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How to Scale Your Sustainable Business:
5 Learnings from the Dutch Startup Ecosystem

Here are five lessons from the fastest-growing startup ecosystem in Europe, that will be useful for founders everywhere looking to make a difference.

COVID-19 has prompted a system reset. Across the board, business leaders are questioning how we can change our economic system to benefit the new reality — and while many entrepreneurs are answering this call with sustainable and inclusive solutions; too often, the scalability of these ideas is not yet competitive. 

What I’ve learned from two decades of scaling startups and working at the forefront of the circular economy, now as Chief Ambassador of UpStream Festival, is that purpose-driven entrepreneurs often fail to build the fundamentals of a successful business. Why is this, and how can more entrepreneurs building solutions for the ‘new economy’ create impact at scale?

Here are five lessons from the Dutch landscape, the fastest-growing startup ecosystem in Europe, that I hope are useful for founders everywhere looking to make a difference. 

1. Hire to scale

According to CB Insights, 23 percent of startups that die do so because they lack the right team. It’s key to make sure you have a well-balanced founding team with the necessary skillsets to facilitate growth. Typically, a strong founding team consists of a cunning strategist, a persuasive business developer, a creative genius and a strong project manager who keeps the pace and gets the work done (the A-team, as I call it). 

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This is a lesson applied by The Ocean Cleanup, the brainchild of entrepreneur Boyan Slat — who was 18 at the time it was founded, and who is on a mission to rid the world of 90 percent of plastic pollution. To make the business a success, the leadership team was immediately diversified to support different stages of growth; and in July 2015, an independent Supervisory Board was put in place to further strengthen its governance and oversee the progress of its executive team. 

2. Validate your idea quickly on the market

When you spend too much time researching your product, there is a high chance that you’ll end up in the ‘valley of death.’ Even though some technologies require a long R&D time, to prove to investors that your product works, you need to get out and test it on the market. 

Peelpioneers is a good example of a startup that got this right. They started with a great idea to extract high-value food ingredients from the waste stream of orange peel and quickly validated their idea in the market, allowing them to attract the investors they needed to scale their production facility. 

3. Focus on scalability and think ahead

There are many great startups that just don’t have a product or service that can be grown or easily developed for a large audience. To get investors to support your business, it’s necessary to search for solutions that can scale exponentially and deliver enough value to customers. 

Circularise developed an open-source protocol and decentralized network to bring transparency to global supply chains to move towards a circular economy; tackling a major challenge to connect multiple players along a supply chain, from raw materials producers to manufacturers to retailers. Their solution can be scaled to different supply chains in multiple industries; the more parties that use their solution, the more others want to join — both commercially viable and highly scalable. 

4. Focus on the problem you solve

Developing a sustainable product or service just because ‘it’s a great idea!’ will not create impact. There needs to be a clear problem that your product or service is solving, and that your target audience is willing to pay for.

When Physee, a manufacturer of solar-powered windows, was still in the researching phase, they zoomed in on the needs of their niche. They understood the need: Architects and real estate owners wanted to create energy-neutral, comfortable spaces with cost-effective solutions; and their mission became to create solar-powered windows that looked exactly like normal windows, but with sustainable benefits. 

5. Invest in your visibility

Out of the €1.4 billion in venture capital that was invested in the Netherlands last year, only 130 million went to impact-driven startups and scale-ups. Investors I speak with often complain that impact-driven startups aren’t visible, which goes hand-in-hand with what I’ve witnessed — a lot of time and energy gets put into product development and growth, but not in networking and visibility. 

Skoon Energy provides renewable energy on demand through a network of clean mobile energy solutions, and focused on their visibility from the get-go. Their founder secured their first funding from a large corporate investor and kept promoting and pitching his startup from day one at various events, trade missions and in the media. This led them to a commitment from clean energy investor Kees Koolen, the former CEO of booking.com.

No matter how innovative or creative your idea — in the end, only those that are viable, feasible and desirable will make it; and more often than not, assumptions about viability and desirability are wrong, leaving startups building something nobody is interested in. Or founders with promising ideas believe that investors will come looking for them. They won't.

As US-based investor John Doerr says, “Ideas are easy. Execution is everything. It takes a team to win.” I know there are promising solutions out there that can pave the way for a ‘green economy’ and a much more inclusive world, but if these alternatives are going to achieve mainstream impact, entrepreneurs must focus on creating a business set to scale. There is a call for a systems reset and I'm joining that call. Change can't come quickly enough!


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