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New year new work: Going solo and starting your own business in Belgium

20:00 05/01/2019
Becoming self-employed in Belgium has never been easier, with more advice and financing available than ever before

Those who have lived in Belgium for many years can tell you: it’s never been easier to get the information you need to start your own business. With websites becoming more English-friendly and entrepreneurial agencies reaching out to internationals – especially in Brussels – the process has become much less daunting than it was even 10 years ago.

And more roadblocks could fall away in the future. Flanders is about to scrap its requirement that those without a diploma must take courses in business management, and Brussels could follow. However, says Olivier Willocx, director of Brussels Enterprises, Commerce and Industry (Beci), even that requirement is – in true Belgian fashion – flexible. “If you want to start a business in Belgium, you have to have a university or college diploma or relevant experience,” he says. “The Belgian state simply wants to make sure you have an understanding of what you’re doing.” This, he explains, avoids bankruptcies.

Before you get as far as applying for a business licence, it’s crucial to get the right advice. The first step is to arm yourself with basic information. The second is to enlist the help of a lawyer and an accountant or a coach at one of Belgium’s entrepreneurial agencies. Each region has its own agency. Beci serves the Brussels Capital-Region, but Flanders’ and Wallonia’s agencies – Unizo and UCM respectively – also have offices in the capital.

Many internationals are reluctant to seek help because of language barriers, but Willocx says help in English is available. “One in three of my clients speaks English,” he says. “For the moment, all the paperwork has to be done in French or Dutch, but we’re working on that. We are trying to convince the authorities to accept English as well.” Still, he warns, it’s best to have a basic understanding of French or Dutch if you want to run a business here. Beci’s training courses, for instance – many of them free – are in one or other of the languages. “It’s a question of understanding the system,” he explains. “English terms don’t mean the same thing to all English-speakers. ‘Social security’, for instance, means something different in different cultures.”

Bernard Denys, a business coach at the Brussels chapter of Unizo, agrees that it’s a good idea to get yourself familiar with the system in French or Dutch and also points to a number of training options to help you learn to run a business. “The Belgian state does want to simplify the process, which is very good, but we advise people to acquire the skills they need all the same,” he says. “There are modules you can follow in certain organisations, like Syntra, in order to get this kind of knowledge.”

Unizo itself offers a course called Go4Business, which includes personal coaching and group workshops. By the end, you’ll have a business plan and an idea of how and when to start. Denys encourages anyone thinking about starting their own business in Brussels to first consult the website 1819.be. “The aim of the site is to send you to the right people,” says Denys. “Unizo is one of the recognised places to go for help but there are others that can provide advice, help you with a business plan or to get financial resources, or to analyse your business case for the Belgian market.”

He also explains that, while applying for a business licence is a federal jurisdiction, the subsidies available are decided at the regional level. And, like advice, there are more subsidies available now than ever before. “The main thing to know is that there are many organisations providing really good help for start-ups in Brussels,” says Denys. “Sometimes it comes from universities, sometimes from non-profits, sometimes our organisations.”

It’s important to realise, they both point out, that one can become self-employed without having to become a legal entity. This is crucial information for expats, who often want to start up a consulting activity after retirement or to put their English-language skills to work translating or copywriting.

Freelancers and consultants usually do not need to become legal entities (of which there are several types), but can simply be self-employed - an easier process both in terms of getting started and in paying taxes. According to Wilockx, if you don’t have to incorporate, you shouldn’t. “You can always move from being independent to being a company if it turns out you need to.”

Best-practice tips on how to set up a business in Belgium

Louise Hilditch:
“You can't seek too much advice. There's a lot of free information out there. The best place to start is at Impulse, the Brussels Enterprise Agency. Never take the attitude of, 'Mind your own business.' No. First listen, then evaluate, and only then discard. You have to be quite persistent if you want to succeed. Go to a notary. They know the details, and even offer one-hour free consultations. There's no excuse. Register your business last. Why? As soon as you set it up, you start incurring costs. Do your research, talk to potential customers, find your market, then create the company. Even if you incur costs in the preparation process, you can expense them later as company costs. The key message is, don't think setting up the business is the first thing you have to do. The opposite is true."

Frank Turley:
"You don't know what's going to happen in the future. What if they company goes under? So will you. Always, always think about yourself too. Find a good business partner. It's perhaps better if it's not your friend, in fact. Find someone who has the skills that you lack. That's a good partner. Keep testing, keep trying new things. Even if your initial idea works out, try to twist things a bit. You have to keep learning. Always. It's crucial to be able to adapt quickly.”

John di Stefano:
"Think of decisions as something long-term. And what does that mean? That you will sometimes make the wrong choices. But you will learn. Learning the management skills is crucial for the long run. And if you are committed, you'll find a way to come back. I'm convinced. Experience has shown me that. Bringing people on board helps, because the company must be able to survive without you. If you have clarity on why you've set up a business in the first place, then it will be easier to say no to what may seem like an opportunity. It will also be easier to know which new skills are relevant to learn, which ones are not. Take the time to define where you're going. It's not always easy. But it makes the difference."

‘A very good move’: British expat Laura Shields set up her company, Red Thread, to meet a need for clear communications in Brussels

What does your company do?
I do communications and media training, trying to help my clients find their ‘red thread’, or the stories they are trying to tell. I teach them how to get across their messages in a way that anyone can understand. That can be a real challenge in a town like Brussels, which is policy-heavy, with a lot of jargon. I’ve worked with government ministers, European commissioners, scientists, trade associations – anyone who needs to talk in a way that’s sharp and compelling.

Why did you start your own business?
I just kind of fell into it. I came to Belgium in 2008 because of my husband’s job. I worked as a journalist in the UK, and a friend of mine suggested I do media training because there was a great need for it in Brussels.

Would you do it again?
Yes, it was a really good move in the sense that I’m a lot happier. I’m not really an institution kind of person, so I like being my own boss. The biggest challenge is managing yourself when things go quiet and having faith that things will pick up again.

What advice would you offer others?
Get advice and don’t be afraid to pay for it. I used an expatrun organisation called Local Knowledge to handle the entire process. It took away so many of the challenges involved. Also, get a good accountant. Nobody starts a business to do their own accounts.

Written by Lisa Bradshaw, Mauricio Ruiz