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Voka - Comate in the spotlight

6 November 2015

Comate celebrates its fifth anniversary

Entrepreneur in the spotlight: Comate

Every month VOKA Leuven puts an entrepreneur in the spotlight. In October, they chose to share our story. Read the full article here:

Business manager Wouter Foulon looks back

On the 10th of July this year, the engineering and design firm Comate celebrated its fifth anniversary. The company started in 2010 with only Wouter Foulon in charge. In the meantime, the team has grown to 15 employees and the end of the growth is not yet in sight.

A few years ago, we already published an article about Comate (pronounced: komeejt) when they had just joined the Voka network. Via the PLATO project, managing director Wouter Foulon quickly became established in the B2B network par excellence (if we do say so ourselves). In light of the company's fifth anniversary, we look back on a fascinating journey.

"As an entrepreneur of an SME it is best not to micro-manage. Everything revolves around freedom and responsibility".

"I only started recruiting after being in business for a good year," says Foulon. "I hesitated for a long time between the freelance life and setting up a company with scale. Luckily, I chose the second. It makes you look much more credible, and you suddenly attract larger assignments, which is almost impossible as a freelancer."

"Once the decision was made to expand, I immediately went all-in with Comate. You know, as an entrepreneur, you jump that little bit faster," Foulon explains. "I chose to offer a combination of engineering and design that crosses domains. In the meantime, some domains have developed into full-sized entities, including our medical branch".

"As an entrepreneur, you jump just a little faster..."

Big investments

Developing products for the medical world is not straightforward. It is a highly regulated sector, and Foulon also experienced this: "We have invested significantly in all possible relevant ISO certificates. That was quite tough, but also a conditio sine qua non. Without the right accreditations, you cannot get a job in the medical world. I then also acquired the necessary experience to steer all of this in the right direction."

"And you just have to go for it, too," Foulon says enthusiastically. "You can learn a lot from the books of other entrepreneurs. For example, I remembered the quote from Jan Callewaert's book (Option NV) that, as an entrepreneur, you have to dare to go even if you are only 70% sure of success. If you wait until you are 90 or 100% certain of your piece before you take action, then you are too late. By then, another entrepreneur will already be much further along."

"That's the beauty of entrepreneurship," Foulon continues. "You gradually build up a large network, providing you with a considerable sounding board. That means you can test your ideas and make much more informed decisions. The Leuven region is also a fantastic gathering place for everything that has to do with 'medtech', 'biotech', and everything that has to do with 'tech'. The collaborations that exist and that are possible are almost endless. Just think of imec, the KU Leuven and many private initiatives.

From analysis to product

So what is it precisely that Comate does? "It all starts, as so often, with an idea," says Wouter Foulon. "But you know: an idea is only worth as much as its implementation. We analyse an idea or a problem to the core: who are the parties involved, what are the user scenarios, what does the market look like, you name it. The analysis results in a defined framework within which the project is elaborated. Then, via a system phase, we work out a concept that must ultimately result in a finished product. In practical terms, we help companies to realise their ideas or solve their problems. Often, it is these companies that lack the right expertise. This can be temporary, but it can also be about designers who need an engineer or vice versa. Whatever the outcome, the result of a collaboration is always something that we at Comate and our customer are proud of. We don't do it for less.

"Practically speaking, Comate helps companies realize their ideas or solve their problems."

Lessons learned

"Entrepreneurship is all about learning constantly", says Foulon. "Fortunately, I have already learned the most important lesson: surround yourself with the right people. That is priceless. And I don't only refer to your employees, but also a possible external advisory board, investors, etc. And another lesson: as an entrepreneur of an SME, avoid micro-management. Trust your employees to do what they are good at. If you want to be involved in everything anyway, then you become the limiting factor in the growth of the company."

"Sometimes, when you recruit a profile, you can make a wrong assumption. I think every entrepreneur knows what I mean. As a small business, that's an expensive mistake. But it's also about how you deal with it. And at Comate, we strongly emphasise coaching and training, which significantly reduces the margin of error. Also, mismatches between employee, company and job content are detected much quicker."

