The New Title is Here!
23. 10. 2013 § Leave a comment
Back in August, I asked for your input on a new title for the book.
I got some great ideas and input. Then, a few weeks ago, I turned to a smaller audience with two different versions I had cooked up. This smaller audience – as some of you know – were subscribers to the newsletter I’m putting out, accompanying the process (journey?) of creating this book. So, the subscribers got the small privilege of exclusivity in learning in advance of the two options and having the chance to vote on these.
There will be more exclusive offers and content like this. In my view, the newsletter subscribers are the biggest fans of this project, and I want to thank every one of you out there.
There are currently 138 newsletter subscribers. That’s a small number, but I’m ok with that. A small, dedicated group of fans is a good core audience, and, let’s face it, I’m no JK Rowling or George R. R. Martin 😛 Now … If all of you reading this blog who are not yet subscribed would subscribe *and* tell your friends who might be interested – that would be just great!
Back to the title thing. First of all I want to thank *everyone* who came back with input for your feedback. HUGE THANKS, PEOPLE! Now … I need to call out three people whose suggestions I found to be closest to home: Oliver Holle, Fred Destin and Robin Wauters. THANKS GUYS!
The dilemma I presented through the newsletter was between two title / subtitle combinations.
“Magellan’s Heirs: Conversations With Leaders of the European Startup Revolution”
“The European Startup Revolution: Conversations With Leaders Going for Global Success”
It may not be as apparent from just a blog post what the difference between titles and subtitles was, so I presented this as an online PDF document.
Well, let’s cut to the chase. The new title is “The European Startup Revolution”!
Why this choice? I’ve decided to be more pragmatic than poetic. Firstly, I’d like the stories of the entrepreneurs to go out to a wider audience than those of us who are part of a small, elite, tightly knit European startup community. My hope (and we’ll see how that turns out!) is that people with a general interest in business, entrepreneurship and innovation will find it interesting.
There are many amazing, successful and inspiring leaders in Europe. Obviously, I was able to speak with only a few here. Nevertheless, the mainstream business media, even European media, is so obsessed with American “celeb” CEO’s (with all due respect to those great people, of course) that I wanted to counterbalance that, with what little power I as a writer have, with the stories and conversations in this book. From that perspective, an audience as wide as possible, both in Europe and elsewhere, is important to me. I feel that audience will be somewhat larger if the title of the book is more to the point.
Not to be *too* lofty and academic about it – I’d also like to make at least *some* money!
Now, about the response to my question from the newsletter subscribers. 28 of the 138 came back with answers (a nice percentage btw). The score was 17 : 11 in favor of the title I chose myself. This tells me that most of my core group is in favor of the pragmatic version – but also that there is a significant minority which would prefer the more … let’s say … creative version.
With the flexibility digital and e-book technology offers us … even multiple versions might be possible …. But let’s leave that line of thought for another time 🙂
The Need for Speed
16. 08. 2013 § 3 Comments
Earlier this year – on or about March 1st – I was reading an article on one of the tech blogs about how Andrew Mason, founder and CEO of Groupon, got fired. The article began something like „Four years ago, when Groupon was founded …“
I stopped reading the article and started thinking about this. Four years! It had seemed to me that Groupon had been around forever. There was, and still is, a ton of controversy around Groupon and around the whole daily deal industry. Let’s forget about all of that for a moment. What struck me was the timeframe and how much had happened in those four short years.
A company – Groupon – was founded and achieved amazing growth in that time span. It went from zero to thousands of employees, went public and spawned an entire industry of competitors, copycats and clones.
How about startups in Europe and, closer to home, in my native region of Southeast Europe? Well… some of them have made amazing progress in the past couple of years. Others… not so much. Here’s a typical dialogue with some startup founders I’ve had a few times recently:
„Hey! Haven’t seen you in a while, how’s it going? How are things at your XYZ startup?“
„Not so bad, in fact. We’re finally at break-even!“
„Thinking about funding?“
„Well… we’re always open to investment, of course, but we’re not actively fundraising. Like I said, we’re breaking even so we don’t think funding is so critical right now.“
Discussions about fundraising at conferences and other networking events, as well as online, sooner or later drift towards the utopian ideal of bootstrapping. „Take VC money only if you really have to!“ is a piece of advice I sometimes hear. „Look at this horrible example or this one where startup XYZ took VC funding and then crashed and burned because of pressure from the investors!“
Well, bootstrapping is „Nice Work if You Can Get It“, as Fred Astaire used to sing. By „it“ I mean not just breaking even but growing like crazy. We’ve seen a couple of great examples of successful bootsrapped startups in our region, Nordeus probably being the most spectacular among them.
Well, I have news for you, dear startup founders: It’s not going to happen! Let me rephrase that: It’s very, very, very unlikely that you will be able to grow quickly based purely on customer revenues plus (maybe) a little seed money. Therefore, you need to actively fundraise if you want to turn that WWI biplane into a rocket ship.
