According to Denis Steisel, chairman of the ‘Netwerk Ondernemen Brussel’, a non-profit organization for entrepreneurs, innovation in IT has become vital. “Many SMEs don’t fully realize it yet, but the digital age in which we live today has shaken up our business world as much as the Industrial Revolution did. The music sector, the press, the transport sector, publishing, ticketing – they have all been turned upside down. If you don’t innovate today, you risk being forced out by the competition. Unfortunately, we are lagging way behind here in Belgium. Did you know, for instance, that in Belgium we import twice as much as we export via e-commerce?”
“A lot of this lost ground in e-commerce was to do with the legislation, of course, says Pascal Cools, CEO of Flanders DC, a non-profit organization for creative entrepreneurs in Flanders. “Now that the legislation has been adapted, we are busy catching up.”
“If you ask me what innovation is, then my answer is: “creativity plus entrepreneurship”. The Belgians definitely have this creativity in house. Just look at all the prizes we win at the Cannes advertising festival, how well-liked we are in the fashion and film world, etc. But in terms of entrepreneurship, we do less well. Denis was just talking about e-commerce. Who are the big players there? Coolblue, Bol.com, etc.
All in the Netherlands. Or an innovating company like Blendle, where you can now buy just an article, rather than the whole newspaper. Even Booking.com. That’s not by chance. The Dutch are born traders. They dare to take the commercial step. Belgians are far less likely to do that. There’s a lot of hype about startups here at the moment. Everyone wants to have ‘founder of my own company’ in their Twitter bio these days. But the next step, the transition from creative starter to the enterprising, profitable Googles of this world, is really difficult in Belgium.”
“There are too few scale-ups in Belgium,” Denis agrees. “Swedish companies collect far more capital than in Belgium, even though the country’s population is smaller. And yet there is more than enough assistance in our country, with bonuses and subsidies, etc.”
“The great contradiction is that our venture capital providers don’t dare take risks enough,” Pascal adds. “In America, venture capitalists (investors brought in to offer a relatively new company liquidity so that it can grow quickly) sometimes put a couple of hundred thousand dollars on the table, just to be the first to read the business plan. Here, startups have to have direct customers and record turnover in order to attract capital. In exchange for part of their business.”
Established SMEs have trouble innovating, too. Pascal understands this completely. “SMEs are having great difficulty keeping their business running nowadays. They have to work hard, because money has to come in. But innovating costs time and money. That’s not easy for an SME with a workforce of 15 people. They know they need to innovate, but at the moment that is not their priority. We need to break that vicious pattern.”
Denis: “SMEs act defensively rather than offensively, especially when they are under pressure. But, as a result, these days this means that SMEs are increasingly being overtaken by startups. Because they approach the market quite differently. If SMEs want to innovate, they have to act in three key areas.
The good news, however, is that anyone can innovate. According to Denis it is mainly a question of a change in mentality: “The culture in a company has to change. SMEs need a more participatory culture, bottom-up rather than top-down. In my view, the person who is closest to the customer or the task to be performed is often the best placed to innovate.”
Pascal: “But innovation doesn’t just happen in an R&D lab. In her book ‘Customer Innovation’, Marion Debruyne, the Dean of the Vlerick Business School, says that your biggest R&D department is your customer’s. Customers bring in ideas, make their needs known. SMEs have to do far more there..”
Cools: “In SMEs especially, managers tend to think that they have to do everything themselves. I warmly advocate throwing open the doors. Consult with competitors and colleagues, go in search of help from outside, for example at Flanders DC or Netwerk Ondernemen. And, above all, start inside your own company. Your warehouseman and your secretary have some very interesting ideas, too. For that matter, Flanders DC offers entrepreneurs a very effective tool to organize brainstorming sessions of this kind: the gps brainstorming kit. It’s a structured method of brainstorming with a group of between twelve and fifteen people. In half a day, you come up with 120 new ideas and three partially developed products that you can get down to work on straight away.“
According to Denis, at the end of the day, innovation starts with one thing: listening. “Listen, listen, listen. Listen to your staff, to your customers, to the market, to the internet. Look on Google. There are vast quantities of information available. Listen, and then act.”
Pascal: “That’s quite right. What Denis is saying here sounds so dumb. Just google it. But a lot of companies don’t do that. It’s incredible. We are often invited to give presentations. These are standard presentations that we pep up with examples from the sector. Where do we get the examples from? We google. And when we mention these examples during the presentation, you see all the jaws drop. Then I think: how can this be a surprise to you? You’re in the sector. We spent two hours on Google and we found this. It’s not rocket science. Quite literally, google it. (he lets out a laugh) That’s the subject of this whole narrative: go outside and listen.”
Denis Steisel began as an entrepreneur in communication. Today he is very active in the field of startups as a director of the Netwerk Ondernemen Brussel organization and as managing partner of the Eezee-IT consultancy firm.
Pascal Cools began as a consultant before moving to Flanders DC. He was responsible for the first innovation tools there and the Creativity World Forum. In 2007, he was made CEO of Flanders DC and the Flanders Fashion Institute.
The Netwerk Ondernemen Brussel is a non-profit organization of and for entrepreneurs. The business leaders in this network give their time voluntarily to assist new entrepreneurs in establishing or taking over companies with real development potential.
Flanders DC is a non-profit organization that strives for stronger and more future-oriented creative entrepreneurship in Flanders. It supports companies in the creative sector with inspiration, advice and tools to grow your business, hone entrepreneurial skills and boost sales. Companies from other sectors can go there in search of cooperation to innovate with this creative sector. The association also organizes regular network events.
Harry van der Schans
iDNA by creativity expert Harry van der Schans offers practical tips, interesting stories and creative tools and techniques to unlock the creativity and innovation within your company. For instance, you can find out about the ICE model (Innovation, Creativity & Entrepreneurship) – a creative six-step plan that you can use to convert a business idea into practice or resolve a problem.
Isaac Getz and Brian M. Carney
In the highly accessible book ‘Freedom, Inc.’, Getz invites us behind the scenes of companies where freedom has become a management principle. Staff are listened to rather than told what to do. Risks and individual initiatives are encouraged. By developing their human potential to the full like this, these companies have been able to drastically improve their performance.
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