Dutch Startup Changemakers: Samir Saberi

Samir Saberi is the Chief Operating Officer at Wam Denim, an advisor and mentor for startups and scale-ups, and a Writer in Residence at the Utrecht University. His writings cover the Dutch entrepreneurial ecosystem, bridging the worlds of entrepreneurs, academics, and public policy. Find out more about his mission in the Dutch startup ecosystem, the reasons why he’s particularly attracted to innovative companies, and the lessons for entrepreneurs he shared with us.
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1. Hi Samir, thank you for agreeing to do the interview. Could you tell us a bit about your background and how you entered the startup world?

Before entering the startup world I worked shortly in development cooperation and had a stint as Managing Director of a fast-growing SME company. Connecting the dots, I think these different career paths and having an engineering background laid the foundation for my love for the startup world. In a way, it was coming home because for me startups are all about making the world a better place through innovation and entrepreneurship. In 2012 just after a few months of getting to know ‘the scene’ I co-founded a blog called startupjuncture, the first dedicated blog about startups in the Netherlands. This blog became the flywheel that propelled me immediately to the center of the ecosystem. 

2. You’re a Writer in Residence at Utrecht University, covering the Dutch entrepreneurial ecosystem, bridging the worlds of entrepreneurs, academics, and public policy. Tell us more about your mission there!

Since 2012 the Dutch startup scene has come a long way. Companies like Adyen, Elastic, Gitlab, Picnic, Messagbird, 3D Hubs, Physee, Impraise and many, many more are companies that we as the ecosystem should be proud of.  At the same time, I think that we as an ecosystem can do much better. We can do much better by truly understanding what it takes to build a thriving startup ecosystem. A thriving startup ecosystem is for instance not only about the lack of capital. It’s also not only about the lack of talent. It’s so many more things. Such as rules and regulations, the personal drive and ambitions of entrepreneurs, having battle-tested executives that have the experience to build global technology companies, the right ideas for the right problems at the right time, great support networks, etc. Obviously, all these things have been mentioned before. I am not telling you anything new. But like so many  things in life: ‘the devil is in the details.’ 

I dare to argue that right now we do not truly understand what it takes to have a more thriving ecosystem in the Netherlands. Coming back to rules and regulations: for instance the issue of giving startup employees stock options. We have been talking about it and fighting for it as an ecosystem for at least since the launch of Techleap in 2015. My question is: what are the root-cause reasons why this seems like an impossible mission in the Netherlands? We don’t know. I know from first hand-experience that senior battle-tested executives from abroad that know how to scale a company, haven’t joined startups and scale-ups exactly because of this reason. 

What are the reasons why Adyen succeeds to build a global tech company and thousands of companies do not? My mission is to contribute to this by asking challenging questions and sharing my insights with young entrepreneurs at the Utrecht Center for Entrepreneurship and the general public. These are insights that I have collected over the years during my talks in ‘the trenches’ with entrepreneurs, investors, government officials, and others. 

3. Where does your interest in innovative companies come from? What is it about the startup world that particularly attracts you?

I believe that startups are in essence evolution. Startups are the future in the making. Startup founders are action-oriented people that do not stand on the sideline but pick up that baton and try to make the world a better place. I have the utmost admiration and respect for entrepreneurs and startup teams and would love to see them succeed. 

4. You’re a mentor to a couple of startups and scale-ups. What are the top three lessons for founders you would share with our readers?

The first and most important lesson I would like to share with startup founders is to be honest with themselves. This seems like a bit of odd advice. But I have too often seen that startup founders get caught up in their self-created bubble. They get distracted from doing the most important thing: growing their company. For instance by not ‘listening’ to the data, focusing too much on conferences or startup-pitches instead of understanding what the customer really wants. Or even building a company that satisfies investors instead of creating something that people want and are willing to pay a premium price for. 

The other thing is to think about how to make money right off the bat. This is a truism, I know, but too many startups, especially business to consumer software startups, consider making money an afterthought. Thinking about a revenue model completely alters the product and company building process for the better and mind I say prevents a lot of heartache down the road.  

Another piece of advice I would like to give entrepreneurs is to go for solving more complex problems in an area where they have expert-level knowledge. Building a company around a domain-specific complex problem is easier than building a company around a general easy problem. 

5. What’s the next big thing in the startup world? What do you predict for the Dutch startup ecosystem in the near future?

The next big thing in the startup world in my mind is seeing the overhaul, enabled by tech, in healthcare, education, and government. The level of opportunity in these areas is mind-boggling because there is so much room for improvement. Another thing I am really happy about is the focus on impact startups and scale-ups and the impact-focused funds that are becoming increasingly available. 

As you may know, it’s really hard to predict the future. I am however hopeful when it comes to the Dutch startup ecosystem because top-level executives, the battle-tested executives I previously talked about, like Steven Schuurman, Pieter van der Does, Jitse Groen, and Gillian Tans are now sharing experiences and knowledge with the new generation of entrepreneurs as a part of Techleap’s Rise program. I think this pay-it-forward of the how-to of scaling a company is invaluable.

Thanks a lot for sharing your story and insights, Samir! We wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.

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