WebComrades: the first 5 years.

Actually, let’s look forward. To the next 5 years, right after writing/reading this post. When I was asked 5 years ago what I wanted to do, I was looking at a possible bright future as a project manager, doing some client account work and getting hired by some ad agencies for a project of a week, a month, sometimes even for a day or worse, a few hours. After regular working hours, I was teaching people on new media and helping this world to be a better social media place. Little did I know then. And luckily, it didn’t stay that way.

Exactly 5 years ago I bought my first iPhone. It was a revelation, a mind-changer and most of all: an eye-opener. This was the beginning of the mobile web, very similar to the internet bubble of the year 2000 (followed by a crash) in which I started as a professional and an opportunity for those who had faith in the new digital platform. Apple raised the bar from the horrible WAP into the native iPhone apps and started the mobile app economy, which is just the first step in the internet of things. But without that first iPhone, no WebComrades, dead simple.

In 2010, some potential clients were saying that this mobile business might be something for the future, but not now. It was too early. The few clients I was working with did believe in the medium and went for it, more as a try-out than as a business model, I guess. Until that spring in 2011; WebComrades transformed from a one-man-show to a real company, with enforcements in my current associates Bas Pellis & Stijn Opheide. We were now moving ahead at a more-than-triple speed, actually making things, not just consulting about the future of digital.

Even our first interns converted into our first hiring, and we celebrated that day like it was 1999 on a festival at 50m from our office. Thanks Jo Somers for being with us during the first years. I will never forget the once-in-a-career moments we had in the very early days of our start-up. I’m convinced you’re doing fine and will be an awesome dad for your boy Bill.

In the meantime we accepted jobs from all sides: web design & development, digital strategy consulting, creating widgets, building APIs, mobile web apps, native app development. We did pitches for RFID and hardware projects (with Thomas, who is now CEO of the succesful Beatswitch), presented a new lottery concept (still like that one ;-), built apps that offered a solution, like our first bike app ‘Mijn Velo’, made by Bas and Stijn on iOS and Android, designed by….me. We used our basic skills to the utmost and learned walking on the way. That first bike app made us infamous, as we made it without approval, no contact, nor contract with the city or government, responsible for the bike share project. It became our #1 portfolio app in the early days. Don’t start dreaming: we never got decently paid for the official app we were to make, but that was OK in those days. We kept on rolling on the bike share vibe and rolled-out these same concepts for bike share in New York, Chicago and Bay Area/San Francisco. All of a sudden, US press was calling us in the middle of the night to interview these unknown Belgians that made the first app for New York Bike share. Then Bay Area…a reporter from San Francisco covering our story in the paper. Wow. Rollercoaster stuff.

About 6 months later, that same media wave came to us, locally in Belgium this time, with local TV itvs, but also an invite for a national TV show itv, which I did not accept as I felt that story had already been told too many times. Connecting the dots afterwards, I should have accepted the invitation to that prime time show (Cafe Corsari) and talk about our projects and company, you rarely get a second chance, a lesson learned.

In the meantime, our biggest international client Unibet -most agencies start-up and grow with a first big client- became a key sponsor of the football league in Belgium and started rolling out sponsorships all over Europe. The brand took the #1 spot in the Belgian sportsbook market and we’re proud having rolled-out sports apps for them ever since (26 apps to be exact, of which 22 are still live and/or in use). We were once told by the international Marketing Director to get that “mobile real estate” in the app store, which we did and will continue to do in the future.

After winning the “Jobstudent van het Jaar” award with Niel Deckx, broadcasted on national TV and news, we got published in several media because of our approach on starters and young potentials. We’ve always cared about the young “kids” graduating from university and becoming valuable for the development world. Age just isn’t a metric for talent these days. It was a time investment that led to our next hirings. There is no to little surprise in hiring a student that has done his internship at your company. My message to these future CEOs and upcoming company leaders: use the time you’re granted during an internship at a company. Make it count. If you know how to code, please don’t become that consultant that talks about coding and hires other people to actually do the work. I know both my associates turned down serious big consulting career opportunities, just to stay here by my side, closing the ranks, working their asses of at WebComrades, because they believe. Working days, nights, weekends, as it should, but with the necessary recharging breaks from time to time. Thanks guys for believing in me, in us, in the whole team, and most of all, in the work we’ve done. (To the young kids: taking pride in what you do is crucial, it can’t be compensated by a big salary on shitty projects.) Our #1 way to hire people is through internships. There’s no better way to see if the person you’re hiring is a fit with your company than to give hime that chance, the opportunity to prove himself. Stijn Adams (internship: a Spotify project on web and Android) is a result of that, he’s now our lead developer on our sports- and football club framework, following his passion at WebComrades and Panenka76: sports and development.

