Fintech City Tour Goes to Amsterdam, the quiet global center

I chose Amsterdam as the next stop on the Fintech City Tour, primarily because of Adyen. When a Fintech Unicorn appears in a place that is not on most people’s radar screen, it seems like it is worth a visit.

Another reason is that I spent a very enjoyable year working in Amsterdam as a young man and although this visit is on the digit express I hope to stroll down the Herengracht again on a future visit.

I also see a lot of Bitcoin expertise in Holland. I first noted that Ethereum has some of their core developers in Holland and somebody pointed out that Bitpay has set up its European HQ in Amsterdam.

That “somebody” is Don Ginsel. I reached out to Don to ask him to act as my guide. Don is an Amsterdam based financial expert and coach, specialized in funding startups and innovative projects.

Amsterdam makes sense as a Fintech center because it has what Paul Graham calls the two “reagents” of a thriving innovation center – techies and rich people. The fact that both Bitpay and Ethereum get developers in Amsterdam tells me enough on the techie score. The rich people part is not so obvious. Holland ranks high enough on GDP per capita (#11). However, rich people in the case of an innovation economy means “made their money on something reasonably similar to what the entrepreneur is pitching”. That is totally true in Silicon Valley and it is true for Fintech in London. It is not so obviously true in Amsterdam.

Holland does have a thriving Financial Services business with innovative banks such as Rabobank, ABN Amro and ING and has a large capital base (pension funds/insurance). That same description applies to Zurich. Yet Zurich money goes to London to invest in Fintech innovation and so guess where entrepreneurs go to get funding – yes, London.

There are two other factors where Holland scores:

  • English is a de facto second language. In my year in Amsterdam, I only learned a few token words of Dutch because everybody spoke such good English. Dutch business people are naturally global and because “bits don’t stop at borders”, this global mindset is increasingly critical. You can see that in the success of Adyen which scores by making cross border e-commerce easy (hat tip to Yann Ranchere).
  • Asia ties. This relates to old colonial history. It explains why many Dutch people look naturally to Asia when they consider global expansion. This was also reflected in the Adyen story.

English language and Asia ties also apply to London (and also Silicon Valley due to Asian immigrants).

So I see Amsterdam as an important European regional centre for Fintech, but not a rival for London (which I still see as the most likely Fintech Capital of the World). Don Ginsel pointed out close ties with London as being a factor in Amsterdam’s success (e.g. connections to Level 39 and Fintech City).

Don Ginsel also pointed out that Amsterdam scores well on skills around Security and Identity. When I asked why, he mentioned the fact that Holland is such a big gateway to the Internet that it is a big target for hackers. According to Network World:

Eleven of the 15 undersea cables that connect the Americas to Europe converge in The Netherlands.

The Fintech scene in Amsterdam is relatively nascent. Don Ginsel points to the Rabobank Hackathon this summer as the event that got things kick-started. The summer of 2014 was also when Holland Fintech got started.

So it is likely that the Fintech scene in Amsterdam will be more busy in 2015, and I look forward to seeing more when the Fintech City Tour swings by in a few months for a return visit.

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