Why a Belgian Startup Manifesto makes sense (especially right now), and how you can make a difference

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I haven’t had a chance to say much about the Belgian Startup Manifesto that’s currently in the works, save for some tweeting and retweeting, but I figured I should return to my personal blog after many, many months to highlight why I believe it is important.

Having been a little bit involved in the European Commission’s Startup Europe initiative – out of which came the European Startup Manifesto – and having worked together with people from the Greek startup ecosystem to come up with an equivalent for Greece, I’m delighted that this is finally happening in Belgium, too.

It’s good timing, as the federal government is preparing to present its action plan for the ‘Digital Agenda for Belgium’ in April of this year. The goal of that plan is to stimulate continued and sustainable growth in the Belgian digital economy, and I’m delighted to be part of a somewhat oddly named group of ‘Digital Minds’ that will advise federal minister Alexander De Croo and his cabinet on what the priorities should be.

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Together with other people in that group, namely Karen Boers (Startups.be), Bart Becks (iMinds / Angel.me) and Toon Vanagt (Data.be) as well as a number of entrepreneurs such as Xavier Damman (Storify) and Ramon Suarez (Betacoworking), I’m currently helping to put together a solid Belgian Startup Manifesto to make sure that the voice of the national startup ecosystem is heard loud and clear.

Startups are the lifeblood of the digital economy, and an increasingly important engine for job creation and economic growth. It is imperative that the needs and wishes of the small but growing Belgian ecosystem – which is comprised not only of startup founders and entrepreneurs but also early-stage technology investors and a wide variety of service providers – are formulated in a clear, coherent way.

Rest assured that the other stakeholders in this industry – the Belgian telcos, local and global ICT giants, media companies, ISPs, e-commerce players, sector organisations and so on – will understandably weigh in on the Digital Agenda for Belgium action plan. We need to make sure the startups are consulted, too.

Hence, the call for stories and contributions from you, the people who form the #BeTech community.

It’s an opportunity for you to share what’s important to you, how you think the digital economy in Belgium can grow bigger, faster, and how the government could make life easier for you (without, of course, making it disproportionally harder for others). Be honest and constructive.

Your feedback will be taken into account as we collect stories and suggestions from across the country (and Belgian entrepreneurs living and working in other parts of the world). The challenge for us will be to come up with a manifesto that’s both concise and comprehensive, and ambitious but ultimately realisable.

We’ve already received a number of great stories and suggestions, and I’ll chip in with a little anecdote of my own.

In 2013, I had to make a decision where to base Tech.eu‘s registered office. Belgium would seem like the obvious choice as I was living and working here, but instead Tech.eu’s parent company is based in London, UK. Why? Because our early angel investors were British, and they were able to enjoy tax benefits if they invested in UK companies (through SEIS). Belgium doesn’t have that kind of program to encourage early-stage tech investments by business angels, but it should, and I’m confident that it will rather soon.

Why? Because that’s something the Belgian startup ecosystem has already identified as a need, and the government is listening. Now that you know that they are: have your say.

Personal update on some of my (very small) startup investments

Occasionally (read: rarely) I get so excited by meetings with Belgian entrepreneurs that our conversations lead me to become an ad-hoc advisor to their startups, most often in exchange for a tiny stake in the business. I list those shareholdings on my about.me page and Crunchbase profile.

Consider this a quick note, if only as a reminder to myself, that there have been some changes in recent months. To wit, I’ve divested most of my shares in Showpad (keep a close eye on those guys!) and sold the stake I still held in Oxynade. It’s not just divestments, though.

In recent weeks, I’ve grown very excited about what entrepreneurial duo extraordinaire David Dehaeck and Nathalie Haveman are busily building over at ARTPLUS.

It’s very early days, but they have a shot at radically changing the way digital media art (basically, any art you can see on a screen, or have 3D-printed) is collected, managed and traded.

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More on their cloud-based solution for the ‘digital Renaissance 2.0′ later, but you should definitely sign up for the beta if you’re interested in the future of art.

And for the sake of being complete: I remain an advisor to Checkthis (who are absolutely killing it with the fun Frontback photo app and community), Maily (if you have young kids and a tablet computer, check them out) and Argus Labs (worth a look for those who really want in-depth analytics on mobile users).

Obviously, I will continue to be very mindful whenever I or anyone else ends up writing about a company on Tech.eu that competes in any way with any of the companies I have a vested interest in. Most of the time, those articles simply don’t get published because I don’t want it to cloud my judgment and I wish to steer clear of any serious conflict of interest allegations and be judged on the merits of our reporting only.

