'An MBA is an assault on your personal life'

Bart Van der Roost, an entrepreneur thanks to Vlerick

Source: De Morgen (05/01/2015). Author: Filip Michiels. © 2015 De Persgroep Publishing

Once bankers used to sit here, enjoying the most beautiful view over and of the city. Today, the KBC tower in Antwerp accommodates over 80 start-ups. Bart Van der Roost (33) is one of them: a musician by training, Vlerick Boy by vocation and a born entrepreneur.

Flashback to 24 November 2014. In the South Korean capital of Seoul, Bart Van der Roost - the CEO of neoScores – had been invited to make an appearance on stage during the third edition of the Startup Nations Summit. The small Belgian company was awarded the Foxconn Award at the summit and was also selected as the world’s second most promising start-up by a jury which included top people from Huawei, Samsung and Foxconn. NeoScores, which digitises musical scores that are often centuries old, had been in existence for less than 18 months at that point. When two friends – who are now partners in the company - presented the business plan to Bart Van der Roost in 2008, he rejected it outright. "In my defence, the iPad hadn't been invented yet. At the time, the business concept would have required all the musicians in an orchestra to take their laptops on stage and open it up in front of them and their instruments, among other things."

Two years later, the iPad had conquered the world and the idea came up again. This time, when Van der Roost was approached to develop and manage the start-up, he took the bait. "At the time, I was still working as the operations manager for the Brussels Philharmonic. It didn't take long to organise a test concert by the Brussels Philharmonic, using digital scores on Samsung tablets. That was a real eye-opener for me and I started researching various things: what about selling scores, how big was the market? At that point, I hadn't even considered giving up my job with the Brussels Philharmonic but in July 2013 that is just what I did, even though I loved working there. And look, here we are today in the KBC tower and I'm hard at work recruiting new financial backers."

The company is seriously ambitious: neoScores wants to become the iTunes of the musical score world, as Van der Roost recently revealed.

Intellectual challenge

Saying that Bart Van der Roost has a somewhat unusual profile for a high-potential entrepreneur is an understatement: he is a qualified musician, a graduate of the Lemmens Institute and a producer and programmer for the classical music radio station Klara, who then spent five years working as the operations manager for the Brussels Philharmonic. "We organised up to 40 orchestral productions every year and my team and I only had one task: to make sure that everything ran smoothly. It was a very exciting job because I was the spider in the web who came into contact with everyone, from the marketing department and the accounting team right through to the pianist and the conductor. However, I always used to see myself as an artist rather than a manager, which was also why I started studying music at that time. And then one day I realised that perhaps I just didn't possess enough pure craftsmanship to make it all the way to the top as a musician. In other words: it would have taken too much effort to get really good and I realised that perhaps I just didn't think it was worth all that hard work to get to the top and stay there."

When he looks back now and tries to locate the turning point in his life, it's always the same name which springs to mind: Vlerick. "In 2012, I started doing an MBA there. It's difficult to say why I suddenly saw the light, but it really came down to the lack of intellectual challenge in my former job at the Brussels Philharmonic. I had a great job, but there wasn't really any potential for further growth. An MBA offered new challenges, not least because I didn't think I had all the theoretical knowledge I needed to really be a good manager. It's almost as if I was afraid, deep down inside, that someone would come up to me one day and just tell me that I was actually doing everything wrong.”

Golden cage

Vlerick proved a revelation in every possible respect and unleashed far more than he had ever thought possible. "To start with, it was the first time I had really come into contact with the corporate world, which came as quite a shock. I was in the class because I wanted a challenge, but half my classmates were mainly there because it was the only option for them if they really wanted to make it to the top of their company. I was never the smartest of the bunch, on the contrary in fact, but nonetheless we all influenced each other a lot and there was great chemistry between us. I still have huge respect for the corporate world, but on the other hand I also opened up a whole new world for all these extremely intelligent and ambitious people.

