Spotlights on Yesplan, a Flemish scale-up

How do you become a scale-up? Many start-ups ask this same question. That is why wants to gather testimonies from start-ups currently looking to scale up. Their story can inspire you to write your own story. Yesplan is the first one to take the stage.

Yesplan was founded in 2011 and is now the market leader in Belgium and the Netherlands for Planning solutions for culture houses. We spoke with Wouter Vermeylen, co-founder and CEO of Yesplan.

How did Yesplan originate?

Wouter Vermeylen: “In 2004 cultural centre Vooruit was already working on the impact of digitisation on cultural experience in general and what this could mean for the centre as an organisation. The IBBT, which had recently been set up at the time, was also looking for its place under the sun. The then director of Vooruit, Erik Temmerman, had good contacts at the university. A number of research projects emerged from this combination of factors. The research covered three main areas: the impact of digitisation on visitors, on artists and performers, and on the employees of cultural institutions. In the context of research some tests were conducted at Vooruit. It was one of the first organisations to set up its own community, for example, in 2006 it already possessed a community-driven website. The centre also worked with artists on immersive experience and the potential of multimedia. They also made sure that there was WiFi everywhere for their own staff. In 2006, I was elected IT Manager of the year, with the merits of the entire team behind me, and we were given the opportunity to tell the whole world how Vooruit was handling the digitisation.

“One day, Wim Casier, Vooruit Planning Manager, came to see me and asked me if a system could be built for his planning. He had a lot of Excel files and documents, which involved doing a lot of things twice, and was very prone to mistakes. We didn't think it was a good idea to build something ourselves for Vooruit. That's why we started to explore the market and saw that actually no solution was available: large systems like SAP could have been helpful, but were far too expensive, not in the least because of the huge implementation cost. Smaller, inexpensive systems were often built for one small company and were static or gravely outdated. That’s when we decided to build our own system, but with the intention that it should also be suitable for other similar organisations. And so it went, with trial and error; many versions have subsequently appeared and disappeared. With the experience we gained in the process, and with the help of Inceptive, founded by three Doctors in Computer Sciences of VUB, in 2010 we set up the basis of Yesplan and conducted an IWT market study on the liveability of the software product. The study came back positive, and Yesplan was founded in 2011. There were seven of us: four people from Vooruit, and three from Inceptive. Our first recruitment was Wim Casier, the man who asked me for a planning system in 2006.” 

Was Yesplan a success right from the start? 

“Looking back, it's a miracle that we got our first ten customers,” says Wouter, “We were lucky that we had a lot of market know-how from Vooruit, and a lot of technical know-how from Inceptive. But the fight was hard, because at that time we were still looking very hard to find out who our customers were in fact. In the beginning we aimed at everything: cultural houses, but also museums and even hotels that occasionally organise events. Fortunately, we had chosen the SaaS model from the start, which gave us an advantage over some competitors who had a desktop-based product. They had problems switching to SaaS. Yesplan was in the right place at the right time. In the cultural sector, everyone was still organising their planning with Excel, but many began to realise that there should be better ways of dealing with this. And that is exactly what we could offer, a better way of doing things.”

How did you handle your growth at that time?

Wouter: “We are proud of having been so ambitious right from the start. I sometimes see other start-ups which are not so ambitious. And in a way that is how they limit their growth, right from the start. We knew that we were doing good in terms of market know-how and technical know-how, but we were not so experienced in sales, marketing and financials. That is why we started looking for people who were better at that and asked them to join us in the advisory board. That is how Piet Buyck introduced his knowledge about the SaaS model.”

When you grow you also need people. How can you find the right people?

“Gut feeling", Wouter smiles, “What is important to us, is that people have the right DNA and share the values of Yesplan. For us, for example, it is important that the customer is always the focus of attention. We check this with an account manager, but also with a developer and an office manager. The interpretation of this value is different for every role: a financial director will be triggered by the value that we create for a customer, whereas a developer is more likely to pick up on the beauty of the application he delivers. I don’t have to able to go to the pub with everyone, but those values are important. And all employees do not have to be a copy of me, but I am more interested in complementary people. I am quite chaotic myself; therefore I need people around me who can bring order and structure to their work.”

Where is Yesplan now?

Wouter: “We are currently market leader in Belgium and the Netherlands. We have a churn rate of less than 2 percent. This does not mean that no customers have left us: some of our first customers have now left because they were not really part of our target group. I don't really mind that this is what happened: in the beginning start-ups sometimes have to go for a broad target audience, as long as you are aware that at some point you will have to focus very clearly on what you do and who for. The right focus can only be learned by trial and error. Since 2012 we have also been active in the Netherlands and we deliberately stayed in these two countries for a very long time: there was still a lot of work on the product, and the implementation of our product required a lot of manual work. After all, this is software which must contain almost all workflows in an organisation. We needed a lot of time to get an organisation up-and-running. Never underestimate the change management required in an organisation. It all costs time and money, and going to other countries would have only cost us more time and money. In 2016 we hired Erik Temmerman as the person in charge of our international business development, and in the meantime we are now operating in the UK, Ireland, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Austria. That is why we are now working very hard on writing down all the knowledge and know-how in our heads, so that it can be applied by people in those countries. Our focus in 2018 will be on this internal professionalisation, after which we want to grow further to new regions in 2019.

It is clear you have more ambitions.

Wouter: “Definitely. By the end of 2018 we want 30 English-speaking customers and 30 French-speaking customers. By 2021 we want to be rolled-out at 500 customers worldwide.”

Do you see many more challenges to achieve this or is it going to be easy?

Wouter: “We are convinced that the market is there. The cultural sector is in full development worldwide when you look at the use of professional ERP tools. Besides specific market obstacles the biggest challenge will be our internal organisation. They have already made the shift from a Dutch-speaking organisation, to an international one - and therefore all our communication now needs to be conducted in English. This may seem to be a detail but it has a great impact on a company. We still have a lot of work to do to record all our know-how in manuals and training. We also implemented a capital increase that will largely be invested in the further professionalisation and automation of our own organisation.

You participated in How did you get there and did it help you in any way?

Wouter: “We ended up at through someone of a venture fund. I explained the problems we were encountering and he answered: ‘In Belgium there is actually only one person who really knows about these matters and that is Omar Mohout.’ Omar then suggested to register our business for A few topics of the workshops were already known to us, a few others were completely new. It was a pleasant surprise to see the network that opened up for us. You are there with ten other companies which are in the same growth phase and this makes it easy to exchange know-how about the process. I still have regular contact with four or five of the people from that group.”

Together with Agoria Sirris is supporting, a counselling process for innovative digital companies with a proven business model, which are on the eve of a growth acceleration. Within the programme the scale-ups are supported both collectively and individually with regard to different aspects of scaling up digital business models. Interested? Please contact us !

(Source pictures: Yesplan)