A welcome pack to Brussels startup life
You’re quitting your corporate job? Start with this friendly intro.
Hi there! Like several friends of mine these days, you’ve eventually decided to quit your corporate job to experience the crazy ride of entrepreneurship. Congrats: taking this leap of faith is no small feat.
I took the same path a few years ago, trading my tie for a beanie as I switched from management consulting to tech ventures. Since then I’ve had the pleasure of seeing other friends make that switch — often sharing my humble learnings with them to make the experience better. So here’s finally a digest of these learnings; hope you enjoy!
Disclaimer: references listed here are by no means exhaustive and are solely based on my own experience ;)
Making the switch: stop dreaming.
If you’ve spent the last years in your corporate job dreaming about the perfect start-up idea before making the switch…there’re great chances you’ll still be dreaming in the same corporate office 5 years from now.
The reality is that no idea will actually ever perfect from day 1: the best businesses are most of the time built on concepts shaped iteratively using customers feedback. Finding the holy grail of product-market fit takes a lot of trials and errors.
The only way to find out if your idea is worth something is thus to spend a lot of time testing it with actual prospects/customers. This is a commitment that can come in direct conflict with the agenda of your current job.
The odds are very small that you’ll be able to develop an idea up to the point where it can provide you with a living, before eventually quitting your corporate job.
If you’re skilled/lucky enough to be able to negotiate a part-time with your employer, that’s a great way to accelerate your path to product-market fit while minimising financial risks. Otherwise, an extended break or simply quitting are likely your best options.
All that matters is that you have an idea, any idea really, that you can start working on directly after you quit. No need for the idea to be perfect: the reality is that while exploring it you’ll meet plenty of people, get plenty of other ideas, and finally you’ll find out that your first idea was really just an escape pod to get you out of the corporate world — and to help you find an even greater concept to work on.
Finding your marks.
So you’ve made the switch, congrats! Now the reality is that lifting a business off the ground takes a lot of shit-solving superpowers. So you’ll want to make sure to reload your shit-solving batteries by spending time with other like-minded people. Entrepreneurs abound in Belgium, and most of them are very approachable. So here’s a list of the communities and places where you’ll want to spend time:
Communities & organisations
- BeTech: a grassroots community of BE tech entrepreneurs helping each other. The monthly BeTech First Tuesdays are excellent occasions to mingle with your peers around a few beers.
- Startups.be: a one-stop shop for entrepreneurs with connections to corporates and institutions from the public sector. The yearly The Big Squeeze event (previously known as Tech Startup Day) is a great occasion to meet investors and get inspired by stories of successful businesses.
- Industry-specific groups: there are quite some federations of companies in Brussels and Belgium, that you’ll want to join depending on your industry. Think of Software.brussels, FinTech Belgium…
- Entrepreneurship support structures: you’ll find welcome support with structures such as JobYourself, Hub.brussels, Innoviris…
If you want to launch a tech venture, coding bootcamps provide excellent opportunities to immerse yourself in the startups ecosystem while accelerating your trajectory to implementing and testing your idea.
- Le Wagon: 9 weeks of coding, oriented towards building a product. I’m personally a Le Wagon alumnus and enjoyed the experience a lot. The price might seem high but as an investment is largely pays off, especially if you code an MVP yourself instead of hiring an agency.
- BeCode: 6 months of coding, totally free. This is a great initiative which is gaining a lot of traction in Belgium. Given the longer timeframe the intensity is a bit lower, so you could actually start testing your idea while learning to code in parallel.
- L’école 19: a spin-off of the mythical Ecole 42 in France, this bootcamp relies solely on peer-to-peer learning. It has a crazy entry exam called La Piscine and other funky traditions. Totally free, but it takes a lot of motivation to make it.
If you don’t want to do all the heavy lifting of starting a business, you might want to consider working with a startup studio or an incubator. These organisations can cater for whole parts of the value chain for you: from finding an idea to identifying your first customers to providing offices and discounts with suppliers or managing your marketing.
- eFounders: a FR/BE studio that created more than 15 companies in the B2B SaaS market. Finding a spot in their team will have you learn the tips & tricks to run a successful SaaS company.
- Startup Factory: a studio working closely with corporates to solve their innovation challenges. The benefit of the approach for entrepreneurs is that the studio already has a list of ideas with potential customers to propose.
- Make It: a studio collaborating with startups as well as with SMEs and corporates to solve their innovation challenges. They offer the capabilities required to accelerate you from idea to product.
Next to this you have a whole list of incubators/accelerators. Note of course that collaborating with a startup studio will often require that you give out equity, whereas incubators have less stringent requirements on equity. Regardless of your trajectory, it is always a good idea to meet with people having been through these programmes to get their view on the experience and forge your own opinion.
Places to work & chill
You’ll definitely want to work out of home in your early days, as it’s important to get out and meet other people to challenge your ideas.
Finding a spot in a co-working space lets you meet a lot of other people and companies. Often these spaces will also offer regular meet-ups & events to network and learn from other entrepreneurs. When reviewing a potential co-working, have a look at the kind of people working there: are there more SMEs and self-employed/freelances, or more ventures and early-day startups? Both are enriching to work with, but you might want to favour hanging out with one or the other. Some of my favourite co-working places are:
- SilverSquare Triomphe: super cosy and warm place, still in its early days, and with enough space to accommodate plenty of new businesses. The other SilverSquare properties are also quite comfy.
- BeCentral: a rather roots place, but I love the atmosphere and the companies working there. This is home to the aforementioned Le Wagon and BeCode bootcamps, meaning there always are coders hanging around.
- Co.station: like BeCentral, it is ideally placed next to Brussels’ Central Station. Although it feels a bit overcrowded at times, many interesting meet-ups are organised there.
- Digityser: with a clear focus on cutting-edge technologies and data, this place is a great hub to connect with fans of VR, Blockchain, Big Data…the meet-ups agenda at Digityser is truly impressive in its volume and diversity.
- Betacowork: conveniently located in Etterbeek, this place offers great opportunities for connections with freelances and other companies (40 in total), with an outstanding architecture.
Regardless of where you’ll work, you want to regularly checkout Meetup.com to find out exciting get-togethers in your zone.
Resources: gotta skill up.
This goes a bit without saying, but I encourage you to read tons of books, blogs and listen to tons of podcasts. This will prove tremendously helpful to get some kind of formal education in the hectic journey of launching a new business. To name just a few of my favourite best sellers:
- The Lean Startup: to finally understand what this MVP thing is all about.
- From Zero to One: whatever you think about Peter Thiel, this book is full of exciting stories and concepts.
- Traction: a great handbook to get familiar with all the ways you can get a product to the market.
- The Hard Things About Hard Things: a tough book full of personal stories, which will help you building an organisation (think of quotes such as “hire fast, fire fast”).
- Crossing the Chasm: a great resource if you’re creating a tech product, which will improve your reading of market dynamics.
Then if you’re into tech and coding, at least one person from your team should consult Hacker News everyday.
Now, your turn.
So that’s it, the floor is yours. I hope you’ll get inspired and will meet plenty of other extraordinary peers along your journey. What great things will you start building today? I’m looking forward to finding out.