“Thanks to the Birdhouse-Belfius fund, we were able to scale from 30 to more than 100 Belgian municipalities and cities.”

Jonas Heirwegh (left) and Jennick Scheerlinck

Better a good neighbor than a distant friend. With that philosophy, Jennick Scheerlinck and Jonas Heirwegh launched their neighbourhood platform Hoplr in 2014, with which they want to make local communities vibrant again. How relevant this philosophy still is, becomes even more apparent in times of corona. Research done by Hoplr together with UGent showed that 40% of the respondents received support from neighbors during the pandemic, of which 25,000 people effectively did so through Hoplr. This impact has created a taste for more, and the co-founders are therefore determined to roll out their platform further internationally. To this end, the company recently completed its third capital round, worth 2 million euros, successfully.

The initial idea for Hoplr was a little different when Jennick Scheerlinck started it in 2013: “We wanted to do something to bring the local economy back into the spotlight. We saw that more and more vacancies were appearing and that the small shops and cafes were having a hard time. At a certain point I was looking for a UX designer and I found one in Jonas Heirwegh, a childhood friend. At our very first meeting he managed to pull the concept wider to the entire local community.”

Social impact

Since then, the two childhood friends have been working together to create the Hoplr of today. Their biggest motivation is to make a social impact. Ever since their studies they have loved to philosophise about a better world. “Society, politics, new trends… We were amazed that people are so attached to their smartphones. That’s how we came to the conclusion that we need to bring people back together and make them understand that a local network can make a difference.”

“We still hear people say sometimes like, ‘Hoplr, that’s like a Facebook group’. But it’s more than that! Together with governments, we stimulate the development of social communities. In this way we create a sense of belonging, a group feeling, trust and more contacts. And the latter makes for a longer independent life and a happier feeling. We are going to measure that impact with the help of a social scientist from UGent who will soon be joining our team.”

“Now that our concept has been validated, we are going to change our approach.”

Hoplr currently has more than 500,000 users in Belgium and the Netherlands who use the platform to get in touch with their neighbors. Jennick Scheerlinck regularly receives great feedback from users via a recurring survey: “It’s incredible to read how people give meaning to the platform and how many meetings have been created. They also welcome our values of privacy and independence. That it is not forced from the state, it is free and ad-free. That’s what we stand for.”

Hoplr has reached these 500,000 users mainly by seeding. “We rolled out neighborhood networks in new communities at our own expense and endowed letters to invite citizens to them,” Jennick explains. “That way we could prove that it works. Now that our concept has been validated, these investments are no longer necessary and we are going to change our approach.”

Distribution of letters in Ghent

Whereas Hoplr always used a bottom-up approach, they now focus on long-term collaborations with cities and towns. They in turn roll out the neighbourhood network for their citizens. “From a business standpoint, that’s much more defensible because it’s easier to scale. Where we used to have more of a ‘power to the people’ mentality, we now let the executives facilitate that power.”

In 2018, Hoplr landed at Birdhouse’s accelerator with a clear ambition: to scale. “We already had an MVP, our first paying customers and were close to a product market fit. We were ready to scale to the whole of Belgium and had our eyes on the Birdhouse-Belfius fund for this. Thanks in part to Belfius, the number of Belgian municipalities in which Hoplr has a presence increased from 30 to over 100 and we were able to open markets in the Netherlands.”

Chaff from wheat

During that same period, Hoplr grew from five to twelve people. According to Jennick, this caused some growing pains: “We may have gone a little too fast. With the core team, half a word was enough, but with a larger team, more rules and structure were needed. As management, we consciously sought solutions for this, together with the employees. That’s how we started training better and built in more structure and culture.”

“We also had to separate the wheat from the chaff,” Jennick continues. “We went back to ten people who were really ready. That was on the advice of our mentors at Birdhouse. They said that a start-up should be able to make decisions quickly and that you shouldn’t hesitate too long to let people go. We made mistakes. We sometimes left things too long because we were scared or we didn’t want to disappoint anyone.”

Team Hoplr

Despite the difficult and hard choices that had to be made, relations between the co-founders Jennick Scheerlinck and Jonas Heirwegh remained good. “Our collaboration has only gotten better and more positive over the years. In the beginning we sometimes clashed, because we were both rather control freaks. But now we’ve grown so close that we understand and trust each other perfectly. We don’t really need words anymore.

“Corona shows how relevant Hoplr is right now.”

That way, they’ll also survive the turbulent times of corona. In the period from March to July, Hoplr rolled out no less than twenty new cities, including Hasselt and Bruges. In addition, users knew how to find the platform: “We saw a flurry of solidarity actions, requests for help and especially people offering help on our platform. Research by UGent showed that 40% received support from neighbors, and 25,000 people effectively through our platform. So Corona shows just how relevant Hoplr is right now.”

This relevance is also demonstrated by the Seal of Excellence that Hoplr received from the European Commission. The quality label is awarded to promising European projects. Jennick Scheerlinck is delighted with the recognition: “This is the highest quality slogan in Europe and surely the best award we could have achieved. And as a bonus, it provides visibility and awareness, something that can attract investors.”

Neighbourhood party in the pre-coronation era

Further expansion

Those investors have come. The funds of Belfius, Matexi and CAREvolution jointly invested EUR 2 million to contribute to Hoplr’s internationalisation plans. Scheerlinck: “We find it important to keep innovating, to keep diversifying and to keep building a future-oriented organisation. In addition to Belfius and Matexi, with CAREvolution we have again chosen a Belgian and socially committed partner. Together, we want to invest in caring neighbourhoods.”

We also have our sights set on foreign countries. Hoplr is already active in the Netherlands and wants to expand to France and the United Kingdom. Corona has shifted those ambitions into a higher gear: “Normally, certain matters take up a lot of time with city and municipal authorities, but now information sessions, contracts and launches can suddenly be arranged remotely and quickly. That has certainly made us think about further internationalisation!”

Investment paradox

The founder of Hoplr is very pleased with the capital injection, but adds that it has not always been easy to find willing investors: “In Belgium, people often only invest when the project is already generating significant revenue. But to generate sales, you must first develop your product. And that’s exactly what you need the investment for. That’s a huge paradox. In America, they say, “What’s the dream? How much money do you need? Okay, let’s fucking build it! That’s more risky, but that’s how you create the unicorns.”

“I think that, especially for agency business, this is still food for thought,” Jennick continued. “To really encourage companies, to be able to innovate a bit more freely and with less commitment and complexity. People think that this is only possible for Apple and Google. But in Belgium it is possible, and we should believe in that more. Fortunately, there are exceptions: Showpad and Teamleader are world leaders.”

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