To grow you sometimes need to let go

Flemish entrepreneurs enjoy a week-long immersion in Silicon Valley

Recently, 65 Flemish CEOs travelled to San Francisco for a week to visit several major companies, including Google, Samsung and Cisco, and to attend lectures at Stanford and Berkeley Universities. The aim of the trip was to give them access to first-hand knowledge about local corporate culture and working methods. The participating CEOs are all members of the Impulse Centre ‘Growth Management for Medium-Sized Enterprises’ (iGMO) at Vlerick Business School. Every two years, iGMO explores a new destination.

Hans Crijns, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Head of iGMO, explains, “The idea was to gain insight together into how entrepreneurs and their companies grow and thrive in a rapidly evolving, complex environment. We want to inspire our iGMO members to innovate. It is essential for ambitious entrepreneurs and growing companies to garner new ideas and find relevant new connections.”

iGMO Silicon Valley trip

A different approach to business

Digitisation is playing an increasingly prominent role in our society. “New technologies are drawing five billion people, who cannot be approached for the time being, onto the market. As a result, the market is growing considerably, and on top of that, artificial intelligence and robotics are changing production processes and so on. We are evolving towards a different, less traditional way of doing business”, says researcher Yannick Dillen, who assisted in the study trip.

And that was exactly the main lesson learned for participant Jo Nelissen, CEO of SmartLog, whose open AKURU IoT platform allows for existing and new industrial sensors and machinery to become ‘internet-connected’. Gaining insight into the right data combined with predictive maintenance results not only in savings, but also in higher levels of security and reliability of industrial processes. “It is clear that artificial intelligence is turning the entire world upside-down. The saying ‘We take the robot out of the human’ is only the beginning of a changing society where robotization and deep learning are set to become real game changers. I experienced first-hand, more than ever before, what exponential means, not only in growth models and speed changes, but mainly in terms of the opportunities that technology unlocks.”

Trial and error

Companies in Silicon Valley are known for their rapid growth. What is the key to their success? The local ecosystem is one where failures and successes are recycled. “The high concentration of top players, such as universities, recruiters, venture capitalists and private-equity players, guarantees easier market access. What’s more, failures are simply accepted. 90% of start-ups fail, but they often just start over. People who are successful frequently sell their company and start the process all over again. That is in stark contrast with the rather slow-paced growth in Flanders”, says Yannick. “In my opinion, the best advice we were given was, ‘If you feel you have everything under control, you’re not moving fast enough’…” That is originally a quotation from the American Formula 1 driver Marco Andretti, but it has become the motto of the Silicon Valley way of life.

Broaden your horizon

Most iGMO members head medium-sized companies in Flanders, with a staff base of about 150 employees. They have a good turnover and are often active in the more traditional sectors, such as construction, transport and food production. The main goal of the trip was for them to step out of their comfort zone. Did they succeed?

Together with Guido Vandenabeele, Bärbel Buyse is the co-CEO of SEPIA, which specialises in brand visibility at points of sale and events for major brands, such as Audi, BMW, Porsche, Q8, Coca-Cola and Nespresso. She says that “both marketing and the future role of points of sale are changing radically. Consequently, we decided a few years ago to focus more on digital marketing and the integration between offline and online. Banners, flags, gadgets and the like go hand in hand with a social media wall or touchscreen kiosk, which allow us to analyse the collected data as well. The customer experience is also becoming increasingly important.

As an entrepreneur, she feels it is important to get a regular breath of fresh air and keep up with the latest developments. With this in mind, the iGMO tours are an important source of inspiration for her. “We’ve already kicked off a few innovative projects and we have a long-term development plan, but seeing and experiencing future trends in the heart of Silicon Valley right now, in the middle of our transformation process, has made us realise that everything is moving at a much faster pace than we thought. So we plan to shape our future plans even faster.

This trip has also made Bärbel think about the role of culture and people. “Luckily, flexibility, a positive attitude, team spirit and solution-oriented thinking are already in our blood. We have people on our team who really look forward to the future. That being said, we also learned in San Francisco that we have to prepare our people more thoroughly for continuous change, uncertainties and grey areas. We plan to work on this within the company through training courses and project groups.”

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