Matthew Van Niekerk in the spotlight
The Fast Bloomers team chats with Matthew Van Niekerk, Co-Founder and CEO of SettleMint, about his company’s origins, international expansion, and much more…
As we enter the KBC headquarters in Leuven – the formidable building SettleMint’s office is nestled in – we brace ourselves for what will most likely be a crisp interview with CEO and Co-Founder Matthew Van Niekerk. SettleMint is, after all, making waves all around. In such a short span of time, it has garnered acclaim both overseas and in Belgium. So how can the interview with the busy man behind the steering wheel be anything but formal and rushed?
Well, just minutes later, our reservations go out the window. Matthew strolls into the lobby and greets us with a genuine, warm smile. His friendliness is almost tangible. After a quick tour of the open space that houses his team as well as other startups, we settle down in a comfortable spot. What follows is a wonderful, intelligent and thought-provoking two-hour long conversation. Here are some of the interesting excerpts:
The very first steps
“This entrepreneurial streak goes way back. I am from Canada and lived in Tokyo for more than six years before moving to Belgium to do my MBA from Vlerick. While in Japan, I started an online retail business of snowboarding goods. It was a good experience, I learned a lot, especially about supply chain management, but ultimately it was very, very early for something like this there – you know, I might be the first Westerner to know about Alibaba.com! [Laughs]
So then, I came to business school in Belgium in 2006. I had all these ideas and I enrolled with the intention of finding my team, thinking I’d change the world. After graduation, everyone sadly went their own way. I started working at KBC and stayed there for nine years. To be fair, I did some entrepreneurial things there, too, and was given a lot of responsibility. In fact, at one point, I was COO of the credit card business in the country.
KBC’s Bolero in 2013 was quite an important time for me, as this is what kind of brought me to blockchain. It didn’t take me long to realise that the use of this technology was far greater than just within the financial world – in fact, I believe it can alter society entirely in the years to come, like the internet. That’s how pervasive it is. So, that’s where the idea of SettleMint originated. It has never been about making millions, it’s about bringing change.”
SettleMint, the realisation of a dream
“Just as the internet eradicated the need for paper, blockchain basically eradicates the need for third parties when it comes to sharing things person-to-person. It’s quite new, and there’s so much that can be done with it, but not many people who can do it. There are only 9000 developers in the entire world who can legitimately claim that capability.
Thus, SettleMint basically came into being in 2016 because I instantly realised there was this vacuum between the capabilities of businesses drawn to blockchain and the technology itself. At SettleMint, we create a range of developer tools that enable any enterprise developer to build blockchain based applications. It’s an abstraction layer – a middleware app – that makes blockchain technology accessible for developers.”
Skyrocketing success -- at home and abroad
“The response to SettleMint has been extremely positive and we’re experiencing monumental growth. We aim to have 60 people on our team by the end of the year and 120 people by the end of the next year. Furthermore, we hope to have 140 implementations by January 2019 and another investment round is on its way. Honestly speaking, for businesses attracted to blockchain technology, getting us on board is really a drop in the bucket. If they did it on their own, it would be a lot more costly and time-consuming.
Our international expansion has also been great. So far, we’re concentrating on the Middle East, countries such as Dubai, Oman, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. We have nine partner companies already and have also set up our office in Dubai.
Our work for the Islamic Development Bank in this area has been substantial. A component of that is a blockchain based subsidy system (for the zakat).”
All about going global
“ We chose the Middle East to expand to because there’s a high propensity to adopt new technology in this region, which makes it perfect for us. In fact, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has said all applications will be blockchain based by 2020! Also, the free zones are a huge advantage.
In terms of how we went about it, trade shows are important in a lot of ways, so we made our presence felt in those. From the start, we were determined to build not just a product but a brand as well, so events and blogs have been important as well. Last year alone, we attended 30 events – if time allowed, we would have done more.
Finding local representatives and local integration partners is extremely important when you’re looking to expand to a new country. Again, events are great for this purpose – through these, you can meet the right people and form these kinds of collaborations.
As for hurdles arising from cultural and linguistic differences, the Middle East, English is generally okay to get by. We’ve noticed that the people we deal with have usually been educated in the West.
Revisiting the past
We’ve had one hell of a run so far. But if I could go back in time, I would probably improve our HR and onboarding processes. We moved very fast then, but now we take time to ensure there is a great fit with the expectations, demands of the job, and the culture of the company. Mistakes with this process make for an unpleasant experience for both the employer and the employee.
Belgium, the home base
“Strategically and geographically, Belgium is good. However, I must say, starting a company is ridiculous here – so much paperwork and so many complexities that require other people to get involved!
Speaking more generally, I think the government should stay out of the way for people who want to do things. This doesn’t just apply to Belgium but everywhere.
We also haven’t benefited from Belgian funds and subsidies at all. Applied for one ages ago but haven’t heard back since. See, applying for these things is extremely time consuming as there’s a lot of paperwork and correspondence required. Our team is working full capacity, so it’s not a question of not wanting to apply, but who’s going to do it for us? Who’s that person? If we had that resource, we would definitely go for it.”
What it takes to be an entrepreneur
“I come from a family of entrepreneurs. Although they weren’t tech-y or anything, they did run their own businesses. That’s all I saw around me. So, I guess I’d have to say that environment plays a huge role. You can’t even limit it to personality type, because there are all kinds of entrepreneurs, both introverts and extroverts.”
On work-life balance
“ I give all the credit to my wife. Honestly could not have done anything without her, she’s my support system. She’s just amazing. I was out of the city 170 days last year and she was here, raising the kids and keeping it all together. She’s truly an incredible person.”
In the pipeline for SettleMint
“At the moment, we’re concentrating on financing and hiring. We hope to hire for tech and operations in equal measure. We are also doing trainings for managers, and there’s one in Singapore soon.
In terms of international expansion, we’re focused on the Middle East for the time being, but in the longer term, Southeast Asia may be our next move.”
Key advice for SMEs thinking about taking their business overseas
“Just go for it. Don’t overthink, learn on your feet. It’s great to go global.”