Queen Máxima of the Netherlands. People in the picture are (from left to right):

Niki Smit (author Project Prep), Neelie Kroes (Special Envoy StartupDelta), Queen Máxima of the Netherlands, Janneke Niessen (founder Improve Digital, initiator Project Prep), Josselin Bijl (illustrator Project Prep)

By @SimonCocking

Janneke Niessen @janneke  Co-founder @ImproveDigital, co-initiator of @Inspiringfifty, @Preptheproject, EY Entrepreneur of the Year, angel investor, board member, mentor for startups.

Your background, how did you end up doing what do you now?

I have always loved technology, and have always been passionate about innovations in technology.  And I have a head brimming with ideas almost 24/7. So being an entrepreneur in the technology sector was an obvious route for me.

I started working when the first bubble started to grow. So I’ve experienced it all – the hype, the bizarre parties, the through-the-roof, insane valuations and the burst of the bubble. Every phase taught me a lot.

Which project(s) are you working on at the moment?

More than I can mention, but here are the highlights:

At Improve Digital, we’re leaders in the European programmatic space and are constantly innovating. Video is a huge driver in growth across programmatic and digital overall, and we’re investing heavily in this space to enable our publisher and media owner clients to extend their sales efforts and maximise revenue in this high growth sector of the market.

At Inspiring Fifty, we’re gearing up to launch our hunt for fifty more formidable female role models in tech, to announce next spring. The initiative identifies and showcases female leaders in the sector, to serve as role models for women hoping to build a successful career path in tech. Our ultimate goal: to address the gender imbalance in tech and bring diversity to the sector. If you know an inspirational woman in European tech, please let us know!

And then there’s Project Prep – a fictional novel we launched in June, aimed at girls aged 9-15 years, highlighting to them that a career in technology is cool and exciting. It launched in the Netherlands with over 10,000 copies sold in the first month – and I was lucky enough to present Queen Maxima the very first copy at the Royal Palace. I’m now talking to international publishers and plan to roll the book out globally. Watch this space!

On top of this, I advise start-ups, invest, serve in several (advisory) boards, write a column in a magazine for entrepreneurs in the Netherlands and speak regularly at events.

Plans for the future? 

See above. Plenty to occupy me! When I have an idea that I believe is good I start with it quickly. I don’t plan too far ahead. That can limit you in grabbing opportunities when they come around because you’re too focussed on your plan. I do have a very rough plan about what I want to achieve in life but short-term I am driven by ideas and opportunities.

How was last 12 months, what went well?

As well as meeting Queen Maxima to launch Project Prep, my other personal highlight was co-hosting a roundtable and mentoring event with 10 Downing Street. We invited our ‘Inspiring Fifty’ women in tech from across Europe to , debate the issues and opportunities for women in the tech sector, and then they mentored fifty girls in tech. We had the most fantastic feedback from everyone who took part – confirming to me that we are on an important and worthwhile mission.

I was also named EY Entrepreneur of the Year which was an absolute honour and huge compliment for the work I am doing.

And of course, I’m proud of the continuing success of Improve Digital. We’re scaling rapidly, having achieved year on year growth of 65% in 2014 and a cumulative growth rate of 5466% over the previous five years. This trend continues in 2015, with more than 60% growth in 2015, year to date. My business partner Joelle Frijters and I launched Improve Digital in 2008 – with many people saying we were crazy. But we’ve certainly proved the naysayers wrong and it goes to show that if you’re passionate about an idea, you have to trust your gut instinct and go for it.

On a personal level, I had a baby in January.

Anything you’d do differently?

I never regret anything. I always look forward to what I can do next or what I can do better next time, not backward at what I could have done. Of course, we all make mistakes but it’s about learning from these and moving on a wiser person.

You are active on twitter, is this part of how you do business, how has it helped you?

Absolutely. Twitter is a fantastic tool for spreading business messages and content, keeping on top of news and trends, and finding out about new connections. Although when it comes to Project Prep, Instagram is key. Our readers are young girls, and they live and breathe Instragram – it’s a different world.

Scott Eddy speaks about your personal brand being vitally important to your business, what’s your take on this?

I totally agree. People want to know the personalities behind a business. People buy people. And at Improve Digital, we encourage our teams to be out and about in the field meeting people as much as possible. This also comes back to the concept of role models that we promote at Inspiring Fifty – if the people running the business are visible and influential, it attracts others to both their business, and the sector in which they work. Of course, you then have to have a good business plan to back it all up.

What is it like to work in Amsterdam, what are the pros and cons?

Pros: It’s a vibrant city, with a real buzz – and our office environment reflects that. It also has a fantastic tech scene, which we’re proud to be a part of. Also, Amsterdam attracts a lot of international talent that helps in hiring and building a great and diverse team.

Cons: It’s not New York. Haha. One day I really want to live in NY for 1 or 2 years. But kidding aside. There is not a lot to complain about being in Amsterdam.

You have a lot of interests – how do you balance them all?

When you’re passionate about what you do, it’s certainly easier to juggle the balls. But I won’t say it’s easy – I have   a great team of people around me who help including hard-working, loyal colleagues and a very supportive husband!

As an angel investor what sort of things interest you / inspire you?

As I’m passionate about technology, and innovation, I look out for businesses or people that have the same passion. And it needs to be a business that can scale and where I can add value. I can spot an awesome idea, and then it’s about working with the people you know have the determination and drive to see it to fruition. Examples are Swogo who have an awesome way of automating bundling for retailers. It is scalable, clearly solves a need and the founder and CEO is one of the most talented entrepreneurs I have met in a long time. I also invest in Bomberbot, a platform that helps teachers introduce programming concepts to children aged 7 to 11 in an easy and fun way in their classroom without them needing any prior skills or knowledge of ICT and programming. They share my passion for making sure kids learn to code from a very young age.

Blogging, who do you follow / like?

I follow a lot of people on Twitter and mainly focus on certain topics versus people. Of course I follow news about the industry Improve Digital works in. Besides that I am focused on everything related to diversity and technology. And I have a special interest people from the larger and well known VC’s that are blogging and tweeting. The newsletter from First Round is one specific example I would recommend to everybody. They are very insightful and they don’t worry about sharing information and learnings from their participations. Every entrepreneur should read it, if not for the information, then just to know that others really face the same challenges you do.

How do you manage life / work, and online / offline balance?

I don’t think anybody that knows me would say there is any balance in my life. But for me there is. Loving what you do makes a big difference because for me a lot of things don’t feel like work. With all the things I do, combining that with family and friends – it’s about making choices all the time, prioritising, good planning and organisation. I think I’m realistic about the consequences of my choices and I understand when combining work, family and friends you cannot be with everybody all the time and you cannot do everything for everybody all the time. Accepting that makes a big difference I think. When making the choices I have to make, I just try to balance spending time on each and that works for me. And it’s not equal time for everything all the time. The focus will shift depending on what is possible and/or necessary.

But very important, no matter how busy I am, no matter how tired I am, I always make sure I keep doing fun stuff because I know I get a lot of energy from that.

How do you create space to think / dream and write?

I live in Breda, and it takes me over an hour to drive to work. I love this time to allow me the space to think and dream – currently I’m dreaming about my future Hollywood movie based on Project Prep. I like to think big.

Have you been to Ireland, how was it / will we see you at the Web summit or another event?

I tried to go to the Web Summit last year and even booked a ticket. In fact, I’ve been trying to go for the last 3 years. But it’s during such a busy time of the year for Improve Digital so in reality it has never worked out. But I definitely want to go. If not for work, then for holiday one time.


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