Bringing Silicon Valley to Brussels
Ever feel despondent about the state of entrepreneurship in Belgium? There’s a perfect cure available: attend one of the BetaGroup meetings in Brussels. In little over 18 months, initiative-taker Jean Derély has built the biggest and most exciting web community in Belgium. Not only is the BetaGroup a boon for entrepreneurship in Belgium, the initiative itself is a great example of entrepreneurship.
To say that Jean Derély has had an international career is probably an understatement. He first studied in Brussels, Singapore and Beijing; and subsequently worked in Madrid, Guatemala, Mexico and Boston. There’s an entrepreneurial streak running through his career too: international business development in South America, developing the Mexican market for Forrester Research, and setting up a social networking site for the U.S. Hispanic community. But today he’s back in Brussels—and he seems to have taken a bit of the U.S. with him.
The high-tech clusters in the US such as Silicon Valley and the Boston area are renowned for their entrepreneurial ‘ecosystem’. This refers not only to the clustering of universities, corporations, start-ups and venture capitalists in a single area, but also to the exceptionally vibrant networking communities that bring these stakeholders together. In a way this is what the BetaGroup is doing—bringing a bit of the Valley’s buzz to Belgium. And it’s working. A year ago the first gathering of the BetaGroup attracted a handful of people; today Jean needs the largest lecture hall he can find (and three pallets of beer and snacks) to accommodate the 700 or so people who register for the events. More than 1500 web entrepreneurs, software developers, digital marketers and investors have signed up to the membership. In addition, Jean and his group are organising web missions to the major web conferences abroad and are opening the doors of BetaHouse, a shared work space in Brussels.
Lessons from the U.S.
“Are we entrepreneurial in Belgium? That’s difficult to say from my perspective—most of the people I meet are entrepreneurs and they’re all very enthusiastic. But there obviously are some differences with the U.S. For example, here people tend to rely on government help for financing. That’s quite dangerous since it can hide weaknesses in your business model. On the other hand, it is probably necessary because there is such a shortage of seed capital here. That is a problem—the risk intolerance here. In the U.S. there is a lot more willingness to invest in new ventures. Not that people are crazy, throwing money about. What I’ve noticed is that in the U.S. they invest in people, not projects. It is the quality of the team that counts. The idea needs to be interesting obviously, but there seems to be more a logic there of ‘these guys have the talent to succeed, even if the original idea doesn’t pan out.’
It can’t be easy to build a global business in Belgium. We have a small domestic market and it is very complex too, in the way you need to deal with 2-3 languages and the cultural differences between French- and Flemish speakers. But then to our credit I find Belgian entrepreneurs to be very pragmatic in their approach. People don’t start here until they see a clear way of making money. Facebook would never have got off the ground here.
Surprisingly, I find that there is still quite an administrative hassle here. Comparing it to my time in the U.S., I find I need to spend a fair amount of time dealing with government-related administration. Things like going to the notary to register my business, sorting my social security and health insurance out, and the various types of taxes linked to my house, car and business. Not that I mind paying tax—but it could all be much simpler.
I think the universities can do much more to create an entrepreneurial culture. At the Solvay business plan competition (Editor’s note: Jean is a judge for the Solvay Business School Start Academy competition) I’ve noticed that the ambition is too tame. The students are not thinking big enough, not innovative enough. The way we teach students here too seems archaic: it’s all about memorising lots of information, as opposed to teaching people how to learn. We need to create more doers instead of know-it-alls.
The curriculum too is very rigid here. At Stanford, for example, they launched a course in Facebook applications. That’s important—they’re able to react quickly to important developments in the market. Here we struggle to do that sort of thing.
We also need to do more to put students in touch with entrepreneurs. The work of Y Combinator in the U.S. is a good example. They’re a venture capital firm that do a lot of work with students. Their approach too is quite unique: they run a mentorship programme for young entrepreneurs and that way are able to make very early-stage investments in promising ventures.
3 tips for entrepreneurs
1. Make use of all the help that is available. Attend networking events and courses; participate in business plan competitions; apply for subsidies and financial support—there’s a lot out there.
2. Think big. Sure, you have to start in your domestic market but your business plan should have a global perspective. We should use to our advantage the fact that we’re comfortable with different languages and cultures
3. Finally, open your idea—share it. What really matters is the quality of the team and the implementation of the idea, more so than the idea itself. Therefore you have to open your idea to confrontation, to criticism
About Jean Derely
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