When he arrived in Belgium, Houman had nothing. He had to work to live. After gaining experience in different companies, he started his own company which he ended up selling to the Degroof Petercam bank. Now that he has more time for himself, he is discovering the activity of business angel. Here is the story of Houman Pakneshan.
Can you tell us a bit more about yourself?
I have had a relatively atypical career, like many others things where I come from (laughs). I am an Iranian political refugee. My parents sent me to Europe to learn French, but I had to return, as the Iranian revolution was underway and we had no money. My father had to flee and I remained stuck there. Three years later, I was able to return to Europe. My second European experience was very different from the first, however. When you are a refugee, you enter into a system which doesn’t need you and you have no support. Without friends, knowing nothing… I had to work to live. That experience forged my character.
What education and training have you had?
When I arrived in Belgium, I had no qualifications and no desire to obtain any. My father pushed me to take up my studies. However, once I got involved, I found I liked it and I have never been able to stop (smiles). I initially studied marketing and then finance.
What have been your professional experiences?
When I was still studying marketing, I was lucky enough to begin in a startup - long before it was fashionable - which distributed classical music. The company was growing at an extraordinary pace, but we were constantly lacking funds, as everything was reinvested into growth. It was an excellent experience where I learnt a lot. I then worked for six years at Merrill Lynch. I had studied finance at evening classes, but I had never practiced. This bank gave me my chance however, which undoubtedly would not have been possible among European financial institutions. This is due to the fact that American companies hire more easily… but they also fire more easily too. When I returned to Belgium, I was unable to find what I was looking for in the jobs market, so I decided to launch my own company. You could say that I became an entrepreneur almost despite myself (smiles).
Can you tell us more about your entrepreneurial venture?
The particularity of my project is that it was sold to the Degroof Petercam bank on the day it was incorporated. I launched my own project knowing that it would be bought under specific conditions (but not price) which had been set in advance. This was great and one of my greatest pleasures was reimbursing the funding they had granted me. I finally sold my business to the bank and became one of the directors.
What have you learnt from your experiences as an employee and as an entrepreneur?
I have learnt that in life, there are people who influence you greatly. In my case, it was my former bosses. Some of them taught me to set myself standards, while others gave me greater freedom, which enabled me to grow. They all supported, guided and educated me. My last boss, Pierre-Paul De Schrevel, still coaches me. In life, you need people who believe in you and guide you. I had the luck to be coached well, before becoming an entrepreneur. When you have been given something, you want to give something back in return and that’s what I want to do today as a business angel.
« I had the luck to be coached well, before becoming an entrepreneur. When you have been given something, you want to give something back in return and that’s what I want to do today as a business angel. »
Now that you are a business angel, what do you look out for when you meet an entrepreneur?
I assess whether they are resourceful, for want of a better word. Most of the entrepreneurs that I meet have this quality. They need to be intelligent, intellectually honest and have lots of energy. In my opinion, a true entrepreneur does just one thing, which is to move forward, whatever the challenge.
So the money invested must be put to good use?
Yes. I observe that using resources intelligently is one of the most important keys to success. Research shows that most companies fail because they have failed to accurately calculate the time and resources required to reach the viability stage. When I launched my company, I began with €20k, plus a further €180k in a subordinated loan. At almost the same time, another company was launched in the same sector with €20m. A few years later, my company was worth 5 times the value of the other one, simply because I ensured that every euro was invested astutely. The way in which you receive funds strongly impacts the way you will act afterwards. What is advantageous with business angels, is that you don’t invest huge amounts. For this reason, entrepreneurs chose best how to spend each euro, because they don’t have much cash available. Being trim is very good for your health … including in financial terms.
« What is advantageous with business angels, is that you don’t invest huge amounts. For this reason, entrepreneurs chose best how to spend each euro, because they don’t have much cash available. Being trim is very good for your health … including in financial terms. »
What attracted you to business angel investing?
I have known about business angels for quite some time, as I was in the financial industry. One of my colleagues was a network member and had advised me about this type of investing. I knew that it was time-consuming however, and at that stage, I didn’t have the time. But I kept it in mind and once I did have enough time, I got involved.
Why do you want to invest your money in entrepreneurial projects?
Firstly, as I want to keep on learning. There’s a great saying which is “if you're not busy being born, then you're busy dying”. Business angel investing forces you to dive deeply into things. You don’t just talk, as you also invest your cash and you are committed. Being a business angel is ultimately saying “I have fewer resources so I’m going to put in more time, energy and intelligence”.
What do you think of the group formula that enables you to invest while learning (BAC)?
The group enables you to benefit from collective intelligence and different points of view. This forces you to adopt a certain level of discipline, as you have responsibilities towards others. It is ideal to begin with. You invest €15k, which I find to be very good value for all the experience you can gain. Your teachers are your coaches, but also your colleagues, as they invest in the same projects as you. This aspect attracted me and I greatly appreciate it. I’m now a fan!
* We are launching a new group in September and organizing a last info session on September 6. Joins us!
What is your advice for becoming a business angel?
The vital condition is to manage your time well. If you can’t, don’t become a business angel. As a business angel you accept investing smaller amounts, in exchange for giving some of your time. You also have to want to learn … as you will learn a lot.