If you don’t already know, the French and the Belgians have a bit of a love-hate relationship. Kind of like the Americans and the Canadians. Who better to poke a bit of fun at than your northern neighbors, eh ? Plus, given Belgium’s rather intricately over-complicated political situation, the southern, French-speaking half of Belgium – yes, Wallonia – is often half jokingly considered a French département. So where better to head as the Editor of TechCrunch France than Belgium’s HQ ? (Yes, that means Brussels.)
Startup baguette or startup with fries ?
Before leaving, I honestly throught that Belgian entrepreneurs probably wouldn’t really be that different than French entrepreneurs. I was pretty sure that I’d find a smaller-scale France but perhaps with a bit of a Belgian twist – like site translations in French and Flemish or something. And that would really be about it. I mean, we’re all in Europe, half of Belgium speaks French and we’re all looking across the Atlantic when it comes to inspiration, right ? But, even though I was only in Brussels for something around 24 hours, what I saw made the Belgians and the French look about as different as, well, cats and dogs.
It’s beginning to sound a lot like Europe.
So first off, I attended an event run by the infamous Betagroup (@betagroup) upon arrival. Seems like this is THE local event, there must’ve been something like 200 people in the room and apparently half the gang was missing because of some simultaneous event at Google. In addition, I was rather surprised to find such an international crowd – I think something like 1 or 2 of the 5 startups we saw were actual Belgians. Even better though is that everyone pitched their startup in English. Guess that naturally makes sense though, if you consider the hostility between the northern Flemish speakers and the southern French speakers.
Belgium, you look so cute in the morning.
But even though Belgium has a king, lots of beer and chocolate and is the home of the saxophone, let’s not forget its also an itty bitty market compared to France. We’re talking a country that’s the size of Paris that doesn’t even speak a common language. Or at least they don’t like to admit it. But English pitches aside, I also found that more entrepreneurs pitch their ideas as “the next European this or that” from the get-go. The Belgian market is too small so naturally they think beyond the +32. French entrepreneurs definitely think international as well. Yet, as a general rule of thumb, I find that French entrepreneurs tend to think France and then an English-speaking market, like the US. Some launch in several European markets but very few actually pitch as THE European je ne sais pas quoi. Well, other than Meetic.
I was a bit disappointed nonetheless to see that there were even fewer women in the Belgian tech scene than in France. There were something like 3 women in the room at Betagroup. Thankfully there was Getyoo‘s Marie du Chastel and Brussels Girl Geek Dinners‘ Clo Willaerts, amongst others.
Money in the bank.
The other thing that I thought was rather interesting was the funding scene. Belgium seemed a little void of funding possibilities compared to France, which sometimes seems like its kind of full to the brim with cash these days. Many Belgian entrepreneurs were self-funded or angel-backed – and looking to raise with foreign VCs, because there are hardly any Belgian VCs (other than Gimv) that fund over 1 million euro rounds.
(For any French speakers, this is an excerpt from a terrific Belgian movie, Dikkenek)
“Chaude comme une baraque à frites.”
Ok, so Belgian lingo is a little different from French lingo as well. One Belgian expression, “elle est chaude comme une baraque à frites”, even compares a hot girl to a hot fry stand. Cute and not sure how this would go down in France. Anyhow, even though this idea may sound a bit ridiculous, some of the startup ideas I came across were surpringly original and well-executed. I actually saw very few start-ups that relied on the social web – which I found unusual – and more that seemed to have rather classical e-commerce or standard business models in place.
“The Belgians are coming.”
Like the French, the Belgians also have their eye on the Silicon Valley. They’ve even teamed up with SF New Tech to put on an annual event called “the Belgians are coming”, which is essentially a presentation of Belgian start-ups in the Silicon Valley. I guess the nearest French equivalent would have to be the French Tech Tour, which is organized by UbiFrance and run by my dear friend Gaetan Gachet. But we’re talking about 2 very different events in terms of orientation and scale.
Ne me quitte pas ?
Ultimately, I found there to be certain aspects of the Belgian entrepreneurial scene that were extremeley positive. But it also solidified by pre-existing belief that French entrepreneurs do have it easier than other European markets – especially when it comes to market-size, funding and what not. Yet, some Belgians also leverage the French market to their advantage – like Jacques Brel, Cécile de France, René Magritte, etc. Sometimes, we forget they’re not French because they are as sensational in France as in Belgium. But hey, it’s not like French entrepreneurs don’t do this for French-speaking markets (Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, etc.). I mean, there may be slight differences but it’s all one language after all.
Name a famous Belgian.
I met quite a few interesting companies – all on Twitter and added to my Twitter list @roxannevarza/belgiantechstartups. There’ll surely be more to come and feel free to suggest names to add. Now, who can name a famous Belgian ?