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A Return to the Streets of Brussels

Interview Cort Cunningham
Photos Thomas Nolf
Nicolas Debray Back to Rider Stories Top

Nicolas Debray has always done his own thing. After running his company for 10 years, he decided to dedicate his time to the tech community in Brussels, including a professorship in the entrepreneur-in-residence program at Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). Traversing the city in between meetings and classes, Nicolas has not only gained precious time, he's returned to the streets of his home city. He feels it's the first time in his adult life that he's truly living in the city rather than seeing it pass him by through the window of a car or train. We met Nicolas to congratulate him on reaching the 1,000 kilometer mark with Cowboy and to learn why Brussels is his one true home.

"When I started my first venture, I had to tell my mom I was leaving Google to do my own thing. I had everything, and then I decided to quit the company. Google is so cool, all the time in the news, and so on. If the mindset of the cowboy is doing his own thing, I'm always doing what I want."

You live in Brussels, but you're on the road right now. Where are you? I was just going to the seaside for a short meeting and now I'm going back. I didn't even look at the sea. I was just going there to have the meeting and get back to Brussels because actually my wife is pregnant and she's supposed to give birth… well, she was supposed to give birth yesterday. I prefer to be rather close to Brussels in case we need to go to the hospital.

Well that's exciting! I'm glad I'm catching you today and not the next few days. No, that's fine. It's perfect.

Nicolas Debray

So what do you do in Brussels? What do you do professionally? Basically the short answer is, I used to work for Google for a few years. Then I started my own company in digital marketing that I ran for the last 10 years. I sold it in 2015. In the meantime, I've been quite involved in tech startups because I want to share my experience and my expertise.

You're teaching though, yes? Yes, I'm teaching. I'm also an entrepreneur in residence at ULB where there's a startup incubator for students. ULB is one of the biggest universities in Belgium.

So it's a program specifically to help fuel potential entrepreneurs? Yeah, exactly. Because if you look at Europe, the last 10 years it has been much more of a decline, so they realize that they need to reboot the economy. And one of the ways to boost the economy is to launch new companies and to fuel the startup spirit. So that's where the university plays a role, to boost a student to start their own venture.

It's been cool seeing Cowboy become a start-up success in Europe. What was the journey like getting to know them and the bike? Yeah, basically Belgium is a small country and so people are a little bit shy and not dreaming big. When I started my company in 2009, it was not very common. I've been lucky and successful so I wanted to help people out. First it was going back to the students to tell them, "Look guys and girls, you can do it. It's possible. You have to believe in your dreams." And then other people are trying to do it. That's also how I got in touch with Cowboy. I heard that they were launching something so I said, "Okay. If I have some visibility, I can go around the city with my bike, it can show that people are going to buy these bikes." So it was mainly about supporting the guys.

Oh, that's interesting. Yeah. It's just showing some support and maybe give some credibility.

Nicolas Debray

Even though you got the bike to support Cowboy, was there anything that made you actually really enjoy the bike once you first rode it? So one thing about Brussels. It's a little bit like running up and down, so when I was a student, I used to go around with my bike, I was sweating and I didn't care. Now I'm supposed to be an adult, visiting a company, meeting investors, I need to come clean to the meeting.

So when you say up and down, you mean a lot of hills, or…? Yeah. It's not like big hills, but just enough to be sufficiently sweaty when you arrive to an appointment. When I got the Cowboy, I went around, it was so easy. It was just simple, so I could move from one point to another just like walking. So it was getting back in the streets. And I'm born in Brussels and I will probably die in Brussels, so that's my city. And going around was just like for me rolling back like 15, 20 years before because when I had my company I hadn't the time anymore to do some sport or to see my friends. Now it's getting back outside, really enjoying the city, seeing how it has evolved between these last 10 years. Now I can finally go to a meeting, I can select the road I'm going to take. I'm not going to be in a traffic jam, and it's just magical for me. It's simple, I know, but it's so cool.

"My very next cowboy move will be to welcome my third boy at home. That will be rock and roll."

That is cool. I guess even though public transport or a car is at street level, it's actually not. No, it was all the time inside. Now I'm feeling free, I'm feeling the vibe of the city. Feeling again it's my city, it's the concrete. You can feel it just like when you are in New York in the different neighborhoods. I don't know if you were born where you are living right now, but for me it's just like going back to where I'm from. That's where I noticed in less than one year, I rode 1,000 kilometres. So it means that it's about 200 trips back and forth.

That's a lot. Do you venture further from the city with the bike? Well, the thing is that I have a Tesla now for four years. So I've been used to the battery stress. And every single time I get back home, I plug here. I stop and charge on the road to put some juice in my car. So that's why I directly ordered a second adapter to have one at the office. But I'm used to that, I just pick up my battery and I reload.

