“Thanks to Birdhouse, TechWolf was able to molt from student-led project to fast-growing enterprise.”
“TechWolf builds AI that helps companies map employee skills and align them with business strategy.” Mikaël Wornoo and Jeroen Van Hautte, co-founders of the Ghent start-up TechWolf, don’t hesitate for a second when asked to describe their successful business. The sentence rolls out smoothly. “That was very different a year ago with our first client pitch,” they laugh. “Thanks to Birdhouse, TechWolf was able to molt from a student-led project to a fast-growing enterprise.”
“TechWolf originated from a year’s assignment during our studies in civil engineering computer science at UGent,” Mikaël Wornoo, one of the three founders, tells the story. “We noticed that students are often hired for hospitality jobs, while many of them already have the skills to take on other tasks.” So he and fellow students Andreas De Neve and Jeroen Van Hautte spent a year writing AI software that matched candidates and jobs based on skills rather than a resume.
Once graduated, Wornoo, Van Hautte and De Neve were eager to continue TechWolf, but how? “We had just landed our first paying customer. But we hadn’t been taught how to do anything like that, what the next step should be.“, says Wornoo. “So when we saw the call for the Birdhouse accelerator program, we didn’t hesitate to participate in the selection rounds.”
Birdhouse would help TechWolf take more than one step. The start-up recently raised one million euros in growth capital, has entered into a number of strategic partnerships, and has just hired its ninth employee. “We owe all of that to what we learned during those six months at Birdhouse,” Van Hautte said. “At the start of the accelerator program, we were three civil engineering students, classic tech profiles so to speak, with a promising product. Birdhouse turned us into entrepreneurs.”
The switch from the university library to the Birdhouse office space with 15 other start-ups meant an initial mental click. “You’re suddenly surrounded by people who want to go all out, just like you. Everyone is there with a similar goal, namely to develop an idea into a successful business,” explains Wornoo.
“Some are already a bit further along, others just barely. This allows you to help yourself as well as ask others for advice. You learn a lot from each other, during lunch and during the joint workshops. It is a very stimulating environment. So it’s no coincidence that we still keep in touch with all the Birdhouse start-ups from our batch, and have even grown a few friendships from it.”
On the backs of giants
The dynamic and inspiring office environment with its ambitious start-ups is not the only asset of Birdhouse. “The great strength of the program, and what has had the biggest impact for us, is the quality of the mentors,” states Van Hautte. At the start of the accelerator programme, each start-up is assigned two to three mentors who, because of their specific background, are the best fit for the growth story.
For TechWolf they were Conny Vandendriessche (House of HR, Stella P., We are Jane), Pol Vanbiervliet (ex-Cisco, ex-Mobistar) and Wouter Neirinck (serial entrepreneur). ” Three top profiles, and above all complementary in terms of knowledge and experience,” Van Hautte continues. “From Pol Van Biervliet we learned an awful lot in terms of sales and how to work out a contract, Conny Vandendriessche is a businesswoman pur sang with a valuable network, and Wouter Neirinck taught us how to buy time by bootstrapping and how to organise ourselves best.”
“The great strength of the program, and what has had the greatest impact for us, is the quality of the mentors”
“The first mentor meeting was a good lesson right away,” Wornoo says. “We had prepared everything rather chaotically, and Conny, Pol and Wouter weren’t too impressed by that. You don’t want to go through that twice. At that moment we made the click and started to approach everything in a much more professional way. With the help of Wouter, we started to structure our work: making schedules, creating reports. It took some initial time and effort to set it up, but paid off very quickly. We were able to identify blind spots, work in a more focused way, and make better decisions.”
Golden tipping point
One of those better decisions was the structural pivot TechWolf made, prompted by their three mentors. “Our first idea was to set up a temp agency for IT students,” explains Wornoo. “Until we realized that our technology solves a much bigger problem at corporates. Research shows that many organizations do not know what skills their employees have. This has a major impact on various areas, such as the recruitment policy of a company, learning and development, and the realisation of strategic goals. Shortly after the start of Birdhouse, in consultation with Conny, Pol and Wouter, we therefore turned our attention entirely to corporate HR.”
TechWolf has since been building AI that helps companies map employee skills and align them with business strategy. And this is proving to be a bull’s-eye as the current growth proves. Today, the Ghent start-up is preparing for international expansion, and to achieve this, they occasionally seek advice from their mentor team. “We have a WhatsApp group with the three mentors, and there is always one of them who can help us with a practical question, or something we are looking for a solution for,” says Van Hautte. “That’s perhaps the greatest value of Birdhouse yet: it doesn’t stop after those few months. We’ve only just started.”