Dries Buytaert: “Give up control and share your knowledge”

Antwerp native Dries Buytaert was the only Belgian to ever make it into the ‘Top Young Entrepreneurs of Tech’ list of the US Businessweek magazine. Dries developed the Drupal software used to build websites, thus leaving his mark on the worldwide web. From his own company Acquia in Boston, one of the fastest growing companies in the US, he is the driving force behind the international Drupal community. The websites of the White House, Sony Music, Britney Spears, Ted Turner, The Economist and the Belgian royal family are running on Drupal.

How did Drupal come about when you were based in Antwerp?
“When I was studying computer science at the University of Antwerp, I developed a forum for the management of my projects, a kind of bulletin board for my activities, very informal. I saw it as a little project for myself. I had no big plans for it, and I did not imagine myself as an entrepreneur. I had worked on it for a year. It became an open-source program to which more and more people from all over the world were contributing. Drupal quickly became popular because I was always quick at experimenting with new technologies (RSS, blogs, public agendas, and so on). I refined the software, and took another course in computer science. Meanwhile, Drupal had become a benchmark for small software developers. In 2005 I organised the first Drupal conference in Antwerp. Many people who attended the event are building websites with Drupal, have their own business, or work for me. Drupal turned into an international phenomenon quite fast. In 2007, I founded my company Acquia in the US in order to support Drupal customers optimally.” 

What is the reason for your success?
“Drupal was quickly picked up by early technology adopters because it was in fact forward-looking technology. My training in Antwerp has been a driving factor in my success.  Because of it, eleven years ago, I was able to build a platform that was more flexible and better designed, architecturally speaking, than the competition. At the university, no one knew of its existence. Chance and a sequence of fortunate events certainly played a part, but you should also remember that I had spent every spare minute of my time in the past decade tinkering with the program.”

Which tips would you give budding entrepreneurs? 
“Surround yourself with the right people. Make sure you have employees who have more skills than you do. That’s not easy, because a lot of people feel more comfortable when they recruit people who are less skilled than themselves. All too often, starting entrepreneurs focus on their idea. They forget that the team around them is far more important. With the right team, you will always create value and develop the right business model more rapidly. I also believe drive is important: find something that you enjoy doing. If you can inspire people, they work twice as hard and five times as well. Real “Drupalists” have been bitten by the Drupal bug and only work for customers because they need an income. In the Drupal community, many people share a common goal: democratize online publishing. Think big from the start. Why not? I developed an international company and that was easier from the US. If you start a business in the US and you fail, you are not written off immediately. You took a chance and people assume that you have learned a lot from that experience. It is a test of entrepreneurship. The relation with investors is also different here. Entrepreneurs will invest faster in your project if you give them the opportunity to help build something that can expand. They do want to grow quickly.  There is no lack of ambition.”

The Antwerp economy counters the market’s fluctuations and offers a rebuttal to the current economic obstacles. Out of resilience and unity, new alliances and innovations arise which make entrepreneurship in Antwerp thrive.
Last year, innovation hub The Beacon made international fame in the field of the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence applications, proving that technology can provide the answer to complex urban issues. Top technological talent from 22 nationalities is active there in 64 companies and research institutions, and during 106 events, a good 4,000 experts in digital innovation were reached at home and abroad. In order to respond even better to the rapid developments in the technological landscape, and to confirm their commitment, the founding partners have now joined forces in vzw The Beacon. This new structure allows them to further grow into a European reference point for the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence applications.
In the past few months, Antwerp technology startups Rombit and Playpass received various (inter)national awards.