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ZO Magazine: Duo-interview with Wouter Foulon and Sander Van den dries

24 January 2020

Duo-interview with Wouter and Sander from Comate

Translation | Original article: TEXT Sanderijn Vanleenhove - PHOTOS Dieter Telemans

On December 4th last year, Leuven-based Comate received the UNIZO 'SME Services Company of the Year' award. The company translates ideas into a concrete product prototype, at which point the customer brings it into production. Combining innovation and technology with design is their driving force. "The best moment is when a product rolls off the belt and works. Even then we are already improving or refining it."

"For me, the title should be changed from ‘SME of the Year’ to ‘Team of the Year’," said Co-Manager Sander van den Dries right after receiving the UNIZO award. The team immediately started celebrating the award. One of the reasons that the jury crowned Comate the winner was because of its personnel policy. The employees must be the most important. Right?

Founder Wouter Foulon: "Our people are just great. Not only in their knowledge, but also in their mentality. You can compare it to a restaurant. When you go out to eat, you expect your meal to be top-notch, and so do all 59 other customers. So the chef has to deliver a top meal 60 times, which causes a lot of stress. At Comate, it's no different. Every customer wants their product to be a success, so our people have to be able to handle quite a bit of pressure."

Sander: "Customers ask us to develop products that do not yet exist, like recently a robot for cleaning airplanes. We then have to knuckle down to work since there is no example to start from.” At the same time, our employees are given a deadline, even though they don't know yet where they are going to end up, let alone how to start. That's tough."

"Anyone who works for us has to be able to listen to criticism. We can't afford to have the customer say afterwards 'why didn't Comate think of that'. We must constantly challenge and question each other. Our team is a well-oiled machine, and that's why we are so strict in our employee selection. Every year we screen about 150 candidates, of whom we recruit 3 or 4. At job interviews, we always ask what someone does during their time off. If the applicant is busy building rockets, for example, then we know: 'that's him'. He or she will be happy to get up on Monday, because you get to work on great projects here."

Enjoy Your Vacation

Wouter: “We demand a lot from our people, but they also get a lot in return. We could drive a Bentley, but we intentionally don't because we prefer to invest the money in our people. For example, each employee receives a personal budget for training at home and abroad, a thirteenth month, hospitalization insurance and so on. ”

Wouter: "We ask a lot of our people, but they also get a lot back. We could easily drive a Bentley, but we deliberately don't do that. We prefer to invest the money in our people. For example, each employee receives a personal budget for training at home and abroad, a thirteenth month, hospitalization insurance, and so on."

Sander: "We also attach great importance to flexibility. If a customer can only meet at 7 p.m., we expect the employee concerned to be there. And if someone wants to take their child to the nursery at 9 a.m., that's not a problem either. Our focus is on working as efficiently as possible, not on the number of hours someone works."

Wouter: "It's also reassuring for our people that we don't expect them to work 16 hours every day plus weekends. Even though sometimes they have to, of course. They get 32 days of vacation and we emphasize that they should enjoy the rest."

"How are we doing with ourselves? Not so well (laughs). When you have as much ambition as we do, you can't help but be busy with your business all the time. But we do take leave, you know."

Sander: "And everyone needs an outlet. I do. On the weekends I just have to cycle or walk, otherwise it won't work out."

Concluded at a Family Party

Today, at Comate they have about 50 employees, but 10 years ago there was only Wouter. "I am a product developer by training and had been working as a consultant for a few years. I kept seeing the same problem. No one was betting on high-tech that the user, the cleaning lady, or surgeon, for example, could work with easily. The combination of design and technology was non-existent at the time. So I started developing products myself, and six years later, Sander joined me."

Sander: "Wouter and I are cousins, so at every family party I asked him how things were going. As an engineer, I found what he was doing extremely interesting. In the end, Wouter asked how things were going in the practice. Did I want to be involved or not (laughs)? I didn't hesitate for long."

