Previous Next

From a Hip Hop Bar to Dinner with the Dutch Prime Minister


Life can move in mysterious ways.

A seemingly trivial decision can sometimes put into motion a series of unintended consequences that result in something extraordinary. You can call it the Sliding Doors effect, or the pebble dropped in a pond whose ripples change the balance forever; life is nothing if not interconnected.

Here is the long, strange story of how a visit to a hip hop bar in San Francisco’s Mission District many years ago set in motion a series of events that would result in me dining at the top of the Transamerica Building last month with Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands.

The year was 2010. The Google Panda search engine update had just dropped on the Internet, devastating the startup that I had been running on and off since 1999. Specifically, we had lost about 60% of our traffic overnight, and we were reeling. A healthy, growing startup had been reduced to rubble by the tweak of an algorithm.

Like many an entrepreneur before me faced with an existential crisis, I decided to make my way to the bar. The bar that I chose was Double Dutch, a New York style hip hop bar in San Francisco’s Mission District known for it’s beatbox wall, hip hop dj’s, and at the time, amazing sneaker collection in a glass case.

After throwing back a few Red Stripes with a friend, I came to the grim realization that my startup was finished. The lost traffic wasn’t coming back, and given our cash situation, it was time to think about the Next Big Thing.

That Next Big Thing would become a bet on mobile, social apps for work, eventually crystallizing into the live engagement marketing platform for events and conferences that is our business today. We code named the project “DoubleDutch.”

We became attached to the name “DoubleDutch” and incorporated in January of 2011. In the early days, there were some missteps associated with having the same name as a bar. Like when our board members or customers would show up at the bar by accident. Or when the press called us for comment about a shooting outside of the bar. Or the steady stream of Monday morning “I think I left my purse / phone / credit card at your bar” calls that still continue today. But overall, the name suited us.

And there were early signs of a gravitational pull towards the Netherlands. When we released an eponymous freemium app, the Netherlands quickly became our top country in terms of downloads, despite the app being utterly useless outside of the US. Or how wearing a DoubleDutch hoodie around invariably resulted in friendly Dutch tourists asking us where we got it, and where they might buy one.

By 2013, things were moving quickly. We hit product / market fit with a vengeance and grew from 20 to 75 people. We were suddenly in full on hyper growth mode, and we believed that we could sell our product to any industry in any geography in the world.

By 2014, we were looking at international expansion. In one of the early planning meetings about where to put our EMEA office, one of my colleagues raised the elephant in the room: “it has to be the Netherlands, doesn’t it? We can’t be called DoubleDutch and open in London!” There were chuckles all around but we put Amsterdam on the shortlist of cities to check out.

And as fate would have it, Amsterdam made a lot of sense for us. Besides the direct flights from San Francisco, numerous English speakers, burgeoning startup scene, and central location, Amsterdam was far cheaper than London, and oh yeah, along with San Francisco, is one of the most stunning and open minded cities in the world. Simply put, it felt like home.

Crucial in our path to Amsterdam was the work of the NFIA, the Dutch agency responsible for attracting technology investment to the Netherlands. They introduced us to other startups that had successfully put down roots in the Netherlands, helped us find office space, and even introduced us to a few companies that would become customers.

By 2015 we had 50 employees in the Netherlands, and it had become our fastest growing region. We had become a success story - not just among startups in general, but among startups that had taken the plunge internationally, and had chosen Amsterdam over other common destinations like Dublin and London.

So when the invitation arrived last month from the NFIA to join Prime Minister Rutte at the top of the Transamerica Building, I was humbled and honored. But not surprised. There was no other way for this story to end. The forces put in motion by choosing the name “DoubleDutch” on that lonely day in 2010 were larger and stronger than we could have imagined. It has shaped our identity and influenced our decisions.

But we could not be happier about how things have turned out.

Oh yeah, have questions about opening up an office in Amsterdam? Feel free to reach out…. and yes, we are hiring there, as well as in San Francisco and Phoenix.

By Lawrence Coburn | 3 March, 2016

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!

About the Author: Lawrence Coburn

Picture of Lawrence Coburn

Founder & CEO