You mentioned that Brussels is home and it's also transformed over the last 10 years. Why is it home? And how have you seen it transform? So the thing is that I lived for a little more than a year in Italy. And it was very interesting because I was in Milan.

When was this? It was in 2006.

Nicolas Debray

Okay. Got it. Yeah, it was when they won the World Cup. So it's easy to remember because it was so crazy. And then some of the people in my masters program, they were kind of feeling bad because they were coming from the south of Italy. And the sun was missing and the sea was missing. At some point I was going out with a girl from Uruguay, and she told me, "I'm missing the sea so much." And then I realized I was actually missing the concrete and the smell of the concrete when it rains. Because in Brussels, the sky is very low. It's very grey and it's a color of gray which for many people it will be horrible. For me, when I look at these clouds, I feel it's my city. And then it's raining and then the concrete gets all the rain and then the rain goes out of the concrete and there is some special smell. Then I know that it's home [laughter].

That's so specific. I love it. It's kind of strange, but that's how I realized that I really like it. The other thing is that I grew up with a very mixed culture. A lot of people coming from a very different origin. You need to know that in Belgium we have like three official languages, French, Dutch and German.

Right. In Brussels, I grew up with Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Moroccan, Turkish, Congolese… It was so rich to have everything in one small city, because again, it's just like one million inhabitants in Brussels. It's not a big city. But in that village, having so many different people from so many different backgrounds, it was just so great.

Nicolas Debray

Back to the bike for a second, is there anything else about the bike, given your background, that you find really interesting? Definitely. The technology. The design was less important, but then again I'm not a very stylish person [laughter]. It was pretty interesting to have a connected bike with an app. I enjoy the technology and how it works.

How about the name Cowboy, what is your impression? What does that mean to you? Honestly, nothing. It's maybe too aggressive, too, "I'm the cowboy. I'm the boss." And that's not at all the mindset I have or I want to have. I'm doing this because I know that it can help convince other people to become customers. But otherwise, doing it for myself, I don't care. But it's my own personal point of view. Maybe I'm mixing the cowboy and the sheriff, you know?

Oh yeah, maybe! Right, I'm thinking of the sheriff when actually, the cowboy is the one taking care of the cows. Yeah, I'm mixing both.

Thinking of the ethos of the cowboy though, I was wondering if you could pinpoint for me the one moment in your life when you felt the most cowboy. When I started my first venture, I had to tell my mom I was leaving Google to do my own thing. I had everything, and then I decided to quit the company. Google is so cool, all the time in the news, and so on. If the mindset of the cowboy is doing his own thing, I'm always doing what I want. I don't care about what people think. I do not want to draw attention, but if I want to do something, I just do it. I started my own company which I ran for the last ten years. I sold it in 2015. In the meantime I've been quite involved in the tech start-up ecosystem. One of the ways to boost the European economy is to launch new companies and to embrace the start-up spirit.

Nicolas Debray

It's funny because about 15 years ago when I was at the university, I woke up in the hospital, and I had no clue where I was and who I was. I even looked at the bed, and it wasn't my name. And I was a little bit, "Oh, shit. I didn't know which year, which month, which day. Okay. I'm supposed to be in the hospital, but that's not my name on the bed. What's going on?" I saw my grandma a few hours later, and she said I had an accident with my bike. I had no souvenir, no remembering of that episode. And now, 15 years later, because I care less about the style, even though the bike is very stylish, I go with a helmet. And I go with a yellow jacket because I prefer to stay alive and maybe look terrible or very old fashioned, but safe. I feel very cowboy because I'm not respecting the Cowboy style! People really appreciate the bike, but at the same time I'm on my bike with my white helmet, my yellow jacket [laughter]. It doesn't look like very fashionable. My students make fun of me. But that's fine, I do my own thing anyway.

I can imagine! But that's smart, in cities it's a big safety concern. Have you always been that way, doing your own thing? Yeah. I do what I want. As long as it's not bothering other people, of course.

What is your next cowboy move? For me, it's investing in new startups. It's not only giving advice or teaching people, but it's putting my own money in the product of others and hopefully helping them along the way. So that's something I'm very committed to. So I think I can give back a lot doing that, on top of what I'm doing at the university. I think I'm just lucky to be alive, and to grow up in Brussels was just fantastic. But my very, very, very next cowboy move will be to welcome my boy at home, but I don't know when.

That's right! I better let you get back. Good luck these next days. Thank you very much.

Nicolas Debray


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