Thinking about starting your own business in Belgium? Congratulations! Becoming your own boss as a freelancer is incredibly exciting, but can also feel like a daunting task. By following these 14 steps, you'll hit the ground running.
- Define your offer, product and/or service
- Choose a brand name to reflect that offer
- Open a bank account
- Register with a social security office
- Choose a company type
- Draft a business plan
- Design a financial plan
- Licences, permits and NACEBEL codes
- Set your freelancing rates
- Register with the Crossroads Bank of Enterprises
- Register your VAT number
- Get these 3 types of insurance
- Admin & project management
- Building a network and support system
1. Define your offer, product and/or service
Although this first step might seem obvious, it can be a bigger challenge than you think you outline a clear and defined offer for your business. When starting as a freelancer, you might be tempted to list everything you're good at as a possible service or everything you can make as a possible product. It's understandable, but you still need to choose a main activity for your business.
Make sure that you don't go overboard. You undoubtedly have many skills, but a muddled offer can make prospective clients hesitant about hiring you. After all, no one can be an expert in everything. Make sure your offer is clear and focused so that clients know what to expect.
Tip: Make an exhaustive list of everything you feel you could offer as a service or product in your freelance business. When your list is complete, start by circling what you like doing best and scrap what you feel least skilled in. Then make sure you can link your remaining skills together and remove everything that cannot be linked for a cohesive list.
2. Choose a brand name to reflect that offer
Coming up with your brand name is the most fun for some, while others (who often define themselves as 'not creative') hate the process. Although this is indeed the perfect moment to let the creative juices flow freely, you can be methodical when choosing your name.
- Decide what you want your name to do for your audience. Who are the people you cater to? What will they think your name means?
- Determine the style of your company: formal, familiar, creative, funny...
- Decide what kind of name you want: descriptive, mysterious, invented, your own name...
- Brainstorm a list and test everything on it for the previous points
- Ask opinions of the people around you
Your brand name is an important decision so make sure to take the time to do it right. If you do happen to change your mind or if you find your brand in need of a change in the long run, you can still change your brand name through the Crossroads Bank for Enterprises.
3. Open a bank account
To be able to register as a business, you'll need a dedicated bank account. Most Belgian banks offer special accounts and discounted deals for people trying to start a business, so make sure to weigh all of the options.
This selection of Belgian banks specialises in business accounts and will not only be able to dip into their expertise to help you, they also have an English language version of their website helping you to do your own research before you see any representatives.
Although there are other on- and offline banks focused on business accounts, these well-known Belgian or international banks are more likely to keep up to date with latest developments and innovations like apps or easy-to-use online platforms.
4. Register with a social security office
Although many sources will tell you to register with a social security office further down the process of starting a business in Belgium, there's something to be said for registering early.
Even if you don't yet have a company or VAT number, starting a business in Belgium requires taking a lot of, sometimes complicated, steps. Most social security offices will help you take these steps and guide you through the different processes even if your business does not yet exist.
Your social security office's main function is to help you navigate how social security works in Belgium to make sure you're building social rights like child support and pension plans. But they don't stop there. Most of them will gladly help you choose the company form that best suits you, set you up with a bookkeeper and support you through just about everything you need to do to start your own business.
Well-known social security offices in Belgium are:
5. Choose a company type
Starting a business in Belgium requires quite a lot of thought and contemplation, not in the least about what company form you'll choose. Freelancers and other entrepreneurs face the same challenge: what type of company best suits my needs? What's best for right now? How could it evolve in the future? What effect will all this have on my taxes?
The most prominent company types in Belgian law are sole proprietorship, partnership, limited liability company, co-operative, partnership, assisting spouse and payrolling.
6. Draft a business plan
Drafting a business plan, like making a financial plan, are not required to start every business in Belgium. Sole proprietors and partners, which are 2 of the most frequently chosen company forms for freelancers, don't need any of this. But it is incredibly helpful to make anyway, especially for when you will register your company at the Crossroads Bank for Enterprises.
Your business plan will help you determine your goals and get insights in how your company will evolve over the years.
It contains, among other things:
- Description of your company that describes what you do
- Market and competitor analysis
- Business and management structure (internal organisational structure)
- The offer you defined earlier on (products, services)
- How you will handle marketing and sales initially and over the coming months/years
- Other information like an elevator pitch
- Many consider a financial plan part of the business plan.
7. Design a financial plan
Your financial plan will help you consider everything you need to stay in the black and to make sure everything runs smoothly. It will also greatly help your bookkeeper to see where you want to go and how financially healthy your company is and what you need to keep it that way.
By gaining insights on the short and long term financial state of your company, you can always keep an eye on your progress and see if you're where you wanted to be by now. If not, you can make the required changes on time to make sure you still get where you're going.
A financial plan contains:
- Money you have invested in your company for professional purchases and investment
- Assets you have invested in your business, such as a laptop or even an office space you already owned
- Possible existing debts
- Projected costs
- Projected earnings
8. Set your freelancing rates
After finishing your financial plan, you will have a clear view of how much you need to make to be able to make your business profitable. You can use this information to calculate what rate you should set as a freelancer to make sure that you make enough money.
9. Licences, permits and NACEBEL codes
Some professions require you to have certain permits and licences before you can start your business in Belgium. It's important to make sure everything you need is in order, or you could face very hefty fines.
