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The Big Squeeze, the 'virtual startup hotspot' that aims to help Belgian startups and scale-ups fast-track their businesses, is fast approaching and ready to be streamed on May 11.
Expect lots of insights from startup experts and investors, get inspired by the best practices shared by thought leaders, and discover relevant tools that can help you boost your growth.
In that context, we caught up with one Belgian scale-up, online temporary staff management software firm Beeple (not to be confused with that Beeple). We interviewed co-founder and CEO Karel Rabaut to learn more about what makes his startup tick, scaling its services internationally and - of course - how the pandemic has changed things for Beeple.
Let's start by telling us a little bit more about Beeple.
In a nutshell, Beeple is an HR tech scale-up and we're in the business of temporary staff planning. We have a tool that we sell via a B2B model to customers who are in need of managing 'flex work'.
What is 'flex work' and what is so specific about it that clients would need your software?
Think everyone who works around a certain daily or even hourly schedule and where there is high volatility, for example supermarket workers or the person delivering pizzas to your home. Their schedules are fluid, and we want to provide them with tools for ownership. In a way, we're building a system that provides the back-office to the gig economy - more flexible, more 'self-service' and more fit for remote workers.
Can you share a bit more about the background of the company, and perhaps even more important, why did you start this business?
We just had a remote birthday party to celebrate our first five years in business. And the reason we started this company is simply because we identified a need in the market.
This is the second company I've founded, the first one was a 'people agency' focused on staff for events, festivals etc. and based on this experience we spotted the need for a system that can manage highly-flexible, highly-volatile staff.
That means you do have a background in this industry. When you identified that need and looked around for solutions, was there already a lot of competition?
I think we were one of the first-movers here in Belgium. There was a lot of competition in The Netherlands, the US and the DACH region, but in our home country we basically helped create the market as there wasn't much out there yet five years ago.
Today, we face a lot of competition because the market need for managing flexible, volatile, often remote staff has only increased. It's also because the workers themselves are requesting more ownership and transparency when it comes to their schedule, and they want to be a more active part of the relationship with their employers.
I can definitely see the need for the type of solution Beeple offers, but I can also imagine that 2020 must have been quite an interesting year for you in that regard. How has the coronavirus pandemic affected you as a company?
Like everyone we were taken by surprise in the beginning, and we're too small of a company to really have had any type of control over the situation. We had a lot of clients freezing their license fees, asking for possible on-boardings etc. but from August-September 2020 onwards we discovered what lies behind the phrase that one should 'never waste a good crisis'.
Since then, we've really managed to accelerate because we saw that governments and healthcare workers were not that much in need of a flexible work planning tool, until COVID-19 hit the world. We quickly became the tool to manage crisis volunteers, we're working with the Belgian government, multiple vaccination centres in collaboration with the Brussels and Walloon governments etc.
We've added the public sector and the healthcare industry as new markets for our solution, in other words, thanks to the pandemic.
Interesting. But of course those needs are not restricted to Belgium, so I assume you also serve clients outside of your home country?
Absolutely and also there COVID-19 helped us accelerate our business. For example, we recently closed a deal with Malta Red Cross, which also needed a tool to manage flex workers but it was really not part of their priorities before the pandemic. Now they're using it for the crisis work, but they're likely extending it this summer to manage e.g. the life guards at the beaches.
I would advise other firms located here to get acquainted with the services provided by Flanders Investment & Trade, a partner of The Big Squeeze, which is probably one of the most undervalued, low-barrier services that can truly accelerate a company's business with practical input. They can give you market advice, cover part of prospection expenses, and so on.
Let's stick to the topic of internationalisation for a bit. When you expand into other countries, are the conversations you have with clients and potential clients similar across those markets?
Those conversations are always a bit different, as countries tend to have specific ways of working. However, at the core the problem is always pretty much the same, and that's what our product is built for.
Even within a country, take Belgium, there are always small differences between industries, for example the security and the facilities sector, but in the end, the core problem remains the same.
The differences are there between the same industries but in different countries with different ecosystems, cultures and mindsets, of course, but the core issue with managing flexible workers, and also what is important to them, is largely the same. That's also something you notice when you look at the business models of the large global gig economy companies.
In the end, for a solution like ours it doesn't matter that much whether you go to Belgium or France, or to Chile and Saudi Arabia where we also have clients. In fact, we've just closed a deal in the APAC region with a company in Hong Kong so you can see even across continents, the needs don't differ that much.
The context changes, but the conversations are similar.
One of the tips that I would like to share on this topic is the importance of dedicating time and efforts in setting up a Belgian network of partners, for instance at events like The Big Squeeze, in order to gain knowledge and experience in channel sales, which will help you establish local sales and implementation partnerships down the line. Local anchoring is crucial for scaling rapidly.
