“ We Need More Risk Takers!”

When the founder of start-up Tandartsbon.nl, Sinan Belhawi (27), could not find enough investment capital, he was fortunate to find the British company Zesty, a start-up that was working on a similar idea (an online booking platform where patients can make an appointment at a medical specialist). Zesty was able to take over Tandartsbon.nl. and Sinan became Zesty’s director in the Netherlands. “I feel I’ve been lucky all of my life”, Sinan says. He was even fortunate to have escaped Saddam’s repressive regime with his family when he was nine years old in 1997. Their flight ended in the Netherlands, in a small town near Nijmegen, where they received a warm welcome.

Fear

“I did not know anything about the Netherlands. I had only seen a leaflet of Dutch trains and flowers and I felt really excited to see those. What impressed me was that the police were very friendly and helpful. In Iraq we could not get within two or three meters of a police officer without being afraid to get beaten up, shot, or asked for a bribe. I was surprised by the freedom of speech here, the idea that I could say anything about the Queen without getting into trouble, or disappear or be put in jail. In Iraq we were brought up in fear. At school, the first pages of our textbooks started with a picture of Saddam Hussein. We had to be very careful about the things we said and we were told that one out of five people in Iraq belonged to the secret police. If you even told a bad joke, your parents could land in jail. Nobody could be trusted. My parents had become politically active in a communist party. When they heard that my father’s name was on the regime’s list, they knew things were bad. My father told us to pack our belongings and we fled that same day.In the Netherlands we received shelter at the asylum seekers center in Vierlingsbeek, a village near Nijmegen. Once again luck was on my side: it had been a former holiday park and we moved into a caravan. I remember we played lots of badminton. For me as a child, it felt like an adventure, a long holiday.”

Plenty of Talent

“After six months we went to live in a small village in Breda near Oss, Schaijk. I was once again lucky as the children at school accepted me very warmly. It took me only two years to speak Dutch, so it was very easy to integrate. As for my parents, my mother now speaks fluent Dutch but my dad has always spoken English. My mother had been a top athlete in Iraq and played on the national volleyball team and as soon as we arrived in Schaijk she started to help out at the local gym and later coached the local volleyball team. My father was an agricultural economist and gave lectures at the university in Iraq.  When we arrived, he went to Wageningen University to see what opportunities there were and began writing articles for the University’s magazine. To do something made them feel useful. When refugees arrive here there are very few options.  There is plenty of talent amongst the refugees that come to the Netherlands. Most of the refugees, when we arrived, were highly educated people, like eye surgeons and cardiologists. They do not speak the language and most of them become very depressed when they sit around not being able to do anything. It is not just about a financial income; refugees feel very grateful that they are welcome here and they want to give something back to society. Give them options to start something! I remember there were some people in the asylum seekers center who started a bike repair service, but it was shut down a few days later by the authorities, because the initiative was not part of an official program.”

More Risk Takers

“Even though I managed to learn Dutch quickly my exam scores were very low for languages; so I was fortunate that there was a bilingual college near Oss. This allowed me to enter University quickly, where I studied medicine and pharmacy.  As a student I saw that my fellow students, who studied dentistry, would often buy a clinic after they graduated and then have very high costs but very few patients. Every clinic has to do its own marketing and dentists do not have the means and time to become specialists in this field to attract customers.” Furthermore, Sinan noticed that the threshold for people to go to a dentist for preventive care was very high. Fascinated by using technology and marketing methods to provide better service to patients, he looked into the possibility of advertising for dental clinics and to make it easier for patients to make an appointment with a dentist. The idea of Tandartsbon.nl was born: an online platform that enabled patients to look for a nearby dentist and easily book an appointment online and that offered patients their first consultation for free. “We ended up self-financing; we had a lot of costs before we could get paid and that is where growth capital is necessary. Growth capital requires risk takers but I soon found out that investors in the Netherlands are very risk averse. Investors here would rather invest in wind energy than in an innovative idea such as Tandartsbon.nl. Abroad, e.g. in Switzerland I saw simple ideas that were not very well thought out receiving about half a million of euro’s investment. Although in the Netherlands, ideas of start-ups are very well thought out, you have to be a serious company in order to receive half a million from an investor. We need more risk takers in the Netherlands!”

Reluctant Banks

“When it comes to investments, 80 percent is bank driven in the Netherlands and 20 percent comes from private investors. In the US this is fifty-fifty, so there is a huge difference in the investment culture. I found it really difficult to find an investor here  but it’s almost impossible to get a loan from a bank in the Netherlands. It would have been much easier to get a loan if I had wanted to start a dental practice. But when I want to sell a new kind of software to clinics in the Netherlands, something that has not been done before, banks reply: ‘Prove it first and then come back again’.  Even when you prove it they still do not believe in it,” Sinan says frustrated. “I had calculated that I only needed a loan of 50K for Tandartsbon.nl, and with that we could make fifty million a year in revenue! However, I did not manage to get a loan from the banks or find an investor here in the Netherlands. So, I grabbed my car and drove to Berlin, Switzerland and London and discovered that talking to a few people and corporations abroad was ten times more effective than staying in the Netherlands and doing my best to speak to every VC here. In the end I did not find an investor, but in London I found Zesty, a company that was working on a similar idea like Tandartsbon.nl and that was willing to take over my start-up. ”

Start-ups Investing in Start-ups

“Some months ago I attended an investor event. I expected older people who are investors to be there, but there were only young people who had made their income from their own a start-up and now wanted to invest in other start-ups. That was so refreshing and encouraging to see! I will do exactly the same: every single penny that I earn with Zesty I will reinvest in other new ideas concerning health and innovation. Small innovative modifications in the healthcare system can have a major impact on many people. Look at Zesty; with an online booking platform patients now can easily make an appointment at a dentist, GP, physician, STD clinic of their choice and compare the services they offer. Zesty is only the beginning for me. I want to make healthcare more accessible and to serve patients better. With ideas from the software industry and technology, many new ideas, opportunities and possibilities emerge.”