Minister Q tells it how it is
If entrepreneurship is indeed an attitude then Vincent Van Quickenborne probably deserves to be called an entrepreneur. Eleven years ago he became a senator at 25 years of age, the youngest ever in Belgium. He’s been trampling on porcelain ever since, to the delight of some and chagrin of others. But he seems to get things done. When he was secretary of state for administrative simplification he managed to transform Belgium into one of the fastest places in the world to start up a company. Today, he’s Minister for Entrepreneurship and Reform. In other words, he is quite literally the entrepreneur’s man in government. His has his work cut out for him.
We had two key questions for Minister Q: firstly, what is your opinion of the state of entrepreneurship in this country, and secondly, what is your longer-term vision or strategy on making life for the entrepreneur easier?
“I think in many ways entrepreneurship is an attitude; it is about creative people taking initiative and enjoying their work. I think you have entrepreneurial teachers and entrepreneurial civil servants. You don’t necessarily need to be self-employed or own a business.
It all begins with education. In this country we really excel when it comes to knowledge, remembering stuff, and languages too, but where we come short is the stimulation of individual talent and creativity. We tend place a lot of emphasis on equality, an egalitarian approach to everything, but entrepreneurship doesn’t accept that. Entrepreneurship is about the individual, about creativity, about merit; it is a lot more individualistic.
The attitudes of teachers are so important. But they’re such different worlds. How many teachers in this country become entrepreneurs? In the US many professors are entrepreneurs; that way they’re more credible when they teach business and economics. Also, the way teachers interact with students is important. Here it’s all about knowledge, knowing things; but we should place more emphasis on the way we work, on team work, on creativity.
You have to start with the kids. For them you have to create role models and icons. And we do have them, from the top business people to the likes of Patrick De Maeseneire (CEO Adecco Group) and Luc Bertrand (CEO Ackermans & van Haaren). People abroad underestimate us, but we underestimate ourselves even more. When I travel abroad I want to sell this country like Steve Jobs sells Apple—and it works!
Simplify the rules
So how do you get to more entrepreneurship? For me it’s about money, desire and the ease of doing business (in Dutch, the three Gs: geld, goesting & gemak). When it comes to the ease of doing business we’ve made huge progress—nobody can deny that. You can set up a business in minutes. According to the World Bank we’re one of the fastest places in the world to set up a company. Those who say that bureaucracy is still a major obstacle are talking rubbish. Although... true enough, in some sectors, like the building industry, the retail sector, the restaurant sector, there are still a lot of complex regulations. We’re trying to simplify it but we do clash with protectionist reflexes in this country. Take the hair salons for example. The law says that the owner of a salon needs a diploma; but the people who actually cut the hair don’t. There are so many good hairdressers without a diploma and they can’t start a business. Same in the restaurant sector, you need a diploma from chef’s school. So what do we say to all the experienced Indian and Thai chefs who want to set up a restaurant here? No, you can’t—first go to school for two years and learn about Belgo-French cuisine? There are still so many protected professions in this country; and they’re defended tooth and nail by the SME associations. It doesn’t make sense and doesn’t help entrepreneurship.
Culture is an issue too. We’re too risk averse. Our social security system is so comfortable that we avoid risk. The benefits of being an employee are tremendous: a car, a phone, a laptop, a pension, vacation money, etc—why give all that up? I see that so clearly with my two brothers. They both had great jobs in the consulting world and gave it up to start a business. Suddenly they had to buy everything from scratch, the car, the mobile, the fuel, insurance, and much more. I guess in this country we tend to look at the downside; in the US they look at the upside. And I understand why—because the difference between the monthly benefits of an employee and an entrepreneur is so great; why give all that up?
Does that mean we have to scrap all the benefits of the employee statute? No, but we should make it more flexible: work more, earn more; work less, earn less. We need stronger incentives for entrepreneurs. Look, once you are an entrepreneur (and succeed) it’s great; clearly they love it, they’re independent, they don’t have a boss, they’re building something. But it’s taking that first step toward entrepreneurship that we struggle with, taking that initial leap into the unknown.
Another important factor is the role of icons. In the US they have so many icons. Think of Steve Jobs, what a phenomenon, creating a platform on which thousands of people are building applications and new businesses. Here we tend to be suspicious: a successful entrepreneur is a villain, he’s worked the system. Look, this isn’t a Belgian sickness; in France they’ve also got the disease, it’s a European disease.
