At heart I'm a technologist. I've been fascinated by computers and technology from a very early age. I'm sure that my father had a lot to do with that.
My father is an engineer, but worked as a bus driver for a few years before he started his studies. I was already born when he was a freshman in college, studying to become an engineer. I vividly remember when he was doing his masters thesis, that he would take me as a young 5-year old to the datacenter of the University over the weekend, finishing some work. This was back in the days when this place was filled with huge mainframe computers humming and clicking, occasionally spitting out some graph or printouts on tractor-feed paper. I was fascinated, and hooked from that moment on.
As a teenager, I grew up in southern California. My school had Apple II computers, and they were wonderful. You could program them in BASIC, and the best part was that it had color graphics. When we finally got a computer in our house, when I was 12, I was furious with my dad when he didn't come home with an Apple II like I had hoped for. He brought home an 'Osborne' - the first portable computer - with a tiny green-screen terminal. Nevertheless, I loved learning how to program, to build things that could actually 'work', it's almost like creating something that lives.
After gaining my engineering degree, in computer science and electronics, I started my career at a large telecom corporation, even though I always knew that I would launch a business of my own eventually. And I was right. I quickly became distracted by this little thing called the internet, which was still grossly undervalued at the time. I began to build websites for friends and then for organizations. What took off as a hobby became a small business, and soon I was building websites for several hours per day on top of my actual job. When my boss told me to “knock it off” so I wouldn’t arrive exhausted at work in the morning, I quit my job and have never looked back.
My first startup was a company that built large-scale intranets. We developed a platform that allowed companies to use web technology inside their organizations to communicate, share documents and collaborate. We contrived a version of Microsoft SharePoint years before Microsoft did. And it was fantastic. In the space of just four years, the company grew to about 200 people and we ended up selling the company, ironically, to my former employer. That pioneering spirit, the amazing thrill of building a company when you're only 25, and then seeing it grow like crazy, was the most amazing experience of my life. Most of the people that worked there became entrepreneurs, and went on to do amazing things. We all worked like crazy, but we didn't care, we knew we were building something truly awesome.
Having signed a non-competition clause when I left – stipulating that I would not be active in the IT, online, digital or telecom sector for an entire year – I became an 'Entrepreneur in Residence' with McKinsey for that entire period. When that year was up (even though I really enjoyed working at McKinsey), the entrepreneur in me took over again and I founded two new startups, almost at the same time. One was a startup dealing with streaming video and interactive television, going back to my roots at the telecom company. The other was a startup that was one of the first cloud companies in Europe, a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) provider.
Since I used my first Macintosh computer back in 1984, I’ve been collecting Apple computers. These past few years my hobby has turned into a true passion, and I’ve been actively obsessed in trying to document this pivotal period in computing history. I now have a wide collection ranging from Apple II’s, Lisa computers, Macs, Newtons, iMacs and even the range of NeXT computers. The collection shows an amazing progression in computing design, in the evolution of human-computer interaction, and in computing power. It’s truly amazing to observe the reaction of visitors when they see the computers that they worked on when they were young, and to see the amazing progression since then. My collection was recently on display in Ghent at Schelstraete-Delacourt and Associates, and is now on display in Hasselt, at the Corda campus.
To be honest, my second startup was a true disaster. This was a company that tried to dabble in online video before this was a market. We started out four (4!) years before YouTube. The trouble was that, back then, nothing was ready to allow people to watch quality video online. No bandwidth. No connectivity. No codecs. No infrastructure. No users. No customers. Nothing. It was a sobering experience. We got the timing completely wrong. I learned the hard way that there is no guarantee that your next chapter will be successful, no matter how much you’ve thrived in the past.
The third startup was a winner again, though. We founded a SaaS company that became one of the pioneering cloud providers in Europe. At first, we struggled to find the right business model and had some difficult years. But when the Cloud-based revenue model began to materialize, it was a beauty: extremely predictable revenues, and extremely loyal and stable customers. We expanded quickly to a few hundred employees, and then went public in 2006. Being able to convince the public to invest in your company is one the most thrilling challenges I've ever been privy too.
When I personally said the addictive life of startups farewell in 2010, I traded in a life of chasing the 'next new thing' for a life of observation. It gave me the chance to see some of the most amazing companies in the world, and how they were preparing for the future.
After three startups of my own, I decided to take a break from building companies, by focusing on coaching young entrepreneurs. Today I invest in European and US startups. It is wonderful to observe (young) entrepreneurs trying to build something truly unique, truly exceptional and giving it all they've got. And I absolutely love coaching them, helping them, guiding them.
I also decided to give something back, by talking about my experiences, and my perspective on this fast-changing world. I began teaching, writing books, giving keynotes and advising organizations about all the things I passionately believed in, first in Across Technology, and later in my current company nexxworks.
... travelling the world visiting the most disruptive startups out there as well as corporates that are able to continuously reinvent themselves, sharing the insights I gathered there (and over the years) in my books and talks and also helping organizations thrive in these fast-changing times. And I love every minute of it.
When I'm not on a plane, I love to be out on a bike. I caught the cycling bug years ago. Every chance I get, I love to ride in the beautiful Belgian landscape or, in the summer, try to climb one of the magnificent cols in the Alps or the Pyrenees. My big personal goal is to cycle the US Pacific Coast trail from San Francisco to San Diego, I’m still looking for companions on that trip...
Since I left the startup scene, I've made it a personal rule that when my children have a school vacation, I don't work. I take the time to spend with them, to be home, and to take every possible minute of that precious time together, to be a 'dad'. They don't care that I'm some guru on a plane, addressing 4,000 people on a stage in Las Vegas to talk about the 'future'. At that moment, I focus on the 'now'. Actually, it's been the best investment I've ever made in my entire life.
If you want to know more about my personal story, you can download an extended version of the first chapter of my new book The Day After Tomorrow here.