FoodTech Mentor Spotlight: Vincent Van Dessel

FoodTech Mentor Spotlight: Vincent Van Dessel

04-Oct-2018 by Ozge Ulke

The Startupbootcamp Mentor Spotlight is a series of interviews profiling inspiring stories from our extended network of mentors at Startupbootcamp FoodTech Rome.

Today we shed our spotlight on an atypical mentor profile: an ex-adman who lived in different continents, got conscious, and decided to use his corporate and advertising skills to mentor foodtech startups with an ‘ ethical or sustainable  soul’

Vincent defines himself as a business strategist through collaboration, identifying organization & client business opportunities. He is a skilled organization & brand builder with a strong focus on ROI for clients & organizations, offering integrated marcom solutions embracing innovation, technology & creative ignition.

As a proficient business leader & director with an experience across different continents, his areas of experience include growing revenue & profit, developing new businesses, developing & implementing integrated marketing & communication platforms across every relevant touchpoint, forming strategic alliances with external partners & trans enterprise entities, M&A management and (re)designing business processes

Vincent played an active role in winning various creative, activation and efficiency awards for his clients in Europe and Asia.  He acted as a jury member for many prestigious Belgian and international marketing awards. He holds a master’s in law and a master’s in marketing & Sales Management.

Q: So Vincent, what brings you to startups’ world and to Startupbootcamp FoodTech?

I think it’s quite important to explain the shift that I made last year when I decided to quit the whole advertising ecosystem after 18 years in advertising agencies across Europe and Asia. Working with all the big corporate multinationals over the last years, I often got frustrated by how “dinosaur” they can be in their thinking, their acting, the people you interact with – a complete lack of agility even in launching their own innovations. What really dragged me to the startups’ world was its contradiction to the business environment I was in. Also, from a value point of view, I wanted to be in a much more purpose-driven environment and the integrity that I see with startups and how they really want to solve problems in a certain extent with innovation is much more truthful. It’s about dynamism, agility, speed, and certain beliefs and values that you could integrate into your business.

I connect myself much more with startups now especially with the ones in the foodtech ecosystem. I find foodtech vertical to be quite interesting because it’s quite new compared to other verticals and I think that it’s still emerging, the full ecosystem has not been developed yet. On the other hand, my own passions that are more about the food, and sustainability made me drive my purpose more towards the foodtech startups. I feel a big attraction to learn about all the problems that we have in our food chain and there are a lot of problems that need to be solved from how we produce to how we consume.

When I was living in Vietnam, I mentored 3 startups including Cricket One with the accelerator called Viisa. I found their idea to be very interesting because of its connection to the circular economy, sustainability and social entrepreneurship, giving more value to the farmers. At the same time, they were also selected to your acceleration program and that’s what opened up the world to Startupbootcamp FoodTech for me. That’s how we got connected and started talking more about how I can help.

Q: How can you support the teams that you are mentoring?

I have gathered a lot of experience in the corporate world which can be useful of course in a much smaller environment. I started as a strategic planner and have worked 18 years in advertising, I did all the different layers to raising to a CEO profile and in the last 7-8 years, I became much more generalist. The main value I can bring is my holistic view which includes layers from branding to supply chain or to business model.

Currently, I am launching as a main activity a global high-end decoration brand – in that venture, I am also in startup mode – a lot of similarities and learnings are shared and it gives a big understanding of the everyday struggles of the teams.

I believe that the main role of a mentor should be to raise awareness for the startups especially because being day-to-day in, they start not seeing certain gaps, failures, and concepts that they need to adapt.

Q: As an expert in marketing, innovation and business strategy how is your personal checklist like when you are evaluating startups?

I always start with a white sheet. Firstly from the name because it’s very important: it explains the kind of story they are telling. Then, of course, I try to understand the value proposition, the target market, buyer personas if they have, the customer journey and market validation.

