The year of birth
We take you back to the year 2000 one more time. The millennium year. Insiders believed it would be a year with major tragedies and ... big changes. Who doesn't remember the ICT problems that many computers faced because they were not 'millennium proof'? It took a lot of time, money and effort to make sure that every company had its systems up to date.
It was around that time that people discovered the importance of internet and the important role that this medium was going to play in the 21st century and beyond! We were not surprised that 'millennial' Nikolaas Gyselbrecht started to experiment with the internet as a medium for news coverage, focusing of course on pigeon racing, his big passion. News coverage, that is how it all started. But he quickly discovered the internet's endless possibilities as a selling platform for pigeons. And if you are among the first to embrace a new possibility, you inevitably take a bit of a lead. But holding your lead can be quite a challenge, let alone trying to extend that lead, especially if more and more people are starting to discover those same possibilities. Those that laid the groundwork often fail to maintain their lead, but that did not happen to Nikolaas. He did manage to stay ahead of the rest, which is testament to his entrepreneurial spirit. One of the big traits of a successful entrepreneur is the ability to surround yourself with capable, loyal and professional people. This is your one and only option if you want to start a successful company. You cannot do this on your own! Today, in 2020, no less than 100 employees at home and abroad are working for the largest online auction platform for racing birds, where 10,000 pigeons get sold every year, with an annual turnover of 35 million Euros! Congratulations to Nikolaas and your team.
PIPA, a household name among pigeon fanciers
Almost every active pigeon fancier visits their website on a regular basis. They either want to keep up with the news or they want to browse the rankings and the auctions. Not every fancier gets to take part in the pigeon auctions however, given the overall level of quality. But these auctions are of course a popular topic of conversation and discussion among fellow fanciers.
They get a lot of bids from China and Taiwan, and fanciers from Arab countries are getting increasingly involved as well. Chinese fanciers with a big budget are still primarily interested in top class pigeons from Belgium and The Netherlands. A pigeon with a Chinese ring, no matter how talented, is much less popular. We modest Dutchmen and Belgians are still trying to compute the enormous sums that fanciers pay for a pigeon like "New Kim". We ran through the numbers of this particular auction, and we noticed that the youngsters and grandchildren that were already available were sold for a lot more than "New Kim". That is something you have to factor in. Besides, there is a lot of money involved in pigeon racing in China. The biggest Chinese pigeon club alone has a prize pool of 57,000,000 euro! We are often happy to win a bicycle or a microwave oven. If you want to win some of that prize money, you will have to invest a lot. And that is what foreign fanciers are doing.
The same applies to the 'one loft races', where a lot of money is involved as well. If the main prize is 500,000 euro and you have 4,000 competitors, a quick calculation shows a 1:4000 chance to win the main prize of 500,000 euro. The odds for the main prize in the national lottery is 1:1,300,000!
PIPA focuses exclusively on the top segment of pigeon racing
The top 100 best players worldwide are more than interesting enough to host an auction for, and that leaves plenty of room for the other auction houses. We even get the impression that PIPA's achievements have helped the other auction houses get more attention as well. A lot of pigeons are being sold over the internet these days, and the average sale prices are rising. This is in part thanks to the leveraging effect of such auctions like Hok Van de Wouwer, and possibly the auction of Gino Clicque this month. And we also get the impression that fanciers have a bit more money to spend in covid times, since they cannot go on holidays or go to the theater, restaurant or café.
Besides, many fanciers understand that you need some good quality pigeons if you want to keep up. You might have to invest to push your breeding loft to a higher level. We can safely say that pigeon racing has a lot of appeal still, with different forces at play in each country (attention, betting, winning).
With this anniversary coming up, I asked Nikolaas a few questions:
What has been the core of success for PIPA?
