Almost two years ago the first batch of Birdhouse start-ups settled in our co-working space. Four cohorts and 51 supervised ventures later, there are many fine names on the list of achievements. This week we called some of them up (or simply spoke to them in our coworking) to ask how things are going, what the future plans are, and what the most important lessons they’ve learned since their Graduation Day. Curious about the recent victories of Wonky, Ark Shelter or Kadonation?
Cycle Valley: “Big companies are no longer afraid to collaborate with small start-ups”
of Cycle Valley, the full service partner for electric bicycles, has not been idle, together with his co-founder Nathalie Boileau. Since Graduation Day, the start-up has expanded its customer base with a number of big names such as the European Commission, the Brussels Regional Government, City of Antwerp, UZ Brussels, VUB. .. “The new way of mobility is hip, people finally dare to leave their car at home. The fear of working with start-ups is also gradually fading. “What makes working with a start-up so attractive, we wonder? “The flexibility and the speed with which you can adapt something to the customer’s needs.”
When asked what are the most important lessons the entrepreneurs have learned recently, Wim answers resolutely.”Making choices. Not wanting to jump on every opportunity. You want to grow fast, but you have to make sure what you offer is good first, before you want to expand.” Wanting to grow too fast is an often seen pitfall, which Cycle Valley is deliberately careful to avoid.
“That’s where the mentors at Birdhouse have helped a lot. They question everything, and you adopt this critical attitude, so that you still reap the benefits after the accelerator program. ‘Does this fit with our strategy? Are we going to make any money out of this?’ These are the questions we still often ask ourselves.”
“For this reason, we have decided to temporarily disregard new tenders and focus 100% on providing the best service to our current customers. And that works, because through good customer references, such as a satisfied bpost, we actually bring in new customers.”
The future plans? “Hiring new people. We’ve kept ourselves from growing too fast, but now we’re at a point where we’re comfortable with the idea of hiring someone new. We are mainly looking for commercial profiles, in order to grow further
Ark Shelter: “Projects get bigger and more challenging every time”.
If you’ve been keeping tabs on the Ark Shelter, you’ve probably noticed that their plans and projects aren’t getting any smaller either. The moveable low-tech ecological wooden mini homes are no longer just put in gardens to expand living space, but are increasingly used in creative building projects, often to create extra space where there is none left.
How are Michiel De Backer, Martin Mikocvcak and Janie Demeestere doing? “Good hey, of course. We are working on many large projects, and there are still some interesting ones in the pipeline. We are now building a day nursery in Knokke next to a hospital. It’s 5 shelters next to each other. It’s one of the many new and interesting projects we get to do.” The Shelters end up in the most diverse locations: in the middle of a floating raft on a lake for Dinner On The Lake, on the 9th floor of a building in Slovakia, and even right in the snowy mountains as a Ski-Sauna Shelter.
“Our projects are getting bigger and more challenging. We are going through a very instructive period. Every day we come into contact with things we have to do for the first time: from technicalities like fire safety in public buildings to new challenges from customers. But everything we learn is useful for subsequent assignments. Our experience grows with each project, which is a good thing for the future. It opens the door for new possibilities.”
Not only the type of projects is increasing, the market is growing too. “It used to be mostly individuals and companies, now we get requests from schools and daycare centres, for example.” And this trend may well continue. “We want to keep growing in the future above all: as a person, but our product as well. We want to keep improving it, and through these new projects we are succeeding.”
What we especially take away from our time at Birdhouse is that strategic way of thinking. Sometimes we say to each other ‘how, maybe we should take a step back here and first work out how we’re going to do it’. You take that mindset with you wherever you go.
Kadonation: “Results are good, so current investors are happy to join in next capital round.”
Founder Fabrice Guillermin of
also benefits from the willingness of large corporates to partner with start-ups. “There are some strategic collaborations with corporate partners in the pipeline.” That’s a good thing, because these collaborations with companies are one of Kadonation’s better sales channels. “That was an important lesson for us. If you listen to the advice in the startup scene, it seems like online marketing is the answer to everything. But for us, collaborating with corporates is much more rewarding: companies are looking for unique business gifts for employees, and give them a Kadonation gift box. All the employees then get to know us in turn, and so on. It’s a win-win situation, with visible results.
And those results are more than welcome, because Kadonation wants 100,000 users on its platform. “Within a year we hope to get there for sure, but with our expansion into the Netherlands we should be able to. Belgians are so conservative that they would rather stick to their old methods that are time consuming, than try something new that can save them time. The Dutch, thanks to their flexible mindset, are more likely to try Kadonation. Our gift partners also include many large Dutch providers, such as bol.com, Coolblue, srprs.me, Fonq, … We see it as rosy.”
But how do you get a foothold in the Netherlands? “By hiring an experienced sales profile” says Fabrice.
“We quickly noticed that the sales approach in the Netherlands is very different from here, so we chose to hire a senior sales rep from the Netherlands. Someone with experience, who also knows the market, seemed the best choice to us”.
