The setting sun bathes Tintin’s iconic rocket in an orange glow in the corner of the meeting room. The creative highflyer. Sitting across the table from us, Jürgen Ingels. This highflyer propels one company after another into the stratosphere. Top entrepreneur, venture capitalist and passionate collector of space memorabilia. In 2022, his collection will be part of the interactive exhibition ‘SPACE – The Human Quest’, his brainchild. The vastness of space reflects his vision of business success – dream big or go home!
What are the deciding factors for you to invest in a start-up?
Jürgen Ingels: “The people! Passionate people are the biggest asset of a business. They want to know everything there is to know about their product and the market they operate in. They are able to tune into customers’ problems and needs. When candidates present a business pitch to me, I want to see this passion. It’s no guarantee for success, but it’s an essential requirement. I usually know within five minutes of listening if it will work out.”
“I also look at market size. A big company in a small market is less interesting than a small company operating in a big market. Businesses with a global market always grow faster. That’s why internationalising is so important. Combine this with the introduction of an international product into your domestic market and you kill two birds with one stone. Is the market limited or short of money? Or does it depend on unpredictable funding like government subsidies? If so, I pass.”
How do you turn a start-up into a unicorn – a company worth one billion dollars – in just a few years?
“Time reduction plays a key part. Thanks to experience, you grow faster. Sweden has a lot more unicorns than we have because it has more second-generation entrepreneurs. People who have already walked the path of entrepreneurship once and know the problems. They have learnt from their mistakes. When they start another company, they do this more quickly and efficiently than an inexperienced competitor.”
“With a buy-and-build strategy, you can achieve unicorn status in five to ten years. Start with a small acquisition that gives you entry into the international market. Then, integrate it into your existing business model. Do you lack experience? Work with a seasoned management team. Companies tend to invest in young people – I get that, because you have to give them opportunities. But if you have a revolutionary idea, you have a better chance of success with an experienced team. That’s also why I say: entrepreneurs are at their best at 45.”
However big or successful you are, creativity is always the growth engine of a company.
Are you surprised that there are still so few unicorns in Belgium?
“Successful Belgian entrepreneurs want to show that everything they touch turns to gold. To prove this point, they flit from one sector to another. But this way, they are squandering their advantage as a second-generation entrepreneur, because they have to start from scratch again every time. As a tech entrepreneur, for instance, I would never start a pharmaceutical company.”
“Belgium lags behind in terms of development. In Sweden, you had technology companies like Nokia and Ericsson. People in this sector went on to set up a spin-off or they used their business experience to create their own enterprise. We are only just starting to see this dynamic take off in Belgium, but prospects are encouraging.”
How can Belgian start-ups increase their chances of success?
“When I sold Clear2Pay in 2014, many people said: well done, but you were lucky. With SmartFin, I have proven that we have a system, which increases our chances of success. Just look at the list of Belgian scale-ups of the last five years. We set them up, managed them or were involved in some other way. You cannot be lucky all the time (laughs). I share the most important insights in my book Start, Grow, Sell: 50 Tips for Entrepreneurial Greatness.”
“I’ve noticed that all start-ups and scale-ups struggle with the same questions. What ERP software should I choose, should I do transfer pricing, do I need a sales commission plan, who should I give share options to etc.? Most companies waste valuable time trying to answer these questions. Why doesn’t the government supply a general guide that covers this kind of information? Such practical advice is as important as international financing.”
“The government should also do more to institutionalise growth systems. Currently, it gives subsidies to countless organisations, who distribute the budget across a range of business initiatives. Those funds would be better spent providing intensive support to a few companies with growth potential until they reach unicorn status.”
What can start-ups and traditional businesses learn from each other?
“In the 90s, traditional companies replaced their entrepreneurial profiles with managers. In hindsight, that was a huge mistake: you also need entrepreneurs in a company. They are the ones who come up with creative ideas and bring about innovation. Managers do this to a lesser extent. They are mostly involved with structures and procedures. There are times that you actually need chaos to create innovation.”
“As a start-up grows, managers become more important. Many entrepreneurs mistakenly think that they are managers. The difficulty in a scale-up is the transition process: replacing entrepreneurs with managers without losing the entrepreneurial spirit. However big or successful you are, creativity is always the growth engine of a company.”
‘SPACE – The Human Quest’ 23 April – 30 June 2022 in Antwerp Expo https://www.xpospace.be/
Jürgen Ingels, ‘Start, Grow, Sell: 50 Tips for Entrepreneurial Greatness’ (‘50 lessen voor ondernemers’), Lannoo Publishers