Within our accelerator program, every start-up is guided by two passionate mentors. They are carefully matched on the basis of expertise and complementarity. But what role do mentors play exactly? And what do they expect from their start-ups? Mentors
Dirk Dewulf
,
Nicole Berx
and
Wouter Van Eetvelde
share their visions.

Why did you become a mentor?

Dirk: “I personally find it very interesting to guide companies and to pass on my experience to them. It was also professionally useful. As General Manager of Online Services at De Persgroep , I used to search for young companies in order to gain an insight into good players in the market. My good friend Geert Van Peteghem, mentor from the very beginning, pointed me to the mentorship at Birdhouse.”

Nicole: “On the one hand, I find it enjoyable to share my experience from different domains with others. On the other hand, I learn a lot myself.. That’s how I got in touch with start-ups that operate in a completely different market than I do. Take Brickbook, for example. They focus on contractors and subcontractors, a target group I didn’t know at all. Then it’s a challenge to see if you can apply your knowledge one-on-one, or if you need to refresh it. That is very enriching.”

Wouter: “I’ve worked at three start-ups myself, but at the time I became a mentor, I was working at Western Digital. This is a multinational company with 80,000 employees and many long processes and procedures. A sharp contrast with the ‘let’s get things done now’ mentality of start-ups that I love so much. I really missed that. To regain that balance, I threw myself into mentorship at Birdhouse.”

What can a start-up expect from you as a mentor?

Dirk: “Start-ups will almost always choose me for my marketing and sales experience. I am also very focused on measurability and performance. I notice that young companies are quick to work from a good idea, but forget to put the planning into it. And it is precisely on the latter that I place strong emphasis.”

Nicole: “I always encourage looking at different angles. What is the added value for the customer? What problem are you solving? This is very important, because it prevents you from assuming things too quickly on the basis of your own product. Then, when there is enough basic reflection, you can start delving into different areas: from pricing to branding.”

“The balance between body and mind is essential. I hammer on that.”

Wouter: “Start-ups often come to me for technological support. That’s where my specialty lies. I also focus on entrepreneurial attitude and mental support. Because life in a start-up is not always rosy. You may have to deal with rejection, jealousy, loneliness, … The balance between body and mind is therefore essential. And sleep and sport play an important role in this. That’s what I’m hammering on.”

What are you looking for in a start-up?

Dirk: “Enthusiasm! The urge to go for it and to get the business off the ground. But also the critical willingness to learn. Start-ups don’t have to accept everything blindly that I or another mentor says. But I do want them to feel like they’re going to get started with our advice.”

Nicole: “My motto is always: the start-up decides. I love exchanging opinions and enriching each other in that way. There has to be a willingness to listen. But the final decision is really in the hands of the startup.”

Wouter: “Ambition. Thinking out of the box, challenging, a bit rebellious. With the challenging vision to destabilize the market and claim their place in it. Not that this manifests itself in big words and pompous blather. But with good knowledge of the sector they are in.”

How often do you see your start-ups? And how do those contacts work?

Dirk: “We usually see each other at a fixed moment, once every two weeks. In the beginning, we ask start-ups to bring up topics that they would like to see addressed in their accelerator months. In fact, they fill the agenda. Once we are in the process, we review the progress and also give them our expectations for the next meeting. In the process, we go over the KPIs, among other things.”

Nicole: “It is important to maintain the frequency of once every two weeks, if necessary by video call. This way you actually make sure you have no excuse not to do it. I also really enjoy setting up a WhatsApp group with the start-up and the other mentor. That way everyone stays informed about what’s going on.”

Wouter: “I always try to get together physically with the start-up. Sometimes you want to convey a tougher message. Calling doesn’t work, because you can’t see how the other person is dealing with it. There is a lot of value in body language. It is essential to the cooperation between mentor and start-up that you have a safe zone to tell each other things as they are. And that you then step outside and can still look each other straight in the eye.”

Wouter Van Eetvelde with Engaging Heroes at Birdhouse Ghent.

What challenges do you often encounter with start-ups?

Dirk: “What I always see coming back is the difficulty to keep the focus. This is because the start-ups are still small and there is usually little income. Opportunities may come along that generate income and that can ease the pain in the short term. But that does distract them from their long-term goals.”

“What I always see coming back is the difficulty of maintaining focus.”

Nicole: “I often see that a start-up cannot directly describe the problem that their idea solves. So basically what is the added value of their product. In addition, maintaining focus. This is certainly not easy, even for ourselves as mentors. But I do think we can be a good sounding board in that.”

Wouter: “To explain the USP simply is indeed often the biggest challenge. As a start-up, you’ve been involved with the subject matter for so long that you assume everyone around you has the same context. But you don’t. You have to explain it in Layman’s terms, layman’s language, that non-specialists understand too.”

