In 2012, two former students of Hanze University Groningen took a big gamble. They made a list of 100 companies they would like to work for – including Facebook, Twitter, Spotify and Uber – and hacked them. As you can imagine, this little stunt definitely caught their attention.
Now, $159.4 million in investment later, their cybersecurity company, HackerOne, reached unicorn status in 2022 and counts major players like Nintendo, AT&T, Hyatt, GM and even the Pentagon among its clients.
HackerOne is a bug bounty hunting platform that allows businesses to enlist the help of ethical hackers around the world to identify and mitigate security vulnerabilities and data breaches. costs businesses an average of $4.35 million.
While founders Jobert Abma and Michiel Prins now live in San Francisco, where HackerOne is headquartered, they surprisingly decided not to bring their development team over the line. In fact, more than 50% of their engineering and product design team is still based in Groningen.
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The question is, does it actually make sense to keep half of your development team in a different time zone and is this a strategy that other founders should actually be considering? And why Groningen? With a global tech powerhouse like Amsterdam just a few hours away, why keep the team in this northern Dutch city?
The story of the HackerOne founders is the quintessential tech fairy tale come true. Abma and Prins grew up opposite each other in a small town in the north of the Netherlands and spent their time playing video games, building websites and, of course, playing prankster.
Together they went to Hanze University Groningen, where they discovered a major data leak in the institution’s system. Realizing this could be a successful business venture, they started a consultancy and built a small team of like-minded ethical hackers.
After capturing the attention of Silicon Valley’s biggest names, they realized it was time to spread their wings abroad.
At the same time, keeping part of their development team in Groningen presented a great opportunity to introduce a ‘follow-the-sun’ model so that someone is always online and ready to address any issues.
“The internet knows no boundaries,” says Abma, “We have tens of thousands of people using our platform every day to collaborate and collaborate. We rely on such a distributed community of hackers, I don’t see why we consider that company can’t do.”
Indeed, HackerOne facilitates this exchange between global, ethical hackers and businesses by providing a platform where they can connect, without worrying about tax forms, background checks, payment security and other barriers.
Some visitors fell in love with the city and moved permanently.
While having a distributed development team has a number of benefits, it also comes with its challenges.
“Working in different time zones requires everyone to become good at written and asynchronous communication. It’s important to give people time to become good written communicators,” says Abma.
Another key point he shared is to ensure that engineering and adjacent functions are regularly exposed to other departments such as sales, marketing and customer success. This helps build context, break down silos and empower teams to create better solutions.
One way HackerOne does this is by sending their Groningen team to their San Francisco headquarters a few times a year and vice versa.
It is important to empower people to build a stronger connection by having them spend time with each other in person at least twice a year. They love that aspect of having a distributed team, because they can visit different cities and meet new people, but still have the comfort of living in Groningen, which I think is a great city to live in and raise a family to found.
The advantages of a cosmopolitan city, on a smaller scale
Aside from the business benefits of maintaining a distributed team model, as Abma explained, most of the team just wasn’t keen on following them to San Francisco.
“A lot of people started their families and had significant others there, so they couldn’t move to the other side of the world, and we didn’t necessarily want that.”
For a city of only 235,000 inhabitants, Groningen has an extremely cosmopolitan atmosphere. With its two universities and growing startup community, it attracts nearly 6,000 international students and a growing number of expats every year.
Some HackerOne employees who visited the Groningen office from San Francisco fell in love with the city and decided to move there permanently. Abma suspects it’s these “expat ambassadors” turned hiring managers who have been key to onboarding more global talent by sharing their first-hand experience of moving to the city.
I think it’s good that Groningen is just Groningen.
For Isuru Ranaweera, Senior Software Engineer at HackerOne, moving his family to Groningen was an easy transition.
“What I like about Groningen is that it is less crowded and I actually think it is a quiet city compared to other places. In addition, I feel safer here, which makes it a good place to raise my child. Another bonus is that the city is very green, with lots of trees.”
Another great policy HackerOne has is that they pay developers in Groningen the same rates as they do in Amsterdam.
As an expat it was easier to settle here than my friends who have settled elsewhere in the Netherlands. Housing is available and affordable, which I found helpful when migrating to another country. Reducing costs is important and living here has allowed me to reduce my housing costs during my first years of residency. The commute is also easy as you don’t really need a car. We’ve lived here with a kid and a dog without needing a car, which is great. I also like to stay away from the chaos of big cities.
Having a base in a university town also has the added benefit of accessing a pool of young talent. Groningen in particular has two great universities in the city that attract students from all over the world. Zahra Putri Fitrianti, Software Engineer at HackerOne, was recruited after her studies and work at the University of Groningen as a teaching assistant.
Personally, I really like the atmosphere in the city, it is very suitable for both students and working people. The city has a sense of tranquility that helps me be productive at university and at work. There are also many great hubs where you can work, such as the Forum culture center which offers great support to people who spend their day there, although it can get quite busy at times, especially during exam season.
Groningen is changing, but hopefully not too much
Groningen is quickly becoming a more recognizable name in the global technology community with new success stories from startups and university spin-offs that are putting the ecosystem on the map. Nevertheless, there are a few changes Abma still hopes to see that will help the city reach its potential:
If Groningen is to really scale up that vibrant ecosystem, there are some fundamental building blocks that still need to be built, such as more access to finance, tax benefits, etc. What I would be really proud of is if, ten years from now, some of the people we initially employed by HackerOne, later founded their own company in Groningen. If they can make that transition, it would show that the building blocks are really there. While I’m glad companies like HackerOne are there, I’d like to see more of that.
However, Abma has lived in both Groningen and now (arguably) the capital of the tech world, and hopes that these impending changes will not affect the character of the city:
“I think it’s good that Groningen is just Groningen. It doesn’t have to be the next Silicon Valley. There are also many disadvantages to that kind of ecosystem.”
The question is, like HackerOne, will Groningen’s humble beginnings turn it into a tech giant of the future? Probably not. But it’s likely to be a favorite spot for expats and young talent looking for the perfect balance between exciting opportunities and compact city life. In contrast to the murderous culture of Silicon Valley, Groningen’s close-knit tech community can be compared to the Cheers theme song: it’s likely that everyone shall know your name and Actually be glad you came.
If Groningen has piqued your interest, check out some of the great tech job opportunities in the city on the Make it on Noord.nl job site.