Prof. Aard Groen: Making a high tech start-up successful

The founder of Insego website talked to Aard Groen, director of  VentureLab International about creating successful start-ups.

Best Dutch Brands:  VentureLab International is your brainchild.  What was your a-ha moment which inspired you to begin VLI?

groenAard Groen:  My aha moment came to me after the Innovation Platform Twente asked me why many startups from UT weren’t growing further.  Although we already had another business development program called Kansrijk Eigen Baas, which helped companies start up, I realized we also needed to help prevent entrepreneurs from stunting their company’s growth during the early stages of their high tech high-growth company’s development. They should become more competent and aware, and this is possible if they work consistently on this goal through coaching, networking, having access to finance and remaining focused.

Insego:  What are some barriers when making a high tech start-up successful? 

Aard:  One barrier lies within the idea behind the company.  If the persons who developed the technology set up the company based on the idea that the technology will sell itself, the company will almost never become big. Something which causes this behavior is that they’re not market-oriented enough. They don’t know what their clients want, but they are also not seeking what the client needs.  If that link is missing, then it is almost impossible to create a large company.

Even if you do have that link, there can still be issues.  For example, financing a start-up is usually perceived as the big obstacle. Unnecessary, because there are plenty of financial resources available for high-tech start-ups. The problem lies usually in how entrepreneurs ask for the money. If you appear to be a technology-driven person and not a client-driven person, and if you have a poor network and an unclear presentation, it could be difficult to receive finance or find investors.

Insego:  How does VentureLab International help entrepreneurs receive financing for their companies?

Aard:  We first make our entrepreneurs “investor ready”, helping them have a prepared and presentable plan, the ability to do the first initial negotiations about the terms of reference for how they will get investments and what kinds of the share they will share with the investor, and what will be their exit strategy. The real financing comes from someone else.

We’re connected to several formal and informal investor networks and we are able to introduce our participants to the right investor.

Insego:  Are there international participants in the program?

Aard:  We have many international participants; the program is given in English so there are no barriers for international people to join us.  We are also recognized by the NBIA (National Business Incubation Association) in the United States as a Soft Landings International Incubator designation and we help to set up a business in northwestern Europe, specifically in the Netherlands.


Jaap van Tilburg: Online Businesses Ideas

jaapvantilburgBea Stanford, the founder of Insego blog, talked with the Jaap van Tilburg, the Programme manager of VentureLab International about his own start-ups.

Don’t put all eggs in one basket is a well-known strategy that many entrepreneurs keep in mind. This is also a Jaap van Tilburg’s motto, who, apart from having a successful career as a board member of VentureLab Twente, he has a number of websites and online businesses.
As I always advocate creating a passive and residual supplemental income stream on the side, I took the chance to learn about Jaap’s approach.

First, why would anybody want to have a small business on the side if you have a good job?

There are many reasons:

  • Job security is a huge issue. Globalization, outsourcing, downsizing and economic woes, in general, are worrying people. Many desire something to fall back on; a safety blanket underneath them to catch them if and when they fall.
  • You might want to learn something new and challenge yourself
  • You have brilliant ideas that your work doesn’t allow you to realize, because you want to have the financial benefits for yourself or because you want to do things your own way.

Jaap has been an entrepreneur for more than 30 years. When he accepted a job at the university he liked to continue some entrepreneurial activities. Anyway, having a small business on the side is getting more and more popular. There are many factors that decide how successful that will be, depending on business model and expectations. Jaap van Tilburg says some of his 6 websites are more successful than others.

For example. , dedicated to spreading information about doing business in Curacao, is a great support for the offline business. This website is a driving vehicle to offline meetings that van Tilburg organizes regularly. To attract traffic, van Tilburg uses a social media strategy including YouTube movies. The business monetization model is based on public sponsoring and the earning model via the website is in preparation.

One of his sites,,  is the other story. He was very optimistic about this website. It should match innovators with potential buyers and help them create long-term partnerships. Visitors have reached via the traditional PPC (pay per click) method as well as by SEO (Search Engine Optimization). Unfortunately, the idea wasn’t as popular as Jaap predicted and the website is now waiting for new inspiration.