I am always surprised by how few interviews startups do with consumers or in a B2B context and they don’t have an in-depth analysis of that. I don’t think that they do their homework always. They come up with an idea that they believe in and they build everything around it to make the idea work in theory but in practice, they don’t talk with the customer or the players in the supply chain. The information that pops up here can be really helpful in fine-tuning the product or even pivoting your business

Every time when I meet a startup, I come with very general essential questions to understand the work they have done previously and how reflection process has matured in their head. Usually, I see a lot of gaps and guide them to prioritize on those. I’ve also seen some startups that have no idea about their competitors. Strategic planning starts with analyzing the brand, the consumer, doing research around it, and coming up with a positioning. These are the basics and I see a lot of startups that jump these. If you cannot walk, you cannot run.

Another item in my list is the uniqueness which is necessary especially if you want to scale your business on a global level. Sometimes we see a copy paste of an existing platform from another part of the world or some ideas that were built on a previous idea of another startup. In such cases, it’s very important to clarify the unique point of difference on which teams can be very creative.

For me, it’s also very important to have an extra layer on their business like a purpose point of view if it’s about sustainability, circular economy, social entrepreneurship… I try to add these layers when I coach startups also to see certain components of their business where you can add an extra layer such that it becomes even more future-proof.

Q: Do you think the “purpose”, should always be in the core value proposition and how effective it is?

That’s quite an interesting exercise to play with how much emphasis you will put on it. The effectiveness of the purpose depends highly on your target and its sensibility of course. If the target is millennials, for example, for them it is becoming like a must-have. If it’s not in there, they would not even consider the product. For other sources of business, it might be not that relevant. It’s a case by case evaluation.

This can be leveraged by the startups to stand out. For example, when I went to the Demo Day in January, MyFoody -I think was quite interesting in solving the problem of food waste-, Gabanna and Cricket One were the ones that really popped for me because of the purpose part of their core proposition.

Q: What are the best ways of creating a marcom strategy for startups that launch a product, considering the very limited marketing budget they have?

It’s very important for any startup to define the customer and their journey, then you know where you can play a role in your marketing. The customer journey is one of the key tools where you can identify what kind of tactics and channels you can use. For me, the basis for creating a marcom strategy is usually digital marketing, since it’s much cheaper flexible and measurable.

It’s always about owned, earned and paid channels. That’s the structure and it’s very essential to have a gradual approach to building your marketing capabilities and campaigns.

Start with building your owned resources which will be your basic presence and can be a website, Facebook page, Instagram account, SEO, or even your business card. There are very cheap and collaborative ways to build those. For example, you don’t need to immediately hire a designer firm to have your logo done, there are different initiatives and platforms where you can do like little competitions between several designers and pay for the one you like. You can also do some affiliate marketing by creating some content. It’s very important to select 3-4 content pillars around certain themes and respect that in your storytelling.

Secondly, trial and error. One of the best advantages of digital marketing Is that you can test your assumptions. Start from a consumer point of view, run A/B tests through your communication to understand what works and what doesn’t. You can publish some ads on social media which will also contribute to creating a follower base on your social accounts. Then you have also a loyal base that you can interact with, propose some ideas, ask for their feedback, go for referral programs at certain moments, pull contests where you give away or co-create. Use the paid in a very cost-efficient way to build your community and then use this community as a loyal base.

Another important tactic is co-creation which can deliver great value. Co-creating with other players in the supply chain, your own community, or even competitors can be cost-efficient, inspirational. Be smart and try to create win-win situations.

Q: Are there any final tips you would like to give to CEOs of young startups?

It’s more about the general attitude. There are 4 key attitudes that a good CEO needs to have: humility, flexibility, realism, and resilience.

First one is humility; don’t get lost in your idea, be humble and be open. Even if your startup is linked to an industry where you have experience, don’t think that you know everything. Be flexible: take into account all the feedback that you can. That’s one of the issues that I’ve seen sometimes because they work so long to come with an MVP, they lived with difficult circumstances to realize their dream so they get stuck with their ideas that they are not always humble enough to take into account the feedback that they receive to adapt the changes that they need. And be realistic: don’t jump for big steps immediately but try to find creative solutions, know where your limitations are as a startup. Realism, of course, is not always easy and sometimes you get big slaps in your face and it takes you some days to get back on track. That’s why it’s very important to be resilient. Don’t isolate yourself in doing that. Have a good partner in crime because it can be tough; you need to stand up not once but maybe 10 or 20 times a year. A person of confidence that can really boost your morale when is very helpful. Don’t think that you are alone or you can do everything alone.

Ozge Ulke