That’s all, folks!

Never

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For everything I’ve already done, heard, played and seen in my soon 34 years on this planet, there’s a ridiculous amount of things I haven’t yet done, heard, played or seen. Here goes.

I’ve never played Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto V, Mario Kart, Call Of Duty, Halo, DOOM, Pokémon, The Sims, Battlefield, Counter-Strike, Madden, Project Gotham Racing, Tom Clancy’s whatever, Gears Of War, The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, Gran Turismo, Resident Evil, Crash Bandicoot, God of War, Metal Gear Solid, The Last Of Us, Deus Ex, BioShock, Portal, Fallout or many other best-selling and popular games.

Never!? Never.

For all the movies I’ve watched in my life, I’ve never seen Schindler’s List, Seven Samurai, Once Upon a Time in the West, Psycho, Read Window, Gone with the Wind, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, The Pianist, The Shining, Citizen Kane, any Toy Story, Black Swan, Oldboy, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lawrence of Arabia, The Sting, Some Like It Hot, Up, Pan’s Labyrinth, 12 Years a Slave, Hotel Rwanda, The Princess Bride, Ghandi, The King’s Speech and many other must-see and popular films.

Never!? Never.

I’ve never traveled to anywhere in Asia leaving aside Russia and Turkey (indeed, that means I’ve never been to China, Japan, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, Macao, Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Mongolia etc.). If that shocks you, get this: I’ve also never been to Africa (no, not even Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco or Algeria). I’ve also never been to Australia or New Zealand.

Never!? Never.

Here are some books I’ve never read (or at least don’t remember reading): Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, The Canterbury Tales, Crime and Punishment, One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Moby Dick, The Trial, Hamlet, Midnight’s Children, War and Peace, In Search of Lost Time, Anna Karenina, The Grapes Of Wrath, Catch-22 or any other book I would really love to smell and start enjoying.

Never!? Never.

But at least I’ve been to a lot of places in Europe, the United States and South America, right? Yeah, right. Here’s a fraction of the cities I’ve never visited: Stockholm, Rio de Janeiro, Edinburgh, Los Angeles, Copenhagen, St. Petersburg, Detroit, Budapest, Santiago, Chicago, Rome, Bogotà, Washington D.C., Tallinn, Las Vegas, Marseille, Lima, Minsk, Caracas, Montevideo, Riga, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Austin, Belgrade, Seattle, Dallas, Sofia, Glasgow or any other city that deserves to be visited at least once in a lifetime.

Never!? Never.

I (used to) watch a fair amount of TV shows, but I’ve never seen a single episode of Mad Men, Game Of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Doctor Who, The Wire, Sherlock, Firefly, Arrested Development, House Of Cards, Dexter, House M.D., Deadwood, Archer, Six Feet Under, Battlestar Galactica, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Futuruma, The West Wing, Community, Entourage, The Newsroom or any other well-rated, popular TV series.

Never!? Never.

I could probably make a lot more lists: great music albums I’ve never really listened to, popular semi-extreme activities like skydiving, (kite)surfing or rock climbing I’ve never done, music festivals I’ve never been to, amazing comic books I’ve never read, common food I’ve never eaten, and so on until the end of days.

But you get the point.

It’s not that I hate video games, on the contrary. I absolutely love watching films and consider myself a bit of a movie buff even (yes even considering the list above). I consider myself relatively well-traveled and if it would be possible to see the entire world in a lifetime, I would probably give it a try and fully enjoy it. I adore going to and discovering fascinating new places and cities across the globe, and binge-watching good TV shows, and attentively listening to music albums while I read great books, and so on.

And so the lists above will probably baffle you in some way or another. The problem, as usual, is – as you could have guessed – an unsolvable lack of time to do all of the above. Pick one, and I’ll have to give up on a few other things to do or places to visit during my lifetime. Pick a few, and the same happens – only exponentially. And that’s not even the time I spend ‘working’ (in my case passionately reading and writing about technology), playing with or trying my best to raise our son, spending quality time with my wife, family and friends, doing household chores or just mucking about. Not everything fits neatly into a list.

And if you give it a good think, there’s a pretty decent chance your lists are equally – if not more – “embarrassing”. I bet you have your own dark secrets, hidden in the closet. In fact, if you’re reading this post and get inspired to make your own ‘never’ lists – just do it.

And remember the good old adage: better late than never.

