Andrew Herweg, Internationalization Officer at imec.istart
Devising and rolling out an international strategy: it is often a must for start-ups and scale-ups that want to grow quickly. But it is by no means obvious. That is why the Scaleup Flanders coaching program offers the semi-annual Masterclass Internationalisatie to, and become more every year international missions organized. Growth company T-Mining – also portfolio start-up of imec.istart that takes the Masterclasses and missions under its wing – participated in the Masterclass, and co-founder Christiaan Sluijs is happy to talk about what he learned to strategically plan business growth outside Belgium . “The Masterclass allows you to look at your own business from a distance, which you rarely do when you are doing business internationally.”
The start-up based in the port of Antwerp and Rotterdam T-Mining specializes in decentralized technology (such as blockchain), which it uses concretely to make maritime logistics processes safer and more efficient. Today, about 2000 companies from more than twenty countries use the Secure Container Release (SCR) application to optimize their container flow and most importantly, secure the information about it and around it, including three of the world’s top five container ship companies.
“These are crucial data, because many criminal organizations are only too happy to have access to them,” explains co-founder and CFO Christiaan Sluijs. “They no longer move their cocaine in suitcases and backpacks, but via containers. That’s how big the market is and that’s how big the problem is.”
Many crime organizations no longer move their cocaine in suitcases and backpacks, but via containers. That’s how big the market is and that’s how big the problem is
“With our digital blockchain tokens, we want to make the world a better place in our own way. In order to approach the ‘conquest’ of that world in a structured and strategic way, we decided to participate in the Masterclass Internationalization of Scaleup Flanders. With our software, we have thought internationally from day one – you have to do that if you want to survive.”
To approach the ‘conquest’ of that world in a structured and strategic way, we decided to participate in the Masterclass Internationalization of Scaleup Vlaanderen
“But that is not obvious: as mentioned, we are located in Antwerp and Rotterdam, barely an hour’s drive from each other, but the holidays alone are organized completely differently,” laughs Christiaan Sluijs. “So we had better be well armed if we also want to do business efficiently in those more than twenty other countries, because it will only become more complex.”
Experts from the target country
Andrew Herweg works as an Internationalization Officer at imec.istart, which, together with Sirris and Agoria, is one of the partners within Scaleup Flanders. Imec.start – imec’s business accelerator – aims to help tech start-ups successfully launch their business.
The imec.istart program offers a wide range of services, such as initial financial injection, personal coaching and mentoring, access to technology and office facilities and access to a broad (inter)national network of partners and investors. Andrew Herweg supports around 120 portfolio start-ups with international ambitions, based on ten years of experience in consultancymanagement and mentoring to international start-ups, non-profits, SMEs and Fortune 500 companies.
Our approach to everything we do: if you want to scale, you have to think big from day one, and we help make that thinking a reality
“That support can be very diverse,” he explains. “Helping with HR, access to networking, fundraising, go-to-marketstrategy, and so on. In that capacity, I am also one of the driving forces behind the Internationalization Masterclass, intended for start-ups and scale-ups that want to go outside Flanders.”
“Our approach to all of our activities: if you want to scale, you have to think big from day one, and we help make that thinking a reality. In the Masterclass we start by explaining what a good international strategy is, how the foreign market works, what the ideal customer profile is, and so on. I work with experts – usually entrepreneurs – from the target country that is the focus of the Masterclass.”
Huge energy boost
“Those experts obviously offer very valuable insights,” Christiaan Sluijs adds, “but I think it’s an equally great added value peer-to-peer learning aspect of the master classes. They face exactly the same challenges, so it is particularly interesting to learn how they deal with them, or to hear about the walls they ran into in the internationalization process so that you can avoid them yourself in the future.”
“In short, the Masterclass allows you to look at your own business from a distance, which you rarely do when you are doing business – especially internationally. Moreover, it gives a huge energy boost to have authentic conversations with peers. What have I learned most so far? That we should make our internationalization strategy more demand-oriented and less evangelistic.”
“We no longer go to the markets ourselves with our product and point out to customers the problem for which we have the solution, but start from the strength of that product and the customer portfolio that we have built up in the meantime, in order to ‘from the inside’, i.e. generate new customers from our network. That is a completely different way of doing business, which we learned during the Masterclass do’s and don’ts of learning.”
Twice a year, Scaleup Vlaanderen takes companies on an international mission, in which at least seven start-ups and scale-ups participate. The idea: you ideally discover a new market by visiting it yourself. On site, they get to know local customers, partners, investors and organizations, and they gain insights from the Flemish growth companies that are on the mission.. The mission will go to Singapore in April.
You ideally discover a new market by visiting it yourself
“We already have various contacts in the port, such as Katoen Natie,” says Sluijs. “So for us it will be mainly a networking event, but also a bit of a school trip (laughs). Because we will make new contacts, forge friendships and conclude partnerships. So it will not only be a learning experience, innovation is very high on the agenda. Moreover, start-ups are really valued there. It is a commercial opportunity, but also normal big fun.”
“For me, the mission will only be successful if there is follow-up,” adds Andrew Herweg. “Not only that contacts are made, but that valuable, sustainable partnerships are the result. That is why we stay in touch with the participants after the mission.”
Don’t just jump in the car
Finally, what we want to know is whether there is a common thread in the problems that growth companies that want to go international face, or in the stumbling blocks they encounter? “There is a whole laundry list of problems and stumbling blocks”, says Herweg, “mainly because it depends on so many factors: type of product, leadership, size of the company, and so on.”
“But what we often see is that companies want to go too fast because they think too much in terms of opportunity and therefore don’t want to follow a step-by-step strategy. They act instead of thinking first. But internationalization takes months and even years. It’s not just jumping in the car and driving abroad, to put it simply. It is talking with – local or Flemish – experts and stakeholders, doing market research, and so on. Take that time to collect data and insights, and then take that step across the border well prepared.”
“But doe it does. Because as an American, I can reassure that the Flemish are not that ambitious when it comes to international business. That is not a value judgment – Americans are simply louder and more outspoken – but that modesty is absolutely unnecessary. Certainly not given the priceless asset you have: language skills. The lack of it is the stumbling block for American, French or British companies. You could even call the language skills of the Flemish people an unfair advantage in that sense.”
“Don’t be too loud and ambitious: we have heard that often enough as a start-up around blockchain,” Christiaan Sluijs agrees. “Literally even. That says a lot about how innovation is viewed here. Luckily we didn’t let it stop us.”