Jaap also has 4 other businesses that deliver him a steady stream of work, help him build relationships and also enhance his credibility as an expert in the field. Furthermore, he says that having businesses online is a need to be recognized, brings in new clients out of his existing network and helps him to stay on top of the game.

Jaap is an avid YouTube user and has his own popular hits. This can be another way of creating passive income. I like Jaap’s contagious attitude of being open to trying new things, whatever it is, social media or a new business. I agree when he says that, if you want to succeed, you have to change your mindset first and foremost. There are so many possibilities around all of us.

How to Promote Startups with YouTube Marketing

YouTube video is a perfect medium for promoting your business. This way you can easily explain your product or service and it can help you to dominate search results. Especially the start-up businesses may benefit from a nicely planned and skillfully created web video. For starters, because their product is new and needs explaining for users to grasp its features and benefits, but also because a professionally produced video gives customers the instant impression of a trustworthy company – put simply instant credibility.

With YouTube being the second search engine, just after Google, having a video channel that explains why your idea is valuable and why everybody should care about it, will definitely help you to succeed. From the beginning, VentureLab International used videos to promote our activities and to give potential students an idea what VentureLab is all about. You can check these videos here.


Some lessons learnt during the Startup Weekend Enschede

I am a master student in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Aalborg University (Denmark). Currently I’m doing my graduation project for VentureLab International, which is related to entrepreneurial teams and growth of new tech-ventures.

Lots of red posters on VentureLab walls with catchy phrases kept raising my curiosity, but the decision to join the event came few days before it took place. To be honest, it was a challenge for me to participate. Since I am still a student, I was wondering about my potential contribution at the event. I set several goals regarding my participation.

First I wanted to know what I am capable of. I believe that competitive environments are best suited to reveal our strengths and weaknesses. Second and foremost goal was to learn how ideas evolve into a viable and promising business models. I’ve studied a lot about business development and multifunctional teams etc., but it was about time to experience it in practice.  Apart from that I knew I would meet lots of professional, spirited, entrepreneurial people and extend my personal network.  Rigid time frames set for the development of ideas (54 hours of work) added some spice to the vent. So I joined. Now I am way closer to starting my own company.

Startup Weekend Enschede is a 54-hour event.  Developers, designers, marketers, product managers and startup enthusiasts come together to share ideas, form teams, build products, and launch startups. I enjoyed the company of about 60 attendees from technical and business backgrounds. We listened to impressive key-note speakers like Arthur van Hoff (CTO of Flipboard) and the winner of Startup Weekend Amsterdam, Henk Willem Beks (Goddess Alert).

The format of a startup weekend is to begin with open mic (microphone) pitches where attendees are encouraged to bring their best ideas and inspire others to join them as a team. Over Saturday and Sunday, the teams design and develop business models and first prototypes, listen to experts’ feedbacks and prepare 180-seconds final pitches.

After the first pitches, 8 ideas out of 26 survived the viability test and had teams formed around them.  I happened to become part of the MoRally team (online social impact game on sustainability). Our team was formed with difficulty.  The idea itself did not get a significant number of votes, and therefore also people to work on it.  Despite that, the idea owner –the aspiring entrepreneur- succeeded to attract me and another person to form a team.

The pitch of MoRally contained too many unnecessary details at first. This diverted the attention of the audience thus leaving them dumbfounded. They did not find the idea attractive and rushed away to join other, more explicitly presented ideas. Basically the only content I was able to grasp from the pitch was the term “CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) game”. Entrepreneurs are so into their ideas that they forget that others are not! Easy language, less details and better structure is what makes other people comprehend the message! I have been involved earlier into a project on corporate social responsibility so I found the topic quite interesting, especially since it was to relate to gaming.

Compared to other teams I thought ours did not inspire great hopes. Other teams consisted of experienced professionals, and ours mainly of students and solely business people. But the game inventor was surprisingly motivated by strong belief in success. After the pitches were done, the teams turned to work. First we spent 5 hours to comprehend the idea behind SCR game, by playing several game sessions. It appeared quite difficult to identify roles within the team, because members having very similar professional backgrounds. For years I’ve been studying that multifunctionality in teams is paramount to success. And  knowing that we were not “multifunctional ‘’ enough raised some discomfort at first. Monofunctionality, however, was still to some advantage. We had lots of meaty  discussions, which added new details and enriched our business concept.

