Yves Hiernaux reflects on what he's learned as the CEO of a successful company for the past 10 years

When we think about startups, we usually think about small tech companies with innovative ideas/solutions that have the potential to experience enormous growth in a short period of time. To a certain degree, BeeBole, the company I created 10 years ago with my friend Mic Cvilic, fits that idea. However, I’ve never considered BeeBole a startup…which is probably one of the reasons that it has grown into a successful business.

The beginning of the "overnight success": CTO Mic Cvilic and CEO Yves Hiernaux (and the rest of the BeeBole team) attending Google IO 2010.
A look at the early days. Here I am with CTO and co-founder Mic Cvilic and developer Hughes Waroquier at the BeeBole team at Google I/O 2010.

The problem with the startup world

To give you a bit of background, my company is in the *really* competitive niche of timesheet business, with a time-tracking software as a service (SaaS) solution that allows companies to handle HR and management-related tasks. That said, when we created BeeBole 10 years ago, the SaaS model was just taking off. Back then in Brussels, where I lived, there was a growing entrepreneurial community with a message that just didn’t appeal to me.

That message, which we still hear today across the startup world, focuses on the ability to raise millions and do something extraordinary with that money. The big story has been always the same: come up with a fantastic idea, persuade investors to give you money, and become a millionaire in the blink of an eye. Often, we don’t even know what happens to these companies after they’ve raised their capital, and many end up failing because they don’t know how to transform those millions into something truly valuable.

Along those lines, in the startup community (or even in media covering startups) you rarely hear stories of small companies like ours that took a different approach and eventually became profitable. It’s just not a sexy story. Instead, when we stepped into the startup world, everyone was dreaming about the big idea that would change their lives and make their companies an overnight success.

No such thing as overnight success.

Well, the idea of “overnight success” has always been sort of a mirage to me. In fact, during my first year with BeeBole, I remember reading a post by the CEO of MailChimp, at a time when his company was the latest darling of the start-up scene. In that post, he said that it was funny to hear people say that MailChimp was an overnight success, when it had taken them 7 years and 4 versions to reach that point.

Conceiving a company with the idea that it’s going to be an overnight success is just wrong. In fact, there are two big fallacies in that approach. First of all, there is no such thing as the “super idea.” There are so many people out there, so many would-be entrepreneurs, that the idea probably exists somewhere already. Rather than agonizing over coming up with that “super idea,” the goal should be taking an idea, refining it, and trying to make it real.

Second, starting a business with the ultimate goal of suddenly making millions is completely wrong; it’s like playing the lottery. It shouldn’t be about you, but rather about creating a viable company. I strongly believe that building a company with the wrong goals can be fatal. If you’re only in it for the millions, your focus is wrong.

Entrepreneurship as a way of life

To be honest, I never dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur or of having my own company. As far as I remember, I simply wanted to go to college and become an engineer. In fact, I ended up getting a degree in Computer Engineering.

Starting my own business also never came to mind in part because Belgian universities don’t teach entrepreneurship. The belief there is that if you become a teacher at a university, or you get a PhD, you will be respected. Being an entrepreneur, however, is not really something to aspire to.

It was my associate Mic Cvilic who changed my mind and showed me the potential of becoming an entrepreneur. I certainly don’t regret my choice. The freedom you get from being your own boss is something I like very much. For me, entrepreneurship wasn’t about a million-dollar idea, but rather about freedom, building my own company, and making my own decisions.

Celebrating our 10th anniversary in the Alps. The overnight success from 2008 to 2018.
Every January, the BeeBole team heads to the Alps!

Being an entrepreneur was also about controlling my own time in many ways. I see it more as a way of life than just something that will make me rich and, to be honest, I’ve never seen that message highlighted in the startup world.

At BeeBole, we established a remote culture from the very beginning. In fact, when we created the company I was living in India, and for me it was very important to continue that lifestyle. If one of us wanted to spend a week in the mountains (and I love the mountains!), we wanted to make sure that we could. And we did. I can take my family there and work from there. The only thing I need is a good connection.

The one thing you need

Growing your company from day one to the point of profitability requires a lot of work. You need to have a good product, listen to your customers, adapt the product based on that feedback, and reiterate. However, you also need to deal with setbacks and difficulties along the way, and there’s only one thing that can help you with that: resilience!

You need to stay focused and view setbacks as part of the process. For instance, when we created BeeBole we decided to remain self-funded, which is much more difficult to do. We didn’t like the idea of bringing in investors because we wanted to maintain full control of the company and its mission.

After 2 years we ran out of money, so I decided to go back to consulting. That was one of my most challenging moments, especially because I had no desire to do consulting again. However, I knew I had to do it as part of the process of continuing to support our company.

During that time, I was essentially working a double shift. I used to spend my regular hours doing consulting and my evening time working for BeeBole. On the third year, I saw the light! BeeBole was still growing and I finally saw that we could become profitable. That third year was very tiring, but somehow I don’t remember it as being particularly difficult. The fact that something is exhausting doesn’t necessarily mean that it is difficult. I believe that your own approach to whatever you’re doing will decide if that’s the case or not.

Planning for more overnight success: The BeeBole team got together in Brussels in 2019 for their annual summer meeting.
BeeBole team in June 2019 at the annual summer meeting in Brussels.

What’s more, your attitude is more important than the cash. If you need money, you can find investors or a day job and work in the evenings as I did. If you’re resilient and you want to make it happen, you will find solutions. For me, resilience is the basis of all things.

Everything will be fine.

I never thought BeeBole would fail. I’m a very optimistic person and that idea never crossed my mind. Growth has been constant. In 11 years we have never had a moment when growth stopped. It kept me going with confidence, because we could see that we were doing something right.

While at some point you may face a big crisis, in my experience there are usually many small problems happening at any given time. Sometimes, you just need to let it go. Instead of focusing on all those little, negative things, you need to focus on the positive and move forward.

I also never felt negatively about BeeBole. If there was something wrong, I never tried to blame the company or anyone else. Every time I was faced with a challenge, I asked the same question: What can I do to actually make this better?

In the end, I think BeeBole could be considered a successful startup without a Hollywood story. Indeed, our company reached that point by going against the “regular” approach in the startup scene. We avoided the common traps of the startup world, while embracing entrepreneurship as a way of life. We added lots of hard work, focus, and resilience into the process and the results have been great.

Originally published on the The Management Blog by BeeBole.