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Meet the Mentor: Robbert van Geldrop


Words by Kristina Foster

Illustrations by Edith Carron

As a seasoned mentor of Dutch accelerator programmes, Robbert van Geldrop has used his entrepreneurial expertise to springboard hundreds of startups. He talks to us about his experience as a Let it Grow Lab mentor, the increasingly important relationship between industry giants and innovation, and his strategy for creating winning businesses.

Tell us about your current role in the Dutch startup scene?

I’m currently a partner at Firmhouse, an organisation that helps entrepreneurs grow from idea to traction. For the past few years I’ve been heavily invested in Lean Startup and I was actually one of the first people to bring it to the Netherlands in 2010. During this time, there was a wave of new accelerator programmes which I got involved with as a mentor. The most well-known of those are Rockstart, YES!Delft and Utrecht Inc. I’ve been acting as a mentor and helping these with their programme design for four or five years now.

What have you learned from your experience as a mentor at all these different accelerators?

I think I’ve met up with more than 1000 entrepreneurs, so I’ve gained experience in identifying strengths and weaknesses in teams and their business models. I always try to get them into a mode where they come up with new insights every two weeks. If that’s not happening for some reason, I try to figure out why that is and help the team get over those obstacles. It also helps to signal the programme manager on things they can do to unblock teams, such as making introductions to experts. I recently wrote a blog post about all my learnings as a mentor as a guide to help entrepreneurs.

How does Let it Grow Lab’s Incubation Programme compare to the other accelerators you’ve collaborated with in the past?

The distinctive feature of Let it Grow Lab’s Incubation Programme is that it focuses on a specific market which really optimizes the effectiveness of their startups, an edge which a lot of these ‘cookie-cutter’ programmes lack. The other thing that I like is that Let it Grow Lab Lead Irene Rompa does a great job of applying a lot of rigour into the programme and getting us all to operate as a team. Initially, the common notion around a mentor’s role was that many well-known experts would watch over your shoulder and give you access to their network. But it’s just not enough to have these big names show up for one or two meetings. By working closely together and in smaller groups, we can spot weaknesses and improve more quickly. That is a big difference in respect to the way most accelerators operate.

Indeed the Incubation Programme has the edge of being the first accelerator in the floriculture sector. What can programmes like this bring to this relatively old industry?

I think that one of the things that large floriculture corporations suffer from is what the entire corporate world suffers from. Large companies always operate in an ‘execution-only’ mode, but then all of a sudden, a classical situation of ‘innovator’s dilemma’ kicks in. You have a large, profitable operation, but you’re gradually being disrupted on a small scale while entrepreneurship has been filtered out of your organization. I think large companies such as Royal FloraHolland have to evolve from its current form, so you have to start renewing it from the inside or at least start working with new businesses. Particularly for this market, the required change revolves around much more than the core products. Flowers are considered a commodity. There will always be occasions for people to buy flowers, but the question is, where will they buy them? Is the disruption going to be in their core product or is it in the way people consume these products? In the case of Royal FloraHolland, it’s probably the latter.

As we can see with the diverse plant and flower platforms in Class 1, that is definitely the case. How are you trying to get the teams to really optimise themselves as a consumer platform?

I’m really focusing on getting the teams to develop a deep understanding of their customers. You’ll be surprised at how tricky it is to convince startups to embrace this idea because it is somewhat counterintuitive. Many entrepreneurs think: is learning about the customer really what I should be spending most of my time on? Shouldn’t I be selling products and making money? Customer research always precedes this. It’s one of the hardest nuts to crack, but after you nail it, the rest of your endeavor  will become so much easier and effective.

Where do you see the relationship of accelerator programmes and large Dutch industries going in the future?

Ultimately, I want to help these older industries stay relevant. I think that what Royal FloraHolland is doing with Let it Grow Lab’s Incubation Programme is what any company should start doing once they get to a certain size. Hopefully they’ll do even more than this, but they are already within the 5% of companies that realise that they have to act and do much more than the innovation theatre that’s widespread across big corporations these days. Companies like Unilever and ING are also making similar moves by creating an ecosystem of entrepreneurship within the company. I definitely think that this will be the future and it shows that the Dutch market is an early mover in this direction.