The fifth IMEC (International Market Entry Coaching) programme started in March, with Germany being one of the target markets. The programme prepares ambitious entrepreneurs from The Hague for their step across the border. "For the fifth time in a row, the Netherlands is Germany's most important trading partner - after China and before the US", says Elisa van Maanen-Gentzsch, project manager of Internationalization & Trade at The Hague Business Agency and InnovationQuarter. "Last year, the German-Dutch trade reached a record 206 billion euros." Together with her colleagues and partners, Elisa has already helped some fifty companies successfully enter the German market in the past four years.
Dutch entrepreneurs with internationalization plans are often the first to look at our eastern neighbours. Partly because of the large potential sales market with more than 80 million inhabitants, partly because the Dutch generally think the cultural difference is not that significant. "But many entrepreneurs underestimate the latter," Elisa warns. "It's usually a bigger challenge than they think. The German market is demanding, and it takes a long time to gain confidence. That requires patience and good preparation, but it also means that you can learn a lot from such a market entry. If you are in Germany, you can conquer all of Europe."
Loyalty and long-term relationships
Once you have won the trust of a German, you can count on long-lasting relationships. "Loyalty is highly valued there," Elisa knows. "Moreover, the two neighbouring countries complement each other well: the Netherlands is solution-oriented, and Germany is more process-oriented. This sometimes represents a challenging cultural difference, but it also allows both markets to reinforce each other."
"If you are in Germany, you can conquer all of Europe."
On the road with a well-filled backpack
The IMEC program prepares the selected participants for their mission in nine months and equips them with the necessary tools to take advantage of all the benefits and opportunities. "We offer individual guidance and feedback from experts based on the specific needs of the company," explains Elisa. "We also provide workshops on, for example, doing business in Germany, culture, legal aspects and marketing and PR. And we try to bring the participants into contact with potential customers." Another part of the program is a multi-day visit to our neighbouring country. "We fill their backpacks with information and help them establish a relevant network. And they always have a supporting partner by their side."
The selected participants operate in various sectors, including cybersecurity, ICT, retail and sustainable energy and mobility. As a result, they are rarely each other's competitors. "The entrepreneurs learn from each other, and insightful discussions often arise during the physical workshops," says Elisa. "Together, the companies form a good reflection of SMEs in The Hague." In addition to many innovation and IT companies, she welcomes more and more foreign participants, such as entrepreneurs from South Africa. "They establish their European headquarters in The Hague and enter the German market from there."
Cooperation with the German-Dutch Chamber of Commerce
The German-Dutch Chamber of Commerce (DNHK), with more than 1500 members, one of the largest German-Dutch networks, provides individual guidance. The network has all the relevant knowledge about legal and tax matters, export and PR, as well as a lot of experience in guiding companies. "That makes the DNHK the one-stop-shop for doing business with Germany," says Elisa. "Our collaboration offers the participating companies great entries to the market and existing networks. You then arrive with a German-language introduction. That makes a big difference."
Germany, the n. 1 market
According to DNHK director Günter Gülker, Germany is the most important sales market for Dutch companies, which offers plenty of opportunities for internationalization. "The great thing about the IMEC programme is that we support entrepreneurs in a very pragmatic and practical way," he says. "We look back with pride at the past four years, in which we successfully helped many SMEs enter the German market together with the municipality of The Hague. We look forward to a successful continuation!"
"We are looking for SMEs and scale-ups with sufficient capacity and commitment, which are really ready for internationalization."
Growth in turnover and FTEs
In addition to new insights and contacts, the IMEC programme provides the participants with significant results. For example, an average of 12.5% of the turnover of the alumni companies from IMEC's first edition are now associated with the German market. Although this was accompanied by 36% more investments in the year of market entry, it was followed by an even greater increase in turnover (53%). The Municipality of The Hague is also very enthusiastic about the employment opportunities that the program will provide: the first six alumni companies together created 26 new FTEs, the majority of which are in The Hague.
Expansion to UK and Denmark
The success of the IMEC program for Germany also opened up new avenues, now targeting Denmark and the United Kingdom. "We also see many alumni companies from the German track there," says Elisa. As examples, she mentions the Hague company Naïf, which participated in the German variant in 2018 and was selected this year for the British route, and hosting and cloud service vBoxx, which is now participating in the IMEC programme for Denmark. "And to stimulate our innovative approach, we have been receiving co-financing from the Ministry of Economic Affairs since 2021. With this, we can make even more impact in the Hague region together with the municipality."
Building a network
The programme's success is partly due to the strict selection and intake policy. "We are looking for SMEs and scale-ups with sufficient capacity and commitment, which are really ready for internationalization," explains Elisa. And to further increase the growth opportunities, she maintains regular contact with the participants during and after the programme. "At events, we connect alumni with each other and with current participants. In this way, we create a network of experts and encourage entrepreneurs to stay in touch with each other. We are increasingly focusing on sharing the lessons learned. Because in the end, companies often run into the same issues, regardless of the sector in which they work. The network that has been built and the lessons learned are therefore also valuable for other companies."