Nicolas Bruylants is chief visionary officer and co-founder of CNNB Solutions, a global-reaching UAE e-commerce accelerator.
The Belgian first came to Dubai in 2004 for six months with a company building foundations for Palm Jumeirah.
He swiftly returned and, at 25, co-founded citrussTV, the world’s first Arabic shopping network, He built it into a multinational e-commerce company, before selling it in 2017 to leading Chinese omni-retail platform Shark Shopping.
Now 42, Mr Bruylants co-founded Brussels-based AlphaSeed.eu, a food and beverage-focused investment platform, and arid climate irrigation start-up Terraplus, supporting the agricultural sector.
The father of three, who lives in Al Sufouh, Dubai, also breeds and trains horses and competes in showjumping.
How did money feature in your upbringing?
My parents divorced when I was four and I stayed with my mum. She had a pretty normal job, assistant to the chief executive of a large, multinational. My dad has always been an entrepreneur, which meant access to more cash.
We had some tough times, looking back at where we were living and what cars mum was driving. Up to maybe 13, I don’t think you care much about what brands you wear as long as you have food, you’re going to school and have clothes.
My mum was more (about) going to the seaside and dad was taking us skiing, so it was a bit of a contrast.
I would spend 90 per cent of my time with my mum, always being careful what she spent and how. Dad would be trying to enjoy money, or thinking tomorrow there’s going to be more … a very different approach to money from both sides.
Did those contrasting economies influence you?
We were in a modest neighbourhood with my mum, going to a modest school. Thanks to my dad, I was probably one of the richest there. I had two lifestyles. I started riding very early on; the horse riding world is more (for) wealthier people in Europe.
I knew which direction I preferred to go. I was probably informed by my dad to be an entrepreneur as well. Seeing him taking his own decisions, running his business, I always hoped to do at least as good as him.
My dad said early on: “You will only lead my company if you’re the best person to do so, not because you’re my son. You will have to prove yourself.”
That was quite hard, but it pushed me to do something completely different and then I never actually looked at my dad’s company.
How did you first earn cash?
The riding school where I trained used to hire us; (when I was) maybe 14 years old, I was spending holidays teaching younger kids horse riding. We would receive shelter and food plus 6,000 Belgian francs (Dh590) a week.
Teaching was rewarding, my horses were in the same stables, so being paid for that and being able to buy shoes, party or just save was something I enjoyed.
Later, thanks to my mum working for a multinational, I worked in different departments, from accounting and filing to the laboratory, where I cleaned.
Was exiting citrussTV pivotal financially?
We were already making good income — me and my business partner could have a good life, for Dubai standards.
When you get access to cash in the way we did with the sale, you can start also investing in places not possible before. Before, I always had to work to make money, now other people were working to make money for me.
I decided to reinvest in businesses on my own, plus in other people’s businesses. I multiplied the types of sectors I was in and multiplied geographies to be a bit more comfortable.
Do you still invest rather than save?
I’m definitely not the best at that (saving) because I love risk. I have a cushion, I would never be on the street. But I invested most of my money quite quickly. I still do and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
But even when a company is doing well, it’s always a question of how much financing you need — and the scale to which things are growing is very different today.
I always put my money to work. Some is in a safer haven, but maybe still risky. There is nothing safe in what I invest. I enjoy building companies, investing in things where it’s going faster with more risk, but more thrill as well. I’m too young not to enjoy that.
Are horses an indulgence or business?
I took back one of the passions that I left for 12 to 13 years … I still used to own horses, but wouldn’t ride and compete. For the past two years, I’ve travelled for international competitions.
I keep my horses with riders who ride them every day (in Belgium) … it’s quite expensive to get them to travel, the fees and so on, so I make a business out of it where I not only breed, but also buy and sell horses.
My idea is to break even at the end of the year, so I fund my passion. It’s like a company; you train it, grow it and then it increases in value. You have to spread your risk on multiple horses, do it at scale.
How do you feel about money?
For me, money is really to enable me to do what I like, from simply taking a ride in my car in the sun with my kids, being at the seaside with my horses or competing, or taking my kids to see the mountains of Bhutan.
I don’t care for the money; I will never collect it and say I’m sitting on “that much” in my bank account. It’s more about what can money bring as experiences and using money to live. I love the thrill of investments, of competition, of speed, of a beautiful landscape.
I wouldn’t be as happy had I received hundreds of millions from my dad and just lived off the interest. I enjoy the toughness of running companies, going through ups and downs, living through these emotions.
And I want my kids to know the value of money, that it doesn’t grow on trees (and) give them the possibility to do something great, but to work hard for it.
Have you learnt any financial lessons?
We need to learn at all times. Obviously, I try not to repeat mistakes I did in the past. I see opportunities I know are risky, but I believe in them and will take them, and some months it’s tough … you have a certain lifestyle and to pay bills.
Though I have much more money than I ever had, it’s always tight because I’m always using it to the maximum. My aim was probably to make as good a life as my dad and I’m beyond that.
Anything you wish you had invested in?
Not really. It’s always: “I should have invested more.” Most of the investments I really like, I did. And I don’t live with regrets.
If I did not do them, most of the time it’s because I didn’t believe in them at the time. Maybe they turned out great, but I don’t follow what I didn’t invest in.
What do you enjoy spending on?
The horses are my main passion, but I like to drive. I like speed. We have four cars; day-to-day a Mercedes G63 and a Porsche Carrera Turbo S convertible for the weekend and fun rides.
Do you have a luxurious lifestyle?
It’s a question of who you compare me with. In Dubai, you have billionaires, they have 30 cars in their basements and three villas here and elsewhere.
Compared with that, I’m not a luxurious guy. If I go back to Europe, yes, because I have more than one car for myself, my wife has a car plus the driver, plus nannies, plus the size of the house and the number of holidays we take.
What are your future goals?
To go back into country life, build big estates where I can grow crops, breed horses, enjoy my investments. I believe that one or two, or three, will have a good exit. At that time, I will probably take a step back.
I don’t have a fixed date, it’s more about the ability to continue investing, to support entrepreneurs, mentor them and finance their growth and, at the same time, have a more relaxed life.
I have responsibility for the people who follow me, to make sure they are well-rewarded and also achieve what they want.