Patrick Kestens has walked the path less-traveled. Working his way up from the coal mines to the upper echelons of Belgian entrepreneurship, he’s currently serving as the CEO of Flanders-based Corda INCubator. We sat down and spoke with him about his vision for a stimulating startup climate, his keys to success, and his future ambitions.
S: Why and how did you get into the startup-scene?
K: Well, I had to start from scratch and gradually worked my way up the ladder, figuring out how to thrive in an entrepreneurial environment. Once my son’s company, Sparkcentral, gained momentum over in San Francisco, I made the difficult decision of leaving behind the company I co-founded and joined Davy’s team as an advisor. The experiences and insights gained in Silicon Valley were hugely inspiring and made me want to transfer similar practices, though fine-tuned to a Belgian context, to Europe.
S: What exactly about our European culture is so inherently different from American culture that allows American entrepreneurship to flourish?
K: A lot of Belgian aspiring entrepreneurs initially have to be convinced to get out of their comfort-zone and effectively develop their idea into a business. The protective and comforting nature of our parents, and perhaps even society as a whole, can act as a deterrent on our entrepreneurial path. “Why don’t you go for a career in teaching or become a civil servant so you won’t have to take risks, you'll have a steady income, and plenty of vacation”, is an often heard rational in Belgian families.
Don’t get me wrong, being an entrepreneur is not an easy path in life. You have to be willing to go all in, without hesitations, and fight hard, which requires a considerable amount of persistence. You wouldn’t believe how often I come to the conclusion that the unwillingness to go the extra mile, to give it 200% of what you got is at the essence of an entrepreneur’s failure. Making sacrifices to reach your entrepreneurial goals, and (temporarily) putting aside your already sparse leisure time to work on your professional ambitions is what can and usually will make the difference.
As a society we’ve enabled our kids to grow up in comfort and relative luxury and perhaps, as a minor side-effect, stunted their ability to really fight hard to pave their own way to success. In the United States, the seeds of entrepreneurship are planted at a very early age.
You wouldn’t believe how often I come to the conclusion that the unwillingness to go the extra mile, to give it 200% of what you got is at the essence of an entrepreneur’s failure.
S: Speaking of which, how can we get young Europeans to develop an entrepreneurial spirit at a young age? Do we need to revise our academic curriculum perhaps?
K: How do we keep kids curious and simultaneously allow them to learn from their mistakes? It starts in kindergarten, really. Preschoolers learn to play with toy blocks, and even though their little constructions will initially fail again and again, they will persist and eventually get it right. Children are inherently and naturally enterprising!
What happens then? We send them off to our schools, where they are only given a passing grade and allowed to enter society when they demonstrate the ability to rattle of the right answers from a textbook. It’s counterproductive when the goal is to develop the next generation of business leaders. We are better off assigning kids with specific problems to which they need to find an answer. Perhaps they won’t return with the intended answer, but they will come back with a different solution to this particular problem.
Even though the open and accepting attitude towards ‘failing’ is currently part of our cultural DNA here in Belgium, it is absolutely prevalent in for example Silicon Valley. There are even big conferences where people go to share their (entrepreneurial) failure experiences. On this side of the pond, however, there still seems to be some sort of taboo burying the concept of failure.
S: What is, in your opinion, the most important factor in a startup’s success?
K: The willpower and the passion to succeed and the willingness to keep questioning yourself again and again. Lots of young starters aren’t always aware of the side-effects of their plans. Financial insecurity, no steady income, and no work-life balance are all factors that should be taken into account. A lot of young entrepreneurs that passionately pursue their startup dream, making money isn’t always the primary objective. That is why they need, and deserve, a safety net and an ample amount of coaching and advice.
However, in Flanders we’re living in an SME (small and medium-sized enterprises) culture and aspiring starters oftentimes start their own business for the wrong reason: money. That cannot be the main objective. You have to be ballsy and demonstrate the necessary motivation to want to be big: think big, think global!
Dare to make mistakes, learn from them and use the experience to continue your growth. Rest assured, when you start your own business, you’ll experience the highest highs as well as the lowest lows. Possibly even within a span of 24 hours! You can only get through such rollercoaster times when you are irrationally passionate about your work. No one is going to believe in you, fund you or work for you if you don’t believe in yourself first.
S: How big of a role do mentors and network play?
K: To use Peter Hinssen’s (leading Belgian tech entrepreneur, author) words: “It’s all about networks. The network always wins”. I believe it’s absolutely important for young starters to surround themselves with successful, experienced mentors and coaches. They will challenge you and continue to push you and your team to reach the next level.
You’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with. The mentors you work with possess the experience your team can learn a great deal from. Pick their brain consistently and perhaps it can prevent you from making the same mistakes they made in the past.
Dare to make mistakes, learn from them and use the experience to continue your growth. Rest assured, when you start your own business, you’ll experience the highest highs as well as the lowest lows. Possibly even within a span of 24 hours!
S: In your experience, both nationally and internationally, what is the project you are most proud of?
K: The fact that with Corda INCubator we were able to launch a strategic project in which Limburg-based investment company LRM and the city of Hasselt joined forces to collaborate with the strategic and substantial partners to stimulate entrepreneurship in our region.
In addition to the know-how, it’s both the experience and the networking ability that are the key to success. We were able to provide an all-encompassing concept that includes an inspirational work environment with seminars and workshops, and the ability to offer guidance and expertise to young innovators gunning to achieve their objectives. Moreover, we want to provide them with the necessary flexibility to be able to competitive in the international market.
We’re trying to apply the ‘pay it forward’ principle that is so embedded in American entrepreneurial culture; to set up a dynamic collaboration between the different startup incubators, domains, and initiatives. A variety of programs and training sessions will be offered to ensure our starters are given all the tools they could possibly need. We’re able to offer our startups advice and profound, ongoing personal coaching by the network’s experts, to make sure their businesses are progressing in the right direction.
S: What is Patrick Kestens’ biggest ambition currently?
K: I would love to see some of our startups develop into successful business. We also have to strive to be a region where youngsters and entrepreneurs love to work and live. I’ll take it a step further even: we should become an irresistible tech-hub where the most talented and ambitious people of the world would flock to!
Our future stands or falls with the presence of ambitious, independent, young, and talented entrepreneurs. We can only try to keep them here by pushing for a society that values entrepreneurship, ambition, progress, taking risks, accountability, excellence, and the will to win. If we fail to move in a direction that starts appreciating these principles, we’re at risk of losing our most talented youngsters to more competitive and attractive international destinations.
I want to be part of the wide-scaled effort to further develop the network and cooperation between established entrepreneurs, experts and young starters. By working with research institutions and other partners we want to make sure we are presenting talented starters with the right guidance, expertise, and advice. In short: my ambition for tomorrow is to promote innovative entrepreneurship with today’s youth!
S: To end on a significantly lighter note: if you could choose one particular song to best describe yourself, what would it be?
K: Frank Sinatra. I did it my way!
Mr. Kestens most definitely did it his way.
Mr. Kestens concludes our session by providing two of his favorite inspirational quotes:
Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts!