For the last few years an active member of the Montreal startup community, Antoine van Eetvelde recently moved to Belgium where he is now developing J’accorde, an app to help kids tackle French’s tricky grammar. Complementing the presentation of a Belgian tech startups delegation at MTL Newtech next wednesday Oct 29th, he shares a brief summary of what he recently learned about the startup ecosystem in his native country.

Belgium is famous for its chocolate and its beers, not so much for its tech startup scene. Belgium has a preference for B2B, a tradition of excellence for technical and industrial innovation in very precise niches, expertise behind the scene hardly noticed by the public. If this is still true, there is however something boiling in the country of Jacques Brel and Tintin, something not entirely different from what Montreal has experienced a few years ago, and we witness the burgeoning of a very dynamic tech startup scene, this time much more B2C.

According to Karen Boers, CEO of startups.be, a one-stop shop for Belgian tech entrepreneurship founded in 2013, things have changed a lot in the last five years. There is now something growing up, although it is still immature in many ways and does not compare to other top scenes in Europe, such as London or Berlin, yet. The community is building up and there are events thriving in all cities of the country on a weekly basis. There is also a shift in mentalities: local entrepreneurs have come to realize they have something original to offer to customers from around the world and should not be ashamed of what they are doing. This kind of speech is not so different from the one advocated in Montreal by respected leaders such as LP Maurice (Busbud) or Sylvain Carle (FounderFuel) to boost up the local startup community and make it get rid of its “impostor syndrom”.

Local authorities have also started to adapt to this new state of mind and now offer a variety of programs to help entrepreneurs jump start their business. Whether in Flanders (North, Dutch), in Wallonia (South, French) or in Brussels (center, multilingual), initiatives emerge and funding is more readily available than ever to test drive ideas or bring them to the market, braving Belgium’s political landscape complexity (to put it mildly).

Why start a business or open an office in Belgium?

As Karen Boers puts it, Belgium is the “living lab of Europe, on a small scale”. The country is so small that you can almost consider it as one big city. At the same time, it offers 3 distinct markets (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels) with their own language, mentalities and consumer behaviors. It’s perfect to experiment and iterate. If your product works in Belgium and if you can master the subtleties of its various communities, chances are you are ready to take Europe as a whole. In a nutshell, Belgium can be used as a perfect stepping stone for a continental strategy. Coincidentally, Brussels is home to many European Union institutions. So, having a foot in the city can be very useful in that respect as well.

Travelling from Brussels to London (2 hours by Eurostar), Paris (1.5 hour by Thalys) or Amsterdam (2 hours by Thalys) is as easy as catching a high speed train. Although Brussels is not exactly cheap, office spaces and salaries are miles behind these European hot spots. And if you are ready to get out of the city, prices drop significantly.

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Belgium is home for an impressive number of universities and talent pouring out of them is just waiting for an opportunity to express itself. Local governments also provide substantial incentives to hire young workers. Again, this sounds like what Montreal has to offer to companies interested in moving to North America.

Finally, as Claire Munck, the French CEO of Be Angels, Wallonia’s business angels organization, puts it, Belgians have a reputation for being open minded and very pragmatic people, which makes the cultural fit with the North American business mentality much easier than in some other European countries. Belgians are also usually low profile, result oriented people and less prone to bureaucracy (at least in the private sector). It is also not uncommon for them to speak two or three languages, especially in Brussels or in Flanders.

Not everything is perfect under the Belgian sun, though (often hidden by rainy clouds, as a matter of fact). Here is a list of itchy elements to deal with.

This may sound like a detail, but visitors might be unpleasantly surprised by the fact that free Wifi can be hard to find in many places in Belgium, even in Brussels. Does it have something to do with the fact that mobile phone plans are cheaper than in Canada or the US? Perhaps, but it does not send a good signal (no pun intended) about Belgium’s technology adoption.

The Belgian market is relatively small and definitely very fragmented, it may thus not be profitable enough on its own. It may be necessary to expand to bigger markets early on. Benelux (Belgium-Netherlands-Luxembourg trade union) is an easy and natural first step, then come France, the UK and Germany, then the European Union (EU) at large. The European single market makes this expansion easier than it sounds if properly planned.

As said before, Belgium is still building the champions that will pay forward to the community and may not have the same resources or “DNA for success” that some mature markets have. Also mentioned already, the local political structures and laws can be disheartening at times (and not only to newbies). Finally, Belgians have a reputation for being risk-adverse, so startups may need to be more convincing when it comes to hiring, compared to richer larger competitors (but isn’t this actually a universal true?).

Are there Belgian success stories that inspire the current generation of entrepreneurs?

There definitely are some successful startups that have exited or grown to a point of becoming global brands.

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Clear2Pay was just sold to the worldwide payment provider FIS for 375 m. . Belgium has long been a leader in payment technology, until the 2008 crisis hurt badly the sector that is now struggling to recover.

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TeleAtlas was bought by TomTom a couple of years ago for 2.9 billion € after a bidding war with Garmin, which means Belgian technology now provided the map for the GPS systems worldwide. It was a Dutch based company with a Belgian founder.

Keemotion was selected as speaker for the NAB Show conference central stage (biggest broadcast tradeshow in the world) and beat 500 (many of which US) companies to get there. A year after the launch, Keemotion is already present in 6 countries with its disruptive technology capturing automatic image on sports fields, without human intervention, and allowing for totally customizable usage.