Over Saturday and Sunday all teams subscribed for several experts sessions. First sessions with experts did not boost our confidence at all, especially because their body language said „I understand nothing of what you’re saying”! Despite ups and downs our lead- entrepreneur was still convinced of the greatness of CSR game. Commitment and belief is what led our team throughout the whole process. We kept working on the business model!

One of the important points is to realize one’s own capabilities and drawbacks. Despite being the owner of an idea, but being not such an expert presenter, one must delegate that task to someone who is more professional in this area. Entrepreneurs guard their ideas as chickens protecting their eggs. Interfering and further shaping the Ideas becomes really challenging then.  But I think it is also quite understandable.

After 24 hours of work, our team realized that without technical team members it was not going to succeed. We needed someone to create the graphic mockup of the game. And here all my entrepreneurial spirit came to the fore. Thanks to Facebook and quite a large number of engineer friends I was able to lure some of them to join the project. All together we kept moving forward. It’s not to say that we were ready by 19:00 Sunday, but what’s done..done!

We were really astonished to win the 3d award in the competition. It was an incredible experience.  I’ve learned from this event as much as I would learn in one year of my ordinary life.

Some lessons that I learned:

  • Plan a pitch very carefully and present the underlying idea as simply as possible!
  • Don’t give up your idea, no matter what they say!
  • Understand your capabilities and drawbacks within a team!
  • Leave space for others to work on and shape the idea, you may get surprised by the results!
  • Show your commitment, it motivates your team!
  • Negative feedback from people is a valuable source of information to get the next one positive, so love it!
  • No matter who you are- experienced professional or a student- everyone can make a difference!

Social media & Information retrieval for venture development

Entrepreneurs often have to deal with new and ill-defined product concepts, whose context of use is still poorly understood and whose commercial applications are not fully explored yet. Relevant, up to date and rapid information on a broad range of strategic topics such as competitors, potential customers, potential marketing activities, regulatory information, vendors and procurement, and collaboration with other actors in the market is crucial.

Consumers more and more use social media to share their opinions and knowledge with others online. Whatever is being discussed online is searchable. Hence, this opens up new opportunities for acquiring relevant information that could support venture development. This blog post provides some pointers on how entrepreneurs can use social media as information retrieval tools for supporting venture development.

How to start the quest for relevant information?

Although acquiring online information seems easy, finding the relevant information is quite challenging considering the overload of available information. Therefore, it is crucial that entrepreneurs narrow their search scope and be as specific as possible in formulating their information needs. Entrepreneurs need to ask themselves: What kind of information do I need and would be the most valuable? What keywords are associated with my strategic topics? The identified keywords will be the entrepreneur’s guide in their quest for finding relevant content. These keywords facilitate finding platforms on which actors are located that could assist entrepreneurs with fulfilling their information needs. Examples of tools that accommodate finding the right platforms are the following:

–       Google Alert: This tool helps to track keywords and enables entrepreneurs to identify platforms around their keywords.

– Hashtags (e.g #socialmedia) are used to mark keywords or topics in a tweet. They are useful for locating relevant communities on Twitter. The site enables entrepreneurs to check if there are hashtags used that are associated with the keywords in which they are interested. These hashtags that can be used to locate the people that use them. These people could be part of the community entrepreneurs want to listen and talk to.

– This site enables entrepreneurs to find anyone by topic, region or profession on twitter. In addition, it provides information on the top 140 lists on twitter; the top 140 most listed people and the 40 most followed people.

–       Search for communities directly: Big social networking platforms like Linkedin and Facebook have a search option that also enables entrepreneurs to find people and groups associated with their keywords.

–       Google groups: Of course there are also a lot of stand-alone forums and groups that do not use Linkedin and Facebook as their preferred community host. Google Group helps to find these communities.

Using social media content for venture development

After relevant platforms have been identified, they can be strategically used for fulfilling entrepreneurs’ information needs. For this conducting four behaviors are useful.