Currently, the focus is on a new capital round, which is already well underway. “For a platform like ours, you already need to have a very large userbase before it becomes profitable. I don’t think every start-up needs to raise money, on the contrary, but for us it is simply the best way to grow quickly. The investors who joined in the first round are also participating again in the current financing round. So good news!
Entusia: “Transition to managerial role thanks to team in the field that I can trust.”
Founder Hans Versmissen of Entusia, the underwear brand for people with bladder weakness, is also busy preparing his expansion abroad. “We have just done a large-scale European study and are now finalising the final reports. The idea was to map out the markets in other countries. Now we know which regions to target first and what our route-to-market will be. It’s certainly a challenge, because the mutual insurance companies and the distributors abroad, our most important partners, work very differently from here in Belgium. The research will make our route-to-market slightly faster than in Belgium, but certainly not easier.”
One of the reasons it will go faster is because Hans won’t have to do it on his own anymore. “As of soon, I will gradually move into a managerial role, while my teams in the field will be busy providing training, appealing to sales outlets, searching for ambassadors, etc. Until now I did all that myself, to get to know the market through and through. But if you want to grow, you have to expand your team. In the beginning it might be a bit difficult to ‘hand over my work’, but you have to trust your team. I’m looking forward to it”, Hans laughs.
If you want to grow, you need to expand your team. In the beginning it might be a bit difficult to ‘hand over my work’, but you have to trust your team.
When asked if he already misses Birdhouse and what he took away from the accelerator program, he answers the following: “That strategic thinking and thoughtful preparation of things is really something that the mentors at Birdhouse gave me. You have to set goals, and not jump on every opportunity like a headless chicken.”
Wonky: “Because of the new cooperation with the production partner I can focus 100% on what I like to do and what I can do well”.
For Helena Gheeraert from Wonky this was the best choice. The young entrepreneur takes up the fight against food waste with her delicious and healthy vegetable tips. “Passion is so important. So is doing what you love to do. Because we’ve started working more closely with one of our production partners, I’m able to focus back on what I love to do and do best.”
“If I were to do it again, I would have done a better job of learning about the industry. I may have done this a little too little when starting up Wonky, and I do think it could have saved me a lot of time and energy.” But as an entrepreneur you are not alone. “During Birdhouse, I found it hugely educational to be amongst all of the start-ups and scale-ups day in and day out. Having the right mentors at the right time also helped.
“After our participation in Birdhouse, we had an offer for an investment. That party partially acquired the company to ensure optimal cooperation.” Founder Helena is pleased with that decision.
“I deal with the marketing, while they deal with the operational. Their expertise combined with our authentic story allows us to grow faster and win over more major retailers.”
And that approach works. Wonky has been sold for a while at some local food stores, but since recently you can find the healthy vegetable chips on the refrigerated shelves of Colruyt. “We hope to head abroad soon and convince international retailers. So we can save even more vegetables from being wasted at home and abroad!
Plann3r: “Successful launch on Product Hunt and integrations into major HR platforms”.
Nicholas D’hondt, co-founder of Plann3r, also has nothing but good news to report. The scheduling tool, which allows you to record an appointment in just a few clicks, is used as a convenient integration within the HR tool Thalento, a major player in Europe. “Their recruiters used to take about 6 weeks on average to do a selection round – thanks to Plann3r, that’s now 4. They can now make better use of those 2 weeks they needed to email back and forth to set appointments.”
During our launch on Product Hunt, not only did we get so many upvotes that we became Product Of The Day, we actually got a lot of new users out of it. Especially active users, who immediately linked all their calendars and sent out invites.
The practical planning tool was also noticed by the Product Hunt community. “On May 3, we launched Plann3r at Product Hunt. The dream of appearing on the front page was exceeded. We got so many upvotes that not only did we become Product Of The Day, we actually got a lot of new users out of it. Especially active users, who immediately linked all their calendars and sent out invites.”
It’s obviously been a busy period (when hasn’t it?) but Nicholas can always fall back on his team. “I’m glad that my co-founder Ruben knows that sometimes I call him up when I’m sitting with something and want to check with someone. Communicating with your teammates is something I learned a lot about at Birdhouse, thanks to An Dours‘ personal coaching sessions. I used to say things in such a way that teammates could interpret them as offensive, when that wasn’t the intention at all. An taught me methods that I still use every day. I’ll definitely take that from Birdhouse.”
But it’s not the only thing that sticks with him from his time in the accelerator program. “The Wilfried(Van Assche, n.d.r.) who came in here every two weeks to say we weren’t doing a good job, that’s going to stick with me too.” After some bewilderment, the explanation: “yes, of course he didn’t say that literally. He just confronted us on a regular basis, and that really steered us in the right direction. And he has a huge Wilfriedesque way of saying that.”
The future plans are only positive. “We’d love to stay at Birdhouse for a while longer . Such a beautiful office at a top location filled with inspiring entrepreneurs, it can’t get any better. We also want to expand our team with two new profiles. We want to raise capital for this. We are now looking for parties who are interested.”