(Image credit: Joshua Barnett / Flickr)

An unexpected chat with WhatsApp founder Jan Koum

Things were getting pretty quiet in the speaker / press lounge backstage at the 4YFN conference in Barcelona. I was there earlier this week for attending that event, the Mobile World Congress and many other side events and startup pitching competitions and meet-ups and parties and whatnot.

Not long before, things weren’t as calm. The Crown Prince of Spain had made an appearance backstage, with quite the entourage, to meet with WhatsApp founder and CEO Jan Koum and well-known entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky, who would go on to interview Koum on stage.

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After that, Koum spent the afternoon in the press lounge, meeting one member of the press after the other. I spent a few hours there as well, meeting people and getting some work done, doing my best not to bother the man as he was interviewed and asked the same questions over and over again.

By the time I packed my stuff to head to a meeting at another venue, Koum was sitting by himself glancing at his (feature) phone. Since there was no one else around, I figured I should go say a quick hello to the man of the hour.

>> Update: Koum has clarified that his Nokia E5 can not be called a feature phone, under any circumstances. I hereby upgrade it to a featurephone with smartphone capabilities. I totally dig that phone and would like to apologize profusely to it and Koum for referring to it as anything other than a smartphone.

Moving on …

"Hi, my name is Robin Wauters, and I'm …"

Before I could finish, Koum looked up, warily shook my hand and proclaimed: "Oh, I know who you are."

Curious, I asked if that was because I wrote one of the first articles on WhatsApp ever, back in 2011. It was.

"Do you know how much damage you have done to me and our company by doing that?", Koum inquired, rhetorically. "Do you even realize how much hassle that caused me?"

I was taken aback a bit and sat down.

In April 2011, almost three years ago, a source emailed me to let me know in confidence that he had direct knowledge of WhatsApp raising a $8 million round from Sequoia Capital as it was growing fast (I looked it up, the person said WhatsApp had around 17 million users by that time).

I diligently checked a few things and decided to go ahead and publish the news on TechCrunch, my then-employer.

I had taken an interest because the mobile messaging space was heating up fast, and LinkedIn and other online sources were kind enough to inform me that there were a few ex-Yahoo folks working on the product.

And, of course, not every startup raises that big a round from an investor like Sequoia in such an early stage (and while flying largely under the radar, which the company has tried to continue to do over the years).

I reached out to Koum and someone else at WhatsApp for confirmation but never heard back. I had enough information to go on, though, and ultimately nailed that story.

Clearly, Koum wasn’t too impressed.

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As I sat down next to him in the 4YFN press lounge this week, he told me he hadn’t yet told his employees, and that there were still a few signatures that needed to be taken care of, and that he had to spend two days running around – not focusing on product – as a result of me breaking the news before they could.

I posited that this wasn’t such a big deal, considering the outcome, but that only annoyed Koum more.

“It’s that kind of attitude that makes this so wrong,” he said as he looked me sternly in the eyes. “Reporters like you make life very difficult for me and my peers.”

I tried to explain that I was just doing my job, and that technically whoever leaked the story was mostly responsible for any ‘damage’ that was caused by the publication of my story, but he wouldn’t have it.

The discussion didn’t last long, as a PR representative working with Koum intervened and said the man was on a tight schedule. I got up and left, end of story. Tweeted something minor about it, which amusingly led to me getting called by a Bloomberg business reporter on Friday (who, I assume, is working on a story on Koum).

For the record, in no way am I trying to make Jan Koum look bad by publishing this story (if anything, it’s mostly for posterity’s sake). In fact, I genuinely appreciated his sincerity and frankness – a thousand times better than being a hypocrite as far as I’m concerned, and it’s something I try to teach my kid as well.

The man has every right to voice his opinions, and the whole thing is worth a constant debate either way.

What surprised me the most about the whole thing was that:

a) Koum actually knew who I was before I introduced myself
b) he remembered the 2011 story and seemingly every detail about it
c) he still cared enough about it to scold me

Here’s a freshly minted multi-billionaire who just wrote business history by selling his company to Facebook for a dazzlingly high price, and joining the social network giant’s board to boot. Everybody now wants a piece of him, and here he is taking a few minutes to let me know how unhappy about he was (and is) about that funding story posted three years prior. Not quite what I had expected to happen that day.

And FWIW, the folks over at WhatsApp haven’t been keen on working with TechCrunch ever since.

— The photos above can be found on the Tech.eu Flickr stream (free to use, but some rights reserved), taken by Dan Taylor from Heisenberg Media. —

If your Christmas card is even only half as good as this one from Lars Hinrichs, don’t bother

Gotta love Lars Hinrichs (of XING and HackFWD fame, among other stuff). Not only is he sending out cool, personalized Christmas card to his friends, he’s doing it in style, in English with a ridiculously thick German accent, all while skillfully promoting one of his portfolio companies (Impossible Software).

