Young Entrepreneurs Share Tips - Interview Series
Joachim Van der Meiren (30) co-founded AppLeads in 2014, a marketing tech start-up which was gradually sold to a business angel in 2018. Nowadays, Joachim works as Investment Manager at Degroof Petercam Family Office.
©Picture by Dylan Berrier
How did you start your business and how did you come up with this idea?
Joachim Van der Meiren:
AppLeads started as a small business project at the KU Leuven Association. With a partner, we chose this over an internship so we could test our idea on a small scale and prepare for upscaling in ‘real’ life. At this time, we did quantitative market research for SME’s which turned out great as our small business project was one of the most successful projects in recent years. We even had to stop our sales because we reached the upper limit of turnover for this kind of project. Because of this, we knew we had something great in our hands. After graduation, we built a website, set up a company structure and were able to go to market. Or at least, that’s what we thought … We got the door slammed in our face as it seemed that we lost most of our credentials because we weren’t affiliated with the KU Leuven and Voka anymore. Plus, at University, we had no costs so prices could remain low and when we charged full price the market did not respond very well.
How did you deal with failing and how did you turn it around?
We looked for a solution and consulted Voka. They introduced us to Bryo (Bright and Young Potentials) which is a high potential program for young entrepreneurs. Bryo supports you with various trainings, network events and mentoring. The experience was very valuable to us because we learned that it was quite normal that your first idea doesn’t take off immediately and that you often need to pivot a few times before you find the ideal product-market fit. That’s how we evolved from a quantitative market research firm to a software provider. We built tablet apps to generate leads on fairs like Batibouw for clients such as Buderus, Smeg and Matexi. In 2017, we also won the KBC Start-It contest when we started to penetrate the fashion retail market, which was significantly in disruption by digitalisation. We introduced our tablet system to capture customer information in chain stores like JBC, C&A and IKKS. In 2018, we linked this information to CRM systems and cash registers which got us to our holy trinity of value creation in a market that was hungry for data. We gave an answer to the question "who buys what and why". The “who” comes from the CRM system, the “what” from the cash register and the “why” from our tablet system. The combination of this information in a user-friendly environment gave us the edge we needed to create a full “digital signature” of chain store clients. This was the base of our transaction with a business angel active in ERP Software who was eager to integrate this in his existing software.
Why did you start a business and how did you kick off?
I wanted to work in finance, strategy and entrepreneurship, and have always been very hands-on, creative and entrepreneurial. So to me, starting a business was nothing more than a logical next step after graduation. When you are young, you have no kids or heavy financial obligations so it is an ideal time to jump. After a first blow in the face, we pivoted to a new market by introducing a bootstrapped proof-of-concept (POC). Bootstrapping means you start unfunded and you build a minimum viable product (MVP) as efficiently as possible. Your product doesn't have to be completely finished from the start. It's perfectly fine to meet customers and show a demo or even just a concept in a few slides. Showing a concept to an audience before building it is a great idea, because the feedback you will receive comes directly from your core market and it will help you to build the product based exactly on the needs of the market (demand-based development).
How do you come up with a good idea for a business?
You can do many things. Make sure you check out the Belgian startup scene because there is a large ecosystem in place. First of all, there are bootcamps to test your skills or idea. You can participate with or without an idea. Typically, you join with 50 people, 10 people pitch an idea, and you choose the ones that interest you the most. Coordinators match candidates' skills to projects and create a strong, complementary team (not only IT geeks together). Together you build a short and concise business plan in a day or two which you pitch at the end and generally the winner gets prize money (e.g. €25.000) to get the project kicked-off.
Secondly, you can easily start by thinking about everyday problems that need solving. For instance, If you dropped your iPhone 6 years ago, the repair took 3 months. Nowadays, you find stores that repair it in 1 hour. Or, young parents buy a lot of clothes and toys for their children, and they outgrow these cloths so fast or want other toys each year. You could start a kids' clothing and toys library. So just think about problems in life, possible new solutions, and check if your solution is marketable and go pitch to possible customers.
Thirdly, reach out to networks and startup incubators and accelerators like Voka, Unizo, The Birdhouse, Start it @KBC. Innovatiecentrum Vlaanderen also gives grants if you pitch an innovative idea. Surround yourself with the right people to get ahead. A mentor too, can help you in thinking out of the box. And if you look for investors, just google "Risk Capital Belgium" and you'll definitely find a list of VC's and business angels.
Finally, read. Read as much as you can. Here's my pick of books to get you started. The startup bible is, in my view, The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. A must-read if you want to go lean and mean. A second one is Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works by Ash Maurya. It's the same concept as The Lean Startup, but the more practical side of things. And if you want to know the key to creating a sustainable and scalable business, read Michael Gerber's E-Myth, one of my personal favorites. For Belgian startups, I also recommend Get up - Start up by Bart Verhaeren which gives you a great view on the Belgian startup landscape: who’s involved, how to get funding, in which sectors most successes are recorded in Belgium (Spoiler alert: it’s B2B apps ;).