"One wonderful evening, I took the whole class to a concert by the Brussels Philharmonic. Over half of them had never even set foot in a classical concert hall before. At Vlerick, I got to know highly intelligent and open people who often earned a huge amount of money, but at the same time about half of them seemed to be trapped in a golden cage. I really earned a pittance compared with my classmates, but I was happy. Sometimes it was quite confrontational. Once we even put it to the test by revealing how much we all earned. My wage was by far the lowest, but at the same time my operating budget was the highest by a long shot.

"An MBA really is an assault on your personal life. And to be honest with you, I completely underestimated it. Before you start, you think it's going to be a bit like taking evening classes in Italian: a few evenings a week, a dozen or so hours of lectures. But then came the first lesson in micro and macroeconomics. Two sets of course notes, each 800 pages long... Professor Hans Geeroms came in and started the lecture by saying he assumed that we were already sufficiently familiar with chapters 1 to 8. As a result, we would just go over them briefly in a single lesson. And I had never studied economics before! I did manage to wrestle my way through the entrance exam for the MBA course, after 5 months of preparation, but that was nothing at all in comparison with what hit me over the following 18 months. After my first year, I came home one evening and slept for almost two weeks in a row.

"When I was at Vlerick, one of my goals was really to put the Brussels Philharmonic on the international map. At the time, we were sometimes on tour for two weeks or more. For me, that meant hurrying back to the hotel after the concert, putting my earphones in, logging into Skype and following the lecture. Doing assignments whenever I could, preparing for lectures on the bus for dozens of hours a week, for almost two years in a row. It was absolutely crazy, to be honest. After three months I was forced to sit down with my wife – we also have two young children – and together we decided to start organising our household like a company, with a very tight schedule. In other words the course pushed me to the absolute limits and really pulled me way out of my comfort zone. In my opinion, the biggest added value of these MBAs isn't even the knowledge you gain as a result: the main thing is that now I really know who I am. Now I know I am a real goal-getter, someone with a passion for enterprise all the time, wherever I am. On the other hand, I also thought I could lead a team. In fact, I turned out to be quite wrong about that. It was the most difficult period in my life, but strangely enough I still find myself missing it from time to time, being challenged to the utmost!"

An Executive MBA at Vlerick Business School certainly doesn’t come cheap. For a course which lasts 18 months, students have to come up with 37,000 euros. That's a lot of money, especially if you have to find it yourself. And whereas it traditionally used to be employers who would fund these courses for their most promising employees, these days the opposite trend is evident. The most recent figures published by Vlerick show that around half of all Executive MBA students at Vlerick pay for the course out of their own pocket. If you take into account the hundreds of hours of lessons and preparation – in the evening after a demanding day job or putting in an entire weekend every three weeks – and the fact that most young 30-somethings already have their hands full with a young family, it should be clear that anyone who isn't 200% motivated wouldn't even consider such a course.

"In 2011, when we asked several of our alumni why they wanted to take an Executive MBA, the anticipated increase in salary was a particularly important factor", says professor Regine Slagmulder, director of the Executive MBA at Vlerick. "In view of the hefty price tag for these courses, perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that the financial aspect is so important. Both we and our international competitors are seeing increasing numbers of students financing their courses themselves. In fact, we are also noticing that more and more people are taking their MBA in the weekend format: one entire weekend every three weeks, instead of late at night after their day job."

Currently, almost half the MBA students at Vlerick have an engineering degree. Another quarter have a background in economics. According to Slagmulder: "These are the most typical profiles: people who are very good at their job but at the same time also feel that they ought to improve their other skills, such as the soft skills, and move away from their technical role if they want to make a career switch and progress to a top-level management position within their company. A second group consists of people who really want to fast-track their career. The fact that a university degree has become almost ubiquitous, at least in the corporate world, definitely plays a role here. These days, people applying for jobs a certain level with an average university degree will find it extremely difficult to make it all the way to the top. The time of management by spreadsheet is long gone.

"For people who really are aiming high, an MBA has almost become a prerequisite. Not just because of the extra degree per se, but mainly because these days companies are increasingly looking for employees who have other skills besides their purely technical qualities: leadership qualities, people management, teamwork skills etc. I think that the people who stand out most in these respects are mainly striking as a result of their positive and critical characters: they have charisma and can get others to follow their lead, but on the basis of a certain authenticity and personality. And no, these are not the kind of people who always have to be the cock of the walk."