“Hey Lars, vy do you want to send Christmas cards? Let’s make a wideo.”

Pretty amazing.

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Tech.eu: embarking on a new journalistic journey with a couple of friends

When The Next Web “asked me to leave” back in July, I did one of the smartest things I’ve ever done: I essentially took a long vacation to enjoy my (and my family’s) last 5 weeks of living in lovely Barcelona.

But, evidently, you can’t just turn off your brain and not think about what comes next, especially when you have a family to support. So I considered joining another big tech blog or starting my own small tech blog, and I also entertained a bunch of other offers and possibilities, such as joining a PR firm or working in a marketing or business development type role in a tech startup or even a large corporation.

I also considered writing for different publications and various clients on a freelance basis, which I actually ended up doing for a while because it was good fun and a welcome way to keep the lights on at home.

Ultimately though, I didn’t want to think about it too much. Until one night I started pondering about what was missing in the European tech media landscape, which in my mind was a heck of a lot.

In mid-August, most definitely on a whim, I purchased the domain name tech.eu with a sizeable chunk of what was left of our savings. The domain was available, and I figured I could use it if I ever decided to start my own tech blog, or I might be able to sell it without a loss in case that didn’t pan out.

At that point, I didn’t really know, though I started to miss writing.

A meeting of minds

As Alanis Morrisette so eloquently put it, life has a funny way of sneaking up on us.

At some point, at some conference, I started a conversation with my good friend Alex Barrera, and it turned out he and some other people had also spotted a huge gaping hole in the European tech media landscape, which was in-depth coverage on a broader scale than other publications are currently doing.

One thing led to another and I ultimately banded together with an amazing group of people, some of which I’ve known for many years and others I’ve only met in recent months.

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I’ll give you some (but not all, for your sanity) the details of why it took so many more months to get where we are today: the public launch of Tech.eu, or at least the first version of it. Sure, go ahead, tell all your friends.

In a nutshell, it takes much more time and effort to build a digital publication with at least something of a solid brand identity, formulate an editorial strategy, and to do a million other things nobody really cares about but are essential to get done before a launch.

But today’s the day of our launch, and even though I know there’s lots of work to be done on a multitude of levels (design, content, partnerships, hiring, you name it) I’m very pleased.

I’m pleased because we’ve managed to agree on an editorial and commercial strategy that we believe will benefit the broader tech ecosystem in Europe and beyond. As I write in our launch post, we truly believe there’s no one currently doing what we plan to do, and we also think it’s much needed.

While some seem to think the only way to ‘win’ is to go for easy and lots of traffic to monetize the shit out of it with advertising, we think there’s an unmet need for something else – something more.

On a mission to create great content

We’re not being hypocritical: we read, like and share the same listicles and animated GIF posts and fucking slideshows just like everyone else appears to be doing these days.

We also see that there’s an audience for that type of content, as well as fast but ultimately shallow ‘news’ articles, back-of-the-envelope analysis and ‘reports’ based on thin air at best.

We realize that this is what makes a Buzzfeed, Upworthy, Mashable, Business Insider and, increasingly, sites like The Next Web and TechCrunch tick. We realize full well there’s a good reason for it (give people what they want etc.). It’s just that we don’t want to be part of it.

We also see the value of, and appetite for, original, unique and long-form content pertaining to the European technology industry. We think qualitative and data-driven analysis is a good way to build a (small but valuable) audience that can be effectively ‘monetized’ – it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, always have to revolve around the sheer number of page views a publication can trick readers into.

We see the trend of niche media startups – ‘entrepreneurial journalism’ if you will – with experienced reporters like Kara Swisher / Walt Mossberg, Sarah Lacy, Paul Carr, Jessica Lessin, Rafat Ali and Bobbie Johnson starting up lean digital publications, and attempt to think and act differently.

We also can’t not notice that, in Europe, the very diversity and fragmentation that defines the continent makes for a hotchpotch of tech media: there are great English-language local blogs and networks such as Rude Baguette, VentureVillage, Netocratic, ArcticStartup etc. being started and maintained in an effort to highlight innovation in a certain country or region.

That’s absolutely fantastic, but at the same time: who really has the time and resources to weed through all of them to get some bigger perspective on what’s happening in the European tech landscape?

Well, we do, and more importantly, we care.

Stay tuned for more, and go subscribe to Tech.eu.