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Meet Stijn Spaas of Innovation Protocol in Koreatown

Today we’d like to introduce you to Stijn Spaas.

Stijn, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I was born and raised in Hasselt, Belgium, which also happens to be the city where I organized a marketing conference as a 19-year old student. That marketing conference started as a simple school assignment, but it eventually changed my life and brought me to Los Angeles.

How that happened is a wild story. I came across a speaker on YouTube and after watching one of his videos, I decided that I not only wanted to hire him for the conference, I also wanted to work for him and I was going to do everything in my ability to make that happen.

After months of preparation and hard work, always trying to exceed everyone’s expectations, the conference became a success and I scored an internship and later a job at the speaker’s firm in LA. The speaker’s name was Sasha Strauss by the way, sorry not sorry for keeping you in suspense. He is the founder and Managing Director of Innovation Protocol – a strategic brand consulting and design firm.

Before this conference, I had no clue where life was going to take me. I’d always been told it is more important to choose a great leader than it is to choose a great role in your first job. And to this day, I think that’s incredibly relevant advice, as I’m still working with Sasha and we have traveled the world together hosting workshops and giving speeches. This year, I even started as Teaching Assistant for his MBA Class at USC Marshall. All of that to say that I’ve learned a lot in the past few years and I’m still working hard on things that I’d like to see happen in the future.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I know that a lot of people think all these opportunities just come my way, but that is unfortunately not what I experienced. As you can imagine, it’s hard to be taken seriously as a 19-year old student, asking companies to sponsor a hundred-thousand-euro conference that had never happened before. I remember sending hundreds of cold emails, being ignored by the big majority, and eventually taking the train across the country to meet up with a few potential sponsors that were too polite to say no when I emailed them. For those few appointments, I’d spend hours preparing my proposal and researching background info on the company and its decision-makers. I think it’s the combination of perseverance and aiming high from the start that allowed me to get my first 10.000 euro contract after a few months.

Once I finally landed the internship after the conference, I needed a visa to work in the U.S. So I started asking around to learn about the process and options from other people who had experience applying for a visa. Hands down everyone I asked told me that the odds were against me and that it was virtually impossible to obtain a visa at my age. But as you now know, those were the exact words that I needed to be motivated to keep looking for options. After a ton of research and calls, I found out about a one-year visa that I could obtain via the Belgian American Chamber of Commerce. And I’m very grateful that Innovation Protocol was willing to work with me for months on getting that visa because against all odds, we eventually obtained it.

Then, when I was finally hired with a one-year visa, I worked hard to prove myself, and after several months the company was willing to apply for a new longer-term visa to make me a more permanent part of the team. I was super excited, but the immigration laws were changing rapidly in 2017, and I was ultimately not granted a visa. Before we could even try to reapply, I had to go back to Belgium.

Back in Belgium, I ended up starting a small brand consulting business myself, which did really well, but after nine months my new visa was finally approved and I decided that there was still a lot more to learn in LA, so I went back.

My social media does not show it, but I can spend hours talking about struggles, sleepless nights, the risks I took, or sacrifices I made. I know the world complains about the fact that social media profiles aren’t an accurate representation of people’s lives and I totally agree, but do you really want me to post selfies behind my laptop every day? Probably not.

Innovation Protocol – what should we know? What do you do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
Innovation Protocol is a strategic brand consulting and design firm. Where McKinsey, Deloitte, and Bain & Company focus on business and management consulting, we focus on brand and communications consulting with a business angle. We do this for Fortune 500 companies all the way to non-profits, start-ups, and individuals. All of them deal with the same problem: explaining who they are and why they matter.

The reason why we call it “strategic brand consulting” is because every recommendation we make is based on research. We don’t tie ourselves to a specific industry, so the different industry analyses, competitive audits, and stakeholder interviews make my job incredibly interesting, as I get to learn about semiconductors one week and theme parks another week, for example.

That said, what I probably like the most is the educational speaking engagements we do. I’ve been fortunate to spend a good amount of time traveling around the world to educate and inspire companies, universities, and other professional organizations. And who doesn’t love to get paid to travel?

What moment in your career do you look back most fondly on?
That’s a hard question. There are a lot of memorable moments that I’ve been fortunate to experience in my short career so far — getting my first U.S. visa, bringing in my first client, getting my second U.S. visa, doing my first paid speech, then being flown to another continent to give a speech for the first time…

But the moment I’m most proud of was probably the moment that got all of this started when the marketing conference ended successfully five years ago. That moment, I was not only incredibly proud of the conference and the opportunities that came along with it, I was also incredibly proud of my family and friends. They were there that day and they’ve continued to support me to this day.

It’s one thing to have crazy ideas and the willingness to realize them. But without all those people who believed in me, who gave me chances and who supported me, I would be in a different position right now. I know this is going to sound awfully cheesy, but I hope Voyage LA allows me to use this article as a way to say ‘thank you’. Thank you to my family, friends, mentors, coworkers, managers, peers, conference-sponsors, etc. I hope I make you all feel as proud as I felt about you that day and still feel today. Cheesy, but true.

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