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José Zurstrassen began working with computers at the age of 11 and has been hooked ever since. Now 40, the Belgian has turned his passion for technology and problem solving into a successful career, from co-founding Belgian internet service provider Skynet to helping run Borderlinx (, a new international online shopping company with big ambitions.

“I’ve always been passionate about electronics and mathematics,” says Zurstrassen, dressed for the part in a pinstripe suit (white shirt, no tie), with trainers and a backpack. “I used to pile up Lego and build model dams powered by electricity. I come from a family of engineers and entrepreneurs, so I just love installing and creating systems.”

Belgium’s José Zurstrassen has turned his computer skills into a thriving career. Renée Cordes catches up with the entrepreneur

Somewhat pressed for time during our interview in a Brussels café, Zurstrassen opens his Apple laptop to check his schedule and puts his wristwatch on the table so he can see it – an old habit, he admits, laughing.

As a young boy in Verviers, a small town in east Belgium, Zurstrassen answered an advertisement in Spirou comics magazine for free computer lessons. He took them every Wednesday for three hours on a Tandy TRS-80.

A month later, he walked into a new computer shop in the town, boldly declaring he knew how to program computers. The shop owner didn’t believe him, but let him use the computers whenever he wanted in return for helping with inventory, tidying up and other tasks.

“I didn’t realise the shop owner was actually teaching me the basics of commerce at the same time as I was learning computers,” says Zurstrassen, who worked in the shop until he was
16. His parents refused to buy him a computer, reasoning that they were evolving so quickly.

During his five years at the shop – and regularly helping out at the toy store next door – Zurstrassen learned the importance of inventory and location to running a successful business. At the age of 13, he sold an invoicing software program he had developed to a small woodcutting company for the equivalent of €10.

That wasn’t a huge amount of money even for a teenager, but Zurstrassen was well on his way in the computer world. He followed this first step with two internships with IBM Corp in Belgium, followed by an internship at an industrial company in Antwerp.

As he continued to earn more, school became less interesting. In the end, his parents forced him to sell a motorbike he’d purchased with his earnings and sent him to a boarding school known for handling ‘difficult cases’. Zurstrassen admits he was indeed becoming a ‘difficult case’, and concedes his parents made the right decision.

After leaving school, he studied civil engineering in Dutch at Vrije Universiteit Brussel and commercial engineering in French at Brussels’ Solvay Business School. Again computers and business had a stronger pull, and he left university in 1994 to found a bulletin board system (BBS) providing internet access for individuals, with his younger brother, Jean, and friend Grégoire de Streel.

In those days, the internet was in its infancy and technology was primitive compared with now, but the trio were determined to create a user-friendly BBS. Although there were already a handful of internet connection companies in Belgium, Zurstrassen says those catered to technical experts – he and his partners set out to reach the general public.

In January 1995, the three friends founded Skynet, the name inspired by the fictional computer network in the Terminator films. After a year, they had 217 customers, mainly individuals and small companies, exceeding the target they’d set themselves to break even. Among other things, customers valued the company’s 24/7 service guarantee, which Zurstrassen says was easy given the fact it was such a small business. Although they sometimes had to deal with irate customers, Zurstrassen claims to have relished that part of the job.

In the process, he learned the more calls you answer, the more competent and efficient you get. All three partners worked second jobs during this time to support themselves – Zurstrassen at a computer consultancy, Jean in industrial mechanics and de Streel at his mother’s newsstand.

While business was booming, Zurstrassen and his partners realised they needed additional credibility to win more customers. They approached Belgacom about doing a deal. The telecoms giant was looking at other possible investments but partnered with Skynet, whose books were pristine, buying a 25% stake in 1997. At that point Skynet was still a small start-up, with five employees and maximum monthly revenues of €10,000. Business soared thanks to the new partnership and in 1998 – a year ahead of schedule – Belgacom purchased the rest.

The deal left Zurstrassen, his brother and de Streel free to pursue other business ventures. In 1998, they created VMS-Keytrade, the first Belgian online broker targeting Nasdaq stocks, with Van Moer Santerre, an established brokerage on the Brussels exchange.

After drawing up a business plan on the back of a beer mat, they designed a product line and set up a meeting with VMS executives to talk about a joint venture. The magic moment came at Brussels’ Falstaff Café, where “it took about five minutes” to sign a deal, according to Zurstrassen, who bought his first suit for the occasion.

VMS-Keytrade made its debut on the Euronext exchange in 1999, became Keytrade Bank in 2002 after taking over rival RealBank, and in the same year was sold to Credit Agricole Group SA.

Zurstrassen is now a director and part-owner of Borderlinx, a start-up that so far has 10 employees in the UK, mainland Europe and US. The company aims to give non-US customers access to US merchants, and eventually other parts of the world, that are currently non-accessible without a US mailing address.

Pledging to ‘deliver the web worldwide’, Borderlinx allows customers to hunt for bargains, sending shipments from a warehouse in New York and taking care of all customs, duties and shipping charges. Borderlinx signs agreements with web merchants rather than retailers, and customers can work out the charges using a special calculator before making a purchase. Given the US dollar’s current weakness, making dollar-denominated goods cheaper for foreign consumers, Borderlinx appears to be starting at just the right time.

Borderlinx’s chairman is Dutchman Hans Wackwitz, a banking entrepreneur whom Zurstrassen met through the Young Presidents’ Organization, where business leaders exchange ideas and best practices. Wackwitz is based in England, while Zurstrassen works from a small office in Brussels. They signed on as owners in 2007, helping the founders revamp the business plan. Zurstrassen also assists the IT director and lends a hand when it comes to marketing and communications.

