Dutch Startup Changemakers: Stefan Braam

We had a chat with Stefan Braam, the Startup incubation lead at UtrechtInc, an incubator for early-stage tech startups. UtrechtInc is the #10 university startup incubator worldwide, with a mission to connect scientists and entrepreneurs to the right people, skills and strategies to turn ideas into leading technology companies. Find out what Stefan loves about the startup world, which lessons for founders he shared with us and what he predicts for the Dutch ecosystem in the near future.
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1. Hi Stefan, thank you for agreeing to do the interview. Could you tell us a bit about your background and how you entered the startup world?

I started here in Utrecht and did an MBA. During my studies, I founded my startup with a couple of friends in the early 2000s. It wasn’t even called a startup then. We had started a company where we wanted to make mobile phone numbers searchable for whoever wanted to be found on the internet. The company failed, but we had a lot of fun, we learned a lot. After a couple of months, we found out that we were a little bit too early to use the network effect that you need when starting an internet company. That was my first encounter with entrepreneurship, and I liked it. 

Later on, I joined the corporate world when I worked as a Digital Product Developer for bigger companies like KLM airlines and RTL media. One of my last roles was for a small energy company where they sent me to Silicon Valley to learn more about the Lean Startup methodology. I immediately thought this is the way I want to work. I was already familiar with that way of working from collaboration with technical developers. The scrum and agile way of working and applying the iterative approach to company building was very interesting to me. At the same time, I realised that it was never going to happen at that small company. They just weren’t ready to take that step and to really become entrepreneurial. So I quit my job and found this great job at UtrechtInc three and a half years ago.

2. What’s your mission as the Startup incubation lead at UtrechtInc, an incubator for early-stage tech startups?

UtrechtInc has been here for the past ten years. We’ve made many mistakes already, so by now, we know what works and what doesn’t. Our mission is to create the best circumstances for startups to succeed. And also to fail. If you’re bound to fail, we’d rather have you fail quickly. If you compare us to maybe a greenhouse or literally an incubator and want to grow a tomato plant, perhaps we can take care of the right lighting, the right temperature, the proper moisture, etc. Our mission for the tomato plants is to grow as fast as possible, bearing as many tomatoes as possible. Of course, the plant will also grow outside of the greenhouse, but probably in the greenhouse, it will grow faster and bigger.

3. What is it about tech startups that particularly attracts you, and how are you shaping the startup ecosystem in Utrecht?

I’m a bit of a nerd. So being surrounded by all these tech startups is really an attractive environment for me. And it’s cool to work with people that say yes, by default, especially after many years of working in the corporate world, where everyone’s standard answer is no. 

What I think is really important about the ecosystem in Utrecht is that with all the networks and the other startups that we have here, the facilities and all the events, Utrecht is becoming more and more the obvious city for startups to go to for scalable technology and AI when it comes to health, education and sustainability.

4. Could you share the top 3 lessons for founders you learned over the years in the startup world?

  • Fall in love with the problem, not with the solution

I always thought that if you had a great idea and some money, you could start a startup. But I found out that it’s not about the idea. I think 60 to 70% of our startups at Utrecht don’t make money now with the idea they came in with. Along the way, they change directions, or what we call pivots. I think it’s not about the idea, it’s about the problem you want to solve. The more time you spend with the problem, the easier it is to find the right customer that has that problem. And the easier it gets to build a solution.  

  • Don’t underestimate the importance of a diverse team

I think the team factor is really underestimated. I can very quickly see if a team is going to succeed or not. If the right team is working on the wrong startup, they will find something else, making it work. But if the wrong team is working on the right startup, they won’t succeed. How can we see if a team will succeed? We can see whether entrepreneurs are modest. When you have an attitude that you know it all, you will fail. We can see whether they’re listening. If you are not really listening to your mentors and advisors because you think you already have all the answers, you will fail too. We can see if they’re willing to get out of their comfort zone. If you always stay in your comfort zone behind the screen and you’re not willing to be adventurous, you will fail.

In addition to that, founders need to focus on diversity. Whether we’re talking about cultural, geographical or gender diversity, that’s what we need most in the Dutch startup ecosystem.

  • Don’t focus on protecting your intellectual property too much

Instead of focusing on protecting your intellectual property so much, use that energy and speed to move forward. Instead of trying to protect everything with NDAs and patents and copyrights, why not just move forward very quickly with winning attitudes?

5. What do you predict for the startup ecosystem in the Netherlands in the near future?

I’m noticing that corporates are finding out it’s tough to do innovation when you’re really big. So I think we’ll see a trend where more and more corporates become early-stage investors in companies, not so much in real VC but early-stage. 

Another trend I see in the ecosystem is the advancement of digitalisation. Because of the COVID-19 measures, we were forced to digitise our programme, and it turns out it’s working great. 

I also think there should be more collaboration between all the ecosystems in the Netherlands. Right now, it seems that our startup ecosystems are like islands. We should find a way to connect all of them and work better together.

Thank you very much for sharing your story and insights with us, Stefan. We wish you the best of luck in your future endeavours!

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