Start-up specialists on tips to success

As part a 24-page Innovation special in the February-March edition of the magazine we asked start-up specialists to give their words of wisdom to budding entrepreneurs. First in the series is Karen Boers, (37) co-founder and Managing Director of Startups.be, Michel Duchateau (35) engineer with ample e-business experience, and founder of CreaDelta, and Robin Wauters (35), founding editor of Tech.eu and a seasoned digital entrepreneur.

Karen Boers

Uniting hundreds of startups with all the incubators, accelerators, investors and public actors in the local ecosystem, Boer’s project Startup.be operates as a one-stop-shop and matchmaker.

Addressing yourself to an audience of budding entrepreneurs, what would you say are the challenges they must remain attentive to?

Entrepreneurs should not forget to talk to their (potential) customers at all times – including during conceptual and development phases. Understanding the product-market fit will make or break the company.

Taking both a national and international view, what do you feel are the growth areas representing the most opportunity to emerging entrepreneurs in Belgium today?

Belgium has a strong tradition in HR tech, financial services and hardware, three areas where disruption is to be expected in the upcoming months and years. This provides an incredible opportunity for emerging entrepreneurs in the area today.

What would you warn the budding entrepreneur about? Pitfalls to avoid?

It usually takes at least twice as long to close a deal as you might expect up front and even then, it will probably take ages for the money to land in your bank account. Emerging business should therefore make sure they have the financial breathing space that is required to cover costs and bridge the cost-revenues gap!

Michel Duchateau

Today Michel works as a coach in innovation and trainer in project management with CreaDelta, and is very active in several entrepreneurs associations, accelerator programs and coaching structures. He is Global Facilitator for Startup Weekend Europe, and co-author of the ParticipAgile method.

Addressing yourself to an audience of budding entrepreneurs, what would you say are the challenges they must remain attentive to?

Entrepreneurship is exciting, fun, nourishing, fulfilling, and it involves a lot of surprises and lessons. But it is uncertain, risky, and unpredictable. When starting your entrepreneurial journey, you may find out your family, friends, and acquaintances do not understand your decision to dive into unknown waters. Don’t let others guide your life choices. Developing entrepreneurial skills from a real life experience is the best choice you will ever make.

I have met a lot of entrepreneurs who face risks every day. Reducing uncertainty is the key challenge for them. This is why I recommend following these 5 principles:

  1. Stop over-thinking your idea. You must get out of the building and take action from day one. You don’t have to wait for a genius idea. Actually, a first intuition is good enough to start trying. An entrepreneurial project is 1% idea and 99% action.
  2. Stay humble. Don’t fall in love with your idea or your solution. When you have a good idea, think that 100 different people in the world will have the same idea today. Talk a lot about your idea and improve it with new insights from other people.
  3. Go find stakeholders who believe in your project like entrepreneurs, potential clients, collaborators, suppliers or partners to co-construct your project. Listen to them, receive feedback, look for commitments and challenge your project.
  4. Embrace surprises, celebrate failures and collect outcomes to improve your project. Entrepreneurs learn everyday. When your experiment fails, learn from it and adapt your project. It’s a continuous process.
  5. Meet entrepreneurs who failed and others who succeeded. Register to a coworking space with hundreds of entrepreneurs. Join entrepreneurs’ events like meetups, conferences, workshops, award ceremonies and hackathons. Practice networking every week.

Taking both a national and international view, what do you feel are the growth areas representing the most opportunity to emerging entrepreneurs in Belgium today?

For many years, Belgium has performed very well in producing a highly skilled and educated workforce. Thanks to its strong international relationships, the country attracts new talents from other nations too. Belgium has competitive financial and tax incentives for established companies. Very recently, Belgium’s government set up tax shelters for investors, tax deductions for startups and SMEs, and greater flexibility for crowdfunding initiatives ! Thanks to a unified startup community and its Startup Manifesto, Belgian policy-makers have learned to listen more carefully to startups voices. Entrepreneurs working in Belgium are used to adapting to multicultural environments. Simultaneously close to Paris, London, Luxembourg and Amsterdam, they don’t hesitate to cross borders to extend their markets.

What would you warn the budding entrepreneur about? Pitfalls to avoid?

  1. Listen to coaches and entrepreneurs, but don’t follow them blindly. It’s your own journey and your own experience. Make your own choices.
  2. Get out of the building to network. Meet peers, entrepreneurs and other people to get lessons learned and construct your network.
  3. Don’t write a business plan on day one. Focus on validating your idea, look for customers’ needs, prototype a solution, experiment and adapt based on concrete results. Co-create with your first customers or partners. Reducing uncertainty is the key challenge for entrepreneurs.
  4. Write a plan when things start to be predictable. It means when you have paying customers, committed partners, and a good enough solution for an identified problem. Then, you may spend your precious time documenting a plan.
  5. Don’t restrain yourself from sharing your idea. Talk to people to ask for feedback, advice, cooperation, partnering and co-creation. Nobody is going to steal your idea. Never.

Robin Wauters

Besides founding publication TechWauters is a journalist with experience in marketing and building technology companies, and writing about them for publications such as TechCrunch and The Next Web.

Addressing yourself to an audience of budding entrepreneurs, what would you say are the challenges they must remain attentive to?

I think their biggest challenge is thinking small. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you will face a ton of difficulties every day, and building companies is hard and lonesome for the most part. So if you’re going to do it anyway, then why would you want to spend your time and efforts focusing on a small problem or market? Before you start worrying about money, staff, users, marketing and whatnot (which you eventually will), make sure you’re dreaming big enough to begin with.

Taking both a national and international view, what do you feel are the growth areas representing the most opportunity to emerging entrepreneurs in Belgium today?

I believe there is a lot of technical talent available, as well as early-stage capital, both in Belgium and Europe. That makes it a fantastic time for anyone with drive and a half-decent idea to consider becoming an entrepreneur, as there are plenty of resources available to help you out in the early days. I wouldn’t necessarily advise anyone to focus on a specific vertical; as long as it’s something you’re passionate and knowledgeable about, you can be a creator of growth rather than ride an existing wave, which I think is more exciting.

What would you warn the budding entrepreneur about? Pitfalls to avoid?

Pitfalls to avoid: thinking small, obsessing about raising funding, not focusing enough on product and customers/users, not putting a feedback loop in place to make sure users teach you what your product should be, chasing partnerships rather than actually building something, spending time thinking about “an exit”, worrying about competition etc. There are plenty more but it all boils down to one key point: you need to always maintain focus on product and customers.

Which public agency do you think the emerging entrerpreneur should seek advice / assistance from?

There are certain mechanisms in Belgium right now that help you raise funding from angel investors or even via crowdfunding more easily and tax-effectively. Other than that, I think a good lawyer, mentor and tax advisor will take you much further than any public agency ever can.