A round-the-clock work schedule is a thing of the past for Zurstrassen. He says he has found greater life balance since becoming a husband and father of two daughters, who are now aged five and seven. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t got lots of other projects up his sleeve. In fact, he says the older he is the more excited he gets. “There’s some sort of creative process going on there,” he says. “It’s not artistic but it’s still creating something out of nothing.”

As for the long term, he says: “My dream is to settle down on the west coast of the United States, probably around Stanford and Silicon Valley, right on top of the San Andreas fault.”

Zurstrassen’s business tips

1 Know your market, then get to know it better

2 Deliver the best you can

3 Ask for capital before you need it – money should never be an issue

4 Find a good partner and be ready to make sacrifices to make it work

FR> Connecté

José Zurstrassen a commencé à travailler avec des ordinateurs à 11 ans. À 40 ans, ce Belge a transformé sa passion pour la technologie en une brillante carrière.

Tout jeune garçon, Zurstrassen suivait des cours d’informatique gratuits – trois heures tous les mercredis. Un mois plus tard, il entrait dans une boutique d’informatique, déclarant qu’il était capable de créer des programmes. Durant les cinq ans passés à la boutique, Zurstrassen a appris l’importance de l’emplacement et du choix des stocks lorsqu’on mène une entreprise prospère. À 13 ans, il vend un logiciel de facturation à une petite entreprise pour l’équivalent de 10€, avant d’enchaîner deux programmes de formation chez IBM Corporation et un autre dans une entreprise industrielle à Anvers. Après le secondaire, Zurstrassen suit des études de génie civil en néerlandais à la Vrije Universiteit Brussel, et d’ingénierie commerciale en français à l’École de Commerce de Solvay. Zurstrassen quitte l’école en 1994 pour lancer, avec son frère Jean et son ami Grégoire de Streel, un BBS (Bulletin Board System), un système de forum électronique permettant l’accès à Internet d’utilisateurs individuels. En janvier 1995, le trio lance Skynet. Belgacom a acheté 25% des parts de l’entreprise en 1997, et le reste en 1998.

En 1998, le trio crée VMS-Keytrade, le premier courtier en ligne belge, avec Van Moer Santerre, à cibler le marché Nasdaq. VMS-Keytrade est entré en 1999 en bourse, sur Euronext et, après avoir absorbé son rival RealBank, est devenu en 2002 la Keytrade Bank, à son tour vendue au groupe français Crédit Agricole SA.

Zurstrassen est aujourd’hui administrateur et actionnaire de Borderlinx, dont le but est de permettre à des clients non américains l’accès à des fournisseurs américains ne livrant actuellement qu’à l’intérieur des États-Unis. Zurstrassen est basé dans un petit bureau à Bruxelles, tandis que Hans Wackwitz, le président de Borderlinx, est basé en Angleterre.

Zurstrassen explique qu’il a trouvé un meilleur équilibre de vie depuis qu’il est marié et père. Il a de nombreux projets en réserve mais en ce qui concerne le long terme, il confie : ‘Mon rêve est de m’installer sur la Côte Ouest aux Etats-Unis, juste au sommet de la faille de San Andreas.’

NL> Aangesloten

De interesse van de Belg José Zurstrassen voor computers begon toen hij 11 jaar was. Ondertussen is hij er 40 en heeft hij van zijn passie voor technologie een succesvolle carrière gemaakt.

Als kind volgde Zurstrassen elke woensdag gedurende 3 uur gratis computerlessen. een maand later wandelde hij een computerwinkel binnen met de boodschap dat hij computers kon programmeren. In de vijf jaar dat hij voor de winkel werkte, leerde Zurstrassen het belang van inventaris en locatie voor een succesvol bedrijf. Op zijn dertiende verkocht hij een factureringsprogramma aan een klein bedrijf voor het equivalent van €10.

Daarop volgden twee stages bij IBM Corp en één in een industrieel bedrijf in Antwerpen. Na het middelbaar studeerde Zurstrassen in het Nederlands voor burgerlijk ingenieur aan de Vrije Universiteit Brussel en in het Frans voor handelsingenieur aan de Solvay Business School.

Zurstrassen zwaaide af in 1994 om een bulletinboardsysteem (BBS) met individuele internettoegang op te richten samen met zijn broer Jean en zijn vriend Grégoire de Streel.

In januari 1995 richtten de drie Skynet op. Belgacom nam een aandeel van 25% in het bedrijf in 1997 en nam het volledig over in 1998.

In datzelfde jaar richtten het drietal VMSKeytrade op, de eerste Belgische onlinebroker voor Nasdaq-aandelen, samen met Van Moer Santerre. VMS-Keytrade debuteerde op de Euronextbeurs in 1999, werd omgedoopt tot Keytrade Bank in 2002 na de overname van hun rivaal RealBank, en werd datzelfde jaar verkocht aan de Franse Credit Agricole Group SA.

Zurstrassen is nu directeur en mede-eigenaar van Borderlinx, dat niet-Amerikaanse klanten toegang probeert te verlenen tot Amerikaanse handelaars die momenteel niet toegankelijk zijn zonder Amerikaans mailingadres. Zurstrassen werkt vanuit een klein kantoor in Brussel, terwijl de voorzitter van Borderlinx, Hans Wackwitz, vanuit Engeland werkt.

Zurstrassen verklaart dat zijn leven meer evenwicht heeft, sinds hij echtgenoot en vader is geworden. Hij heeft nog heel wat plannen, maar over de lange termijn verklaart hij: “Het is mijn droom om aan de westkust van de VS te settelen, boven op de San Andreas-breuklijn.”

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