Amsterdam’s reputation for being an open, welcoming city extends all the way back to the 16th century, when it took in refugees fleeing from wars and religious persecution. During this period it also became the greatest trading city in the world. This history is woven deep into the fabric of the city, so it seems natural that today tech companies – which pride themselves on innovation, disruption and open-mindedness – should feel at home here.
A city tailor-made for tech
The range of tech companies in Amsterdam is huge, from small start-ups of half a dozen people to global leaders like Booking.com with its 17,500 employees worldwide. Katja Berkhout, International Director of Startup Delta, a company whose purpose is to accelerate the Dutch tech ecosystem, sees the city as instrumental in the success of tech businesses, large and small.
“There are about 1,700 start-ups and scale-ups here in Amsterdam, and the tech industry employs about 250,000 jobs in total in the country – that’s about 13 percent of the Dutch economy. The city’s manageable size makes it easy to connect people together, to go from a meeting on one side of the city to the other. There must be about a 100 meet-ups you could go to on a daily basis here, from major conferences to smaller events to engineers coming together for hackathons over weekends. But there’s great connectivity in terms of transport infrastructure too, with a rail system that connects you to the whole of Europe and all the adjacent markets, and an international airport in Schiphol that connects you to just about anywhere in the world. And the digital infrastructure is super-good too, of course. So all these things are really helpful if you’re building a company here.”
The tech eco-system
Technological change in the past two decades has been profound across the globe, and nowhere is this truer than in Amsterdam. “It’s been amazing, dynamic change,” says Katja. “We have the homegrown unicorns [that’s start-ups valued at a billion dollars or more] like Elastic, Adyen, Tom Tom and Booking.com, but also Tesla, Netflix and Uber have built their European headquarters here. Today this tech community is spread out all over, both within the canal system and further out, whether it’s the TQ tech hub in the heart of the city or B. Amsterdam, the biggest incubator in Europe, which has built a 60,000-square-metre campus in the suburbs. You have all these different pockets of innovation, it’s really incredible.”
Boris Veldhuijzen Van Zanten, founder and CEO of The Next Web, and creator of the TQ tech hub agrees. “With TQ we wanted to create a space where people would think, ‘this is the centre of technology in Amsterdam and if I hang out here and have a coffee there’s a high chance I will bump into, say, my next business partner.’ The tech scene is high quality and well-connected, but because it’s a small city it’s very easy to get to know each other. People are only a handshake away.”
Boris has a great analogy to describe what’s going on with Amsterdam’s tech scene. “One way to think about it is to look at the example of tulips. The city and the country are famous for tulips, yet it is the worst place to grow them. The soil is too wet and sandy, and there’s not enough sun, yet because of these limitations and having to overcome them, we became the best at growing tulips. A similar thing can be said about tech entrepreneurs. We’re a small country and so don’t have the same access to capital, no one understands the local language, and we have to think about expanding internationally immediately to become successful. But because of this, the tech industry in Amsterdam has found ways to overcome these limitations and it’s now really high quality.
It’s all in the vibe
James Waters is SVP of Commercial Operations at Booking.com. He sees how the character of the city has helped shape the company he’s been a part of for nearly 12 years. “Dutch culture in general is very much about ‘we’ not ‘I’ and Booking.com is like that as well,” he says. “Job titles and hierarchy are not important for their own sake. Everything is open-plan here, and if you go to the canteen it’s entirely possible that you could find the CEO sitting at a table next to someone who might be on their first day. This means there are opportunities for anybody to talk to anybody else, and a huge number of ideas and connections come out of these kinds of situations.”
Work-life balance is something you hear a lot when it comes to the Amsterdam tech scene. James describes it as “the biggest small city in the world” and it means it’s not only easy to connect but easy to commute. “If you think of megacities where you might be commuting for at least two hours a day, then here you get at least 90 minutes of your life back, every day of the week, every week of the year.”
For Katja Berkhout, this sense of balance means she gets to spend more time on the beach – people tend to forget there’s beautiful coastline so close to the city. “I’m a kite surfer,” she says, “so it’s really amazing for me to just bike from my home through the dunes and get onto the water after a busy day of work in the city.”
Amsterdam might not be known for its beaches, but everyone knows it’s a cycling city. About 55 percent of its residents commute by bike, and only a minority use cars. Taco Carlier, co-founder of designer e-bike scaleup VanMoof, sees this as another thing that sets the Dutch capital apart. “Cycling turned Amsterdam into a greener, healthier city, with better air quality and less noise pollution. And it’s so easy using a bike to go to five or six appointments across town, and that really stimulates creativity. It’s also attracting people from the rest of the world, especially young families. There are great schools, great parks and a lot of things to do with children. It’s a great place for them to grow up.”
The way things are going, by the time those children do grow up, there’s every chance their home city of Amsterdam will have fulfilled its ambition to become the tech capital of Europe.
Make Amsterdam your tech city. Explore jobs at careers.booking.com