You can't do business without making a mistake from time to time. That's the key message Startups.be and the Flemish Agentschap Innoveren & Ondernemen want to get across to the public.
Startups.be, the one stop shop for Belgian tech entrepreneurship, has been organising the ‘Failing Forward’ conference for five years now. Recently the Flemish government has caught on to the importance of the topic and has given the Belgian not-for-profit the mandate to set up a much broader campaign on ‘failing and getting back up again’.
In the coming years, the Startups.be team will be actively raising awareness of the matter, emphasizing that making mistakes is an essential part of the entrepreneurial learning process. “We want to break the taboos concerning failure and make sure that entrepreneurial people who make mistakes are not viewed as being unreliable”, explains Karen Boers, CEO of Startups.be.
“The fear of failure discourages many people from starting their own business”, adds Bernard De Potter, Administrator General of the Flemish Agency for Innovation and Enterprise. “We have to remove those hurdles, and point out to people they shouldn't allow one failure to keep them down. There will always be failure, but you can always overcome it and do better next time.”
A good way of ‘broadcasting’ the message to a wide audience is through testimonials of people who have been through the wringer themselves. Below we'll let three Belgian tech entrepreneurs tell their own Failing Forward story, and in particular the lessons they learned.
Inge Geerdens, CEO at CVWarehouse
Inge Geerdens founded recruitment and selection agency Executive Research in 2003. CVWarehouse, an online recruitment platform for businesses, followed in 2006. Her credo? You can't learn to ride a bike without falling off sometimes.
“My first and biggest moment of failure was when I got fired from my job at the age of 26. I was so embarrassed… Looking back, the positive part is that I then made the decision to become self-employed.”
“My second very painful moment was when we almost went bankrupt with CVWarehouse. There wasn't a market yet in 2009, and everyone was busy restructuring. What I learned from this is that the market can change overnight. I had always assumed that everything would stay the same, but nothing could be further from the truth. When the going really got tough, I picked up the phone and asked my clients: ‘What can I do to keep you as a customer?’ When things aren't going your way, ask your clients directly how you can help them.”
“I deal with failure in a very personal way, because if you fail, you can't really tell your customers and employees. You simply can't run the risk of everyone walking out on you. I've learned to first crawl into my own cocoon. And I put on my running shoes. Another option is to surround yourself with people who give you energy.”
“These days at universities and colleges, students can't fail any more, they merely ‘take courses with them to the next year'. In the old days you just failed and had to deal with telling the bad news at home. That was true failure! If we try to protect everyone from failing, how on earth will they ever get used to it?”
Filip Tack, founder & CEO at Nomadesk
After a failed adventure in the US, the Belgian software company Nomadesk is refocusing its efforts on the European market. Founder Filip Tack is a realist: “I do what I do, with the best intentions and in the knowledge that nobody possesses the absolute truth. But complaining doesn't help.” “I've never been scared of doing business. But there was a period when I did feel insufficiently qualified. This lasted until I completed my MBA, after which I had the competencies to start up a pretty ambitious business. But in 2012, we refocused our efforts on the European market and decided to close our office in the US. If we hadn't done this, Nomadesk would no longer exist. A failure is the biggest apprenticeship there is. Afterwards you definitely do things differently.”
What I draw confidence from, oddly enough, is the knowledge that nobody really wants to be in your shoes as CEO. Many will say it would be nice, until they realise the responsibilities and stress it carries. That's what gives me confidence. I do what I do, with the best intentions and in the knowledge that nobody possesses the absolute truth.”
“Belgians aren't ambitious enough, I often hear. But I think that, most of all, Belgians are cautious. I dare to say that every entrepreneur is ambitious at heart. After all, you're putting your money as well as your reputation into your business. We just don't dare to express those ambitions. ‘Let's approach this carefully, then no one can judge me on those ambitions’. This sense of modesty is indeed embedded in our Belgian culture.”
Toon Vanagt, serial-tech entrepreneur
Toon Vanagt was on the brink of bankruptcy a few times, but he always continued to fight. He gets his inspiration from the book "Kaas" (Cheese), by Willem Elsschot, that says: “focus on the core.” He also advocates tolerance. “If you failed once, you shouldn’t be reminded of it for the rest of your life.”
“At the age of 27 - still very naïve - I flew to San Francisco to pitch an idea in Silicon Valley. I was literally laughed out of the room by the venture capitalists. One of my mistakes: I was a single founder. I had no team around me. I couldn't present any customers as a reference or answer the question why customers would want to buy my product. After returning to Belgium a few months later, I launched my first start-up with four business partners. Being ridiculed is no joy, but setbacks are a part of entrepreneurship.”
“Every businessman goes through a permanent learning process, and each learning process comes with mistakes. You need to analyse which mistakes jeopardise your company. Finding the energy to keep pushing forward is drawn from your optimism as an entrepreneur and from your family and friends who accept you for who you are and who don't judge you by the project that didn't work out as you expected. Make sure you have a life outside your professional life; a life where you can rely on recognition and support.”
“Focus on the core at the start”, emphasises Toon. “In "Kaas" by Willem Elsschot, a starting entrepreneur spends months working on his business card and searching for the right office and warehouse. Many people starting their own business put a lot of time and energy into ancillary matters, instead of getting out and talking to potential customers. I'm a strong believer in customer interviews, where you try to get feedback from your future customers during the very first stages of business.”
Let's change our mindset together! Only by carrying our message we can really break the stigma associated with failure in Belgium and Europe. Support the initiative and sign our Manifesto!