The municipal elections are right around the corner and in the past four years, Groningen has climbed out of the recession and is now booming with startups and scale-ups. This new breed of entrepreneurs is now an important part of the local economy, creating new jobs and adding value by innovating and focussing on sustainability and social impact.
So what does this new generation of entrepreneurs really need from the City to keep growing? And what are campaigning politicians’ future plans to help them? Last Thursday, Founded in Groningen organized the very first political debate in Groningen focusing on entrepreneurship in the Groninger Forum. Representatives of eight political parties talked about their future plans and present accomplishments, and discussed new ideas and possible solutions with the entrepreneurs in the audience and a panel of experts: Mark Vletter (Voys, Spindle), Jan Gustavo Kuipers (Mr. Chadd) and Diem Do (CodeGorilla).
A place to grow
The debate revolved around four different themes. The first: what can the City do to help startups and scale-ups grow? Mirjam Wijnja (GroenLinks) says her party wants to focus on sustainability and green innovation: “The City has a big network and can act as a facilitator, by connecting startups and scale-ups to the right people.”
The incumbent City Alderman of Economic Affairs Joost van Keulen (VVD) already has a four year track record when it comes to startups: “The City should give startups a chance and become a customer, like we do with our Startup in Residence Program. But as a City there are a lot of regulations when it comes to working with companies. We need to be more flexible with those rules.”
“But those are usually smaller scale projects”, Voys founder Mark Vletter says. “What about bigger public tenders for scale-ups? These big projects usually go to big multinationals and more often than not comes down to paying an overpriced consultant who doesn’t fully understand the problem.” Joost van Keulen agrees: “It comes down to those regulations. But one thing we did, was break those public tenders down and let multiple companies work on them. Not ideal, but on the other hand, if a scale-up can work with a big multinational, that’s also a good opportunity.”
A place for talent
Groningen is a student town of course, and a lot of those students leave to work in cities like Amsterdam after graduating. How do we keep talented people in Groningen and attract more talent for the large number of IT jobs that are still open? Jikke van Deelen (Student & Stad) says we need more traineeships to keep students here. “And we also need a much faster connection to the Randstad metropolitan area.”
Marjet Woldhuis (100% Groningen): “I think we need to work on the image of the region as a whole, instead of focusing on just the city.” Paul de Rook (also incumbent Alderman D66): “Aside from just the image, the quality of life is also vital, so we also need to invest in affordable housing.”
Mr. Chadd co founder Jan Kuipers of course hires a lot of students for the tutoring jobs, but has trouble filling the more technical openings. “I think we really need to work closely with both universities to make sure students get the skills we really need as a company. If I’m looking for an online marketeer, I’m looking for far more than a business student who did one course in online marketing.”
Niek Huizenga, co-founder of the Launch Cafe mentions the Startup Visa program, of which none of the politicians seem to be aware. “Why focus on keeping people here, when we can attract people from all over the world? Groningen has a strong international reputation and many internationals actually prefer working and living here. Why not make it easier for them?” Koen Atema agrees and adds: “Very few of the current students know about Groningen based companies and we have all these big startup and business events for students. Give those Groningen companies a podium at these events, that’s something the City can add to the requirements for organizing these events.”
A place to work
With The Big Building gone, we’re currently left without a large, central location where startups can rent cheap working spaces, build a community and learn from each other. René Bolle (CDA): “We still have a couple of vacant buildings and we could reserve a percentage for cheap working spaces for starting entrepreneurs. But we do need to realize that a lot of startups fail, so if you still can’t afford market prices after three years, you don’t have a healthy business. So we need to make sure that these cheap places are temporary.”
Jan Pieter Loopstra (PvdA) agrees. “Entrepreneurs should not be pampered too much.” Terence van Zoelen (Partij voor de Dieren) somewhat disagrees: “Quite a few freelancers are not entrepreneurs by choice, but because their employer demands it These people deserve an affordable place to work too.”
Someone in the audience mentions “the Black Box” a building that’s been vacant for a long time. Mark Vletter happens to know why it’s not in use: “It’s owned by an Irish investment group and the mortgage for the building is higher than its worth. So it’s not going to be sold either. I think it would be good if the City knew the owners of these types of buildings and what their intentions are.”
A place to make a difference
Social and sustainable entrepreneurship has become more important in the past years. But what can local government to do help stimulate this kind of entrepreneurship? Jan Pieter Loopstra (PvdA) says we need less rules. “It’s great that you have companies help retrain the unemployed, but can be very difficult for companies to work with the Social Affairs and Welfare departments, because there are far too many needless rules.”
CodeGorilla co-founder Diem Do adds that it can be difficult to get funding if you’re mission first company and large profit margins are less important. “And that can be difficult if you want to grow.” She suggests a Social Impact Bond, a sort of pay for social success program.
Something all parties agree on, is that there are too many rules and regulations getting in the way of working with startups. But that’s not something that can be easily changed, because of all the legal complications. Jeroen Sprangers working at the Rein Advocaten law firm proposes a solution: “If we all agree that there are too many rules, let’s agree right here, right now, that we’re going to do something about it. If you can bring together the right people, I’ll bring together a dozen legal experts and we’ll have a hackathon, strip down all those regulations and make it legally sound.”