In short, when we hear Wouter Foulon talking, one thing becomes clear: entrepreneurship is fascinating. "It effectively is. The most interesting thing about doing business, or at least the most important factor, is 'time'. You have to make decisions willy-nilly in a limited time, and it has to be the right decision. Very challenging, with a huge 'kick' if it goes as planned."

Collaboration is the key to success

"If you want to grow, you need to look outside the boundaries of your own capabilities," says Foulon. "Things like co-creation are not empty buzzwords, but are effectively the future of entrepreneurship. You have to dare to bring the expertise of others into your business. You have to constantly let yourself be inspired and motivated by fellow entrepreneurs, while trying to do the same for others. And, of course, you must always be on the lookout for opportunities. Often very interesting people cross your path unexpectedly and then it is important that you have an eye for the right opportunities. My vision in the beginning was to grow into a healthy and mature company with 20 employees. After only five years we have reached that point. I would never have gotten there so fast if I had wanted to do everything on my own. Today we work for most of the big companies in Belgium."

"If you want to grow, you have to dare to look outside the limits of your own capabilities."

People, people, people

The three Ps at Comate seem to revolve mainly around 'people'. The company's human capital is priceless. "We work very hard on our corporate culture for that reason," says Foulon. "Because we believe that if you like working somewhere, you will also be more productive, and you will have less desire to leave."

"In the not so distant future, we want to focus more on startups, spin-offs and SMEs. This also fits in with our vision on cooperation: often, we will be able to do something for them, but just as often, they may be able to do something for us. We want to work on the image of research and development: it is accessible to everyone, from small to large. We also want to make the various potential partners and customers realise that an external R&D department if you want to call us that, can be highly beneficial. Just think of a fresh view from an unbiased party or simply the cost-effective way of not having to hire a full-time research team in your company. Tailor-made for each company, we will think creatively about possible cooperation."

"Passion from morning to night: before, during or after hours, our people remain engineers; it's in their blood."

"To achieve that, our people have to be 'the best'," says Foulon. However, the basis for recruiting someone is not 'competence', but 'passion'. The first one is important, but the latter is sometimes lacking in very competent people. Passion from morning to night: before, during or after hours, our people remain engineers. It's in their blood, and that can only benefit our customers. In exchange for this passion, our employees receive a lot of freedom, trust and flexibility. We also encourage knowledge sharing and even review moments between colleagues. We also only invest in developing the good qualities of our people and not polishing their weak points. This way, you get people who are super-specialists rather than mediocre all-rounders. Focus is the keyword here

The future is Comate

"The biggest challenges are not that different for us than for most companies," says Foulon. "We are trying to grow and expand our market, and we are constantly looking for talented people and trying to keep them on board. For example, we are now looking for the right formula of R&D that we can offer to SMEs. How do we ensure that we keep the tech and the knowledge here in Flanders so that the money for research also stays here? The medtech sector is the biggest challenge here because developing for that sector requires an enormous amount of structure."

"We also want to focus increasingly on supporting start-ups. In some cases, we even want to co-invest in the products we believe in. That can act as leverage for further investments."

"Every year, we screen 150 people (!). We recruit about 3 to 4 of them. Keeping them happy is a 'metier' in itself. But we manage well if I do say so myself. The bottom line is that we want to make the best product possible, inspiring our employees.

By 2020, Comate wants to profile itself as the pre-eminent point of contact regarding the development of a new product or a new machine. "We want to become a beacon on which people set their course, especially with a focus in the medtech sector."

"Do we still want to grow in the coming years? I don't know. Right now, it's fun doing business. We are big enough to take on assignments of all sizes but at the same time small enough to respond quickly. Today, we are very manoeuvrable. It is somewhat two-faced. I want to grow, of course, but that can be done in many different areas, and it will again be a question of having an eye for the opportunities that will present themselves anyway."

"The best advice for starters: do not be discouraged by external advice but be critical and evaluate yourself"

Tips for fellow entrepreneurs

"Whether I have any advice for fellow business owners? Read every good management or trade book you can get your hands on. Read them all! You can learn a tremendous amount from books. It sounds cliché, but that's just the way it is. I would also like to say this to starters: running your own business is hard work and requires a lot of sacrifice. But at the same time it is the biggest professional kick you will ever get in your life. And remember: do not be discouraged by external advice, be critical and evaluate yourself".

That's already noted.

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