Softkinetic is the leading provider of end-to-end, 3D vision technologies for PCs, portable electronics, cars and machines. With customers like Sony, BMW, Texas Instruments and Intel, they are a world player with 100 people staff already and still growing fast.

Odoo (formerly OpenErp) offers a complete suite of business applications covering all business needs. They have been receiving different awards for the past years, including INSEAD Award (2011), Highest-ranked Belgian company in the Deloitte Technology Fast50 Benelux  (2012), Highest-ranked Belgian company in the Deloitte Technology Fast50 Benelux  (2012-2013) and Trends Gazelles Award (2013).

This list is by no means exhaustive and other names may ring a bell to tech-savvy people, such as the PHP open source CMS Drupal, the calendar app Sunrise or the social media story builder app Storify also have strong connections with Belgium.

Raising money in Belgium

Funding is said to be hard to find in Belgium. It’s true to a certain extent, but not as badly as one might think. Obviously, the absence of a major exit or IPO means there is no “Paypal mafia” effect (yet). But, good projects will always find a way to capture the attention of investors, and there is a number of these, both public and private, says Claire Munck. She adds that seed and early stage money is relatively easy to find but indeed later stage funding opportunities may prove more challenging.

On the public side, founders can benefit from a lot of incentives – both financial and non-financial – from regional governments, such as the pre-activity grant in Wallonia. The only caveat is that one should not be afraid of paperwork. And on the private side, organizations such as the above-mentioned Be Angels or its Flemish counterpart Business Angels Netwerk (BAN Vlaanderen) play a role similar to Anges Québec in connecting individual investors with promising startups. BetaInvest is also worth mentioning.

Other ways to get funding is to join one of the many accelerators burgeoning everywhere. NEST’up was one of the early players, and it has been joined overtime by a number of new actors, such as LeanSquare or IdeaLabs. Some provide funding, others don’t but all help you refine and accelerate your idea and connect to potential funders (sort of a local FounderFuel). And this is not to mention the flock of public, semi-public or private structures that help grassroots find their way through the early stages of startup development, such as iMindsCAP Innove or Startathlon, to name a few.

Useful resources to start or expand a startup in Belgium

Federal or regional business development agencies are a good starting point if you want to set foot in Belgium.

If you are looking for an “unbiased opinion”, you can turn to organizations like startups.be or BetaGroup. Respectively run by the ubiquitous Karen Boers and Julie Foulon, they are not only wells of resources themselves, but they also have an extensive network of contacts.

The Belgian startup community is particularly thriving these days and it is definitely worth getting in touch or stopping by if you are in town. For instance, the Cafés numériques are since 2009 “tech events between the Bar and the Conference”, now present in 15 cities. There are plenty of startup-related Meetups to join, such as Growth Hacking BelgiumLean Startup Brussels or Startup Founder 101, hosted by the Founder Institute. And Startup weekends are organized on a regular basis, the latest happening in Antwerp on October 17th.

Coworking is the new rage in Belgium and you can find a spot in nearly every major city these days. Oftentimes, on top of the space itself and the traditional networking opportunities, they will also offer additional benefits such as conferences, workshops or informal get-togethers. Definitely worth a try and a good way to get introduced to the local startup fauna.

Omar Mohout, organizer of Growth Hacking Belgium, has recently put together a very comprehensive list of significant startup resources in Belgium, region per region. For anyone interested in Belgium’s startup ecosystem, it’s a must-read (in French).

Differences and common points between Montreal and Belgium

This is totally subjective but I have a feeling that Montreal entrepreneurs – Canadian entrepreneurs in general – are more adventurous and daring than their Belgian counterparts. The former dare dream bigger and aim for the world, having consequently bigger payoffs in case of success. The latter on the other hand tend to have more modest ambitions and target niches instead of global markets. Does this have to do with the fact that Canada is huge and Belgium is tiny? Perhaps…

In Belgium, failure as a normal step to success is not as well accepted as it is in Canada. But things are changing and more people come to realize that there is good in failing, up to a certain point. Remembering that failure was not that hot in Canada not so long ago, there are reasons to be optimistic for Belgium in that regard.

Last but not least difference, Montreal’s proximity to the US, especially the East Coast hubs such as NY or Boston, is a major asset for local startups, even more so now with the positive vibe surrounding the city and its reputation building up south of the border. Belgium does not have that kind of proximity. But this might change quickly. In a not too distant future, Belgium might become to London, Paris or Berlin what Montreal is today to NY or Boston, i.e. a serious alternative to consider and a place to be. It has what it takes, it’s all about finding the right mix of ingredients.

When it comes to common points, it is in particular between Montreal and Brussels that the similarities are striking. Both are a multilingual, multicultural melting pot. Both are places where living feels good and weather conditions (snow in one case, rain in the other) drive people to socialize in bars and party like there is no tomorrow. Both cities host down-to-Earth, easy going people who leave their ego at the front door when entering the office and who value friendly relationships with their colleagues. Albeit a bit more formal than in Montreal, interactions between colleagues in Belgium are way more casual than they can be in France, for instance. 

Being small players sitting next to big neighbors (whether the US or Toronto, or the UK, France or Germany) is a last common trait, as is the sense of solidarity that goes with it. “Tightly knit” is a motto that suits well both communities.

For more info, don’t hesitate to drop me a line at antoine@pastequedeau.com.

For those in Montréal, don’t hesitate to come to our feature event “NewTech + Belgique” right around the corner. Don’t miss it!

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