What does it mean to make it in the north? This is part of a series of portraits of local people, organisations, and companies working to further internationalise Groningen, Friesland, and Drenthe. This time we spoke to Ate van der Meer, Chief Commercial Officer of Snakeware, a data-driven digital agency with its HQ based in the picturesque Frisian city of Sneek.
By Erin Goedhart-Stallings
What kind of company moves its headquarters into a restored 1905 gas holder? One that wants to keep one foot firmly on the floor, whilst also striving for cutting-edge innovation. That is the core of Snakeware, a company that develops digital technology, content, e-commerce tools and marketing materials. I am ushered into a small 1950s-style sitting room furnished with leather club chairs and a guestbook signed by King Willem-Alexander, who visited in 2018. Ate van der Meer tells the story of how Sneek became home to a company that hosted a king.
Van der Meer was a 20-year-old university student when he joined two friends – Hans Hoomans and Johan Nieuwenhuis – to found Snakeware. ‘Hans and Johan were studying ICT at the NHL in Leeuwarden and they had this idea to create educational, entertainment and edutainment software. Hans and Johan first called themselves Triple E Software, but a similarly named company quickly complained. So they went to a bar to discuss it. They thought “Hey, we make flexible software. And we are located in the town of Sneek. So we’re not hardware, not software, but Snakeware!” They wrote that name down on a beer mat and still liked it the next day, so they registered it at the Chamber of Commerce (KvK) on 27 March 1995. Soon after, I met Hans and Johan. I filled in the gaps in marketing and sales and merged my company with theirs.’
Thinking ahead of the curve
The original vision was to be a one-stop shop for everything in the late-1990’s digital world. They developed software and sold computer hardware for the next few years, earning quite a few guilders. But the young entrepreneurs knew that the future would be online. Van der Meer recalls: ‘We told the bank that we wanted to become a great, digital-focused company, but the bank manager told us, “That’s not going to get you anywhere. You have to stick with selling computers, because that’s what pays your bills.” I’m glad we didn’t listen to him. Instead, we turned everything around and became an internet and software company with our own website publishing software – years before lots of other companies in our sector even thought of combining web and software to become successful online! And that bank manager? Three years later, he apologised to us and admitted we’d been right about the future being digital.’
Since then, Snakeware has grown to employ about 60 people over three locations. Van der Meer: ‘About 45-50 people work here in Sneek, we have a pair of great design and brand strategic guys in Amsterdam and there’s a passionate team of about 10 people in Groningen doing all kinds of very interesting front-end, augmented reality and other innovative stuff. We hire talented people who think like entrepreneurs and are solutions driven and passionate about all things digital. We don’t want to be the company with the most employees; we just want to have the staff we need to build the most successful or impactful solutions for our clients.’
One of those solutions was an augmented reality platform for Hans Boodt Mannequins. ‘They used to build clay models of their custom-built mannequins to show clients, and it could take months of adjustments to get them just right. With our platform, a sales rep can take a smartphone into, for instance, the Louis Vuitton flagship store and show the manager exactly what the mannequins will look like – the right textures, the right poses – just as if they were already standing on the sales floor. Changes now take minutes instead of months. That project won us the 2018 Dutch Interactive Gold Award for Digital Transformation, and Hans Boodt is now using this technology all over the world. And, just recently, we won the 2019 Dutch Interactive Silver Award for New Interfaces with the Noorderzijlvest water board, using the newest possibilities within the augmented reality platform we are building and deploying for our clients.’
What is the next step for Snakeware? ‘Our strategy – our vision – is to be are an international software company with great data-driven content management e-commerce software that’s deployable in any kind of way as long as it’s relevant for the end user. Part of that is becoming an implementation partner instead of a production house. We’re starting to work with marketing and digital agencies abroad, helping them use our software to serve their clients.’
Their international presence is also growing, especially in Germany. ‘We’ve done awesome things for Accell Group in Munich and for one of Germany’s most well-known porcelain makers, in Berlin. We also do the marketing and website for Hans Klok, the fantastic Dutch magician who performs in Las Vegas.’
They have built all of this in Sneek, a beautiful historic Frisian city that is well-known for water sports, but less so for technology. ‘We are in a semi-rural area, so there isn’t a vibe like you would feel in a major city. I sometimes really miss the energy you get from being surrounded by people in the same business. On the other hand, being in Sneek is a big plus because the people who work here are dedicated to being here and working for us on awesome projects. I enjoy working in the North, where people seem to have a “get things done” mentality. And we’re not only growing this business and making great stuff, but we also want to be there for our community. We invest a lot in talent, sponsoring musicians and sporting events and schools. Our identity as a down to earth business that is open to anybody is extremely important!’
After almost 25 years, the original founders remain the company’s leaders. ‘The three of us still have the same vision: to invest in new things and make our products, ideas and experiences every day – everything we do for clients – better than our best today. We each have our own specialities, but we have always stuck together and grown the brand. We are the proud owners of Snakeware!’
Erin Goedhart-Stallings is a writer and editor who works on Make it in the North with the International Welcome Center North (IWCN). For more information about Make it in the North, just visit www.makeitinthenorth.nl