Advice From A Frenchman In Brussels

BRICE LE BLÉVENNEC, FOUNDER OF EMAKINA AND A NUMBER OF OTHER VENTURES, OFFERS SAGE ADVICE TO WOULD-BE ENTREPRENEURS

Brice is French. He thinks that may be one reason why he succeeded in Belgium. And succeed he did. He is best known for founding one of the country’s largest interactive agencies, EMAKINA, where he remains active today as ‘chief visionary officer’. But Brice has carried that title at several other ventures too, some of which he founded (ContactOffice – a virtual office) or helped get off the ground (Tunz.com – a mobile payment solution). Brice has also been a regular on Belgian radio and television and this year won a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to interactive marketing and advertising. So what tips does he have for would be entrepreneurs (besides changing citizenship)?

The Start

“Starting a company is a team adventure. You can’t do it alone. Picking your partners is crucial. Not only do you need the right combination of skills, but you also need a good social fit.

Ideas need a business model. I’ve seen so many great ideas without a business model. And don’t simply be reliant on advertising. That’s not innovation.

Sacrifice your personal life. It is a way of life, not a job. You will need to work a great deal, have plenty of energy and always be online. You’ll be poor too, initially, since you can’t take any money upfront—you’ll need it to build the business, to build equity, or value. Once you have equity, then the investors come knocking.

Be prepared to fail. Most projects fail. But if you don’t try you’ll never get there. Failure is not a humiliation—it is simply part of the game. Entrepreneurship is a game.

Be prepared to adapt and morph as you go. You may start with a business plan, but don’t stubbornly stick to that first idea. The side ideas are important too. By being in the market, by involving new people, you will learn and discover new opportunities. Twitter was a side idea. At Emakina, we keep reorganising our business as we grow. It is like life in general, we constantly morph into new things, as we incorporate new people, new customers, new technology, new locations, etc.

Good entrepreneurs live in tune with the future. They know what tomorrow’s trends are. It takes time to build a project and thus by the time the project is up and running the market has changed. That’s why you need that foresight. Every time I have invested in something I was told it was stupid. For example, when we launched ContactOffice (a ‘virtual office’ service) we were still connecting to the internet via dial-up, but I knew that broadband was coming.

Think big, build small. Add later, refine later. Too often, people try to build everything at once but end up building nothing, or something that customers don’t understand.

A product and a service business are two different things. In an innovative product business you need to build a prototype before going to investors. Validate it as much as you can; that way you have more equity. The idea itself is rarely unique. The value lies in turning the idea into reality. That is why the team is so valuable. A service model is a different model. It is harder to build an innovative business in this approach, because you’ll be more constrained by the customer’s current needs. Also, the operational model is different –you need to organise yourself differently and recruit different types of people. A service business needs customer- and service-minded people; they’re not the same as the creators of new products. In a product business, you need to innovate ‘despite’ your customers.

Compromise in Belgium

The lack of entrepreneurship in Belgium helped me. I’m French. Perhaps I’m egocentric, but it gave me confidence. But it is disappointing in a way. There are so many ideas, but people don’t seem to take the risk.

Sure, there are some handicaps here. The home market is small and the audiences are fragmented. Also, there is little venture capital in this country. There is no culture of investing in startups; again, there is little risk-taking. The investment that does happen is the safe type, in bricks and mortar, buy your own house, that type of thing. Perhaps there is a lack of foolishness and too much compromise. Maybe it has something to do with the complexity of this society, the languages and the politics. There is a culture of consensus, sure, but that way you lose passion and conviction.

Fix it

There is no lack of initiative from the government, but the response sometimes is lacking. Take the Future Summit—that was good, but where were the people?

More can be done obviously. There should be more investing, more risk taking—and not only in technical R&D.

Education and media are important vehicles for stimulating entrepreneurship. We need to see much more entrepreneurship on TV. TV is the quickest way to get your message across. But it starts with education. Innovation and creativity comes from mixing stuff up, placing people in different contexts, mixing people from different backgrounds, etc. But in education we tend to push people in a specialisation early on, maybe too early on. Culturally too, we huddle together among peers. There is far too little mixing outside the group.

The crisis is an opportunity. There is opportunity in transformation. The economy is undergoing structural change. That creates opportunity for new players. Times of crisis and change are often the best period to do entrepreneurship.

Source : The fifth conference