Two years ago, we opened the doors to TQ — TNW’s first tech hub in the center of Amsterdam. At the time, I was organizing TNW’s conferences but when I heard about the project, I was super excited to be involved. It just seemed like the logical next step for us as a company.
In fact, looking back, it’s almost weird we didn’t start TQ sooner. Our media platform was enabling us to reach a lot of people around the world in a short period of time. Our main conference gave us face-to-face contact with a concentrated group of people each year. But building spaces would let us be in contact with our network all year round. It just made sense.
A lot has happened since then. We’ve hosted 502 events in our space with 25,376 attendees, and 40,284 visitors have walked through our doors. 75 fast-growing tech companies have called TQ home, and we currently have over 620 people working in our building. These numbers prove we’ve grown, but they don’t say much about how we got there and the challenges we faced.
With our second birthday passing by last month, I think it’s a good time to reflect on what we’ve learned. We’ve overcome challenges most startups will face and I hope that sharing these six lessons will help you on your journey.
1. Narrow your focus — you can’t do everything
It’s hard not to want to do everything as a startup. You want your business to be the best it can be. You want to have the lowest prices while also having the best product. You want to be attractive to everyone. But the reality is, you just can’t please everyone.
I learned this the hard way. I tried to work our vision of being ‘a label for growth’ in too many different ways. Some ideas thrived, while others failed. Some events were fully booked, while others drew no attention. We had a building full of fast-growing companies and round-the-clock events, but the impact of our work was scattered. Soon enough, we came to realize we were spreading ourselves too thin and it was time to prioritize.
One of the main culprits for this lack of focus was our events program. We decided to pick the five most essential areas for company and personal growth — people, traction, expert knowledge, community, and work/life balance — and build our program around them.
The categories are broad, but they’ve done wonders for our team’s workflow. People are quicker to assess whether an event idea works because we’ve taken the time to define our community’s needs. I realized a big part of improving your focus is simply finding the right words to describe it.
Naturally, when you transition from trying to do everything to having more focus, you feel like you’re missing out on all kinds of opportunities. But instead, focus allows you to become an expert in what you’re trying to achieve.
Narrow your focus and identify your goals, then see how your projects relate to them. You’ll thank yourself when your team gets bigger.
2. Measure what your customers want
It sounds ridiculously simple but it’s worth saying: The way to narrow your focus is to talk to the people that matter. For most startups that means talking to your customers and figuring out what they want.
At TQ, we’re in the fortunate position of having our residents in our face every single day. They’re not shy when it comes to telling us about what’s working and what’s not, so we’re lucky in that sense… most of the time. And for everything they don’t want to share face-to-face, we conduct a quarterly survey — something I think every startup should implement.
When you’re in the thick of it, it can be hard to view things objectively and to know what to focus on. But using customer feedback and measurements has helped us become more agile, improve our offerings, and our workflows.
I’ll admit, it takes a lot of time to determine the right questions to ask. It can also be tiring to constantly question your metrics, but trust me, the insights you’ll receive will make it worthwhile.
3. Identify your competitive edge
What’s that one special thing that no one else has? The thing that makes your startup stand out from the masses? Identifying this is the most important decision you can make. Not only will it shape what your business stands for, but it’ll also give you a clear vision of the message you want to deliver, and the direction you should go in.
In my opinion, what makes TQ unique has always been our existing community. It differentiates us from other coworking spaces that were facilities or real estate managers first, trying to build community on top.
TNW’s founders, Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten and Patrick de Laive, spent over ten years growing their tech community with TNW’s media platform and yearly conferences. Adding physical spaces allows us to make use of this huge network on a 24/7 basis.
Every now and then, I take a moment to remind myself about what makes TQ stand out. While our competitors might have facilities similar to, or better than ours, filling these spaces with quality people is the hard part — and that’s what we’re great at. So my advice to you is: Live and breathe what makes you different — that’ll ensure you’re always one step ahead.
4. Tackle growing pains head-on
Remember that awkward and uncertain phase you went through as a teenager? Believe it or not — startups go through this too. But instead of letting this phase play out like adolescents have to, we can take control and start optimizing for the most meaningful impact.
This is exactly what I’m going through at the moment as TQ’s new Managing Director. Before we began building TQ, we intentionally decided to keep it quite separate from our mother-brand, TNW. Like TNW’s other sub-brands — TNW X, Index, and Hard Fork — we did this so we had the freedom to become who we wanted to be as a startup. It also gave us some room to develop a code of conduct for how a community like ours should run.
But two years in, with 25 people in TQ’s team, the way we’ve been operating is no longer viable for the pace we’re growing at. I’m certain TQ’s independence was the right way to go in the beginning, but you should constantly reassess your approach.
What makes sense for us now is to centralize all of TNW’s pillars and teams to form one cohesive culture and offering. This way, TQ’s community will benefit from everything TNW has to offer and vice versa. We recently hired a new COO, the awesome Myrthe van der Erve, to help get us there.
Change can be hard to deal with. But what’s worse is waking up five years down the road and realizing you could’ve avoided you current problems by tackling growing pains years ago. So if things could be better, start planning now — you won’t regret it.
5. Put your learnings into practice
Taking a step back to reflect is great because it puts things in perspective — but that’s not enough. Having a strategy to implement your learnings is also crucial so they don’t go to waste.
I’m proud of TQ and TNW’s impressive growth, but we’re serious about growing more. Next year, we’re moving TNW’s conference to NDSM to make it bigger than ever. Our sub-brand, Hard Fork is throwing its own blockchain conference in London next month. We’re also exploring the option of opening up new TQ spaces because, as I’m sure you guessed, we never intended on only having only one TQ. This will be a great way for us to apply all the lessons we’ve learned from the start in a new environment.
By taking the time to reflect, narrow our focus, and centralize TNW’s pillars, I’m certain we’re now well on our way towards exponential growth. Make sure to appreciate every bump in the road for what it’s worth and apply what you learn along the way.