A helpful shortcut to this is reeling in Belgian offices of multinationals as clients, because they can become a gateway to offices in other countries, and become you first customers abroad.
What about the differences in regulation between countries - do those matter to your business?
When you start a company and you start strategising, there's decisions you need to make without necessarily knowing what is going to happen in the next five years. You can chose to go left or right with your product, but sometimes there are coincidences with effects that will only become visible in the future.
One of the decisions we made in the beginning was that we wouldn't implement things like labour law in our systems, because we wanted to focus on offering a front-office solution. It would be about pool management and communication, the interaction between employers and flexible workers, enabling them to claim shifts, ensuring that all stakeholders can validate and approve schedules, etc.
As such, it's not in our system that you would see whether these temporary staff workers are allowed to work a certain amount of hours, for example. So we often interact with back-office systems to do that kind of validation for us, including in our own network of partner companies that have chosen another path, and it makes our solution just a lot more scalable as a result.
You mentioned having customers across Europe but also Chile and Saudi Arabia and now Hong Kong, but do you have any specific focus on certain markets for scaling in the future - or do you rather go after specific industries?
We are not industry-specific. We went through a series of exercises with sales coaches, business developers, strategy experts, advisors etc. and what we discovered is that Beeple is sector-agnostic. We like to call ourselves challenge-specific, focusing on helping clients manage volatile staff who work volatile schedules.
Businesses in all sectors can face issues with this, from logistics to retail, hospitality and facilities to name a few, and the challenge they face will often be similar. Once that issue arises, regardless of the industry the company operates in, that's when Beeple can help.
We're also not country-specific as I mentioned earlier, as the move towards flexible worker ownership and transparency is a global one. We're 'global from Belgium', in the sense that we don't set up offices elsewhere and try to serve clients with a core team in Belgium that has a global mindset.
This is really important for us. Imagine if you'd go to an event like The Big Squeeze and you come across people you'd like to hire. For us, they would need to be people who think global from day one, and my advice would be to always invest in multi-lingual people with a global mindset, who can sell and support customers remotely from the start.
Do you envision going back to your 'HQ' with your team, or will the new reality mean that you will hire more international talent, whether to work remotely or make the move to Belgium?
First of all, I would say our home country is an interesting one to start a 'global' company from, as it's small but there are multiple languages, different cultures, and we already know Dutch isn't exactly one of the world languages - so we've been using English from day one.
We have a small office in Antwerp, but we also provide all our team members with worldwide access to a co-working spaces network. Our sales team for instance happens to live in the Brussels region, so the co-working hub closest to them is where they go to work together.
We were already operating like that before the Covid-19 crisis, and we're very happy others have now discovered it as well.
Still, we do recruit quite extensively in Belgium first and foremost, as we have a network here and that has proven to be a good way to get great people.
You talked about the simplicity of the product earlier. As far as I can tell, the product is indeed simple in itself, but I'm sure it's hard work to keep it that way, and to keep the barrier low enough for companies around the globe to start using it. Do your customers often request features or changes to the product from you that you decline, in order to keep it simple enough for a larger base?
I think we say no to clients every day, which I think is one of the hardest things about building a SaaS software company. It's not easy to say no to requests that often, and we do sometimes lose customers over it, but we are quite strict when it comes to following the roadmap we've set out for the product.
When you create your roadmap against your vision, I think it's a good idea to involve your customers and user groups, because it makes them a lot more likely to accept that vision and gives them the feeling that you're building the product for them.
One of the things we needed to do for the vision roadmap was to very carefully define our position on the market, quite a narrow one in our case. That means that the challenge I've been talking about, managing highly volatile staff on volatile schedules, is a very specific challenge in terms of staff management.
This allows us to say: this is our sweet spot, this is the problem that we're solving, and then be clear and transparent to our customers that we don't implement certain things. Take forecasting as an example, which has nothing to do with short-term staff scheduling but is related to a client's internal business. Theme parks, for instance, are a perfect fit for our kind of solution, but when they would like forecasts on how many people will be visiting their park at a certain time, they'll need to consult other systems they're using because we wouldn't have the data needed to make those decisions for things like productions, food and beverage, and whatnot.
What else can we expect from Beeple based on your current roadmap in terms of product and features, market expansion plans, the type of people you're looking to hire etc.?
For now, we think most of our growth will come from Europe, so we'll likely concentrate on several markets here. We do a combination of direct, indirect and partner sales, and with that we're really aiming to become the global world leader when it comes to flex staff management software, so we're taking it step by step.
Great - we'll be watching closely!
If you took away some learnings from Karel, but you're curious to learn a lot more about scaling your business, going global, raising funding and investing smartly in research & development, check out The Big Squeeze and see you there on May 11!