Where should you be if you are an entrepreneur in Drenthe and have questions about starting, growing, innovating, exporting and funding? Or want to know more about themes such as greening, digitizing or socially driven entrepreneurship? Then knock on the door of Ik Ben Drents Ondernemer, a broad-based program to help SMEs in the province move forward. How do they do that? We asked project leader Floortje van Aken.'
The Ik Ben Drents Ondernemer initiative started in 2015 and grew into a collaboration between the province, all Drenthe municipalities plus the municipality of Hardenberg, NOM, MKB Fonds Drenthe, MKB Noord, VNO-NCW and the knowledge institutions Alfa-college, Drenthe College, Hanzehogeschool Groningen and NHL Stenden Hogeschool. According to Floortje, the involvement of all these parties is a logical development because, "We all have an interest in sustainable growth, employment and innovative strength in Drenthe. To strengthen that, we want to be close to entrepreneurs and offer them what they need for further growth.'
Shaken up SME
Due to the impact of corona, Ik Ben Drents Ondernemer has had a turbulent period. 'The SME sector has been shaken up considerably,' Floortje observes. Part of the entrepreneurs in Drenthe had a tough time, while there were also companies that could 'just' carry on or even get busier, such as in the manufacturing industry. We did what we could: we made information about schemes clear and we were a guide for entrepreneurs who - often in great uncertainty - were looking for ways to survive. We were regularly able to help companies further, although it was distressing that some fell between the cracks. Then all we could do was offer a listening ear.'
'However wry this crisis is for all plodding entrepreneurs, the exceptional circumstances actually brought something good to our SME program,' continues the inspired project leader. For the cooperation within Drenthe and at the Northern Netherlands level has been intensified in a significant gear. This allows us to serve companies even better and that is what is badly needed in the coming period. The questions we are now receiving from SMEs are all future-oriented. Companies want to move forward and that is exactly our core business: helping entrepreneurs take the next step. We also pay extra attention to matters that are currently in great need. A topical example is e-commerce, because digitization has gained momentum due to this crisis.'
Learning from each other
E-commerce is therefore the theme of this summer's Entrepreneur's Table; a short series of meetings organized regularly by Ik Ben Drents Ondernemer. 'As facilitator of the Entrepreneurs' Tables, we bring together about five to ten entrepreneurs who all have issues around the same theme,' Floortje explains. 'We can then open up knowledge to more companies at once, and the entrepreneurs have the advantage of being able to exchange experience among themselves. In doing so, we also offer a stage to companies in Drenthe that are already further along with the topic, so that they can share their lessons learned. We find that this catches on well, because tips based on their own experience are often what entrepreneurs find most valuable.'
In addition to the Entrepreneur's Table, the Drenthe counter offers more useful tools to support SMEs that want to move forward: from 1-on-1 meetings with an advisor to online webinars, and from customized growth accelerators to the voucher scheme, where entrepreneurs receive a subsidy to purchase knowledge. 'We also organize Expert Tables for innovation questions and Funding Tables to dive into the world of investors. In the latter, NOM is of course an important partner, both with the Flinc component for making business plans investor-ready and with NOM's funding options. Although NOM is also a valuable partner in switching to larger-scale business development programs in the Northern Netherlands, such as the Smart Industry Hub.'
The Smart Industry Hub North - of which NOM is the lead agency - will support all northern companies in the manufacturing and process industries to work smarter. Advisor André Harmens of Ik Ben Drents Ondernemer is close to the fire. He is part of the NOM at the Drenthe counter and as a business developer with manufacturing as his specialty he is closely involved in initiatives such as the Smart Industry Hub. 'I regularly sit down with companies in Drenthe to hear what is on their minds and what they need,' André explains. 'We are there to offer customization, but also to inform entrepreneurs about ecosystems that could be useful to them, such as innovation labs or knowledge hubs in Drenthe. And in the process - from NOM - I also make connections with broader North Netherlands programs where appropriate.'
Floortje adds, "I Am Drents Ondernemer is not a networking organization, but it is our job to connect with initiatives that can be of value to our SMEs. The question of entrepreneurs is always the starting point for us. Once we are sparring, we often discover that there are other needs behind that initial question. Only when it is clear what the next step should be, can we offer the most appropriate guidance. Often our own offerings suffice and our advisors can provide customization, but if the entrepreneur needs something else, we provide a warm connection to the offerings of other parties. In short, we always help further when companies knock on our door.'
Education and research
Finally, Floortje mentions the successful cooperation with knowledge institutions. 'Companies don't have to work on innovation on their own. They can do that with other entrepreneurs, but also with students. I Am Drenthe Entrepreneur links with knowledge brokers who represent the mbo as well as colleges and universities, to link issues of companies to education and research. Moreover, we jointly organize carousels for growth and export, for example, in which students work on entrepreneurial issues. In this way we are working from all sides to strengthen the Drenthe economy and employment.'
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