Jan-Willem (25) has come a long way at a young age. He started entrepreneurship in college, became a dropout and has since built Birdhouse into what it is today. In this blog post, we interview him about his own entrepreneurial story and ask him about his tips for young entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship as an outlet

Jan-Willem’s academic path can be called atypical. “I started university at 16. But after two years of maths I made the switch to civil engineering. I liked maths but it was too theoretical. With civil engineering, however, I still had that feeling. Entrepreneurship was then an outlet to do something more practical. We then started a start-up, a spin-off from UGent, which made 3D visualisations and holograms.”

That turned out to be an instructive, but ultimately unsuccessful experience: “I spent two years on that first start-up. During those two years I made just about every typical start-up mistake you can imagine. The wrong investors, developing for too long, not thinking enough about product-market fit, no focus…”

Aerey

Eventually, the team of that original start-up fell apart. But nevertheless the itch to undertake remained. That’s why he co-founded Aerey.

“I was already in the early Belgian start-up community at the time and I felt I could add something to it. During my last year of college I started Aerey, an offline community that organized events. That was a very intense experience. In a year and a half we have done more than 20 events with an average of more than 100 people. Our target audience was ultimately also start-ups and entrepreneurs who were working on something very concrete.”

And that was successful: “In the initial phase we threw an event online and within two days it was full. At that point, there was a need for our no-nonsense approach in that community.”

Aerey event

Birdhouse

Aerey then molted in Birdhouse. “Birdhouse got there by listening a lot to the needs of start-ups, but also to people with a lot of experience. These are the people who are the mentors in our concept today.”

Our founder started from his target group. A golden tip for any start-up. “I saw that there were many start-ups that needed intensive guidance from people who are experts by experience. Guidance from entrepreneurs, in other words. On the other hand, I also saw that many people with experience get energy from helping young entrepreneurs.”

Birdhouse is a start-up

Birdhouse brought those two groups together in their accelerator, which offered a short, selective and intensive track. “We have grown very quickly. And that sometimes led to growing pains. We often had to make decisions very quickly. For example, we found the name Birdhouse two weeks before the launch. My friend humpty-dumpty quickly created a beautiful logo for that.”

“So Birdhouse itself is a start-up.” he explains. “I was 23 when I started Birdhouse. I actually had zero experience at the time. And that has its drawbacks, but also its advantages. We all learn very quickly and we are in an organization with people who have the mentality to constantly learn a lot and quickly. We are also growing ourselves and we are constantly improving our programs. Every edition we do is better than the last.”

The fact that Birdhouse is still a start-up itself ensures that it understands start-ups better. “I think it’s definitely an advantage,” says Jan-Willem. “Many of the issues our start-up encounters, we have experienced ourselves.”

Like a start-up, Birdhouse also grew very quickly: “The first time we had 160 registrations, two years later there are already more than 800. Since 2016, we have mentored 65 start-ups, which together have already raised 4.6 million euros in capital. This growth has allowed us to build ever larger partnerships. In fact, we now have a 10 million euro fund together with Belfius.”

Connection machine

The transition from an event organization to an accelerator was challenging, but also logical. “I get energy from making connections. The vision changed several times of course, but the DNA is still the same since Aerey. We always want to play a connecting role.”

In a way, Birdhouse is still similar to Aerey: “At Aerey we brought entrepreneurs into contact with each other. But our accelerator program is actually a connection machine that connects startups with the right experience, contacts and expertise. We also connect them with investors and we connect start-ups. The community in our offices is crucial for a lot of start-ups.”

Drop-out

Meanwhile Jan-Willem has left university behind, without gradu ating by the way. “I didn’t get my degree. And the first year after, I was left with a feeling of guilt and uncertainty. But I’m very glad I did. Because where we are now with Birdhouse, I can be proud of that.”

“Studying has helped me immensely, but my passion lies in connecting people and being an entrepreneur. And today, no one ever asks me about my degree. In the past three years, I’ve never been unable to accomplish anything because I don’t have a degree.”