  1. Observing: This behavior entails observing what people are saying online. This behavior enables entrepreneurs to learn more about consumers needs, wants, experiences, complaints, motives for using certain products and services. In addition, it is also helpful to learn more about competitors and trends.
  2. Questioning: This behavior entails asking questions. For this question and answering platforms like Quora and LinkedAnswers are especially useful. These sites enable people to ask questions and others can answer and respond.
  3. (Idea) Networking: This behavior involves discovering relevant individuals with whom entrepreneurs can connect and engage.
  4. Experimenting: this behavior aims to test ideas regarding the venture idea with the general online public.  Examples of such behavior are posting mock-ups online and elicit comments or posting two variances of the products or service and ask the public which one they prefer.


Key Take Away:

Social media are useful for information retrieval purposes that can aid venture development. For this three steps are needed:

  • Determine relevant keywords
  • Identify relevant social media platforms
  • Use these platforms to conduct the four behaviors observing, questioning (idea) networking and experimenting.

Softlanding is trendy

While I was writing this blog my colleague “Rob” was in Indonesia, my neighbor passenger “Senta” was preparing for a backpacking tour in New Zealand and Asia and I was approaching North Carolina (USA) where one of the VentureLab participants presented his company “SolMateS” in a worldwide conference on the commercialization of micro- and nano-systems. Worldwide presence no longer is restricted to large multinational companies, governmental leaders and scientists. All of us enlarge our scope. As tourists or backpacker, we get a personal experience on global diversities and at the same time, our community at home is also multi-culturalizing.

Young, small and medium-sized technology-based companies also have to cope with a global marketplace. Having limited resources they are open for support and easy access. Apart from existing support mechanisms like trade missions, fairs and agents, new way’s of internationalization are coming up.


    • * VentureLab participant Euro dev, the

European Business Development Group

    This fast growing company is specialized in facilitating medium-sized US companies to get full access to the European market.
    • *

Embedded coaching: Via this initiative, high tech companies in Twente get a few months residence in Silicon Valley with the support of a coach who introduces the entrepreneurs in the local business community in other to find clients and local representatives.

    • *Softlanding incubation. The largest global incubator association (NBIA) started several years ago with a designation of members as a softlanding incubator
    • Recently also the European Business & innovation center Network (EBN) started a soft landing club
    • One of the first NBIA soft landing incubators in

Europe was VentureLab International

    • Besides their existing incubator services as training, coaching, networking, and office space VentureLab International provide entrepreneurs from abroad support in acquiring visa and housing, dealing with another language and culture and local different legal and tax systems. Venturelab soft lander Pramod Agrawal (Ecolabs) from India explains to a group of interested potential entrepreneurs from 20 nationalities about his soft landing experience in Twente, see a short

Facilitating entrepreneurship in a global market place doesn’t end here! Of that I am sure.

Interesting news for SMEs: Social Networking is a successful strategy

First published here on the Social Media Marketing blog of Dr E. Constantinides (Efthymios).

According to a just published study of Regus Media Center the adoption of social networking as business strategy by SMEs is growing: the main findings of the study:

•Social Networks are now actively used by between half and three quarters of companies worldwide for various networking functions

• However, 40% of companies globally have successfully used social networks to find new customers, scotching the comments of pundits who deny that such networks produce hard business outcomes

• The importance of these networks to marketing activities is witnessed by the fact that 27% of firms globally actively devote marketing budget to social networking activity in order to reach and retain existing customers

• Social networks are mainly used by business people to stay in touch with business contacts (58%), getting together with special interest groups (54%), finding out useful business information (54%), and organising/connecting/managing customer groups (51%)

• Surprisingly few business people (22%) have used business social networks to find a new job

• A hardcore of sceptics exists (34%) who do not believe business social networks will ever be a significant method of reaching customers and prospects, although this proportion may diminish as examples of successful practice are more widely publicised

• There is only a mild differential between the small, medium and large company usage of business social networks, revealing that usage patterns are largely company size neutral

• Of the specific industries surveyed, ICT, Retail, Media & Marketing and Consultancy were above average in their use of business social networks. Manufacturing, Financial Services and Healthcare were below average

Source: Regus Media Center

Why should your business exist?

