After 10 years 'The best tip for start-ups? Never just assume things are fine'
Over the last ten years, accelerator Start it @KBC witnessed 1.500 start-ups get ready for take-off. ‘The umpteenth accounting software doesn’t thrill me any longer. We want companies that have a societal impact’, says founder Lode Uytterschaut.
Europe’s economic outlook has been bleak for years, but the situation cannot be blamed on a lack of entrepreneurship. Data from Dealroom’s platform shows that the number of investment rounds in European start-ups has skyrocketed over the last 20 years – from under 400 in 2003 to 13.000 in 2023, peaking at 19.000 in 2021.
In our country, things really took off some ten years ago. Start it @KBC, an organisation that guides start-ups through their first months or years, played a significant role in developing a local ecosystem. Founder Lode Uytterschaut, then a digital strategist at the financial group KBC, felt the need to encourage entrepreneurship in the wake of the major financial crisis.
He found the support of his employer, who provided a floor in the Antwerp Boerentoren. ‘At the time I thought we’d support some 20 companies per year. One year later we had 60 already. Over the last ten years we’ve helped 1.500 companies, more than 1.100 of which are still active today’, he says.
Start it @KBC
Founded in 2013.
Network of 3.000 founder-entrepreneurs.
Locations in Antwerp, Leuven, Hasselt, Ghent, Kortrijk, Brussels and Liège.
Through KBC, the accelerator is also active in the Czech Republic and Hungary, with plans to expand to Bulgaria.
Start it@KBC is also looking to develop thematic ecosystems, with concrete plans for a ‘vertical’ in agricultural technology.
Uytterschaut also sees a mission in commercialising know-how and technology that was developed at universities and colleges but never marketed.
Start it @KBC has branches in several Flemish cities. Last Thursday, the accelerator moved its hub from the Brussels Havenlaan office, which had become too cramped, to more spacious offices in the European quarter. This marks a return to the original Brussels starting point of Start it, at the end of 2015. Since then, the accelator has mentored nearly 300 start-ups in the capital.
For Uytterschaut, there is personal satisfaction as well in the success of hundreds of start-ups. ‘My father had his own business with about 40 employees. It went bankrupt, in part because, especially at the time, failure did not seem like an option and it was hard to find support in his network without shame.’ By building a dependable network network for start-ups, Uytterschaut hopes to prevent entrepreneurs today from experiencing the same.
A customer love story
Start it @KBC moved to new offices in Brussels on the Wetenschapsstraat/rue de la Science. ©Tim Dirven
When asked for his first piece of advice to entrepreneurs, he doesn't hesitate. 'The most important thing is the right timing to go to market. If you're too early, you won't make it financially. If you're too late, you'll need to invest piles of money in catching up. I always advise to first go for 50 to 100 customers who are madly in love with your product. Then make sure you get the technology just right, and only then you can scale up.'
Having a solid leadership team is also critical. 'We've seen best friends split up in anger because they didn't make agreements beforehand. We always say: draw up your divorce papers before saying 'I do.''
'Over the years, I've mostly learned never to just assume anything,' Uytterschaut adds. 'No one guarantees you'll get along with your co-founders or that there will be a market for your product. Media attention isn't always a blessing either. Sometimes it comes too early and the company can't handle the sudden demand.'
Not a KBC daughter
Though the name might suggest otherwise, Start it @KBC is a non-profit, not a subsidiary of KBC. The financial group is however the main sponsor, providing office space and about 10 of the 25 employees. Uytterschaut doesn't disclose the budget of Start it. Besides sponsorships, operating funds also come from Start it X, a company founded some years ago to help large companies set up internal start-ups. 'We've already assisted 56 companies with that.'
The corporation Start it X assists large companies with internal startups. There are already 56 of them.
Participation in the acceleration program is free for the startups themselves. ‘We also don't ask for shares from the companies we mentor.’ Out of the approximately 600 applications that Uytterschaut and his team receive each year, about 150 are selected after an initial screening and a pitch round.
Startups with a societal impact have a special place in my heart, the founder shares. 'We found that 52 percent of the startups that remained active after our program have the United Nations' sustainable development goals at the core of their operations,' he says.
'An example is Ray & Jules, a company that has developed a device to roast coffee using solar energy. It may not be immediately scalable like software, but they receive a lot of inquiries from large coffee roasters, and now they are also garnering interest from other sectors.'