Can One be a Professional Rebel?

Solving real problems with scalable business solutions
A Special Europe Feature on Social Innovation – Interview with Linda Vermaat, Co-Founder of Professional Rebel

Before I left Singapore, I read on Lonely Planet that the Dutch are known for their entrepreneurial spirit. In my few days in Netherlands, I found out that it is home to many household brands such as Philips, TomTom, Unilever, ABN Amro, ING Bank, KPMG, Heineken, G-Star RAW, Viktor & Rolf and Booking.com. She also has the fastest internet network in Europe and many Dutch both speak English and Dutch. Tracing back to 1602, the Dutch East India Company was said to have started the world’s first stock exchange. Much like Singapore, Amsterdam is also a port-of-call for trade, has a strong financial presence, is a tax haven and a hot tourist spot.

While looking for something local to do on ‘Vayable’ (a local tourist-experience matching site), I came across “Start-up Coffee” with Melissa Marijnen, founder of Professional Rebels. For 10€, I am promised 45 minutes where I can find out more about the startup scene in Amsterdam over coffee. I contacted her over the site and also tweeted her. I was pretty excited when she tweeted me back shortly and mentioned she was in Austin for SWSX but I can meet her co-founder, Linda Vermaat.

It was a cold Amsterdam morning. Together with my traveling partner, we figured out the directions and took a bus to an industrial area, where we found the startup hub, that housed 7 levels of start-ups “B.Amsterdam”. On the way there, we bumped into Linda, who like most Netherlanders, was biking there. She brought us to the café in the building where we chatted over warm coffee and plum cake.

H360 Online 2015 - Linda Vermaat (Co-Founder, Professional Rebel)

Halogen360 (H360): “B.Amsterdam” is an inspiring space with 7 levels of start-ups, an eclectic mix of vintage chairs in the cafe, Trabis as meeting spaces, a roof-top urban garden, fish pond and chicken coop, a farm-to-table restaurant and beautiful visuals. How did this place come about?

Linda Vermaat (LV): The black cube building was originally built as IBM headquarters and was left empty for quite a while. After IBM left, the urban planners experimented with another concept but it did not take off. The owner tried to rent it out but wasn’t able to do so. He then had an idea to build it up to house start-ups. Together with the developer, they then designed ‘the city in a building’ and create the necessary ecosystem needed for entrepreneurs to thrive. Within the building you can find workspaces, cafes, fitness bootcamps, craftsmen, event space, catering and more. We love being here!

H360 Online 2015 - B. Amsterdam

(H360): What is Professional Rebels about? How was it conceptualised?

(LV): We started Professional Rebels because we want to change and challenge business as usual. We believe that start-up entrepreneurs are the pioneers of a changing world – solve real issues and making money from it. They are the frontrunners who are changing the status-quo for the better. These men and women are extremely creative, have a strong vision and most of all: a lot of guts. With their product, concept and business models they are disrupting their industries. They think and do different. Their successes (and failures) show what’s on the horizon of multiple industries, and indicate possible steps on how to get there.

Tony’s Chocolooney is a prime example – they are ‘crazy about chocolate’ and serious about people. They make good tasting chocolate with attractive packaging and now distributes their product in about 100 stores in Albert Heijn (Dutch chain supermarkets). They stand up against anti-slavery by buying cocoa directly from cocoa farmers – establishing a long-term relationship with them and buying their cocoa for a fair price over a long period of time. They are making real money and real impact in a scalable way.

Other firms that we are in touch with include:

  • Fairphone: making the world’s first fairtrade phone
  • Peerby: reducing unnecessary consumption by allowing people to borrow household items
  • Vandebron: arranges for consumers to buy electricity directly from independent producers, such as farmers with wind turbines in their fields.
  • Dick Moby: turning plastic waste into high quality sunglasses
  • Miele: pioneering a washing machine renting system and also making washing machines that have a longer life span

What we hope to do is to eventually make businesses that have positive impact mainstream and not have it just as a small scale and exclusive indie hippie fad. We want to also help mainstream businesses make positive impact and scale it up. We believe the key to the challenges of old organisations lies in the learning curve of the new.

We are a conduit to provide global access to these Professional Rebels. You can learn from them, visit and talk to them or get their advice on your new challenge or product. Meanwhile we keep exploring the globe, looking for new rebels, and generating new insights.

(H360): Why did you choose to start Professional Rebels?

(LV): In the past I was part of the slow food association where we focused on promoting the consumption of good, clean and fair food which is seasonal, organic and carbon footprint friendly. I started a youth food movement and academy, where I brought together 25 professionals in the food industry across the food ecosystem be it chefs, fishermen, dieticians, employees from Unilever and a group of 25-35 year olds to bring about change. At 2012, I spoke at TEDx, spent time blogging and talked to many entrepreneurs and recorded the common things we’ve learnt.

With that foundations, I started to consult for others who wants to start their own businesses or large companies who want to innovate but do not know how to, especially in the field of food and fashion. We bring them to expeditions to meet other food entrepreneurs who will share their learnings with them – the good and bad.

H360 Online 2015 - Professional Rebel

(H360): What does Professional Rebels stand for?

(LV): We have 6 principles that we live by.

  • Transforming: We use whatever is working
  • Solidarity: We align with verticals, with people and neighbours
  • Profitability: There needs to be an economic return
  • Sustainability: It needs to improve circular economy where there is a return
  • Accessibility: We want to democratise power where smaller companies now have a chance to make a big impact
  • Have fun!

(H360): So what do you exactly do at Professional Rebels?

(LV): After we started, one thing led to another and now we have three main features:

  • A large network of professional rebels – now we have 500+ startups worldwide in 4 cities (321 in Amsterdam, 44 in Berlin, 32 in Nairobi, 18 in Jakarta)
  • Strong know-how on how ‘rebels’ work
  • Skills to create creative learning concepts, based on exploring and learning from experiences.

The services we provide for companies and organisations are:

  • Rebel Tour – Visit our professional rebels at their startup offices, and talk about their concept, business and learning curve.
  • Rebel Session – Learn from rebels on how to use entrepreneurship and stimulate innovation, and apply these lessons on your projects.
  • Rent-a-Rebel – Get advice of a rebel on your current challenge or project to get the fresh insights of a frontrunner.

Some large MNCs have tapped on our network and expertise where the C-suite team, decision makers and high-potential employees met these entrepreneurs hear them out on topics and questions such as “if I were the CEO, what will I do?” We are also experimenting with a couple of ideas that include:

  • “Rebel-in-residence programme” – instead of a day or an hour or two, we can have these entrepreneurs join us for a longer period of time
  • Rebel Insight Lab – if you want to go into a certain field, we can do the research for you, partnering with these entrepreneurs
  • Rebel Academy – we will take 20 unemployed youths, teach them skills and place them in start-up jobs

(H360): What do you hope for Professional Rebels in the future?

(LV): I hope to see an increase of proven entrepreneurs to be invited to be part of the board of large MNC companies. I believe that their dynamism and energy can help many large companies pivot to where they need to and possibly go.

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In Singapore, we also have a growing entrepreneurial scene. Many entrepreneurs from all parts of the world are coming and brewing ideas at growing co-working spaces here like the Working Capitol and the Refinery. The design thinking discipline is also growing as Singapore, is also pivoting. Do we also need more professional rebels?

– Article by Jael Chng
Photos contributed by Jael Chng and Linda Vermaat