Daniel Poelman, Business Partner Expats, and Leen Goyvaerts, Business Partner Professions Libérales & Independants at KBC Brussels are keen to introduce me to Julie Fulon, Community Manager for the Brussels branch of Startit@KBC and owner of girleek.net. We meet at the Brussels incubator and co-working space to find out more.
Happy Accidents & Unexpected Success Stories
“The face of business has undergone a radical change over the last few years,” Daniel tells us. “There is a growing community of people who have bags of experience, or even none at all, and have a great idea that they seek to develop. Belgium hasn’t always been perceived as having a particularly friendly environment for businesses to develop and grow in, but thankfully that’s changing.”
It really was per chance that Startit saw the light of day. “The bank organises an annual competition for all employees worldwide. By getting our own people to pitch ideas we get to involve different backgrounds and cultures in improving our services and optimising internal processes. There’s never really a set theme and two architects who were working in the Antwerp tower at the time, saw an opportunity to fill the empty floors through an original and socially responsible concept: bringing together young people with bright ideas and entrepreneurs and organisations that would be able to help them get their projects off the ground,” explains Leen.
“They won the pitch and were given a budget by an internal sponsor who simply told them ‘we have the space, now you have the money, let’s make it happen’. Partnerships with the University of Antwerp, Flanders DC, iMinds and others mean that a great variety of expertises and networks have been brought together under one umbrella that start-ups can use to their advantage.”
It was an unexpected success that saw the first floor in the Antwerp tower filled almost immediately. Today there are Startit offices in six cities across Belgium, housing some 287 start-ups and 28 nationalities, and the numbers continue to grow. The Brussels incubator opened its doors last Oct-ober and their very first Pitch Day brought in 15 start-ups. Today there are nearly 40 start-ups working on their plans for global domination and the co-working space is positively humming with activity.
“You become part of a community. Even if you’re in completely different fields, you can still help each another save time and money.” – Julie Fulon, Startit@KBC
So how does it work? “Start-ups really are just that,” explains Leen. “They’re at the ideation stage. Budding entrepreneurs are offered the opportunity to come and pitch their idea to our jury and, if they are accepted, are given 12 to 18 months maximum to develop themselves and to learn to do business. This is their time to create a real business plan, to complete trial runs and ensure they have a viable business before heading out into the world and officially opening for trade.”
“One of the major benefits of being invited to work here is that you become part of a community,” adds Julie. “Even if you’re in completely different fields, you can still help each another. Only the other day at the lunch table one of the tech guys pointed out to two budding entrepreneurs that they would need to keep in mind credit card expiration dates for their online business. A simple statement, but one that will save them lots of time, stress and money in the future as their monthly membership programme grows.”
And of course there’s the mentorship programme too: “We ask our mentors to meet with their start-ups for at least two hours every two weeks,” Julie continues. “And although every start-up has their personal mentor, they can ask any of our mentors for help or introductions to potential clients, partners or departments. It’s easier for the start-up to reach the right people when they can get an introduction through one of our partners or mentors. It’s an invaluable benefit to have.”
“Mentors are usually decided on at Pitch Day. The jury often knows who will be right for which project but sometimes we ask the candidate who their ideal mentor would be. Of course many say ‘Bill Gates’,” laughs Leen, “but it does give you an idea of what type of support they are after. We’ll always look at each individual case and find a local mentor who is best matched with their needs. We also get a lot of interest from people who want to become mentors, but we remind them that it’s an unpaid job that requires a lot of time and effort, so only the truly dedicated should apply.”
It’s rare for start-ups, especially in the tech industry, to find people who understand what they are trying to accomplish. “We’re increasingly coming into contact with innovative organisations and start-ups through Startit and our Bolero Crowdfunding initiative, which made us realise that we didn’t really have the proper tools in place to service them,” says Leen. “It’s something we very much want to change and the reason why KBC and KBC Brussels decided to establish a national multidisciplinary team that can share its expertise and knowledge and help guide these young enterprises on their journey. We kick off in a few weeks when we’ll have some 40 people around Belgium whose job is specifically to offer a customised service.”
“We’re learning from the start-ups, just as they are learning from us. We’re changing our mentality and are bringing new entrepreneurial tools that will benefit all of our clients.” Daniel Poelman, KBC Brussels
“It’s a huge change for KBC too,” Daniel admits. “We’re learning from the start-ups, just as they are learning from us. We’re changing our mentality and are bringing new entrepreneurial tools that will benefit all of our clients.”
So what does the future hold? “The future just happens, our environment is becoming more favourable to business and it’s up to us to be a part of it. No one said ‘we want to become the leading start-up incubator in Belgium’ but it happened. The same goes for our industry itself. We’re investing in digital and ‘the internet of things’ but no one really knows where it will take us.”
“This entrepreneurial spirit is increasingly becoming part of the DNA of KBC. We’re seeing the benefits of networking and are integrating this into our own business model as well. We’re longstanding partners of BelCham for example, and given KBC’s Startit commitment to supporting young companies in Belgium, it only felt natural for us to become one of the Founding Partners of BelCham Atelier in 2013, the pioneering incubator in the heart of New York City (located in the same building as the KBC and Belcham offices). Under the leadership of Chris Burggraeve and Bieke Claes, respectively President and Managing Director, BelCham Atelier has already become the first port of call for Belgian scale-ups who want to explore their potential in the US.” Daniel is proud to conclude.