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Meet the Mentor: Arthur Tolsma


Words by Kelsey Lee Jones

Illustrations by Edith Carron

We’re fortunate to have Arthur Tolsma heading up our Incubation Programme this year, leading and inspiring Class 2 throughout their journey. Arthur is an expert in startup innovation and often shares his knowledge as a coach, trainer, speaker and presenter. As an entrepreneur himself, he experienced the ups and downs of startup life in extremis. Who better to prepare our green startups for their journeys ahead? We got a moment to ask him some questions.

What do you like about working in the startup scene?

I like the complex puzzle that every startup is. A startup has to deal with many elements: product development, customer discovery, focus, pricing, financing, sales strategy, team development, etc. And all those elements are intertwined. If you change your product, you might need to change the pricing as well or the (tasks of the) people in your team. That highly complex puzzle is very challenging but great to play.

You’ve worked with many kinds of accelerator programmes. How’s it to work with a floriculture incubator?

All the startups in the incubator value plants and flowers a lot more than the outside world does. It’s always the standard procedure that a founder values his product way more than the rest of the world. Now we have only people who love flowers and plants. It’s, therefore, a good idea that we do a lot of customer validation, so they learn what the real demand for their product is. The cool thing about this sector is that the Netherlands is really, really big worldwide. I mean huge. And therefore launching in the Netherlands is a great way to learn, and afterwards grow internationally. Lots of Dutch people don’t realize this. We should be more proud of it.

What do you think about our selection of entrepreneurs this year?

Nice group! Highly motivated to build their startup. All are passionate and actually get results. It’s fun to see that they are very different in style but still mix quite well. They have fun, share stories, ask each other for feedback, and help with the specific knowledge or network they have.

“I like the complex puzzle that every startup is. A startup has to deal with many elements. And all those elements are intertwined".

Could you tell us a little bit about your book ‘Startups en downs’. What is the message and what inspired you to write the book?

My first (real) startup failed. Or at least: we did manage to raise money, attract launching customers and sell the company in the end, but in the meantime, we were almost bankrupt, had to fire everyone (including my co-founders and me) and in the end just got a bit of the money we invested back. An expensive adventure. When I told about that adventure as a speaker, I thought people would never listen to my stupid mistakes. However, it turned out that everyone makes the same ’stupid’ mistakes: they are called beginner’s mistakes. That’s when I decided to write a book about it. To share all the startup lessons I learned through my ups and downs. The major lesson? Well, most people tell you “a good product sells itself”. I’ve learned that’s bullshit. You have to match a product with the need of the customer, you have to reach them, you have to tell the right story, at the right moment, with the right pricing, etc. A good product definitely helps, but it for sure doesn’t sell itself.

You’re a star speaker and people often look to you for inspiration on pitching. Any tips for delivering an unforgettable elevator pitch?

Start with the problem. Most people are enthusiastic about the product they build, so they talk 80% of the time about their product. But if you first pinpoint the problem, your listeners will know why you started the company, and get curious about the solution of that problem. 
After a very vague pitch on a food diet, I once asked an entrepreneur “why did you start the company?”. She told a very personal story about the problems with her body weight and her (successful) quest for a solution. After that story, I said: “now this is how you should start your pitch!” Be specific. So many pitches have lines like “We offer the best solution there is, and save you time, money and frustration!” But what does it mean ‘the best solution’? In the world? The Netherlands? Other products for the same price? And how much time, money and frustration do you save? Be specific! Don’t use fancy-sounding advertising headlines, but facts and figures (of course, not too much).

What kind of workshops will you be hosting throughout the Incubation Programme? Which of them excites you most?

We try to cover all major aspects that the startups face, like sales, financing, teams cooperation, etc. It’s great that the teams already did the bootcamp with all the basics of customer validation and business modelling. I liked the workshop on metrics a lot. It’s so important to know what the few major metrics are that drive your company: it helps you focus. And it’s very different per company and business model, so difficult to find. I’m looking forward to the workshops on growth hacking, since I don’t know that much on that topic, and expect to learn quite a lot myself!

What’s the best entrepreneurial advice anyone gave you?

That’s a very difficult question… mostly because I often got conflicting advice from entrepreneurial experts, and that puzzled me a lot. Later I learned that both advisors were right, given the context that they knew. But if there is one piece of advice I learned a lot from, it is that you have to work smart, not only hard. And it’s better to really validate that what you do is good, then to just try 100 times without learning. Or, like Abraham Lincoln put it: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four hours sharpening the axe”.


Great to talk to you, thanks Arthur!

Follow the Incubation Programme and look out for our next Meet the Mentor with Michael van Lier.


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Meet our Incubation Programme startups for 2017/18