What is your most memorable moment with a Birdhouse start-up?

Dirk: “I once hung out with the guys from Kayzr late into the night at Foley’s (Irish Pub in Ghent, ed.). There were more start-ups there at the time, it was a kind of community. That was a really wise evening though.

Nicole: “It gives me great satisfaction to be able to contribute to realizing the dream that every start-up has. Take BeerSelect: three guys who, when I first met them, were actually still students. And now they have built a complete brewery in Ghent. I’m proud that all the start-ups I’ve had the privilege of mentoring still believe in their dream and continue to live it even after they leave the program.”

Wouter: “That was with Tengu. They offer complex services around big data and AI to both immature and mature clients. But how the hell do you explain that? Then, out of the blue, I came up with the metaphor of learning to ride a bike. You start with training wheels, then do without and finally get on a regular bike or even a racing bike. And golly, three weeks later it was on their website. I’m not a marketing person at all, so I thought that was magnificent!

To what extent do you interact with your fellow mentors?

Dirk: “Information is exchanged, in terms of content and the way of working. The more experienced mentors often get questions from the new mentors. I myself have contacted a colleague on occasion as part of the reward strategy.”

Nicole: “I mainly have contact with my co-mentor. Then we talk for example about the dynamics we feel with the co-founders or about certain strategic directions we want them to consider as well.”

Wouter: “I form a fixed duo with Peter De Gryse. They also call us Statler and Waldorf, the two critical grandpas from the Muppet Show (laughs). We started together as mentors and so we have a special bond. We see or speak to each other almost daily. With the other mentors, the contact is less intensive, but we see each other at the fixed moments, such as the screening sessions for the new cohort. Those contacts are very enriching.”

Dirk Dewulf in the Unpaid office.

Have any professional opportunities come from your mentorship?

Dirk: “I met entrepreneur and mentor Jeroen De Man through Birdhouse. We talked to each other regularly and concluded that it might not be a bad idea to set up something together. That’s how our company Unpaid came about. Since then, two other mentors have become clients with us, so that’s really nice.”

Wouter: “Indirectly, yes. In the sense that my network has expanded enormously. In addition, I occasionally give advice on the subjects I specialise in. And I have been able to invest in a number of start-ups, after they asked me to. That shows they trust you and that is unique.

Did you have a mentor of your own? Or someone important in your career?

Dirk: “My big example was Stephane Vermeiren. And now that you mention it, I should call him! I always describe him as a visionary chaotic. He had a hundred thousand ideas. I’m more structured and less visionary myself, so I selected the best ideas. We were a good tandem.”

“Some things would definitely have been easier and less painful had I had a mentor.”

Wouter: “Unfortunately not. Some things would definitely have been easier and less painful, had I had a mentor. To give an example: I was building a team at a tech start-up. In tech, you often start with individual contributors who are particularly technical and very good at their craft. And there is sometimes a corner off. At some point, I saw that person could no longer work with the rest of the team. I had to say goodbye to that. If I could have discussed that situation with a mentor, I could have protected that person from himself and possibly kept him anyway. But that has been through trial and error. That’s what I hope to keep my start-ups from doing.”

What tip do you always give every start-up?

Dirk: Make sure you have a detailed business plan. And if you don’t have that, look at your numbers. What actions do you take to fill your sales funnel? How many leads do you need to make x number of sales? Before you know it, you’re three months in. If you haven’t made a claim by then, you have a problem.”

Nicole: “Believe in yourself and dream!”

Wouter: “Don’t give up, don’t give up! Despite all the setbacks. Take a moment, breathe, adjust if necessary and move on. After the rain, the sun shines!

Wouter Van Eetvelde with Engaging Heroes.

What tip would you like to give to your (future) colleague mentors?

Dirk: “I would say: enjoy! In any case, it gives me a lot of energy to be able to help shape start-ups. I hope that in 15 years they will say something like: that was a good direction, a good idea, that really helped me. Then my mission is accomplished.”

Nicole: Let the start-ups be their own and try to empathize with their world and idea in the first place. In other words, don’t project yourself too much. A bit like a good marketer doesn’t think from her own needs, but primarily from those of her customers.”

“That hyper-concentration of people with ambition who all want to change the world, that’s fantastic!”

Wouter: “Make sure that the interactions with your start-ups are not non-committal and that you have prepared topics to talk about. And don’t underestimate it in terms of time investment. Because in addition to the regular moments with your start-up, there are also quite a few Birdhouse sessions to follow, on various topics. And then there are the cohort reviews, the selection rounds… It’s intensive, but it gives you a lot of energy. The hyper-concentration of people with ambition who all want to change the world is fantastic!

Want to grow your start-up under intensive guidance?

Register until June 7 for the next Birdhouse accelerator program starting in August!