I think one of the main reasons for our success had been the fact that we were among the first to organise internet auctions, so we benefited from the so-called FMA (First Mover Advantage), or the first come first served principle. Another important factor is that we come from a family of pigeon fanciers with an excellent reputation. We are regarded as trustworthy, which is very important in our sector. People buy pigeons from PIPA because they trust our name. Likewise, fanciers are willing to sell pigeons on PIPA because they know they are in good hands, and they always get paid in time. There is no such thing like instant success, this is the result of years of hard work and treating everyone correctly. And another important factor is having good people around you. We have a fantastic group of people at PIPA, and this has been another important part of our success. A company is only as strong as its weakest link, and the many strong links in our team have turned us into a particularly strong and unique company. I would like to take the opportunity to thank all the employees that are reading this article. I cannot thank them enough, they have been invaluable to us.
Who are PIPA's main rivals?
I don't really like to think of them as rivals, I prefer to call them my colleagues. And that is what they mostly are. We have been fortunate enough to have a lot of growth in our market, and to have a steady increase in demand for pigeons. That basically means that both we and our colleagues are doing well and that we are doing good business. And that is a good thing, since it has never been our goal to gain a monopoly. We just want to run a fun company, where the employees are working hard while also enjoying their time here. That is also how I see it, I enjoy doing what I do: working together with pigeon fanciers in the long term, pigeon fanciers who trust us. We do everything we can for them, and we want to create a solid brand for them. There are so many fanciers out there that it would be impossible for us to work together with each one of them. In other words: there are still plenty opportunities for our colleagues. Those colleagues are spread across the globe. Each country has its own auction house, several online platforms as well as pigeon agents.
What does the future hold for pigeon racing, and how will the sport continue to develop?
I think we have some interesting years ahead of us, in which the bar raises every year because the competitions are getting increasingly difficult. I believe China will continue to grow as one of the main purchasers of European pigeons. Meanwhile, I also think the one loft races will become even more important in the future.
I am also a bit worried about the ongoing ageing of our sport in Western Europe and in some other countries. On the other hand, we have some young players eager to get started as well, which makes me hopeful.
What could be the role of modern technology, like GPS tracking, live notifications, TV/internet?
I think GPS tracking is already perfectly feasible today but it will depend largely on regulations. And if every pigeon gets a tracker in race, it would take away a lot of the excitement, I think. Awaiting your pigeons after a race would not be quite as special anymore. So I am not really in favor of giving every pigeon a GPS tracker. What I do find interesting is the idea of experimenting with GPS tracking for research purposes. Live notifications are being used more often as well, also in Belgium. PIPA used to provide notifications for the national races, based on fanciers sending in their times of arrival. This has been replaced with a platform with automated notifications, which is a considerable improvement.
How important is video content on YouTube and on television?
We launched PIPA tv a couple years ago because we think video content is becoming very important, not only in our sector but in general. So this has become a point of focus for our company as well.
PIPA owes a lot to pigeon racing, what do you give in return?
We do owe a lot to pigeon racing but I think we give a lot back to pigeon racing as well. Keep in mind that we spent many years working as news reporters for pigeon fanciers without any compensation, so we were not making any money. But it was thanks to pigeon racing that we could start to earn a living years down the line, by selling pigeons. We are still very grateful for that. We are employing almost 100 people across the globe, both directly and indirectly, which is another way of contributing to society: we create jobs. And in addition to our pigeon trade, we also have an extensive editorial team that brings news reports about pigeon racing in different languages. And we get daily requests to support a wide range of initiatives inside and outside of pigeon racing. And we donate a lot of money to charity every year, sometimes related to pigeon racing, sometimes not.
Chess has become increasingly popular thanks to the tv series The Queen's Gambit. Could we see something similar for pigeon racing and how would that work?
The Hok Van de Wouwer auction, which broke every record, received a lot of media attention. It was difficult to believe that we were contacted by so many media channels from across the globe, who asked us to get involved in a variety of projects: writing books about pigeon racing, making documentaries, or appearing in news shows. And we also talked to people who were creating content that was to appear on Netflix. Some people are not really fond of such media exposure but I think it has put our sport on the international map. People are starting to take pigeon racing seriously. And that will considerably increase the chances of someone creating something along the lines of the tv series that you mentioned, about pigeon racing. Unfamiliarity breeds contempt, and if we turn the media exposure into a positive story, we create plenty of opportunities. And I have seen new people being drawn to pigeon racing in my surroundings. I often compare it to football: does big money ruin the game? Or would the big money and the media attention keep youngsters from starting to play football? No, they start playing football because they look up to their heroes. They want to be like them. So I believe that, if pigeon racing gets media attention in a positive way, the entire sector will reap the rewards.
