The Ghent company Deliverect has become a ‘unicorn’ less than three years after its foundation. A term denoting exceptional, since this start-up is already worth more than a billion dollars. The secret to their overwhelming success, according to founders Jan Hollez and Zhong Xu? Timing and experience! And that experience all began at Ghent University.
Deliverect makes software for the hospitality and restaurant industry, allowing orders to be managed both online and offline. It is still a start-up, being only three years old. Yet it’s already worth more than a billion dollars. Such start-ups are so rare that they are named ‘unicorns’. The global number is less than 1000 IT companies, and only four are from Belgium.
The rocketing start at Deliverect
In fact, Deliverect’s story is even more special than that. In particular, the speed at which the company is growing is truly exceptional. The company currently employs 400 staff, supplies its software worldwide to 20,000 hospitality businesses and has already processed in excess of 100 million orders. Deliverect has even been voted ‘scale up of the year 2021’, an award from the Flemish government to stimulate fast-growing companies in their full development phase.
And that is only the beginning. At least, if you ask founders Jan Hollez and Zhong Xu. Jan: “Our ambition is to still be around in 100 years.” But we’ll come back to that: “Right now, our focus lies on growth: in the short term we aim to supply to 100,000 hospitality companies. That is very realistic. We have a highly practical and customer-friendly system, the market is ready for it, so it’s time to scale up.”
Thanks to the software at Deliverect, catering establishments can manage all orders, both online and offline, with a single system. That reduces the risk of order errors and simplifies the matter of combining online and offline orders. “Three years ago, we saw the need for this kind of system”, explains Jan. “Online meal orders were then becoming very popular. The Corona crisis fuelled the need.”
Young company, years of collaboration
Although their company is only young, their collaboration goes back much further. It all began fifteen years ago at Ghent University, when Jan became Zhong’s thesis supervisor. Jan had already completed his ICT education, and was working for Siruna: a spin-off of Ghent University.
“At Siruna I launched a thesis. In doing so, I was able to attract two incredible assets: Thomas Mons, now CTO at In The Pocket, and Zhong. Both ended up working at Siruna.” In fact, Zhong was awarded a 19 for his thesis.
“At Siruna we developed software for mobile applications”, explains Zhong. “Things were going very well, and we raised 150,000 for our thesis project alone. We learned a huge amount about the business world. Yet, looking back, we were far too early with our software: the market was simply not ready. At that time there were not even smartphones as we know them today.”
Ghent University spin-off for enterprising researchers
Jan Hollez and Zhong Xu worked for a while at Siruna, a spin-off or start-up at Ghent University based on research results from Ghent University. Enterprising researchers wishing to set up such a spin-off can take advantage of the Ghent University Venture Track. This process offers guidance and support up until they launch their company. Participants receive help in developing a well-documented and viable strategy, and in establishing clear and logical planning. Are you keen to start a venture track? Take a look hereto find out how.
The ‘witte kassa’: a huge opportunity
After working at Siruna the two teamed up to found Posios. It turned out to be a huge opportunity. Zhong: “We developed the so-called ‘witte kassa’ (or ‘white till’): a digital till system that records all activity and is certified by the government. Sergio Herman and Wim Ballieu are among our customers. One in two establishments in Ghent is using our system.”
Posios soon became market leader in the Benelux and signed a deal with the Canadian software provider Lightspeed. The company was extremely successful, to put it mildly. Jan: “This meant we were able to develop an enormous business network. We also became very familiar with the hospitality industry.”
Tips from Jan and Zhong for new entrepreneurs
- Do you have an idea? Don’t jump alone. If you cannot convince anyone else about your idea then it’s probably not as brilliant as you thought, or the market may simply not be ready for it.
- Invest, but do so at the right moment. Start by ensuring that your product is in top condition. We spent all our money on developing our software, and only when it was completely right did we start investing and scaling up. There is absolutely no point in investing too early.
- Be brave enough to let go. Try not to control every aspect, but place certain matters in the strong hands of your expert partners. You can’t do everything yourself. So, team up with trusted partners, whose work is efficient and complementary to your own.
All about timing
So, the time was ripe for Deliverect. This time it was not only a matter of knowledge, but also about the network, experience and the perfect timing. “It’s all about timing”, confirms Zhong. “You can be too late, but also too early – like the software at Siruna.” Jan: “I recommend budding entrepreneurs to begin working in a start-up. After that, if you can learn how things work on a large scale in a big company you have the ideal experience.”
Durf ondernemen!: entrepreneurship begins at Ghent University
The overwhelming success of Deliverect may be something special, but it is certainly not the first successful enterprise by people from Ghent University. Many students catch the business bug during their time at Ghent University. To offer extra encouragement, professor Koen De Bosschere established the expertise centre known as Durf Ondernemen! in 2010. Students from every faculty are welcome to use it. “On the one hand, we offer courses and workshops to students, in which they can learn, for example, how to set up a business plan. On the other hand, student-entrepreneurs can also benefit from coaching.” The figures are a clear demonstration of the fact that the centre is truly successful in its mission to teach students about business. Last year alone no less than 135 students launched their own business.
Jan Hollez has a Licentiate in ICT. After graduating, he worked in the Information Technology department. Then he set to work at IBBT, later known as iMinds and which merged with Imec. He joined Siruna, the spin off from Ghent University and Imec led by prof. Frank Gielen. At the age of twelve, he already knew he wanted to become a software developer.
Zhong Xu set up his first software company when he was 17. In 2009 he received his Master’s in Engineering: computer sciences. He wrote his thesis under the supervision of Jan Hollez, who was already working at Siruna. He went to work there as soon as he graduated.
In 2011 they co-founded Posios, where they supplied the hospitality sector with a ‘white till’. They sold the highly successful company in 2014 to the international player Lightspeed. In 2018 they founded Deliverect, which uses a single software system to make on and offline ordering easier for the restaurant and hospitality industry.
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