. “Normally, when a company gets bigger the focus tends to shift from humans to processes. But people who come to the Netherlands feel, I think, that they are appreciated more for who they are, and that’s the feedback I get from people who move here from other countries.”
The Dutch, and especially residents of its capital, have a reputation for being among the most relaxed , sociable and unpretentious people in the world. Some of this stems from what outsiders see as the city’s famously permissive attitude to various taboos. The truth is that locals themselves look upon tourists’ fascination with these aspects of their city with some bemusement. Residents would be quicker to point you in the direction of museums, parks or modern eateries than coffee shops or the Red Light District as the locations that define their city.
When you talk to those involved in the tech industry in Amsterdam – people from all over the world – they constantly describe the city and its people in glowing terms. And for these newcomers it helps that 95 per cent of locals speak excellent English.
Collaboration is key
James Waters, SVP of Commercial Operations has been at Booking.com for over a decade. In this time, the homegrown company has transformed itself into one of the world’s leading names in travel technology. He’s in no doubt that the people of Amsterdam, and the Dutch way of life generally, have been instrumental in Booking.com’s success. “I’m not a huge city person. I don’t like looking out of the office window and seeing another tall building, so somewhere like the centre of London is not for me. Amsterdam is nice and spread out, so you always have light, you always have sky. And you see that reflected in the people here. It’s very much about collaboration and working together.”
Collaboration is a word that crops up a lot when it comes to Amsterdam’s tech industry, and there’s evidence of it everywhere. Jasper Middendorp, founder of Reflow, a company that recycles plastics to use in 3D printing, has been a direct beneficiary of the collaboration James talks about at Booking.com. “We were part of Booking.com’s Booster accelerator programme last year where they really helped us scale our business and understand what’s needed to get to the next phase,” says Jasper. “They don’t just provide funding, they also help us with things to do with the web and data analytics, and that’s really helped us get to the next level. Which is great, since as a small team of eight people, there’s this organisation behind us with thousands of people with specialist skills we don’t have. It’s an amazing resource to tap into.”
This connectivity between great and small is part of what gives the tech ecosystem its vibrancy, and it’s reflected in wider attitudes among Amsterdammers, part of a characteristic mixture of humility, honesty and directness. “I think Dutch entrepreneurs are much more cooperative than in other places,” says Boris Veldhuijzen Van Zanten. “Also, I think some of it is about geography. We’re a small piece of land and our only choice is to look at the rest of the world, and when the world is your market you tend to take the view that it’s big enough for all of us, so you don’t feel the need to compete with each other in the same way. Some of my seeming-competitors are also my good friends. We have the same challenges, but the market is big enough for all of us.”
Striking the right balance
It’s all a long way from the ‘tech dude’ braggadocio common among Silicon Valley’s big players. And as Veldhuijzen Van Zanten suggests, it also reveals a city comfortable in its own skin, happy to welcome people from many different countries and cultures. Pranav Pathak, data scientist at Booking.com is proof of that. “I’ve been living here for two years and it’s been incredibly easy to settle in,” he says. “The community is supper-supportive. Many people at the company – and in the city – have moved around a lot and have lots of different experiences, so it’s very easy to connect and make friends, to find something in common, which means it’s super-easy to get assimilated. This feels completely like home to me now.”
Taco Carlier, Dutch co-founder of VanMoof, a designer electric bike company (and cycling is, of course, a big part of life in Amsterdam), sees one of the keys to the success of tech companies in the city’s attitude to work and play. “You don’t have to be in the office all the time,” he says. “We believe you’re much more productive and creative if you have a good work-life balance. And the people are very down-to-earth. It’s not pretentious – it’s not cool to have an expensive car, for example.”
Marianne Gybels, CSR Manager at Booking.com and another Dutch native, also sees the openness and honesty of the locals as an asset. “There’s a directness here, so that generates a very open feedback culture. And there’s a humbleness here too. It’ important to deliver first before talking up your results.”
It’s this attitude that has created so many huge local successes for tech in the Netherlands and Booking.com is just one example. There are also some 1,700 start-ups in the city, comprising 13% of the Dutch economy as a whole.
“The Dutch are very curious about new technology,” says Katja Berkhout, International Director of StartupDelta, a company whose purpose is to accelerate the Dutch tech ecosystem. “We’re very adaptable to trying new things, and we were among the earliest adopters in Europe to things like Netflix and Twitter. To test your ideas in this market and then scale them from there is a really good value proposition with local tech companies and the culture they have.”
Amsterdam’s ultimate ambition is to become the tech capital of Europe, and with such a diverse, dynamic and welcoming community there’s every chance it will. And when they do, you can be sure of one thing: they won’t feel the need to brag about it.
Make Amsterdam your tech city. Explore jobs at careers.booking.com.