Vlerick Boys

"Until I threw myself into Vlerick, I felt that nobody in the whole wide world had a better job than me. I simply couldn't imagine a bank manager or the risk analyst of an insurance company ever being happy with their work", says Bart Van der Roost. "These days I do understand it, because I have realised that happiness mainly comes from passion for your work and this passion can be found everywhere. At Vlerick, I learned that you can even be so passionate about computer chips that I spent a fascinating evening listening to a man who had made them his life's work," he says, laughing. "To put it mildly, everyone I met there was a bit eccentric in some way. And yes, they really do exist, those typical Vlerick Boys who get all excited by a good spreadsheet, but if there's one thing I learned at Vlerick, it's that they make every effort not to just churn out typical Vlerick Boys. The subjects which really stuck with everyone, including me, were mainly what are thought of as softer subjects: negotiation techniques, HR, organisation management, you name it. And why do these lessons often stick with you the most? Because they reveal a great deal about the kind of person you are. Since Vlerick, I no longer pigeonhole people: that is one thing I really did learn there. I learned to have more respect for other views and opinions and today I also feel a lot more responsibility, even an obligation, to do something with my knowledge and skills. I get downright annoyed when people give me that 'high potential' label, but at the same time it also makes me feel like more of a catalyst who is here to help the people around me grow too. The main conclusion I came to after the course is that I believe a team always wins in the end, and what that mainly comes down to is allowing everyone in the team to do what they are best at."

Party animals

18 months ago, Bart said goodbye to "the best job in the world". Vlerick had turned him into a different person. "I am all too aware that digitising scores isn't exactly something that keeps people in Africa awake at night. Am I going to solve any of the world's problems with this company? No, but I can do something which is very important to me personally. If it also earns me a lot of money at some point in the future that would be great, but it's not exactly my main driving force at the moment. What I do think is fantastic is that I now form part of a brand-new generation of young entrepreneurs (in fact, here in Antwerp I am even paving the way for them) and can motivate other people to take the same step. I also really love being in charge of my own timetable again, as that certainly hasn't been the case in recent years. My diary is absolutely packed and these days I still spend four nights a week away from home, but now I choose where I go and what I do. In addition, I also block out time for family and friends in advance and nothing gets in the way of that. If one of our children gets sick, it is always a big problem because my wife has a busy life too. But you will never hear me complain: I would really hate a stress-free job. In fact, I thrive on stress!"

Work hard, play hard. These days, high fliers seem to live by this motto far more than seeking out an acceptable work/life balance. The message seems to be that it's not the hours of free time, but the freedom to fill your time as you please that matters.

"I was recently in Munich as we are currently negotiating to digitise of The Night of the Proms. Going back on tour with an orchestra after all that time was wonderful, and the after-party was insane. Just like when I was much younger, long into the small hours. I even genuinely enjoyed the hangover the next day," he laughs. "Perhaps that's actually quite typical of so-called high potential entrepreneurs: we chase after a dream, often end up hitting our heads against the wall, but we keep on going. I also think it's perfectly legitimate for someone to want nothing more than a nine to five job, four days a week if possible, and to spend the rest of the time with their family. The only thing is that personally I wouldn't want that kind of life. Just as I think other people shouldn't be envious of my life. Starting your own company might be trendier than ever before, but it mainly involves working incredibly hard, living in a state of permanent uncertainty and constantly coming up against people who tell you that you are chasing the impossible and are doomed to fail. Quite a few people start out at Vlerick with the idea that this is the best long-term investment they could make. I actually don't agree with that. The MBA certainly gave me a much firmer footing in many areas, but I don't regard Vlerick as any kind of accreditation label. In my view, what is far more important is what you do with it afterwards and how the course changes you. If it gives you anything concrete, I guess that would mainly be the network."

So the million-dollar question is: where does he hope to be ten years from now? "I would love to become a defining factor in society. Possibly by becoming an entrepreneur who employs 300 people, but in the longer term it could just as well involve playing a leading role somewhere in the cultural sector. In both cases, what it comes down to is showing people the way, leading them down a certain path and having a positive impact."

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