Start-ups seek managers

Source: De Tijd (08 March 2016); Authors: Stijn Demeester and Wim De Preter (This article was reproduced with the publisher’s permission, all rights reserved. Each copy is subject to explicit permission by License2Publish; [email protected])

There have never been as many start-ups in Belgium as there are today. The fact that so many people are taking the initiative to start their own business is of tremendous benefit to the fabric of our economy. However, not every entrepreneur is, by definition, also a good manager. This is why more and more fledgling enterprises are calling in external specialists.

‘After two days I felt my former elation returning’

Calling in an external manager to increase your enterprise’s chances of success is considered taboo by many start-ups. Fortunately Lorenzo Bown didn’t see it that way when he took the decision to step aside as the CEO of StoryMe. ‘You shouldn’t let your ego stand in the way of your success.’

The StoryMe office, located in the attic of a stately Ghent town house, is literally bursting at the seams. Even the kitchen and conference room are occupied by one of the thirty-five young motion designers, illustrators and video marketeers who work here.

The ‘explainer videos’ produced by StoryMe, one-minute animated films in which companies and organisations explain complex messages in layman’s terms, are booming. Founded in 2013, the advertising agency’s turnover has increased by threefold in the past year. In addition to its branches in London and Zurich, the agency also aims to open new branches in Dubai, Singapore, Geneva and Stockholm soon. This is anticipated to raise the agency’s turnover to five million euros by 2018.

However, there was a price to pay for this growth. ‘Several months ago, I noticed that I was starting to enjoy my job less and less,’ confides Lorenzo Bown, the founder - and until recently, CEO - of StoryMe. ‘I wanted to know why this was happening. We are working here with a fantastic team on some of the coolest projects imaginable. Why wasn’t I feeling the same drive every morning that I had always felt before?’

After a few meetings with Frank Verzele, SME coach at Vlerick Business School, Bown called a meeting with his Board of Directors to notify them that something would have to change. The conclusion drawn from these meetings was that, although Bown was a fantastic entrepreneur, he didn’t feel comfortable in the position of manager. ‘The point is simply that what StoryMe needs right now is a manager with the skills to take the agency to the next level of professionalism.’

It was director and co-shareholder Matthieu De Winter, an experienced advertising professional who had led companies including Saatchi & Saatchi Belgium, who put StoryMe in touch with Jonathan Moerkens. After five years at Duval Guillaume and another five at Saatchi, Moerkens was ready for a new challenge. He was given the go-ahead after a few meetings and an assessment by a professional HR service provider. The other members of the Board of Directors, including co-investors Johan Castelein (Buurtslagers) and Edwig Tanghe (from SME service provider Conessence), were soon won over.

‘We were looking for someone with vast experience in the advertising industry and a strong manager profile: someone who would be able to give this start-up, with its exciting history, a clearer structure, to organise it better and to mould it into the right processes. It soon became apparent that Jonathan was the perfect man for the job. It clicked straight away and we were immediately convinced by his action plan.’

Moerkens: ‘StoryMe is growing very rapidly, so it is essential for this growth to be channelled in the right direction.’ It is my job to make sure that everyone is working along the same lines and towards the same goal.’

Bown will remain aboard as the majority shareholder and Chief Strategic Officer. In this role he will once again be able to focus on strategy and international expansion, as he did in the early days of the agency. Is the young entrepreneur enjoying his job again? ‘Two days after Jonathan joined us, I felt my former elation returning, simply because he had picked up some of my tasks and taken the weight off my shoulders. I was finally able to come up for air again and focus on things that are important to me.’

Bown is convinced many young entrepreneurs experience similar growing pains. ‘It seems as if there is a taboo on recruiting someone who is better suited to fill your shoes. You shouldn’t let your ego stand in the way of your success. I have noticed that what this generation of entrepreneurs wants more than anything is to build up a healthy business with happy people.’

‘I do more than just give advice; I put it into action.’

‘People sometimes call me the best-disguised entrepreneur’, says ‘start-up CFO’ Joris Noreillie. He exchanged a secure career for the excitement of multiple entrepreneurship.

Noreillie built up a career as a financial professional at multinationals such as DHL and pharmaceutical companies such as Gambro and Baxter. ‘It was relatively safe and predictable, but I missed excitement and social impact.’ Six months ago, he became a full-time freelance financial director (CFO) for a handful of Flemish start-ups. The drones software producer Idronect, the Bubble Post courier service and the digital musical scores shop neoScores are among his best-known employers, in addition to start-ups such as Novosanis, Zentrick and sCool.

Noreillie calls getting an MBA from Vlerick one of the best decisions in his career. ‘I have benefited so much from this. You are a member of class of forty, who all work together and challenge each other. It was a fantastic incubator for entrepreneurship. One of my classmates was Bart Van der Roost, who is one of the co-founders of neoScores. I joined the company and was able to learn a great deal in a short time.’

Noreillie confides that, as a freelance CEO, he is more closely involved with his start-ups than traditional consultants generally are. ‘An important difference between me and a consultant is that I don’t stop at developing a strategy, I also am also involved in its implementation.’

What about the many incubators who are giving today’s start-ups a hand up? ‘They don’t do it in your place. They give you plenty of good suggestions, like advising you to keep a close eye on your working capital. But then you do need someone to actually do it.’

Noreillie doesn’t consider working for more than one business to be a problem. ‘I can deliver 80 per cent added value in just 20 per cent of the time.’

There is no shortage of prospective employers. Many entrepreneurs are very happy to be able to entrust a specialist with their financial cares. ‘Entrepreneurs are typically people with a specialist area who are very passionate about what they are doing. However, they tend to lack expertise in the field of business management. I aim to fill that gap.’

One of Noreillie’s tasks is to ensure the availability of sufficient financing in due time by submitting grant application files, organising crowdfunding campaigns and seeking major investors. ‘At Idronect we were able to accelerate this process considerably. We started looking for financing halfway through December. By the middle of February we had already acquired a substantial portion of the necessary resources through iStart (the iMinds incubation programme). This would not have been possible if we had continued operating at the founders’ pace.’

Noreillie doesn’t have to look hard for new work. Even better; he has the luxury of being able to pick and choose start-ups as he pleases. ‘The team I will be working with is very important to me. They need passion but also maturity, and our skills and abilities need to be complementary. Both the product and the market need to be ready. Many start-ups make the mistake of seeking financing too early. They believe an idea in itself is worth millions, whereas 99 per cent of its success depends on its implementation. Neither do I recommend immediately aiming for the highest valuation possible. Otherwise you may be faced with a veto in your next round of financing.’


Idronect is seeking up to 1 million
Idronect, one of the companies for which Noreillie has taken on the role of financial director, is currently negotiating a financing round intended to bring in 700,000 to 1 million euros. ‘We expect to finalise negotiations within a month or two,’ Noreille says. Idronect has created a software platform including a feature that enables drone companies to apply for flight permits online. The company collaborates with leading instruction centres for drone pilots and recently signed a contract with Bafa, a well-known training institute for pilots.

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