Oscar Kneppers, Founder of Rockstart, a startup accelerator which also has a programme in Nepal, created the first Dutch internet magazine ‘Net Magazine’ in 1994. He was also behind the successful technology channel Webwereld (1995). In 1998 Kneppers started his first business and launched Emerce, a magazine, and website on e-business, marketing and technology. Emerce is still considered the most prominent Internet and e-commerce media brand in the Netherlands. After launching and selling off more media ventures in preceding years, Kneppers founded Rockstart to helps startups through funding, mentorship, community and office space and relevant startup events. In Nepal Rockstart Impact has accelerated 29 companies, and received FDI pledges for 21 of them ranging from €100–500K. Onlinekhabar recently talked to Kneppers about the programme in Nepal.
Excerpts from an interview:
Is this your first time in Nepal?
Yes, this is my first time in Nepal. I came in yesterday morning, but Rockstart has been here in Nepal for over three years now. We have had people on the ground here since 2014. I have also been in contact with all the Rockstart alumni in Nepal as they have come to Amsterdam for Demo Day (the day on which they make their pitch to potential investors).
You have said that the main manifesto of Rockstrat is financial freedom and independence. How does it relate to Nepal?
Yes, to be more precise, it’s about independence, self-sustenance, and freedom to make choices. We were just discussing a few hours ago how 1,700 people are leaving this country every day. That’s a large number of people, bigger than what we can imagine.
I believe that for a country or a city, it is important to build a local community of people who want to build something in the country rather than go abroad to send money back the country. The best way to do that is to build companies and when the companies become successful, people either join them or get inspired by them to start something on their own. When starting a company becomes the default option, why would anyone want to go abroad for work? That is why it is super important to build companies.
You are based in Amsterdam, where you a startup on every block of the city. Big names such as Uber are also based there. But if you look at Nepal, everyone is leaving. The two cities appear to be on opposite poles.. What’s happening in Kathmandu?
The Netherlands is a small country, we have half the population of Nepal and as we are a small country, we need to go out and try out new things. That is why the international focus is our default. Over time, we have become an importer of talent and exporter of entrepreneurship. We have learnt to overcome international barriers. There may be a big difference between Amsterdam and Kathmandu, but there is also a huge difference between Amsterdam and Utrecht, the next city in the Netherlands. People have always been attracted to capitals. A lot of people might be leaving Nepal, but those in Kathmandu may not be leaving in the same numbers. I don’t know, Google does not have an office here, but that does not matter. Every city has its one thing. Kathmandu’s thing could be to become the global centre for agriculture innovation. You have fertile land here, and the people are ambitious and knowledgeable.
Rockstart has been around for quite a while in South America and. ..
We opened up in Colombia recently. We have a tech accelerator there. But Nepal was our first foreign adventure.
How did the whole idea of starting in Nepal come about?
A few years ago I met Dutch investors who had invested in a milk factory here in Nepal. He told me that what was going on was amazing and I should talk to one of the two guys looking after his investment here. The Dutch guy had made his money in telecom and he had invested some money in Nepal. I talked to Willem Grimminc, who was looking after the investment and we instantly recognised each other. We decided to come to Nepal. We decided that for Nepali startups, the criteria would be a bit different, and they would not necessarily have to be globally scalable, but they need to have an impact. We said let’s do it, and we had the first batch.
You said that you approach to Nepal is a bit different from your accelerator programme in the Netherlands. How so?
Globally, we look for tech-driven companies that are globally scalable. In Nepal, we also focus on innovation, but instead of global scalability, we look for companies that are impact-oriented so that they create a fertile ground for people driven companies.
Investors are worried about getting returns, why would they care about impact?
In the startup world, what happens is that an entrepreneur builds a successful company and sells it to someone else, and then his has money. What he does next is to invest in the e-commerce website of the daughter of his friend and some other startup of someone he knows. A couple of thousand euros and a bruised ego later, he feels that he is not a good investor. That is where Rockstart comes in, We make the startups we work with investment-ready, in the case of Nepal, in 100 days. Then the investors get credibility and the structure to put their money in
Nepal was an NGO darling for many years. NGOs would come here and start throwing money at people with initiatives that do not work. Similarly, in Africa, the continent has become sick simply because people want someone else to come in with the money. In Nepal when you make an investment, you just don’t want to give money, you are committing to something; you can talk to the startups you are investing in, be at the meetings, talk with them, you have way more grip on the investment,
Globally, accelerator programme operators feel that their model of investing in the equity of startups is not doing well. Your accelerator is a bit different as it focuses on networking. You have said that not a single entrepreneur became an entrepreneur without talking to anyone. Does the network that you have give you the edge over other accelerators?
In the context of Nepal, we don’t take equity. This is not about money, it’s about peer-to-peer mentoring. It’s about having people who are building companies share workspace with others who are doing the same. No other programme has the network, the mentors and the access the capital that we have.
We do not charge the startups for the programme. In Nepal, we ask startups who have received funding to gives us 10,000 euros from their investment so that we can fund the next batch. In Amsterdam and in Colombia, we take minority stakes in the companies. But here in Nepal, we are not allowed in invest in such a way, but what we do is connect the startups with the investors.
You have said that you want to build the biggest startup machine on earth. Are you on track to achieving that?
We just started. We are not saying we want to become the biggest, we want to become the greatest that’s the most attractive to startup founders. We are not even halfway there. We are on three continents, and we want to expand to more continents, except for North America now, which we want to leave for the Americans. Our next Rocksart Impact programme, which we first organised in Nepal, will be Myanmar. In the next few years, we are looking at other countries in the region.
What are some of the problems your programme has faced in Nepal?
It’s not just Nepal, it’s in many countries. There’s a lot of bureaucracy, and capital is hard to get. I have always believed that a good accelerator porgramme needs three things: great startups, good mentors and money, which is always hard to find. Fortunately, we have been able to find a pool of good mentors here in Nepal
When you select a startup for you accelerator and they end up without an investment pledge, they would be disappointed…
What we do is make the startups investment-ready. The startups have to make their story. We have had companies that had expected to sign deals on Demo Day, but they could not do it. They were a bit disappointed. But there are times in the life of an entrepreneur where things do not go as planned, what you need to do is be ready to start over again, It’s easy to blame others when you are in difficult times.
We’ve seen globally that eight out of ten tech startups around the world fail in their early days, but in the case of Rockstart, eight out of 10 companies have gone on to receive funding. That is an indication of where we are placed.
What would be your message to startups in Nepal?
It’s easy, step forward star. That is what we learn from startups every day. I am so much impressed by the optimism here in Nepal in the 48 hours that I have been here. There is a hunger to do better here, and that is one the key ingredients for a good entrepreneurial environment. Local entrepreneurs have found solutions to so many problems. Of course, there are other problems that have not been solved: there cables all over the street and I almost fell and got electrocuted.
But I have been impressed. There are places in Eastern Europe, where you come in and think someone has just died. But in Nepal, things are different. We recently visited one of the Bloom Schools, which had the worst kind of starts. They lost their building in the quake, and two people were killed. They had to rebuild everything. I would have given up already if I were in their shoes. There’s a lot to learn from Nepal.
The final question. What about ‘startup yoga’?
I took up yoga after an accident I had a few years ago. Yoga is one of the foundations of Rockstart. By practising yoga, you can hold on much longer than you think. It brings calmness to everything. We teach yoga at Rockstart, we have three teachers. Many entrepreneurs may not do it, but if they have access to it, at some point, they’ll try it and they will feel that it will really help them out when they are in this tunnel of pain and suffering of building a company.