Birdhouse’s Board of Directors is joined by Catalina Daniels. She joins as a fifth member as an independent director. The experienced consultant and investor is mainly active in New York and doesn’t hide her ambitions: “My main task is to ensure that Birdhouse becomes the best accelerator in Belgium.”

Catalina Daniels has already won her spurs in the start-up world. She is active as a consultant and investor and is a Venture Partner at the oldest accelerator program in New York: Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator (ERA). In cooperation with ERA she set up the Flanders New York Accelerator. In this way she helps Flemish start-ups to make the big step to America. So now she joins the Board of Directors of Birdhouse.

© Nadia El Makhfi

I think it’s powerful that Birdhouse has grown from a network of mentors,” Catalina Daniels says of the reason for her joining. “Those are brought together by Jan-Willem (Callebaut, founder, nvr.). They are all entrepreneurs and professionals with extensive experience. For me, that network is a basic requirement for being able to help young entrepreneurs effectively. ERA, the accelerator in New York of which I am a venture partner, also started that way.”

Is the network of mentors something that sets Birdhouse apart from the other Flemish accelerators? “I think so. The other accelerators do a great job too, but they don’t have the same origins. I think that with Birdhouse we can really make a difference in Flanders and possibly throughout Belgium. The foundation is there to make that happen.”

“Our start-ups have to be among the most successful entrepreneurs in Belgium.”

Catalina Daniels is clear about her ambitions at Birdhouse: “I want to help Belgian entrepreneurs to be as successful as possible. From my role on the board this will mainly be indirect. For example, I want to ensure that Birdhouse’s business model is further strengthened and that the network of mentors is expanded. Of course, I also want the programme to be well-constructed and for start-ups to be able to obtain capital. And that they will eventually be among the most successful entrepreneurs in Belgium.”

In New York, the city where Catalina Daniels has been active for five years now, Belgian start-ups were conspicuous by their absence: “In my first year I was active as a professional angel investor, where I saw 300 companies. None of them were Belgian. In fact, none of them were European! That wasn’t right. We have amazing universities, entrepreneurs and engineers. I think we have the potential to develop companies à la Collibra.

“If we can help develop six or seven of these companies within ten years, our little Belgium will suddenly look very different,” Catalina Daniels explains. “You have to aspire to something like that. For me, as a director at Birdhouse, that’s the ultimate goal: to identify these kinds of unicorns early, and then help them get on the right path.

Ghent – Antwerp – New York?

With the Flanders New York Accelerator programme Catalina Daniels helps Flemish start-ups to get started in New York. Are Birdhouse start-ups going to notice anything from this link? “Yes and no. My main task is to ensure that Birdhouse becomes the best accelerator in Belgium. Maybe even beyond that. Of course I am influenced by my experiences in New York. Now, am I on the board of directors to make sure I send all the companies to New York? No. But do I keep thinking that good entrepreneurs should go to the US sooner? Yes. And I will tell those companies. I hope Birdhouse starts pushing in that direction as well.”

Daniels is convinced that a one-way ticket to the U.S. is more profitable for entrepreneurs than a Interrail through Europe: “When Flemish entrepreneurs want to expand, they often first go to the Netherlands, and then they make a tour along Germany, Poland and the United Kingdom. But that takes about the same amount of money and energy as going directly to the US. As an Investor, I’d rather you come to the US then anyway.”

“In a global economy like New York, or emerging China, you’re going to encounter your true competition,” Daniels adds. This forces you to switch faster and helps you to stay ahead. So don’t stay around in Europe too long. Because by the time you’ve completed that route, your only exit is to sell yourself to a Chinese or American party. Then as far as I’m concerned you can just scrap that mission and goal of becoming world leader, because it’s not going to happen.”

If you can make it there…

According to Daniels, New York City possesses three essential conditions to be an attractive ecosystem for startups: “The first is funding. In 2018, something like $13 billion was put into Angel and VC deals in New York City. So the following year, the city was named the best place to raise money, globally.”

The second condition is customers: “The state of New York has a gross national product above Spain and Russia. That’s 2.5 times the GDP of Belgium! It will not surprise you that the highest concentration of Fortune 500 companies is also in New York. So when you’re looking for clients and looking at the economic activity in that city… There are worse places to be, especially if you have a B2B start-up.”

“New York State has a gross national product that sits above Spain and Russia. That’s 2.5 times the GDP of Belgium!”

The third is talent. “No less than 10% of all developers in America are located in New York and they are recruited there the fastest. This has made the city one of the largest tech ecosystems in the world. It is also known as Silicon Alley and is the home of applied-tech. In that respect, New York is also further ahead than Silicon Valley in my eyes, since in the latter you find mostly high-tech and R&D.”

When asked if New York is also interesting for non-tech start-ups, Daniels answers in the affirmative: “Not all sectors are here, but still a lot. Finance, media, you can go down the list. And if you cross the Hudson, you’ll find a lot of health and pharmaceutical companies in New Jersey. Within a radius of a few kilometres you will find the world leaders of all kinds of sectors. So it is certainly a fine base for many entrepreneurs.

Cultural differences

Through her Flanders New York Accelerator, Catalina Daniels has already seen a large number of Flemish start-ups take the plunge in America. She noted that a number of characteristics are important when crossing. Which ones are they? Daniels: “When we talk about Belgian start-ups: dare! Most have good ideas, but they have to dare to throw themselves. I see far too little of that.”

“Furthermore, it’s important to have a scalable product,” Daniels further explains. “That way you can build your customer base without having to expand your team. That team has to be strong and able to communicate well. And of course you have to have budget, or a good plan to get that money.”

Catalina Daniels also points out the cultural differences: “It’s essential to realize that doing business works differently in the U.S. The biggest mistake I see Belgian entrepreneurs making is the copy-paste. They roll out their success formula and think it will work out. But it’s not all right. Because of the many cultural differences, you also have to revise some of your formula for success. Including your prices, which are higher on average in America.”

“In addition, many Belgian entrepreneurs come up here and say: I’m going to start calling. And then I say, you’re not gonna call anyone here. That’s not usual here. You’re going to email. And 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 times, until you get inside. Then they have a meeting and they think: I’m going to sit there for an hour or two. Forget it. You get 15 minutes, 30 minutes at the most!”

Love relationship

How did Catalina Daniels end up in New York? “I’ve always had a bit of a love affair with New York. During my MBA in Boston, I started working at American Express. And my only reason for choosing that internship was:
it had to be New York based
. I found that I wasn’t made for the corporate world, but thought right then: I’ll be back one day.”

“In 2015 my partner got a job at Nike in New York. I went with it, on a dependent visa, which meant I wasn’t allowed to work right away at first. Then I threw myself into the entrepreneurial tech ecosystem, and just saw how I would find my way in there. Eventually I found the right contacts and after a year of brooding that led to the FNYA. And here we are.”

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