Ambassador Cees Bansema to Finnish firms going Dutch: “Pitch well and follow up.”
Cees Bansema, the ambassador of the Netherlands to Finland.

Ambassador Cees Bansema to Finnish firms going Dutch: “Pitch well and follow up.”

  • Post category:Interview

Last updated on April 23rd, 2020 at 08:50 hrs.

Ambassador Bansema is sitting at the back of the lecture room, waiting for his turn to speak. It’s the first session of the internationalization programme ‘Software from Finland to European Markets’, September 2018. A dozen Finnish SaaS startups are present. Between now and May 2019, they will develop their international growth plans together, with a focus on the Netherlands as a first foreign destination.

Rasmus Roihe, Managing Director of Ohjelmisto- ja e-business ry, the Finnish Software & E-Business Association, shares some of his personal experiences from the Netherlands. He tells about a boat trip he made with local friends, sailing the canal network in the provinces of North- and South-Holland: “It was amazing to see from the water how close everything is, how short the distances are, and how much wealth has been accumulated in such a small area.”

I sneak out around the back to quickly introduce myself to Mr. Bansema, my only fellow countryman in the room, as I didn’t have a chance to do so before. “Cees,” he says, offering his hand and a smile.

First-name basis?

A month later we meet at the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands at Erottajankatu in Helsinki. I can’t help but ask whether it is considered proper form nowadays for ambassadors to introduce themselves by their first name. And how does this translate to formality in international business relations?

“Indeed, there has been a clear trend towards informality in recent years,” says Cees. “More than before, people in public functions try to be approachable. Not only diplomats but also politicians introduce themselves by their first name. You see this in talk shows, for example. Journalists seem to be a bit confused sometimes, as they try to maintain a certain distance.”

What should Finns who start dealing with the Dutch be aware of when it comes to formal versus informal conduct?

Cees: “Over the past 20 to 30 years, the Netherlands actually seems to have moved a little closer to Finland in this sense. As a relatively smaller society where many people know each other, Finns have probably behaved in a way that has been more personal and less influenced by hierarchy for a longer time.

“I think that Finns coming to the Netherlands to do business would do well to observe carefully how their Dutch counterparts introduce themselves. If a Dutchman says, ‘Hello Matti, I am Jan,’ that’s a clear signal that you can communicate on a first-name basis. And by the way, if you don’t start with a little small talk, we get a bit confused.”

Leaving next summer

The hassle of tutoyer and vouvoyer is of course blissfully avoided when the conversation happens in English, with its safe you-form.

Dutch ambassadors have a four-year tenure. Cees Bansema came to Helsinki in the summer of 2015 and will be leaving his post next summer. Before Finland, he’s been stationed as a diplomat in New Delhi, Bratislava, Berlin, and Tehran. ‘Ambassador’ is not a profession though, he stresses:

“I don’t know where I will be placed next. It could very well be at headquarters in The Hague, as well. ‘Ambassador’ is a function. Just like a country manager with Shell in Argentina could rotate and become head of product development at a lab in Rotterdam. My area of expertise is competition law and anti-dumping, so it is not unthinkable that my next role would be something related to trade policy or European integration.”

It’s okay to pause

What he has learned *about* the Finns, he says, is that they have not only a very efficient, but also very harmonious society. And *from* the Finns he says he’s learned that it’s actually quite okay in conversation to pause for a few seconds. “Which can be rather challenging to a Dutch person.”

I ask him if, like myself, he also had an urge at first to complete other people’s sentences. “Yes, I did,” says Cees. “And I find a telephone call with a Finn more difficult than a face-to-face conversation. On the phone, when there is a silence, you feel inclined to start sending again but then you notice that something is still coming!”

What makes the Netherlands an interesting foreign market for Finnish businesses to consider?

Cees: “The Netherlands is an obvious destination because its market is three times the size of Finland’s with a similar income per capita, so the level of development is comparable as well. It’s only a two-hour flight away and there are five connections between Helsinki and Amsterdam every day, from Finnair and KLM.

A warm bath

“Most Dutch people speak English well enough to be an easy means of communication for Finns. Both in their orientation through websites and in talking with Dutch sales managers, English works fine. All of this makes it an easier market to penetrate than, for example, countries like France or Germany. You’ll be stepping into a warm bath.”