Money is important, obviously. We don’t have strong tradition in venture capital and risk capital. Most capital provided here is the traditional bank loan, which is much more conservative. I see it with my brothers how difficult it is to find seed capital.
Capital is important but money is also about the benefits and risks associated with the self-employed statute. On that level I think we’ve made progress. The state pension of the self-employed doesn’t differ that much anymore to the employed. Anyway, I really don’t think that those issues matter much to the entrepreneur. The entrepreneur is motivated by the project, the vision of what could be. They’re passionate about their ideas; they’re fighters! They’re not looking at the social security system. Entrepreneurship is about immaterial factors; it is about a society that cherishes and nourishes its entrepreneurs.
It’s in the educational system that we need to create a more entrepreneurial culture. Put those kids on stage and let them talk about their dreams. Get them to work in groups, creating stuff. That’s why I went into politics. I dared to speak my mind. At first they ignored me but after a while they started taking me serious, so the Prof threw me in the debate, and that was that. That way you learn. Entrepreneurship is an attitude! You need to be challenged; you need to be hit on the head occasionally! Social security is important, sure, but that isn’t the issue here...
Fear of failure
Failure, or rather the fear of failure, is another big issue. All those statistics they announce about the number of bankruptcies irritate me so. Oh what misery, so many bankruptcies. But that’s just the point! Failure is intrinsic to entrepreneurship! One of my associates went off to start a business in Switzerland and he went under in the crisis. So what! He learned so much, about business, about his sector, he’ll start again. There is nothing to be ashamed about. We should be stimulating people to start more businesses; not dwell on the fact that many end up failing. It’s about attitude; not about protecting a sector, stifling competition, keeping people out.
Think of the TV programme ‘My Restaurant’ (Mijn Restaurant)—that did wonders for entrepreneurship in that sector. What an inspiration! That does so much for the restaurant sector. So much more than all the little rules and regulations designed to protect and control that industry. If a new baker opens up shop in the street we’ll do our utmost to push him out. In the US they do the opposite; they adapt, they specialise. Change is the law of life, also in entrepreneurship. That’s the drama in our textile sector—far too little adaptation and innovation. And our impulse always is to create more laws. ‘No’ against new shops; think of the notorious IKEA law. Thank god we managed to tone that down a bit.
Growth is not only about starting new companies from scratch. We also need to look at existing companies. We have a lot of successful family-run companies with concerns about their succession. We’re trying to simplify the rules, ease the tax burden a bit, so that it becomes easier to acquire an existing company. That way the success rate improves.
We’ve got be less afraid of growth. Our companies remain too small. Why is that? We seem to be afraid of the multinationals. Why do we have such an issue with them? When the SME lobbyists and the unions complain about the ‘the multinationals’ I don’t get it. The ‘multinationals’—what do you mean with that?! Are you talking about a company like Omega Pharma, that started from scratch and now employs thousands of people, and that operates around the world and thus is a ‘multinational’? Is that what you mean? And if so, shouldn’t we be proud of those companies? It’s like the successful bakery who sets up a second branch, and then another, and another, and suddenly gets accused of being a ‘chain’, a threat to the independent bakeries! Or the baker who was hauled to court because he is open 7 days a week; ‘you work too hard! That’s not allowed!’ Those sorts of discourses are so destructive.
Look, we’ve got great entrepreneurs in this country and I’ve got so much respect for them. But we have too few of them. This is a pity, because it’s them who create jobs, who pay tax, who make our social security system possible. They’re the bedrock of our economy and our welfare. People don’t seem to understand that. If they go, then this place becomes a wasteland.
But ok, there are always two sides of the story. Entrepreneurs can probably work on their image too. Ethics is important. Certain arrogant forms of entrepreneurship are thankfully disappearing or at least becoming less visible.
But looking ahead I think we really need work on our educational system, it starts with our children. It’s about individualism really; and that’s a difficult concept in this country.
About Vincent Van Quickenborne
You're exploring 'Grow', The Fifth Conference on growth & entrepreneurship
About The Fifth Conference
The Fifth Conference is an innovation platform for people who like to think. We publish a journal, host events and make this website.