Is it a festival? A business conference? One big party? Whatever it is, it works. The Next Web Conference in Amsterdam has been a staple in tech events for 15 years now. Not everything has stayed the same though. COVID shut down the event space, the company was acquired by the Financial Times, and leadership changed. So with a new conference edition just around the corner, it is time to catch up and look ahead.
Next week: TNW Conference
Next week, The Next Web Conference will kick off once again. On June 16th and 17th, over 10,000 people will flock to Taets Arts and Event park on the outskirts of Amsterdam to listen to speakers, connect with thousands of businesses and raise their glasses.
The event has come a long way in the past 15 years. What started as a small get-together with 250 attendees ballooned into a globally known brand. The inspiring leadership of founders Patrick de Laive and Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten made the company into what it is today: an event organiser, media company, range of coworking spaces and programmes to boost startups that likes to do things just a little bit differently than the norm.
‘Feels like a festival’
To continue TNW’s growth, it was time to shake things up. Last year, Veldhuijzen van Zanten stepped down as CEO and named Myrthe van der Erve as his successor. So she is getting ready for her first real TNW Conference as the company’s new leader.
“TNW Conference feels like a festival, but we are also about doing business. We want to become a global super-connector.” For Van der Erve, this means making sure TNW is being used to showcase the best of Dutch talent on an international stage. “We believe that it is our role to help the Netherlands punch as one.”
That’s why she brought in Zach Butler as Events Director. With over ten years of experience in the event business and involvement in, among others, London Tech Week, his task is to bring TNW Conference to the next level.
TNW has been moving up some levels for a while now. For example, their conference has been growing steadily over the years. As a result, The Financial Times acquired a majority stake in the company in 2019, providing them with the backing of a global media and events company.
“It is good that FT is willing to invest in growth”, says Van der Erve. “It’s great that we can team up with such an organisation on different things. For example, they helped us to double down on marketing. During COVID, we could use their event experience to move TNW Conference online. And they helped us recruit Zach.”
Global reach, startup spirit
For Butler, working at TNW and partnering with FT is a two-way street. “FT is operating in spaces where corporates thrive, while our founders were able to start something no corporation would ever be able to. As such, it is the perfect match.”
Despite the acquisition, TNW is operating as a completely independent brand. Van der Erve sees the connection between two companies more as a family thing. “We both are global brands, but they are bigger, more corporate focused and a real authority in media land. To us they are the father that guides us in the right direction.”
That father figure proved valuable in the past two years, especially when COVID shut down the event business entirely. As a result, TNW Conference had to move online in 2020 , while in 2021, they were able to host a hybrid event. It was way smaller than usual, though. “FT has a big event business. So they helped us out when moving online,” says Van de Erve.
Lessons from COVID
TNW is happy to be back offline when it comes to its event. However, the forced shutdown did provide valuable lessons. “The biggest thing I learned was that diverse businesses have an advantage”, Butler says, looking back. While their spaces were also largely empty during this time, with their news website and consultancy arm, they continued to be a thriving platform for startups. “We can serve our audience outside the event as well.”
Van der Erve: “We have the potential to further build on that business diversification. It’s important for us to create synergy in a unified business, to help our users better, faster and cheaper.” Despite the different arms of the TNW brand, the event – the reason TNW started back in 2006 – is still the core pillar.
Rotterdam, Dublin next?
“Our number one mission is still to be the ultimate connector in the Dutch ecosystem”, Butler says. Traditionally, TNW is known for its Amsterdam presence. With the event taking up ever larger and more exciting venues around the city. However, Butler and Van der Erve are looking beyond the Dutch capital, even beyond The Netherlands.
Butler: “If our goal is to help the Netherlands startup community punch as one, we need to be in all four corners of the country, helping unite fragmented ecosystems. I believe that it is my role to uncover every startup in the Netherlands, and connect them to someone or something that will help multiply their journey.”
Make that a European thing, as Butler and Van der Erve admit they are also eyeing other countries for a TNW Conference. “We want to become more European”, says Butler. He says an excellent place to start ‘decentralising the TNW Brand’ would be Ireland. “We are seeing strong interest in an international brand helping accelerate a pretty exciting but currently underserved Irish startup ecosystem. We can take what TNW does and help accelerate the ecosystem there. We are part of an innovative culture with a tone of voice that works. Different cities are interested in speaking with us about the future.”
TNW 2022: what to expect?
First up, however, is Amsterdam. With a sold-out exhibition space, 10,000 visitors, over 1,500 startups, and a packed line-up of speakers, it’s like TNW has never been gone. For Van der Erve, it is her first ‘real’ TNW. “The last conference was in September. I had just become CEO then, which made it different for me. Now, my role will be more outward-facing. I’m ready to meet so many more players in the ecosystem.”
For Butler, it is his first conference as part of the TNW-team. “I’ve been twice as a visitor, in 2018 and 2019. It was great seeing so many people of the Dutch ecosystem meet, do business and have fun while doing so.”
For this edition, Butler is also excited about seeing some of the speakers. “The line-up is what I believe drives people to TNW. For instance, Edward Snowden is doing an ‘Ask me anything’ live on stage. He’s never done a live, unfiltered Q&A.”
Mo Gawdat of Google X and Tim Berners-Lee are among the other notable speakers. Butler also boasts a big opening ceremony, as is traditional for TNW Conferences. In line with the company’s ambition, the ceremony’s theme will be ‘European tech united’. Butler keeps the ‘what’ and ‘how’ under wraps. “But overall, the goal is to create a positive motion and connections.”