Making big decisions, looking risks straight in the eye, or even: turning the cart of your company ninety degrees. Many people break out in a sweat, but entrepreneur and Birdhouse mentor Wouter Van Eetvelde gets a kick out of it. “The duality of entrepreneurship,” he laughs. “It’s frightening, it can make you feel uncomfortable. But hell, it’s so much fun anyway.”
When, at the age of 30, Van Eetvelde gave up his safe job at KBC to start his own business, his family were shocked. “I don’t come from an entrepreneurial family at all, so my parents didn’t really know what to say at first. What are you going to do?’ was their reaction.” The entrepreneur smiles at the memory. For him, it was simple: there was a good idea, so he jumped and started Dedigate.
The idea for Dedigate came from a childhood friend of Van Eetvelde. “We had studied Civil Engineering – Computer Science together at the UGent. When we bumped into each other at the end of the 90s, he told me what he thought the evolution of IT would be like in the years to come. And especially that companies would no longer maintain their servers themselves, but would house them in data centres. We had to jump on that, right? In 2000, we opened the doors of Dedigate together with a third founder. As a hosting company for the servers of large companies, we quickly became hot in the IT world.”
Snow White and dwarves archives
So much so that the American player Verizon took over the Belgian company in 2005. “That’s something we should be proud of, no? That such a giant wanted to buy a tech company from the small Belgian country.” Van Eetvelde looks back on his first start-up with pride, especially because he also learned a lot – about entrepreneurship, but also about himself. “It’s where I discovered where I get my energy from, what I love doing most. Leading operations in a technology environment is mostly my ‘dada’.”
After the acquisition of Dedigate, Van Eetvelde was able to indulge in his ‘dada’ as director for the product of DataCenter Technologies. “DTC has played a major role in the evolution of IT. The start-up had built a technology in the early 2000s around storing and archiving data quickly. Back then, there was no cloud storage as we know it today, but it was a truly revolutionary product.”
But a colleague of Van Eetvelde saw more possibilities. “He often came into contact with
major American customers, including Disney. Those guys were looking for a way to archive the footage of their snow whites and dwarves in a central digital way, not just on a DVD or video cassette. He had an idea, we started to figure it out and suddenly the ball of entrepreneurship started rolling again for me”, says Van Eetvelde. “In 2008, three of us founded Amplidata, a software company for managing data in cloud servers.
“It was very interesting to sit down with big companies. You get insight into their way of doing deals, and you can learn from that.”
At the table with large companies
Once again, Van Eetvelde has succeeded in arousing the interest of the bigwigs with his start-up. “Intel Capital invested in us. With a name like that, you can make a big deal out of it. With that capital we opened an office in California, the place to be for a tech company. There we were able to conclude a number of OEM deals with major customers. Such a deal means that they can take over our technology with their branding and name on it, but we still run the technical show. It is very interesting to sit around the table with such large companies. You get an insight into their way of doing deals, and you can learn from that.”
In 2015, Amplidata was acquired by Western Digital. He doesn’t want to go into detail about it, but according to Van Eetvelde it was “a takeover of the highest order”. “They made Amplidata a separate business unit and I ended up staying there for another five years. Mainly because I wanted to avoid the classic scenario that the large American group would strip the small Belgian company completely of its technology and then close down the rest of the outfit. In the end, I was not able to stop that. In 2018, I left.”
Looking for adrenaline
Van Eetvelde looks back on that period with mixed feelings. Proud of what he accomplished, but with pain in his heart that it ended this way. “The other side of the coin of entrepreneurship,
sighs Van Eetvelde. Although he can handle it quite well. He’s not very good at “hindsight” and “regretting decisions”. After all, entrepreneurship is a business of highs and lows, of evolution and revolution, of downs in between the ups.
Van Eetvelde actually likes to go along on those waves, for him that is the kick he needs. “When there is a known cadence to things, I start to get bored,” he admits. “Trying things out, pushing boundaries, not standing still: that’s what I go for. Yes, there are risks involved, but that’s what makes it fun. Standing on the edge of the abyss, but still daring to take a step. That’s how I am as an entrepreneur, always looking for a bit of adrenaline,” he laughs.
“You just have to have the courage to jump at a certain point. When something goes wrong, it seems like your world is going to collapse. But that is not the case, the world keeps on turning and after rain always comes sunshine
Much too well behaved
It’s also that mindset that he wants to impart to startups in his role as a mentor at Birdhouse. “In Flanders we are very cautious, almost too well behaved. I often have to give the founders of start-ups a push or open up their minds. They are often so focused on their product that they forget their marketing, strategy or goal. “Start with the ending in mind”, I always tell them – who is that quote from again? Stephen R. Covey, right? Soit, I try to help them set their goals and work towards them.”
“As a mentor, I often have to give founders of start-ups a nudge or open up their field of vision. Often they are so focused on their product that they forget about marketing, strategy or their purpose.”
Along the way Van Eetvelde warns the starters for mistakes he made himself. “Mistakes they will make anyway. But if I can already save them from the mistakes I once made, then they’re already a step ahead, I think.” The fact that he can see people grow and become successful, is for Van Eetvelde the pinnacle of his mentorship. “And if they listened to me once in a while, it makes them feel good,” he laughs.