By: Paola Hasbún
Lotte Engels is a corporate communication expert with years of experience in operations management and market research. After working as a Communication Officer at Océ Technologies and Operations Manager at Hewlett Packard, Engels ventured into business and became the Director of the Netherlands Business Support Office (NBSO) in Barcelona, a Dutch governmental trade promotion network that enhances the trade between The Netherlands and Spain. Committed to promoting the connection between Dutch and Spanish businesspeople, Lotte is also the President of ‘The Circle,’ a very dynamic Dutch business association in Barcelona. In this interview, we talked about the Spanish market, the importance of building strong business relationships, and the opportunities COVID-19 might bring.
As the Director of the NBSO in Barcelona, I understand you are connecting Dutch companies to the relevant people in Spain…
Yes. At the NBSO, we assist Dutch companies that want to start their businesses in Spain. It can be either exporting, opening a factory, or setting up a branch office. We facilitate this process in many ways: we provide them with information about the market, inform them about the rules and regulations applicable in Spain, and most importantly, we can provide them with the right contacts and networks to break into the Spanish market.
What would you advise Dutch entrepreneurs who want to scale-up their businesses and launch them in Spain?
I would advise them to come to our support office or connect with the Dutch Government’s economic network in Spain. We are an external part of the embassy in Madrid, focusing on the regions of Aragón and Catalunya. I think it is a perfect entry point because whatever your business model is, we can help you to explore the market, the opportunities and to put you in contact with the right people; it is all for free since it is a service from the Dutch government to promote the export.
Often, there are fewer female-founded businesses, and women are less represented in startup ecosystems. Is there a special focus or program for female entrepreneurs?
Not per se, but I have a broad network of female entrepreneurs and people working to promote gender equality in business, so I can also connect women entrepreneurs with the right people. After I started at the NBSO, I soon noticed the gender gap, especially in the tech sector. You can see it at the events and congresses; fewer women participate. Luckily there are many local initiatives, like, for example, a professional women’s network and the STEM Women Congress in Barcelona. Many different people have contacted me regarding this topic, so I have been connecting them to promote gender equality.
So there are good opportunities…
Absolutely, and hopefully, more Dutch entrepreneurs will internationalize and open their businesses in Spain. A colleague of mine at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs focuses on female entrepreneurship. She often mentions there is a huge potential for young female Dutch entrepreneurs who are not yet internationalizing. There is a big opportunity for Dutch female founders to take that step and to take that leap into internationalization. Whatever they do, they should be aware that there is a very interesting network of the Dutch government outside of the Netherlands. They can reach out to us, and we can help them with information and join events and connect them with the right people. I have an overview of Spain’s networks; relations and business connections are essential in this country.
Which markets are growing in Spain?
The tech industry is so broad; it can be Fintech, e-commerce, digitalization of events, etc. With COVID-19, digital transformation has become really important; many companies will have to do a digital transformation because of the current situation, so there is a good opportunity here. Moreover, the Spanish government is strongly focusing on digital transformation and putting many resources and efforts into it to be a good opportunity for Tech companies.
And besides Tech, are there any other markets growing?
I would say everything related to sustainability. Whatever is going to be restructured, it will have to be done sustainably. From a government perspective, there is a strong focus on the green economy, circular economy, and sustainability in Spain. This means companies will have to comply and adjust their policies. Due to the COVID-19 situation, Spain got extra funds from the European Union, and they need to plan and spend it sustainably. This is a great opportunity, and it can be comprehensive, from the cancellation of electric vehicles to water management.
What challenges do people change when investing or launching their businesses in Spain?
I would say to manage their expectations. An essential element is to build a network and have a strong business relationship with companies to be successful. It is important to invest in this business relationship and to understand that it can take time. It does not happen from one day to another. It’s not like you will enter the market one day and start having turnovers immediately… it will depend on the business model and how you want to approach your market.
Do you have any tips for approaching the market?
We see a big tendency in Dutch companies approaching the market with local business partners, who are already settled in a specific sector. It is beneficial for both parties: the foreign or Dutch companies can bring a lot of added value by bringing a new product or service -which is good for the business portfolio -, and the Spanish business partners add the value of being already present in the market. By partnering with a local business, Dutch companies do not have to start working on entering the market by themselves. Many Dutch companies enter the Spanish market this way, and I think it’s a good and recommendable choice.
It makes it easier…
Yes. Of course, you can still enter the market by yourself if you have a good product and a good team, but you need to be aware that it will take time to build relationships and make people trust you; you need to put time into it.
Are there any cultural differences in how to build that network and business relationships?
I think Spain is a bit more hierarchical than The Netherlands, so you need to have the right people at the table to make certain decisions. It is important to know this. Otherwise, you can spend a lot of time networking with people, but you need to have the right person in front of you for things to happen.
Another difference is that in The Netherlands, we are used to people working part-time. In Spain, most people work full time, the whole part-time culture is not really present yet, and it is important to be aware of this. Before COVID-19, the flexible-hours and working from home once a week culture was not fully established in Spain. I think things will start to change now.
Let’s hope so…
Yes, I think this would help women’s role in business, not only entrepreneurs, in adapting and managing their work-balance life better, because if you have stringent working rules, you have to adapt the personal part. That is not the way for me. One of the most important elements in a workplace is flexibility; to have the possibility to work from home and be more flexible so I can pick up my children from school. I think this flexibility is also important at a personal level.
In what sense?
In the sense of having a supportive partner who is willing to give you the right to have the same opportunity to grow and develop yourself on a personal level… a partner who is also willing to take a step back and not just say: ‘this is my working schedule and you have to adapt to it.’ It’s about putting two working schedules next to each other and seeing how you will adapt to it together. These were the most important elements in all the roles that I have performed so far. This flexibility, balance, and equality helped me take the steps that I have made, which helped me develop in the roles I have performed. To have a flexible work environment can be as important as the salary, and on both sides, you need to have the flexibility.