At Start it @KBC, we don’t just prepare our startups for success in Belgium: we help launch them into the world. Our startups are diverse teams of people with varied backgrounds and global dreams. Belgium is a springboard to startup success for so many reasons, including its scale, location and diversity. So what do startups think of it? We’ll tell you in their own words.
Belgium: Europe’s best test market
If you can make it in Belgium, you can make it anywhere. Think we’re being audacious? Think again! Belgians may be known for their modesty, but here we’re going to have to go ahead and toot our own horn. Any talk of having a provincial mindset is long behind us now. Startups are thinking more internationally from day one, and Belgian entrepreneurs are no exception.
Belgian startups have to test their service or product locally or nationally first, but always with their international goals in mind. Belgium is the ideal test market due to its small scale. With around 11 million Belgians and a surface area of just over 30 thousand kilometres squared, it’s a densely populated little country. The smaller the market, the faster we can get products to the consumer. That lets us judge more quickly whether a new product or service is going to catch on. Entrepreneurs also have Belgium’s geography working for them. Belgium lies in the heart of Western Europe, borders four countries and provides easy access to the entire continent. A large part of Europe’s purchasing power lies within a thousand kilometre radius around Brussels. The cosmopolitan capital of Europe is also where many important decisions are made for both multinationals and international startups.
“We decided to launch here because the startup culture is already very well-established,”
It’s not so crazy then that many international startups have come to roost in Belgium. They are finding that there’s a supportive environment for entrepreneurship. “We decided to launch here because the startup culture is already very well-established,” says Avantopy founder Andrea Pizarro Pedraza. “There is a lot of structural and institutional support to help entrepreneurs develop their projects. Also we offer an AI service that is mostly B2B, and Belgium is strategic in that sense because it’s an international hub for companies.”
Alexandre McCormack, founder of the startup Shayp agrees. “We were living here already when we started. We all studied in Belgium so we have a good network and know the system quite well. We created our first prototypes here as well as our first proof of concept with the support of many different local actors: the City of Brussels, the Brussels Region, beAngels and Start it @KBC.”
Challenges to overcome
Of course Belgium also has its shortcomings. For example, all the different authorities with competences in different regions. “The taxes are also really high and there’s bureaucratic confusion between the different regions,” adds Wheel the World founder Arturo Gaona. “I find that there’s a lack of a larger ecosystem to really scale great ideas. Which by the way I’ve seen a lot of: there is plenty of talent in Belgium!”
Other startups feel that Belgium still has a long way to go to create a culture where failures and challenges can be shared freely. “I’m still missing a more open culture where you can talk business and get feedback from all kinds of business owners,” Turbulent founder Geert Slachmuylders confirms.
“I don’t believe that challenges for entrepreneurs in Belgium are different than those in other countries,”
Let’s not forget: the Belgian consumer is the most difficult in Europe. Belgians are generally conservative and innovation-averse in their purchasing behavior. They’re not thrilled about experimenting. Although Abracademy founder Katy Jackson has seen major improvement. “We’ve learned that Belgians are open to trying new things,” she says from experience. “The companies and educational institutions we’ve spoken to so far really look after their people. People are concerned with building the right culture to retain talent, and we’re excited to help them do this.”
Marko Topalovic, Serbian founder of ArtiQ, also has some nuances to add regarding the challenging Belgian startup ecosystem. “I don’t believe that challenges for entrepreneurs in Belgium are different than those in other countries,” he says. “Finding investors, taking care of work permits and surrounding myself with the best people: startups everywhere share the same challenges.”
Diversity for international scaling
Although we’re being inundated with predictions about the end of globalisation during this crisis period, we haven’t seen much sign of this in the startup and scale-up landscape. In the Start it @KBC community alone we see that a lot of startups are melting pots of different nationalities. Many of them have diverse teams, which gives them some extra momentum to grow across national borders. Studies show that diversity, in terms of race, gender, culture and experience, leads to business success. The World Economic Forum reports that the business case for diversity is overwhelming, making companies more competitive and profitable.
“Diversity pushes everybody to question their own preconceptions and clarify their reasoning.”
That’s something our startups and scale-ups can really get behind. “Different backgrounds create different ways of experiencing the world, which shape our mindsets,” says Andrea Pizarro Pedraza from Avantopy. “When you bring very different people together you multiply the chances of creating really new and useful ideas. Diversity pushes everybody to question their own preconceptions and clarify their reasoning. In a multicultural team you can’t assume that everyone is on the same page. That’s challenging but also very positive, because it forces you to build better arguments to back up your decisions.”
Wheel the World founder Arturo Gaona has discovered the same thing. “Our diversity makes us stronger. We’re able to build a wider network as well as different approaches towards the challenges ahead. I really believe in embracing the multicultural mindset to expand beyond what you can do alone, or in a team where everyone’s from the same country.”
Turbulent co-founder Geert Slachmuylders is also convinced. “International teams enrich your life. Foreign colleagues bring in new motivation, resourcefulness and talent. We have learned so much from the different cultures in our team. We practice all the languages and share all the jokes and songs.”
Network, network, network
Did we mention sales? International teams create an international mindset, which is exactly what you need to enter new markets. Start it @KBC has always had a strong focus on sales through its program and mentorship, which is crucial for international startups and especially scale-ups.
“Start it @KBC connects me to people I wouldn’t meet otherwise. Joining was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my startup journey. It helped me better understand the ecosystem I find myself in, meet different stakeholders and make a complete transition from academia to building a commercial organisation,” ArtiQ founder Marko Topalovic says.
“We’re very impressed with the networking capacities of the team and all the channels that have been made available to us,” adds Andrea Pizarro Pedraza from Avantopy. “All the members are extremely communicative and helpful.”
“The network was our main driver to join the accelerator,” Shayp’s Alexandre McCormack concludes. “The insight and support of the different advisors and mentors we were connected with have been really helpful in developing our company.”
What do you think of Belgium as a place to launch your global adventure? Let us know!