13-04-2017

The Big Building: building a community

The old Postal Services building behind the train station has been home to a community of entrepreneurs since September 2015. And even though it may be a temporary home, there’s still some 100 companies on the waiting list of the Big Building.

“People often see the Big Building as the local startup factory, but it really isn’t”, Ralph Steenbergen says. Together with Nick Stevens, Ralph devised the concept behind the Big Building in 2014. “We’re building a community, and give that same community space in both the literal and figurative sense. It’s a place where entrepreneurs can learn from each other and grow together.”

Serendipity

With the Postal Services gradually moving out, the Big Building now has about 10,000 square meters of office space. In June, they will have the whole building to themselves. “But we’re not going to fill up our space with a collection companies who are just looking for a cheap office”, Ralph explains. “We want to create an open community that adds value to the city as a whole, with room for big events and room to experiment on the ground floor, and we’ll have an bar and roof terrace too, which will be open for everyone.”

As for building a community, Nick and Ralph want to do that in the most organic way possible. “You don’t want to be forcing people to bring them together. We have a big lunch together, catered by restaurant Eetlust, but the rest is just serendipity, which is exactly what we want: spontaneous encounters and collaborations. Creating an open culture where people work together on creating cool things, use each other’s skills and also learn from each other.”

Pimping toilets

Mindset is important for an open, creative atmosphere, and that starts with the little things. “Take the toilets for example”, Ralph says. “Sure, you can hang up signs saying please keep things clean, but you can also give that a positive, pro-active twist. We held a small contest where people could pimp their toilet and show off their creativity.”

“When people invest the time and are proud of the things they make, even when it’s just pimping a toilet, they will care about it too and keep it nice and clean. It’s just positive reinforcement that also adds to a sense of community.”

Not the value of bricks

Ralph’s background is real estate and the concept of the Big Building is something is a great addition to a sector that’s not really known for innovation or flexibility. “Something I’ve learned along the way, is that the value of buildings is not in bricks. The people in the building give it real value.”

“But making it about people is tricky in the real estate sector, because there’s generally not a lot of flexibility”, Ralph continues. “When you rent an office, it’s usually for several years, but that’s far from ideal for startups and other small businesses in this day and age. A company can double in size in the span of a year, or shrink when times are a little tougher. And there’s not a lot of room for people who want to experiment with new business models, say pop up stores, either. We don’t want the cost of renting an office to become a noose or a burden for people, we want to give them a roof over their heads, dry and warm, with good wifi and all the tools and knowledge you may need.”

Future plans

In 2018, the building will be demolished to make way for a new bus station, but it won’t be the end of the Big Building. Nick and Ralph are slowly but surely looking for a new location, in whatever shape or form. “The new bus station is of course a big development project, which of course usually means a few delays. So, construction could also start a year later, or the year after that. We’re not really sure when we have to leave, but we see the Big Building as a community, not a place, so it will continue in another form.”

“And everyone here knows it’s a temporary place”, Ralph continues. “It’s exactly that kind of flexibility they’re looking for. We still have 100 companies on the waiting list. Before the building gets demolished, we want to have it add as much value to the city as we can.”

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Hanze University in U-Multirank global top 5
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Hanze University in U-Multirank global top 5

The Hanze University of Applied Sciences is number 5 in the world when it comes to the number of newly founded companies by graduates. On March 30, U-Multirank, the largest global university ranking, published a major new release of data, shining a spotlight on high-performing universities. The European ranking compared more than 1,500 universities, from over 90 different countries worldwide. Boosting entrepreneurship in the region is high up on the Hanze agenda. By 2020, the university wants to create 500 startups and 5000 jobs every year. The Hanze is also currently investing a lot in regional collaboration. Innovation centers where researchers, students and businesses collaborate, are a good example of that, with EnTranCe and the Centre of Expertise for Healthy Aging already up and running. As far as successful graduate companies go, the textbook example would be HackerOne, founded by former Hanze students Jobert Abma and Michiel Prins. But there are also promising startups founded by students still studying at the Hanze. Here are a few: