“If you start a start-up thinking that it will succeed purely on experience, it will be seriously disappointing.”

When Contractify was just starting out, founders Herlinde De Buck and Steven Debrauwere were mainly consultants helping companies to monitor and manage their contracts. Then they became service providers, Contract Management As a Service and now Contractify is a full-fledged IT company. “Six months after we agreed with each other that we were never going to develop software ourselves, we were a 100 percent software company. In a start-up, you have to be prepared to change course completely at any time.”

Herlinde and Steven were colleagues at a lab group. “We had just put up a new building, five business units had to move from three different locations to that new office. A great opportunity to streamline the purchasing procedures. For that, of course, we had to know where all the contracts were. An easy question, but very difficult to answer. They were scattered all over the company, in different units and teams and employees.”

The team behind Contractify

“Many companies are in the same boat. Especially companies that do a lot of acquisitions and have many different branches lose a lot of money if they don’t follow up and manage their contracts properly. They forget to terminate contracts, pay different prices for the same product. They buy the same products from different suppliers and miss out on volume discounts. They forget to ask for the end-of-year discount to which they are entitled according to their contract. They keep paying the same rates to their energy supplier for years on end, while new customers get much better rates. And so on.”

The vocation

Enter Contractify. Herlinde and Steven decided to expand their contract management solution and offer it to all those other companies where contracts are a tangled web. Steven had started a business before, just after he graduated. He started working as an employee fairly soon. But entrepreneurship kept itching. “I had been the right hand of CEOs for ten years. I now wanted to be at the wheel myself for a change.”

Herlinde had never seen herself as an entrepreneur. “Having my own start-up, I had never thought of that in all those years as an employee. It is also atypical of me. I am someone who normally always likes to be in control, a start-up is diametrically opposed to that. But suddenly we were stuck with an idea that really felt like a calling.”

First, second and third pivot

Contractify was originally a consulting firm. “But we noticed right away that the companies were not getting around to recording their contracts in the software we proposed. We then went to do that in their place. We checked whether the contracts had been signed, whether the term was clear, etc., and we registered them in the software. Initially, we only did this at the start-up, but soon the question arose whether we could take care of them permanently. From a consultant we had become a service provider. That was our first pivot.

‘‘Pivots typify a start-up. As a founder, you must constantly be prepared to change course completely.’’

“This service ran well, but had one major handicap: it was very difficult to scale up. Literally six months after we said to each other that we would never, ever develop software ourselves, we developed our own software. That was pivot number two.”

“At first, that software was still linked to our services. But now he’s disconnected. We supply software to companies who use it to manage their contracts. Another pivot. In two years’ time, we have evolved from consultancy to IT (laughs). From a company that would never make software to a fully-fledged software company. ”

Bootstraps

Contractify pivoted and grew without investors. It was a conscious decision to bootstrap, Steven clarifies. “It certainly was not the easy way, we’ve seen financially really black snow. But where other start-ups that are roughly where we are now have already gone through one or two rounds of capital, we are still 100 percent independent of others. We’re certainly not saying no to investors. But by bootstrapping, we are now in a position where we can afford to only go with the right investors. On the right terms.”

”The Birdhouse mentors played a crucial role in our course changes.”

The Birdhouse mentors played a crucial role in those changes of direction, Herlinde and Steven say
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”It’s important to have a sounding board . You can’t get stuck in your own train of thought. Outsiders – our mentors, but also the advisory board we soon assembled – always provide new insights.’’

“Scalability was the main reason for turning Contractify towards IT. Our software is simple and user-friendly, and it is deliberately built very generalistically. This is a great advantage if we want to tap into other markets. Legislation and certain formalities may differ slightly, but the basic principles of contract management are the same in every country.”

Steven Debrauwere, founder Contractify

Different mindset than school leavers

Do founders with experience, like Herlinde and Steven, approach a start-up differently than young wolves who have just left school? “We’ve both had some miles on our odometer. But contract management-as-a-service is totally new. If you start a start-up thinking that you will succeed purely based on experience, you will be seriously disappointed. Whether you have 20 years of experience or have just left school, a start-up is always starting from scratch.

”If you start a start-up thinking that it will work purely on experience, it will be seriously disappointing.”

“The difference with founders who are just coming out of school is that they may have a slightly different mindset. I can imagine that as a 20-year-old, you dream of building a start-up that you can sell after a few years and then start something completely new. That kick. With us, it’s different: Contractify is what we want to do for the rest of our professional lives.

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