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Anyone entering the Koepel Prison in the Dutch city of Haarlem through its main entrance will first walk into a large, open hall. The building was designed in the early twentieth century so that the prison guards had an overview of the 204 cells from their posts in the middle of the hall. Where the cells were once occupied by inmates up until 2016, entrepreneurs, students and tech parties have since moved in at the beginning of this year. A citizens’ initiative transformed the prison into a meeting place and tech campus for students, entrepreneurs and Haarlemmers.

Tech campus for the digitalization of SMEs

“That’s where we are,” says Mike Rijkers as he points to the fourth (and top) cell ring level. He is managing director at Cupola XS: a tech campus for the digitalization of small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs).

Companies can go there with all their questions about the digital transition. For example, they can knock on the door of cell 324 for advice from Amazon Web Services (AWS) concerning the cloud. The municipality can also inform them about the subsidies that they are eligible for (cell 329). Cooperating knowledge institutions, such as the Amsterdam ROC, Nova College and Inholland University of Applied Sciences, know which courses are best suited for retraining employees in the digital field. And together with students from the Haarlem Campus, entrepreneurs can book a one-on-one session to brush up their knowledge on a specific subject, such as e-commerce or SEO.

Mike Rijkers. Image: Annemieke van der Togt

A café, cinema, study and work area

On the first floor is the Koepelplein (Koepel Square), where anyone can walk in for a cup of coffee at the grand café and within the near future, also the game museum, a media room and an exhibition space. The cubicles have been transformed into office spaces and are surrounded by an open office area with flex-work stations. “Under the building, a space has been excavated for six cinema halls. These also function as lecture halls for the students of the Haarlem Campus,” Rijkers says as he continues his tour while climbing the spiral stairs of the former prison. Glass-encased study areas have been installed on the second floor for those students, and in time there will even be a proper campus.

SMEs can also work in the Koepel: there are coworking areas, as well as private offices and meeting and training rooms for hire. In addition, Cupola XS organizes knowledge sessions and masterclasses. For example, Daniel Gebler, the CTO of online supermarket Picnic, recently gave a masterclass on what he thinks his CEO should know about technology so that they can do well as a technical director. “It was about what you need to know as a non-technical manager to be able to manage your technical people effectively,” Rijkers explains.

Rijkers believes it is important that all of this can come together in one centralized, physical location. “Everything can be done online these days. But, people do need to connect. Sometimes something happens to you because you meet new people or experience new things. Entrepreneurs who come through here can then explore their issues in real-life.”

Haarlem is an SME city

Questions about the digital transition are in abundance, especially coming from SMEs. “Haarlem is a real SME city, there are a lot of local retailers. Digitalization is a must for this target group, although they often find it difficult to make that transition.”

Simone Lunstroo, owner of the Paint It Yellow creative production agency, has also noticed this. Together with the Biz, the Haarlem Central business association and the municipality of Haarlem, she set up Haarlemsewinkels.nl during the corona pandemic. A platform where the city’s store owners can join and offer their products for sale online. “All of a sudden, it became a dire need for many retailers to be visible online. Our platform was there for entrepreneurs who wanted to get online quickly and collectively.”

Difficulty with digitalization

Lunstroo saw that “the online stuff” meant extra work for a lot of entrepreneurs. “It’s often not a part of their process yet. I do see that it’s slowly changing. Selling products in a store and online, either through our own webshop, that of Bol.com or through Haarlemsewinkels.nl, offers plenty of new opportunities. But, it also requires a different way of working and mindset. That’s a transition.”

Matthijs van Schendelen

According to Matthijs van Schendelen, managing director at the Endeavour digital agency, small businesses in particular struggle with digitalization. “They often don’t know where to start. Should they start working with influencer marketing, a customer data platform or a different form of technology? Other than the tobacconist on the corner, there’s no longer a business that can do without digitization. You need to stand out above the crowd. We can help draw up that roadmap, together with all the other parties in the Koepel.”

Endeavour has three offices in Haarlem, one of which is located in the Koepel. “When I work over here, I always walk in with a smile. Besides the fact that it’s really convenient that we are located here with all kinds of parties, it’s just a really great place to work. I give at least one guided tour every week.”

Help from Cupola XS

To get a helping hand in professionalizing the platform further, Lunstroo turned to Cupola XS. The center is supporting the project through their knowledge, network and experiences. For example, they pointed out the options for the entrepreneur to apply for subsidies and she attended a number of knowledge sessions. “I personally have a huge need for information on digitalization matters and it’s nice to get together with other business owners. We can share our struggles and experiences with each other. It’s important to realize that you’re not the only one who’s running up against things.”

I personally have a huge need for information on digitalization matters and it’s nice to get together with other business owners. We can share our struggles and experiences with each other.”

Entrepreneur Simone Lunstroo

Application of technology

Where companies from the Brainport region are focusing on high tech, Haarlem is concentrating much more on the application of that technology. Rijkers: “A lot can be done these days with AI, the cloud and robots, but how do you make sure you can make these all accessible to retailers?”

In order to research this further, Cupola XS is teaming up with the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences in a study on robotization in the retail sector. “What we are concerned with here is: How do you apply technology? How do we ensure that companies are open to it? And: What kinds of new skills do people need to learn in order to do that? This is why a robot will be stationed here for six weeks. Researchers are going to observe what forms of interaction it leads to with people,” Rijkers goes on to explain.

He wants Cupola to become a home for entrepreneurs from all over the country who are grappling with digitalization issues. ” The digitalization of SMEs is not only a chore in Haarlem. It is the case for all of the Netherlands and far beyond. Take AWS, for example. They are attempting to figure out from here how we can get SMEs to make use of digital opportunities sooner. We want to challenge people to take that step.”

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