"They sometimes say that you have to be careful when working with family, but we think the same way and want the same things. And we also dare to say everything to each other. Our family parties are still just as fun, don't worry."

Wouter: "The majority of entrepreneurs start with friends or family. And there are failures, but they are a minority in my opinion. There are a lot of family businesses that are doing super."

Failure is Part of the Game

So is Comate. With a turnover figure of 2,700,000 euros in 2018, an average growth of 30 percent, and an annual net profit of 10 percent, the company seems to be on the up and up. For several years in a row, Comate featured in the Deloitte Fast 50, a list of the fastest-growing Belgian start-ups.

Wouter: "We are indeed doing well and growing, but we remain modest. Compared to the world, we are still relatively small. Growth should not be a goal in itself."

Sander: "Of course, it's completely different with 10 employees than with 30 or 50. Just as we have to constantly improve our products, we do the same with our business."

Wouter: "The fact that we had virtually no employee turnover in the past 4 years proves that we are doing well. Growth also means change, of team, organization, infrastructure, and more. But if you can't handle change, then you are not an entrepreneur."

The same goes for failure, which is inherent to entrepreneurship, especially in a company like Comate.

Wouter: "If something fails, then I take that home with me, just like my colleagues. We work hard to limit failures as much as possible. This is why we sometimes refuse customers or ideas. If you know in advance that the philosophy, commitment, or financial picture is not right, then there is no point in starting."

"To give an example, someone wanted to develop an autonomous car that could stop getaway cars. That way the police didn't have to go after them at the risk of their own safety. But there was no business model behind it and solutions already existed. We could have easily asked for 50,000 euros for a first draft. But we didn't because we really want our projects to succeed. Our goal is to build a long-term relationship with the customer. If a product succeeds, he will come back with a second or third idea."

Sander: "We sometimes refuse customers for ethical reasons as well. Anything to do with weapons, for example. We prefer to choose positive projects with an added social value."

Hello Elon Musk?

‘The Gripper' is a good example of a high social value project from Comate. It is a surgical instrument that ensures that the patient can already walk only an hour and a half after hip surgery. At the same time, it relieves the surgeons and their team. Another is the autonomous snowplough they designed for American and Canadian markets, a much more environmentally-friendly option than today's standard two-stroke snowploughs. Or the "Slimbox," a compact packaging machine that allows you to customize boxes easily to waste less cardboard. We could go on like this for a while. These are all designs that have attracted international attention, which makes Sander and Wouter secretly dream of a phone call from Elon Musk for a project collaboration.

Sander: "Unfortunately, he hasn't called yet. But our ambition is to keep bringing top ideas to Leuven. Whether they come from a start-up, SME, professional, or multinational, it's all the same to us. As long as they are top quality ideas."

This makes me wonder if Sander and Wouter have any of these top ideas up their sleeves themselves.

Sander: "Masses of them. A whole book full, just like many of our colleagues here. But precisely because you work here, you know how difficult it is to turn an idea into a product. You have to throw yourself into it 100 percent. And even if it's technically correct and the design is perfect, the market still has to want the product. You can have a fantastic idea, but if the market isn't ready for it yet, then you shouldn't start." And should they be allowed to develop an idea from their book? Wouter: "Then we will certainly not say which one (laughs)."

Sander: "We also focus on flexibility. If a client can only schedule an appointment at 7 p.m., we expect the employee in question to be present. Similarly, if someone wants to take their child to daycare at 9 a.m., that's no problem either. Our focus is on working as efficiently as possible, not on how many hours someone works."

Wouter: "It's equally reassuring to our people that we don't expect them to work 16-hour days and work during the weekend. Even though they sometimes have to. They get 32 days of annual leave, and we emphasize that they should enjoy the time off."

"How are things going with ourselves? Bad (laughs). When you have as much ambition as we do, you tend to be occupied with your business all the time. But we do take time off."

