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How are Belgian startups doing on an international level? Startups.be, FIT and Telenet Kickstart take a closer look

  • On March 31, 2017
  • accelerator programme, Belgian startups, business incubator, entrepreneurship, Fit, Flanders Investment & Trade, startup, startup accelerator, startup community, startup incubator, startups, startups.be, SXSW, tech startup, tech startup programme, tech startups, telenet, Telenet Kickstart

How are Belgian startups doing on an international level? Startups.be, FIT and Telenet Kickstart take a closer look

It’s been one week since SXSW, but the Belgian delegation of startups who attended the event are still enjoying the aftermath. The mission, organized by Startups.be, gave the young companies a chance to get acquainted with the opportunities of internationalization. So exactly how well are Belgian startups doing on an international level? Telenet Kickstart asked Frederik Tibau (Content Director at Startups.be), Caroline Devine (Investment & Trade Officer at Flanders Investment & Trade, or FIT) and our very own Thomas Deschepper (Management New Businesses and Startups).

International publicity

“Of all the great tech conferences in the US, SXSW is probably the most interesting”, Tibau starts off. “At Startups.be we organize several missions every year, but the Belgian startup community showed remarkable enthusiasm about this one. It seems most startups are well aware that if you’re able to create a buzz around your product at SXSW, you’re set for success.” “When people at SXSW are talking about your product, you know your brand’s got it made.” “SXSW is the Burning Man of tech conferences”, Tibau continues. “The fun factor – the fact that in addition to the digital conference there’s also a film and music festival, and hundreds of parties held throughout the city – really lowers the threshold for networking, and attracts visitors who are very open-minded. It’s always a pleasure doing business in such an environment.” Tibau knows what he’s talking about. SXSW is, after all, the conference where Twitter was launched, alongside many other groundbreaking products. “Some pretty cool apps have been introduced here – think of Foursquare or, more recently, Meerkat”, he nods. “When people at SXSW are talking about your product, you know your brand’s got it made. Belgian companies seem to realize that.” “I have to add, though, that sticking out at SXSW is becoming increasingly difficult because the event is so popular. The whole world is looking to steal the limelight in Austin. That certainly doesn’t make doing business there any easier.” “In my opinion, international events are not only good for publicity, but also offer a unique chance to get acquainted with a different culture”, Devine joins in. “I believe it’s important for startups to get to know the American culture if they’re determined to make it big across the pond.” “Talking to experts at international events is a great way to thoroughly validate your idea” “Dream big and stay humble, is the way I see it”, Deschepper adds. “You can get to know lots of interesting people at conferences such as this, many of whom are specialists in their field. Talking to experts at international events is a great way to thoroughly validate your idea and allows your business to move forward.” “In addition, I believe that every startup must travel to see the bigger picture, no matter which country they’re from”, Devine continues. “In that regard, there’s no better destination than a multidisciplinary event like SXSW.”  

“We need more scale-ups who are not afraid to shake things up internationally.”

Although Startups.be regularly organizes missions to entrepreneurial hubs all over the world, many Belgian startups seem to have their mind set on breaking through in the USA in particular. Tibau: “It is, after all, just about the biggest market in the world, isn’t it? What I find striking, though, is that the American tech industry mostly focuses on B2C, while Europe and Belgium excel at B2B. In that sense, the two continents are complementary and they can certainly learn something from each other.” Still, the Startups.be Content Director believes tapping the B2C market is not the biggest challenge that lies ahead for Belgian startups. “The biggest problem our startups with scalable products face is acquiring enough capital to grow big fast,” Tibau stresses. “Agreed, Belgian investors and startup programmes inject plenty of money in seed rounds and A rounds. But what our business landscape still lacks are more scale-ups who are not afraid to shake things up internationally. You know, it’s very difficult to secure large capital rounds if you’re from Belgium. Entering into smart partnerships can be a solution, as is trying to acquire funding in the United States, like Showpad did, for instance.” Belgium’s so-called ‘small-town mentality’ is exaggerated, Tibau is convinced, but Devine still sees room for improvement. “Belgians should feel less apprehensive about ‘owning’ who they are and what they do”, she says. “Certainly in the US, where it’s all about attitude. Showing the right attitude makes networking easier and enables you to get the most out of the network you create. Shaking things up takes guts.” “We Belgians sometimes focus too much on reality”, Deschepper agrees. “There’s nothing wrong with dreaming and thinking bigger once in a while.” “Startups with scalable products simply cannot afford a small-town mentality.” “The Belgian market is not that big, so our startups tend to shift their focus abroad fairly early on”, argues Tibau. “You see the same thing happening in Israel and Sweden. Belgian startups with scalable products simply cannot afford a small-town mentality. That’s something most of them came to realize in recent years.” Startups.be is determined to play a facilitating role in ‘matchmaking’, e.g. by continuing to organize Go Global Missions to attend SXSW and similar events. “We want to lower the threshold to get in touch with decision-makers and the like as much as possible”, Tibau adds.  

Belgian startups are well on their way

At the end of the day, it seems Belgian startups are well on their way. In 2016, food sharing platform FLAVR won a pitch competition at SXSW, and this year Muuselabs won second place. “Americans are born salesmen who know how to sell an idea, but Belgians have no reason to feel inferior,” Deschepper laughs. “By attending international events, Belgian startups will only become better and better at it.”

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