As a freelancer, it's unlikely you'll need the most common permits and licences to practice your profession. You could, however, need temporary permits when you freelance as, for instance, an event planner. When you organise an event, you'll need permission to sell (alcoholic) beverages and/or food, to play music, to make excessive noise, to place tents and/or stages...
Examples of when you might need a permit or license to practice your profession:
- When selling alcoholic beverages or tobacco
- Animal care
- Carnival attractions
- Logistics and passenger transport
- Travel agencies
10. Register with the Crossroads Bank for Enterprises
The Crossroads Bank for Enterprises is the Belgian database containing all companies. Every company gets a unique company number to identify it. Each Belgian company number starts with a 0 followed by a set number of digits.
How to register with the Crossroads Bank for Enterprises depends on the company type you've chosen.
- Description of your offer
- What company type you want
- You commercial name (= brand name)
- Bank account number
- Contact information: email address, phone number
- Address where you business will be registered
- A one time payment of € 88.50 for each branch of your business (which is usually 1 for freelancers)
11. Register your VAT number
You can be exempt from having to pay business taxes, usually when your yearly income is too low, but you will always need to register your VAT number. Many freelancers are exempt from paying business tax in their first year. As soon as your yearly income is high enough, you'll need to pay VAT.
Your VAT number is the number your company needs as soon as you are subject to VAT. There used to be 2 different numbers, but these days your company number doubles as your VAT number for ease of use, but it is preceded by country code BE:
12. Get these 3 types of insurance
As an employee, your employer makes sure to give you the most basic insurances and benefits. When you choose to start your own business in Belgium, you'll need to protect yourself and take care of these 3 important insurances yourself.
- Health insurance
- Pension plan
- Guaranteed income
1. Health insurance
Although your health insurance is not directly business-related, in Belgium most employers offer their employees a special health plan. As such, you'll need to make sure to provide one for yourself when you start your business.
There are 2 types of health insurance you'll need: a membership in a health fund of choice ('ziekenfonds' or 'mutualiteit' in Dutch, 'caisse d'assurance maladie' in French) and an insurance for hospitalisation ('hospitalisatieverzekering' in Dutch, 'assurance hospitalisation' in French.)
- Health fund: your health fund will reimburse large portions of daily medical bills. Doctor's visits, medication and much more is paid in large part by them. This membership is obligatory in Belgium.
- Insurance for hospitalisation: as soon as you're hospitalised for even the shortest time, your health fund's regular plan will stop working and your hospitalisation insurance will kick in. Your hospitalisation insurance is not obligatory, but highly recommended since hospital bills can skyrocket in no time.
Most insurance companies will work with a franchise here, meaning that you will pay your hospital bills yourself up to a mutually agreed upon amount. This amount is determined when you get the insurance and is largely up to you to decide.
2. Pension plan
When you pay social security contributions as a freelancer, you'll start to build a small pension as well as some other social rights. But that pension will hardly be enough for a comfortable life after retirement.
The pension plan for entrepreneurs (Vrij Aanvullend Pensioen voor Zelfstandigen (VAPZ) in Dutch, 'pension complémentaire libre pour indépendants' (PCLI) in French) makes sure you'll retire in peace. It allows you to save money throughout your career with fiscal benefits.
3. Guaranteed income
As a freelancer, your entire income depends on how many hours you can work each day, week, month and year. Although you've probably counted on some weeks of missed work due to illness and vacations when you calculated your financial plan, unexpected trouble might still rear its ugly head.
If you suddenly fall ill and are unable to work for a long time, your insurance guaranteed income will pay out a guaranteed amount of income each month for which you've been insured. Chances are you will have chosen this amount along with your insurance broker.
13. Admin & project management
Starting a business in Belgium might seem complicated at first, but some things stay the same no matter where you are. Although not an official or legal part of starting your own business, any freelancer will tell you efficient project management tools are key for anyone starting or running their own business.
When first starting your business, you might need to explore a number of project management tools before settling on what works best for you. Every freelancer has their own way of working and prefers different tools for different reasons.
Make sure to not only optimisa your task management, but to set up a process for proposals and invoicing as well. This will help you save time and money, leaving space for more billable time.
14. Building a network and support system
Building a network can seem like a daunting task, especially if you're starting a business in Belgium far away from a network you already have in your country of origin, or if you're starting as a freelancer in a completely new sector. Here are some easy ways of connecting with people:
- Facebook: look for groups dedicated to being a freelancer or to your specific sector. there are many groups available, some more specific than others and sometimes even with a clearly defined ideology.
- Networking strategy at events: joining relevant Facebook groups will often lead you to be invited to networking events organised by the group itself or members of it. Look for other relevant networking events through Google and other social media, and don't forget: be bold when you get there!
Everyone there is attending for the same reason as you and more likely than not just as nervous. They want to meet you as much as you want to meet them. Start by introducing yourself and what you do, and ask them questions about what they do.
- Make LinkedIn work: who did you talk to at the last networking event you attended? A colleague, potential client or just someone you liked? Connect with them on LinkedIn! Make sure to send a message stating where you met them and how nice it was to meet them, followed by what you can mean to them. You can't go wrong!
- Dedicated platforms for freelancers: just about all freelancers can subscribe to platforms dedicated to helping them find clients, like GIGhouse, CrossCast and us at Brainbridge.
Looking forward to being your own boss and starting up as an IT freelancer? Get advice from our specialists here or find out exactly what to do in more detail on our dedicated blog.
Link to How to invoice as freelancer: tips, tricks & tools
Link to Networking as a freelancer online & offline: 10 tips