Whether you develop a new business or lead an existing one, its all about the money. Or is it? As the industrialist Henry Ford reminded us a long time ago, “A business that makes nothing but money, is a poor kind of business”. I full-heartedly agree and think this remark bears even more value today than in Ford’s era. But if it is not for making money per se, why should your business exist? A careful scrutiny of the various purposes a business may have, shows us that there at least four types of purposes relevant to any business. These lead to four questions entrepreneurs may want to ask themselves occasionally.

Purpose with the business: what should it do for you?
The first question you may want to ask yourself, or your teammates, is what you are or were trying to achieve with the business. Did you want more freedom? Is it the realization of an ideal or an idea? Were you trying to get rid of paper work and red tape? Putting this question first place does not suggest that self-interest always comes first. What it does suggest, though, is that it may be smart to keep in mind whether your business is still doing for you what it was supposed to do and whether you’re still in the right business. If not, this is a signal to make some changes, or to leave, perhaps.

Purpose for the business: what kind of business should it be?
As long as it exists, your business will evolve into some kind of business no matter what. But if you don’t like to be surprised with the kind of business you end up with in a couple of years, it may help to think about this second question upfront. What kind of business should your business be? Should it be large? Innovative? Efficient? The best in its kind? Always the first? The answer to these questions is not a pure derivative of market forces or an automatic result of organizational dynamics. No, the kind of business you end up with, is largely influenced by what you want it to be.

Purpose of the business: what should it do for others?
It is probably this third question that Henry Ford referred to in the famous quote above. It says that your business is a poor one if it fails to be more than a money-making machine. This question concerns the intended and unintended impact your business has on others. Your business has many direct and indirect stakeholders – all of which cannot be served at the same time. Who are yours and how does your business affect them? How does your business matter and for whom? The answers to these questions can give you some insights about the added value of your business.

Purpose in the business: what guides your actions?
Finally, there are values and criteria that guide your everyday choices and actions. Whether implicit or explicit, all your business decisions will be guided by a normative view on what should and what should not be done – according to you. How is this for your business? How do you decide what is right and wrong? Is everything legal also appropriate? Is everything appropriate also legal? Answering this fourth question may help to make explicit how you make your choices and whether you like it that way.

These are not easy questions and answering them may require substantial time and effort. Yet, asking them every now and then in a moment of reflection – in the train perhaps or when driving home – can help you to make sure that your business should indeed exist.

Developing a Company inside a “Kiretsu” Network

Entrepreneurs create value. Or at least that is the idea. Scalability is the key to create this value. This should be done by making clever use of networks, and not by controlling everything yourself. Make use of the best skills of others, focus on your own “differentiating skills and ideas”.

Triangle of value creation
The triangle of value creation identifies the interaction between market/market access, product/technology and money. Having money, a product or technology alone will never be sufficient to create value. In a few cases, only having market access is enough to establish a valuable company. To have market access, networks are distribution relationships are essential.

Outsourcing and suppliers
In a Kiretsu-group there is an understood role and use of networks.
Scale is achieved more cleverly when the firm depends on its network, and when non-core activities are outsourced. Outsourcing makes a firm more flexible. Prerequisite for the sustainability of such a firm is multi-sourcing. This means that the firm always has at least two sources for every supply, to prevent too much dependability. When one supplier cannot deliver a promise, the firm can turn to the second supplier and does not have to say no to its customer. In practice, this gets more difficult the more high-tech a firm becomes. In any case, one of the goals remains to have few employees, those that you really need, and that you outsource all other activities into a network of relationships, preferably with as few single-dependencies as possible.

Cooperate with your Competitors in new markets
Another interesting aspect of making use of networks to create value is co-opetition in the very early phases of innovation. Normally, in established markets, a company has competitors. In new and early markets, there is little or few competition. In new markets, growth and standards are more important than competition. Therefore Co-opetition (cooperating with your competitors can put priority on growth and can reduce development costs. Customers will see commonalities and choice between few competitors, and the market grows faster than when the leaders confuse the new and early markets.

Reference customer
But of course, the customer is the best proof of your offer. Having an early customer is the best mechanism to promote your product or service. And not to forget: early customers can serve as co-developers of the offer to make it more valuable.