You organise a lot of auctions in the top segment, with big names. Does that involve a risk, given the fact that competitions are getting smaller?
Like I said earlier, it has never been our goal to create some form of monopoly or to try and keep the whole market for ourselves. Growth is not a goal in itself either, and by focusing solely on the top segment, your options are somewhat limited. Aiming for big numbers has never been our passion. We aim for the best pigeons, for exclusiveness, because that gets us excited, that makes us happy. This is not a question of how you can make the most money, since working with big volumes tends to be more profitable.
Big players are selling their successful assets, which could result in the group getting smaller and smaller. Is this a potential risk in the future?
I think it's important to have a steady flow of new people in our sport. If the big players sell their collection and quit the sport without any new players ready to take their place, we could have an annoying situation. But I see that we still have many young players joining the game, and I am fairly confident that our sport is not going to go extinct.
I can see that your website publishes more and more reports and news articles. Is that a possible threat for traditional media, and do you experience that? What is your future policy?
We do not bring more news reports compared to ten years ago, the volume will be about the same. And I don't think PIPA is a threat for traditional media but rather the internet as a whole, because you bring news a lot quicker. When I started with PIPA, we had the bird flu outbreak of 2003, and the possibility of some races being cancelled. I remember bringing multiple updates every day, because fanciers did not have any other medium at the time: newspapers would only bring one weekly update, which goes to show that the internet is without doubt a threat for written media. But I am convinced that written media will always have its place, although some might have to opt for a different form of news coverage.
PIPA is also involved in one loft racing. What do you think of this new type of competition?
I think this is an important part of the future of our sport. I believe one loft races will become even more important in the future, especially because you can compete in races without having to be actively involved every day and night. You breed a number of pigeons, you pay a subscription fee and the race organisers take care of the rest. I have seen several people in horse racing that have started racing pigeons this way. It is more accessible, and there is a one loft race for every budget. If you compete in a one loft race, you don't have to worry about wind, the location of your loft or the direction that the pigeons take. All pigeons have to do the same course!
Is there some form of control against fake bids, people who do not pay, blacklists, etc.?
We ask for references for every new client - where have they purchased before, who do they know - in an effort to avoid non payers. We have managed to significantly reduce the number of non payers in recent years but some will slip through the net still. And not all of them have bad intentions either; someone might have purchased a pigeon right before going through a dramatic change in his life, making him unable to afford this pigeon. You have to be understanding when such things occur.
What is your take on the Belgian/Dutch competitions? We have separate competitions now, would you consider joint races in the future?
I think this is easier said than done given the geographical spread, except for the races of the international extreme long distance. But it would be a good thing for The Netherlands if they had more national races.
Nikolaas comes from a family of pigeon fanciers. His grandfather Remi set the tone, winning the race from Barcelona in 1995. And every fancier knows what that means: your name will be forever remembered. His father Carlo was quite successful too, and it was a logical move for Nikolaas to get involved as well, followed by Thomas. But he got involved in a different way: he founded a news platform, and he wanted to know if it could be used for selling pigeons as well. He walked into his father's pigeon loft, carrying a camera. He took a picture of the pigeon that he wanted to sell, and he put it online. PIPA was born! Today, the duivenhokken or duivenkotten, as we call them in Flanders, have become pigeon lofts, and the fancier has turned into a loft manager! These are the terms that we use in 2020, and they give our sport a bit more appeal! We all like to gift-wrap our Christmas presents or we turn it into something special, and for good reason. Likewise, these modern terms can help turn pigeon racing into a sport of the future.
Nikolaas believes there are plenty of opportunities. And they (PIPA) are in the right place to give our sport some international appeal. They have professionals on board, they have a broad network and the media will always turn to them first. Besides, they also have the financial possibilities to either create new directions for pigeon racing or to help the sport head into a new direction.
Nikolaas, Thomas, we count on you!