Behind The Scenes

A day in the life of a Product & Technology Advisor at Miles Ahead

Even when he is cooking, Maarten Mortier takes a technological and atomic approach to it. He started programming when he was 11 years old and still thoroughly enjoys building prototypes to experiment with new ideas or technologies. His experience in advising and leading various startups (CTO at Showpad) certainly qualifies him as the perfect Product & Technology Advisor at Miles Ahead.

Maarten’s father was always tinkering with machines, preferring to build oscilloscopes himself rather than buy a ready-made product, “like normal people would do.” An attitude that proved contagious. Contrary to his dad’s hobby-like approach, he saw business opportunities early on and hasn’t looked back since. Always creative and open to an experiment, Maarten has a lot of respect for the basic components of things. “When I cook, I will sometimes start from the most elemental, atomic, raw ingredients. I don’t like prefabricated things, although it’s impossible to avoid some level of fabrication. When I see a table, I like to look at all the basic elements that the table is made of, and I think of the technologies and physics that help turn all the parts into a whole. It’s fun to do this with the simplest objects and often gives you new insights.”

How do you see the role of technology in society?

Maarten: It has become impossible to draw a line between society and technology. There is hardly anything, these days, that is not assisted by some form of technology. Humanity has solved the lack of its own scalability through technology and can’t do without it now. The diaspora of knowledge and interactions between opinions is fundamentally technological. I’d consider Wikipedia as the eighth wonder of the world — if we’re still counting those anyway. It ticks all the boxes for it.

It is impossible to untangle technology from modern society now. Technology should be supporting society, but sometimes we allow technology to take the lead role. There are many examples of how we can get carried away by technology and the speed that it gives us. That is something we have to be aware of. There’s an intrinsic strength of insight and compassion we have inside all of us that needs to stay somewhat free from technological constraints or guides.

Concept Validation

The magic of emerging technology

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Can you relate to this quote of Arthur C. Clarke?

Maarten: Certainly. Didn’t it feel absolutely magic when Apple’s mobile products just worked, and how they succeeded in hiding all the underlying complexity? Engineers’ struggles with the complexity of frame rates, memory efficiency, battery performance, CPU/GPU constraints… the trade-offs concerned are anything but magic, but the result is. We will see more of this magic as virtual reality, mixed reality… gain ground. The video gaming business has been making fantastic things for 50 years already, which is sometimes underestimated, I think. The complexity of innovation and quality in that industry is amazing. They have been pushing the envelope for decades. I often think SaaS can learn from the video game industry, certainly from its good sides.

What is the most impactful ‘emerging technology’ to you?

Maarten: I strongly believe in the cross-pollination of disciplines. And it goes further than IT. Just look at cosmology and the James Webb telescope. Academics are becoming heavy adopters of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) to process the data they gather. AI has given a boost to what cosmology can do, and this even trickles down to the area of fundamental research in physics, mathematics… AI helps create theories that were impossible to understand previously. Big data is transformative for many research areas. I firmly believe that new computation research fields such as quantum computing or photonics will also have a big impact on anything we do, especially when we combine the upsides of their internal trade-offs with other fields such as biotechnology. The future is bright and really exciting — if we all get along and focus on constructive things.

What do you find exciting about working in startups and scale-ups?

Maarten: I love working closely together with other people, and being able to make decisions quickly, based on positive energy instead of based on an elimination process. I also love the mentoring part of working with young people and helping them develop an identity. As soon as a company grows, it gets more difficult to do these things, hierarchical structures get in the way. There’s more latency in larger organizations. There’s no room for politics in small companies. There you can be more focused on driving results. Larger companies are (and they need to be) more inwardly focused and leave less room for working together with external people and other companies.

You’ve worked in a broad range of functions: developer, lead developer, CTO… And now you’re working on the investor side. Which functions pleased you best?

Maarten: Frankly, I don’t really believe in these kinds of labels. I dream of a world in which people have no job title. I think that would be liberating. I know it’s not that easy to abolish and might not work for everyone all the time so there is nuance in that idea. In whatever function I held, I was being myself, I was the same person who tried to be as creative as possible. You can be creative in people management or social engineering as much as with a caching mechanism or a product wireframe.

The perfect match

Why did you choose to join Miles Ahead?

Maarten: Working for Miles Ahead flows naturally from what I have been doing for the last three years. I advise technology startups and scale-ups and that’s a perfect fit with what Miles Ahead tries to do. I love it that Miles Ahead puts the focus on projects that have societal impact and relevance. Also, Ghent is a good breeding ground for early-stage, pre-seed startups. I like to be involved early in helping develop ideas, and the Miles Ahead Creative Studio affords plenty of opportunities for that.

Why should founders turn to Miles Ahead?