National and international clients like Telefonica/02, Samsung, Clear Channel, BuzziSpace, VOKA, knocked on the door. Awesome. But we kind of lost our focus a bit. It’s fair to say that over time, we just had to regroup. Although this post is mainly mentioning the success stories, I can tell you straight away we’ve spent tons of hours on things we did not succeed in. But just tried, to learn and experiment. Apps and projects that have never seen the light: countless. The team was getting attention from other companies and we felt like FC Barcelona was buying our star players away. Some left, others had to go, but we managed to keep the business under control and kept saying nay to the naysayers.

During the first 3 years, we worked a lot with Dennis Kestelle as our brand designer, I’ve known him from my previous life at the ad agency Amphion, and he has helped us to stay on course over the years. He works best when given creative freedom and is a true expert in brand design, but he’s done more than meets the eye. Thank you, DK, without your work, our work never would have gotten the style it has now. When we hired Raquel, she was a very junior designer but with a clear eye for perfection. She was new into mobile design and mobile UI, but in the 1,5 year she worked for us, she showed us the true value of a mobile UI/UX designer, scoring on Behance and other designer media. ‘Cause if you can design for mobile, you’re most likely able to design for every platform. Mobile forces you to think in key features, small spaces and simplified user interfaces, killing features, which is still a challenge today when meeting new potential customers with a big feature wishlist. Mobile is not an extension of the web, it replaces the web as we know it. It has its own rules, and these rules are re-written every day, with every new OS-release. Therefore our people can’t stay behind, neither can we, nor our clients.

In our 4th year we came to our senses and launched Panenka76, the mobile sports(book) app development company, launched with an event in Antwerp (Vincent Kompany’s bar — Good Kompany). It’s mainly the same crew than WebComrades, but we’re hiring differently now, taking into account that sports must be part of the passion or skill set. “Sports app development” has become our expertise and our focus. It is simply the result of years of working with livescore feeds, match statistics providers and data scrapers. If you’re still walking to your local ad agency for a mobile sports project, I guarantee you that it’s going to take a while for their teams to (technically) understand the business including the ins and outs. I’m glad we did pursue the road that was paved gradually. And hey, you’re welcome with your sports concepts. ;-)

Before announcing the new company and Panenka76 brand, I went to Prague and personally met the legendary Mr. Antonin Panenka for an 45min interview. I must say that it was a key moment in the young history of Panenka76, not because of the business or the bucks. But Toni’s (we’re on a first-name basis) “penalty kick” has been imitated by the best of the world, with and without success: Totti, Zidane and Pirlo came close to perfection. It reminded me of our company ‘vision’, which is based on learning and trying. Neymar and Cristiano -to name a few- actually failed scoring a panenka (google for it). Messi never even dared. When I asked Mr. Panenka, he said: “I was 200% sure I would score my first Panenka, as I had trained for it over a thousand times before I intended it for the first time at the EURO Final in 1976.” (the decisive penalty of the shoot-out!)

Yesterday, Linkedin reminded me and congratulated me for the first 5 years at WebComrades, or how time flies when you’re having fun, right? 2014 was, no doubt, the toughest year for the company, growing pains, saying goodbye to some clients that did not fit in the company’s new road plans anymore. Still, I’m grateful we had the chance to work on their projects and learn, learn, learn. Don’t ever stop learning, and set goals, both professional and personal as both go hand in hand to pursue happiness. Mine over the last few years were: losing weight (I lost 30kg), running a marathon (done in Amsterdam), scoring a worldwide sports project (coming up soon), moving abroad with 3 kids + wife and working 100% remote (done). Team headcount never was a goal, as I prefer quality over quantity, but we’re hiring this year, the first two vacancies are already on the panenka76.com website as we speak. Some more will follow in the next few weeks.

Today, we are looking at a very bright future. I made a personal decision 6 months ago to move to another continent and country where I lost my heart, where my kids can play outside all day and where family is ever-present: Colombia, South America. My always supporting wife, Emelis, has her roots in Colombia and I wanted to take the jump. You can’t just read the books of 37Signals (Basecamp) and not take action. So we did. And so should you. Read the books, listen to the podcasts and surf their blog.

As a result of that decision, we decided to close our Antwerp office and open 3 remote offices instead: a new HQ near Leuven at the Remy-site (close to the University), plant our Panenka76-flag in SX, a brand new sports business office in The Netherlands and opening an office branch in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, where I’m living as a resident now. Though most people approach me with the classic Pablo Escobar stories, I’m answering them with anecdotes of football stars Falcao (Man Utd), James Rodriguez (Real Madrid), Ospina (Arsenal), Cuadrado (Chelsea)…

El Clásico (e.g. Real vs Barça) lives here as if it were a local clash deciding over life and death. Colombian cities and villages turn into white-purple vs red-blue on match day, lovely, near insane even. We all know “Oranjegekte” from the Dutch, but what happens here when the national team plays (even the Sub-20) is unseen in Europe and I love it here.

Now let’s continue building the next 5 years. The future is yours.

Thank you for believing,

Tom Claes
tom@webcomrades.com / tom@panenka76.com / @tomdebelg
skype webcomrades / +57 3016 88 44 33