He is not an entrepreneur pur sang, starts Koen De Waele immediately. “More like a wingman, a partner-in-crime, someone who, from the wings, encourages and challenges the protagonist,” it sounds. A role that De Waele is perfectly happy with, to be perfectly clear. More than twenty years of experience in business have taught him what he is good at. He applies that wealth of expertise these days as a venture partner at Volta Ventures, director at SupplyStack and mentor at Birdhouse.

A guest lecture by Professor William D. Bygrave of the American business school Babson College triggered De Waele’s interest in venture capital during his college years. So much so that after his studies in economics in 1995 he stayed on at the UGent to do research on the subject. “After that two-year research project, I started working at FLV Fund. At the time, it was one of the few venture capitalists in Belgium. I was the third person to start working there, but at the very bottom as an analyst,” says De Waele. “We mainly invested in start-up AI and speech technology companies. We’re talking about the late 1990s here, so that technology was really in its infancy then.”

The business community in

For De Waele, his venture capital adventure ended when he joined Wolters Kluwer in 2002. “A conscious choice,” he says of that. “At the investment fund, I was a young guest sitting among 40-year-old entrepreneurs and coming to tell them how best to approach their business, even though I had no real business experience myself.” At the software company, De Waele was responsible for expanding Teleroute, a stand-alone unit within the large corporate. “My master plan was that I would stay at Wolters Kluwer for about three years, maybe four. Then it would be time for something new. Change once in a while is good, I thought.” De Waele laughs: “So fifteen years later I was still there.”

“I’m not a purebred entrepreneur, because I don’t get energy from day-to-day operations.”

New challenges and transformations have kept him there all this time. But a takeover of Teleroute by a German investment group was the moment for De Waele to close the door behind him. “I’ve been a business development manager there, CFO and Strategy Director and in between interim CEO. When they asked me to eventually become COO, I politely said ‘no’. I knew that day-to-day operations would not give me energy and that it was time for something else. As interim CEO I had already noticed that this role was not for me. So I’m not a purebred entrepreneur, because I don’t get any energy from day-to-day operations”, it sounds like. “Sometimes I have to, of course. But don’t make me do it every day, please.”

The sweet spot

But there was more. De Waele missed his professional childhood sweetheart, his great love: venture capital. “Since mid-2018, I’ve been working on that again on a daily basis. Fantastic, I think. As a venture partner at Volta Ventures, I mainly look at B2B technology start-ups. That’s really the sweet spot: looking for the right startups to invest in, evaluating their file, negotiating and then mentoring them.”

What is it about venture capital that appeals to him so much? “I see so many great ideas that can change things, make the world a better place or make it more efficient. The fact that I can contribute to that by helping and guiding these start-ups is what I like about it. But also the analytical part, the thinking exercises you have to do to get a 360° view of a start-up and to come to a win-win deal. And then it gets really fun: co-directing, co-supervising, going through the ups and downs. As a wingman, I can find something to my liking in all aspects of venture capital.”

“I see so many great ideas that can make the world a better or more efficient place. The fact that I can contribute to that by guiding start-ups and entrepreneurs is what I find so cool about it.”

Because that is how De Waele sees himself above all: the second man, the sparring partner, the helpline.

“My motto is: ‘knowledge is power – know yourself’. I know myself. I know my strengths and weaknesses. I’m not the guy who gets up on the soapbox and says to fifty people ‘now we’re going left’, and everyone goes left. No, I am better at making a difference in a small setting, behind the big man,” explains De Waele. “There’s a reason a lot of CEOs in the past like to keep me close to them. Because I speak my mind, give my input – but don’t get frustrated when he deliberately goes in a different direction anyway.”

A firm belief in success

This is certainly not to say that De Waele has no entrepreneurial spirit. “Certainly I am, I am absolutely entrepreneurial. But as a partner, as a coach for investors and purebred entrepreneurs. I get my pleasure from guiding others to success, but I don’t have to be on the front page for that. Let me contribute to that success from the sideline.”

“As a mentor, I think I make the biggest difference by breaking the mindset of startups for a while. They are, understandably, often stuck in their own heads – and sometimes that’s too black and white”

And that’s exactly what he does as a director at SupplyStack and a mentor at Birdhouse. He has been mentoring for four years, but De Waele never gets tired of it. He has since filled the role in his own way. “With my experience in finance, strategy and innovation, I can teach a lot, of course. But I think I make the biggest difference by breaking through the thinking pattern of starters. They are, understandably, often stuck in their own heads and that is sometimes too black and white. But I would never want to shake off their stubbornness and holy belief in success. They can keep that.”

One of them he has to give a push, another one needs some security, and yet another one has to slow down De Waele. Just to say, it’s never a dull moment as a mentor. “But the best part is when you can give them insights that will help them move forward. When they finally dare to cut a difficult knot, or turn the wheel towards a clear course – then I have achieved my goal as a mentor. Then I can only be happy.”

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