The state of things in the Belgian Web World
by Brice Le Blévennec
English version of a comment published in Datanews.
I surf a lot, the digital universe is my passion. Lately I’ve grown particularly fond of applications to feed my insatiable smartphone, but I still pass a lot of my time every day hooked to a huge screen, to ‘watchdog’ evolutions in technology, explore the web, dig up the latest innovations, sniff at new trends, in short to be inspired.
I must say I’m supercharged with suggestions from my 350 colleagues, who post daily links on our wiki, or exchange them through various email lists, that drive our working groups. As I’m too curious, I signed up for all our groups and I cannot resist exploring each new link I find there.
The experience it offers is broad: from online high impact experiences to sites with creatives’ portfolios, apps integrated with Facebook, interactive videos, games in 3D with CSS3, WebGL or Flash, new frameworks for web development or HTML5, new social networks, fresh online services, with API’s that allow us to do digital magic tricks, etc.. In short, each day of my life is packed with discoveries and I’m a very lucky person.
Yet when I scan the wiki, I notice a peculiarity. There is hardly any link to be found leading to exciting Belgian online work. The Belgian web is desperately boring. There are not many innovative projects. Few e-commerce sites. Rare original mini-site experiences. No Web services or API’s of interest … In short, there’s not much happening on the web in our kingdom at the heart of Europe…
Yet our creatives are highly respected in the international advertising world, as are our engineers in the field of information technology and communication. How can we explain this striking poverty?
In fact, Belgium is a victim of its size, of the linguistic and cultural fragmentation of its population and of the high cost of Internet subscription and Mobile Internet.
A bit like Switzerland or Luxembourg.
Most sites have to be available in French, Dutch, often in English too and even in German. This complicates the creation and updating of sites. The CMS must be configured with workflows that take into account the availability of translations of content, often increasing costs of implementation and slowing down updates.
This fragmentation of audiences has a large impact on projects based on communities, like networks and social media, when they feed on written content generated by users. It increases their costs of managing and moderating the participants. Very few community projects have reached a decent national size, or else they had to ‘balkanize’ their public by language, as Netlog did.
The small size of our audiences slows down risk investments. To be a profitable venture, investment in design and development must be returned by interaction with a large enough audience, a market of a sufficient critical scale.
For example, to achieve the same ROI on a project In the french-speaking part of Belgium, the penetration ratios must be ten times higher than a similar project in France.
Imagine the same project with equal ‘traction’, an online service capturing 1% of the Internet audience. In France, it could be a huge success, generating sufficient funds for the startup to develop and grow. With the same 1% adoption rate in Belgium, that initiative would not even cover the development costs; the project could easily collapse.
This may explain a certain reluctance of venture capitalist in this country. They tend to invest in projects that have already proven their business model abroad, rather than betting on real innovations.
Finally, the high cost of Internet subscriptions, especially mobile internet subscriptions, and – although the law allows it – the fact that mobile operators all strangely agree not to subsidize the terminals, combine to slow down the adoption of the Internet and its frequent use.
So in short, if you are a web entrepreneur, think from the initiation of your project to (also) attack a market outside of Belgium.