What is the secret to the Dutch success, as a nation, in international business?

Cees: “Compared to Finland, the Netherlands has a huge amount of experience. While Finland has now been independent for a hundred years, the Dutch have sailed the oceans since the 15th century. The large multinational companies of the Netherlands have been around for 150 to 200 years. So, you could say that we’ve had a head start, a lead in time when it comes to international trade. Next to that, the Netherlands is located at the center of Europe while Finland is at its periphery. If you’re in the center, you’re likely to have more nearby neighbors for trade.

“I also think that Dutch people in general are more commercially oriented. We’ve always been a country of few natural resources. Sure, we had a few coal mines last century, but then again we were the first in Europe to stop mining. The Dutch have always been forced to earn their money by selling products made by others for a profit. Finland, on the other hand, being the most wooded country in Europe, has been quite able to make a living from natural resources.”

Market size and clock speed

What are the most significant opportunities and challenges for Finnish businesses coming to the Netherlands?

Cees: “If you establish yourself in the Netherlands, you will have immediate exposure in the heart of Europe. Not only is the Dutch market three times the size of Finland’s, but even more interesting, there are 300 million consumers within a two-hour drive from the Netherlands, with the UK, Germany, and France as the largest markets. If you make it in the Netherlands, you’ll have continental Europe at your feet.

“However, since the Netherlands is such an advanced trading nation, Dutch entrepreneurs will be constantly on the lookout for the best possible opportunities, which makes it crucially important to maintain and nurture your business relationships and turn them into transactions. The Dutch are not keen on thinking very long-term; they’d rather go for the quick win. Therefore, as a Finnish entrepreneur, you’ll need to pitch well and follow up fast. Don’t expect they’ll call you back after three months.”

Open to partnering

Cees points out that, while the Dutch embassy’s economic role is primarily to support Dutch businesses with information about opportunities in the Finnish market, he also sees the benefit in Finnish exports to the Netherlands as long as it serves the Dutch economy.

“If a Finnish pram producer came to us for market research on the demand for prams in the Netherlands, we would refer them to the Finnish embassy in The Hague. But if a Finnish IT firm was to approach us with a convincing new accounting system solution, indicating that they were interested in partnering with Dutch companies, then this could be something we might help them with.”

Stepping into the shoes of a SaaS entrepreneur taking part in the Software from Finland programme, what would he want to get out of it?

Nearby developed markets first

“As a successful outcome, I’d say I’d want to be better equipped to connect to potential partners in nearby developed markets who may want to buy my product or co-develop it further. I emphasize ‘nearby developed markets’ because, for people at the start of their internationalisation journey, I strongly recommend that they first consider markets within the European Union, which share the same economic system, legal framework, protection and rule of law.

“You don’t need to dismiss all the other, more exciting, emerging markets forever, but first, try your success in a market similar to home. Don’t think, ‘Hey, India has 1.3 billion people, I’ll go and invest there first.’ Keep your ambitions realistic.”

16 Dutch startups at Slush

As the tech startup scene will be looking forward to Slush, the mega event in wintery Helsinki that is just a few week away, the Dutch embassy is preparing for “an incoming trade mission,” as Cees calls it.

HRH Prince Constantijn van Oranje-Nassau will attend Slush as Startup Envoy of StartupDelta for the third year in a row. Last year, there was a Dutch pavilion to serve as a home base for Dutch startups looking to connect with investors. This time, anticipating changes in the concept of Slush, the Dutch representation will be a little different, as Cees explains:

“We’re preparing for a group of 16 startups from the Netherlands. A selection procedure is underway through the Netherlands Enterprise Agency, and once these names are announced, we’re going to help them the best we can. We’ve secured pitching opportunities at the permanent pitch stand, and we’re arranging various side events with investors, helping our startups to get the most out of these two days in December.

“Among the startups there will be an emphasis on health and education technology, because Slush focuses on those themes and so we hope and expect that investors will be interested in those themes as well. These investors could be Finnish, but they could equally be American or Chinese.”

Jos Schuurmans

At Cluetail and Tales'nSales I help companies grow internationally with compelling brand storytelling and smart inbound content marketing. I also help Finnish businesses to explore the potential of the Netherlands as a beachhead into Western Europe - and Dutch companies to explore business opportunities in Finland. Contact me at +358 50 59 33 006 by email, or via LinkedIn.