Maarten: There is no real template of who should work with Miles Ahead. The idea of a creative studio may not appeal to every founder out there. We are looking to build an intimate relationship where we can share our experience, for instance in the field of Software-as-a-Service(SaaS), digital marketing… If a founder’s idea matches well with our areas of expertise and our network, we can turn those ideas into something quite powerful. If a founder is unsure how a product fits in the market, we can help define the product-market fit. If you already know everything about your product-market fit, about the technology you need… there might be other things, and sometimes you just need financial support with a trusted hotline.

What will be your personal role?

Maarten: I talk to a lot of startups, and it’s my task to look if we have a match. I will also add pivotal power to their ideas, to accelerate their development. Brainstorming and whiteboarding with founders and their technical experts, that’s really my domain. I bring 16 years of experience in growing ideas, and I think I can make a good judgment of what parts of a product roadmap need to be developed first, whether a product needs to become a platform or a point solution… My experience spans different domains, so my role will be quite broad too. I think I can help founders work smart instead of (mainly) working hard. And I can share the network I built, to make the connection with subject-matter experts. I can help build teams to develop products, and I still love putting together prototypes myself. For me, it sometimes makes more sense to communicate through a prototype myself rather than explaining how it should be done.

What failures have you experienced and what lessons learned can you share with founders?

Maarten: I feel I have not failed enough commercially with the companies I’ve managed, although I’ve had plenty of failures on a personal level. I have the greatest respect for people who have tried and failed. Especially if they took a personal risk. Most people forget the intrinsic risk that founders put into their startup.

Regarding failures, often they come from a lack of experience and cannot be completely avoided. I think most failures relate to collaboration with other people and miscommunication. You can only learn by making those mistakes. You leave school and are thrown into the real world. At 23 or 24, you are far from being mature, even if you have all the right technical skills. I consider myself now as much more mature than at 35. But, in fact, I still don’t consider myself mature and have many areas of improvement or areas of discovery.

If I had to come up with one example, I’d say that as a young engineer I made the mistake of relying too much on technology push. If you focus too much on what technology can do, rather than on what a user really needs, you’re putting the cart before the horse. You have to start from the need of the customer, for instance being more productive. In my younger years, I was over-engineering technology, and immediately identified options that emerged from the tech. Now I try purposefully to think beyond technology and take the view of non-technical users. It’s good to do both things, obviously. Maybe on every odd day you can be the engineer and, on even days, the product manager. :)

The founder’s profile

There’s this great quote by Jack Ma: ‘If you’re still poor at 35, you deserve it.’ Can you be a successful founder if you’re over 35?

Maarten: Apparently, the average age of a founder is 42 or 43, and there’s no golden rule for the age of a founder. I really like meeting older founders, just because it counters popular belief! Age shouldn’t play a role, although I know it can be difficult to invest yourself fully in a startup if you also have a family to support. On the other hand, the older you are, the better you become at using your time efficiently. I like to be wary of ageism, which is a real thing, in both directions.

It would be great if there could be cross-pollination between the young and less young at Miles Ahead. What other cross-pollination do you expect?

Maarten: I expect a lot of cross-pollination in general. It’s great to see startups or partners share their experience and their network. A lot of magic can be generated by pooling some ideas. Combining talent from one startup with people from another company can be a great catalyst. On the other hand, we will not force startups to work together if there is no logical link between them. You have to let them travel their own journey. You have to respect everyone’s timeline and IP boundaries. Miles Ahead is a Creative Studio that will work intimately together with the founders, but there’s no telling what the end result will be.

What are the characteristics of a successful founder?

Maarten: They have to be passionate about the product they are building. That’s the basic thing. And being able to adapt to changing circumstances. They need that pivotal power. And whatever your role as a founder, you need to put customer experience first. Sales-oriented founders tend to be focused on numbers whereas technical founders will focus on technology. But, at the end of the day, it’s the user who counts. It is also crucial that the founding teams enjoy working with each other and complement each other. If a founding team needs to be set up, it’s essential to look for complementarity.

Let me stress that there is no perfect profile for a founder, though. There is no specific background or a university degree you need to start a company. Age doesn’t matter…. It has become much easier to found your own company. People who had a rough start in life or did not get a lot of chances, can become a founder. A Creative Studio like ours can play a huge role in leveling the playing field.

On a personal note, what is the best investment you ever made?

Maarten: That would be the time I invest in my children. The return on that investment is of an absurdly exponential order. I also invest in doing sports, especially competitive running. The return on that investment is a better state of health. I have a lot of hobbies, but I like to keep a small footprint in them. If I have my musical instruments and my laptop, I’m a happy person. Oh, well, and a*lot* of books too…
I’m a big fan of the sharing economy, for instance for cars or tools that you only need occasionally. But I guess the logistics of our society are not adapted to that yet.

Perhaps an idea for a startup in Miles Ahead, to sort out the logistics of a sharing society?

Maarten: Right. People may want a personal experience with a car, for instance, which strains the idea of a sharing economy a little. Perhaps one-day cars can be personalized on the exterior and interior as soon as you step into them. A sharing economy should offer more options and more expensive and extensive hardware rather than less. This, definitely, has interesting angles to it, to examine from both a business and technology perspective.

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