Sander: “And you need an outlet. At least I do. During the weekend, I need to go cycling or walking, otherwise things won't work out. ”

Settled at a family event

Today, Comate counts about 50 employees, but 10 years ago, there was only Wouter. "I was trained as a product developer and had been working as a consultant for a few years. I noticed the same problem every time. No one was investing in high-tech that was easy for the user, the cleaning lady or surgeon or anybody else, to work with. The combination of design and technology was non-existent until then. So I started developing products myself. Six years later, Sander joined.“

Sander: "Wouter and I are cousins. During every family event, I would ask him how things were going. As an engineer, I found it extremely interesting to follow his developments. In the end, Wouter asked me the question. Did I want to be involved or not (laughs)? I didn't hesitate for long.“

Sander: "They sometimes say that you have to be careful when it comes to working with family. But we think and want the same. And we feel comfortable saying anything to each other. Our family parties are still just as enjoyable, don't worry."

Wouter: "Most entrepreneurs do their business with friends or family at the start. And yes, there are setbacks, but I think they are a minority. There are a lot of family businesses that are thriving."


Setbacks are part of the game

Just like Comate. With a turnover figure of 2,700,000 euros in 2018, an average growth of 30 percent and an annual net profit of 10 percent, the company seems to be on track. For several years in a row, Comate featured in the Deloitte Fast 50, the fastest-growing Belgian start-ups. Wouter: "We are performing well and growing indeed, but we remain modest. Compared to the world, we are still relatively small. Growth isn't a goal in itself, by the way."

Sander: "Of course it's quite different with 10 employees than with 30 or 50. In the same way that we constantly have to question our products, we do the same with our business." Wouter: "The fact that we have virtually no staff turnover for the past 4 years proves that we are on the right track. But growth means change: of team, organisation, infrastructure... But if you cannot handle change, then you aren't an entrepreneur".

The same applies to setbacks. They are a part of entrepreneurship. Especially in a business like Comate. Wouter: "If something doesn't work out, then it stays on my mind, even the colleagues experience this. Of course, we try to limit setbacks as much as possible. That is why we sometimes refuse to accept customers or ideas. If you know from the start that the philosophy, the commitment or the financial picture isn't viable, there's no point in starting."

"To illustrate, someone wanted to develop an autonomous car that could stop getaway cars. This meant that the police didn't have to chase these cars at their own risk. But there was no business model behind it, and solutions already exist. We could have asked for 50,000 euros for an initial sketch, but we didn't. We want a project to succeed, and our goal is to build a long-term relationship with the customer. If a product succeeds, he will come back with a second or third idea."

Sander: "We sometimes refuse customers for ethical reasons. For instance, anything related to weapons. We prefer to choose positive projects with social added value."

Hello Elon Musk?

Like 'the Gripper', for example, a surgical instrument that enables the patient to walk, just one and a half hours after hip surgery. At the same time, it takes the burden off the surgeons and their team. Or the autonomous snowplough they designed specifically for the market in the USA and Canada, which is much more environmentally friendly than today's two-stroke snowploughs. Or the 'Slimbox', a compact packaging machine that allows you to customise boxes so that you use less cardboard. And we can continue like this for a while. These are all designs that have also gained international recognition. And that makes Sander and Wouter secretly dream of a phone call from Elon Musk to turn an idea into a product. Sander: "Unfortunately, he hasn't called yet. But our ambition is to continuously bring top ideas to Leuven. And whether they come from a start-up, SME, professor or multinational, it doesn't matter to us. As long as they are outstanding ideas."

This leads me to wonder whether Sander and Wouter have any brilliant ideas themselves. Sander: "Lots of them. A book full of them. Just like many of my colleagues here. You know how difficult it is to translate an idea into a product because you work here. You have to give it your all. And even then, it is still difficult. Even if it makes sense technically and the design is perfect, the market still has to want the product. You can have a fantastic idea, but you shouldn't start working on it if the market isn't ready for it. And what they could choose one idea from their book and develop it anyway? Wouter: "Then we will certainly not say which one (laughs)."