Some of you may be reading this and thinking „Well… hellooo!“ Yeah, I know. I wish it was as obvious to all the dynamic, talented entrepreneurs whom I meet and talk to on the ground. It’s not, and one of the reasons it’s not is that there simply isn’t enough pressure around them. Not enough pressure from their peers, from their investors, from the community.
So… all of us who are working with startups as mentors, writing about the high tech ecosystem as jounalists, building the startup communities in our cities and regions – we all need to turn up the heat. We’ve seen great things happening in the European startup world in the past few years. Now we need to see those wonderful things happening much, much faster. These founders really need to feel the need for speed!
Serbia: birth of a startup nation
20. 04. 2013 § 1 Comment
I spent the past two weekends in Serbia, attending startup events. Coincidence? Perhaps… Trend? More likely.
Seedcamp held its first ever event in Belgrade on April 5, hosted by the Serbian royal family, no less, at the Royal Compound and attended by the Crown Prince and Princess. The crown prince of startups in Serbia, however, was Vukašin Stojkov. We always need to bear in mind that all good events, and this one was no exception, are organized by great teams, many of whom remain outside of the limelight. However, someone needs to step into that limelight and Vukašin was definitely the man of the hour (or day, or two days… more on that later).
I had the privilege of coming in early and helping the teams prepare, along with Tomaž Štolfa, and later participating in the various roles of feedback provider and panelist. It was great meeting old friends and getting to know new ones. Mrs Spigel and I took to AirBnB and booked a charming little apartment in Skadarlija, Belgrade’s legendary Bohemian quarter. I highly recommend the place for a fantastic combination of price, superb location and comfort. Aleksander, the host, is a great guy.
The projects pitching at the event were very good. One, TruckTrack, has the distinction of having Vukašin himself finally decide to get his hands dirty and jump in as cofounder. It’ll be *really* interesting to see how he juggles his various roles and responsibilities now. As my friends know well, in the “do startup founders need to focus or multitask?” debate I am firmly on the “Focus Focus Focus” side. Vukašin, Stevica, Ivan Burazin, Vibor Cipan – I’m looking at you guys! Another project I *really* liked was PubSonic. Founded by biotech PhD-type nerds, the startup is going to disrupt the field of stem cell research academic publishing. Yes, a niche, and that’s what I always like about a startup. It can’t hurt that the founder, Ivana Gadjanski, is a charming young lady – we need many many many more ladies / girl geeks in startupland.
The next day was Startup Standup day. This was the “graduation” day for participants in the “Startup Academy” training program and it showed. The pitches (a few of which we had seen the day before) were good and up to speed. Knowing how these programs work, I can only imagine what they were like entering the program. Good job, organizers! And huge congratz to Bal Balaji, cosmopolitan serial entrepreneur who is apparently not only “supporting” but, critically, *financially* supporting a lot of the startup activity in Belgrade.
Apart from the startup stuff, Mrs Spigel and I enjoyed our weekend in Belgrade with some good friends whom we are never able to see as often as we would like. Needless to say, before returning to Zagreb we made our traditional pilgrimage to the Zlatiborac shop, picking up various Serbian delicacies, many of which are unpronouncable and untranslatable (afaik) into English. Don’t bother Googling meanings, trust me: Just print out this blog post, find the nearest Zlatiborac shop when in Belgrade, and hand the lady this list: “Duvan čvarci, blagi i ljuti ajvar, kajmak, goveđa pršuta, paprike u pavlaci.” Unless you happen to be vegan, in which case you can skip this assignment and continue to stroll around town.
[SHAMELESS PLUG: Subscribe to the EuroGeeks newsletter to get these posts ahead of everyone else!]
Well… back to Zagreb on Sunday and back to Serbia on the following Friday – but this time headed for Novi Sad or, more precisely, to the Ceptor resort in the rolling hills of Fruska Gora, just outside the capital of Vojvodina. The idyllic forest retreat was built by the government and, I’m told, is still publicly managed. In any case – an awesome place for a startup event. So… in this green environment who should I find but the familiar Pioneers (Vienna) faces, spreading the Startup Live series of events yet further. I have nothing but respect for this project, as it has helped spread the startup virus far and wide.
Most of the heavy lifting in terms of organization and logistics, of course, is done by local teams. Katarina, Ivan, Dragan and their team were superb hosts. Mentors came in from the neighborhood – Vienna, Zagreb, Ljubljana, Sofia… Again, a group of interesting projects, some of whom have strong potential. As is usually the case with “weekend” events, some of the projects were at a very early stage with founders not completely clear with what they really wanted to do and how exactly this would work out. But that’s fine – it’s part of the normal startup dynamic and ecosystem. A project that really caught my attention had nothing to do with IT, Web, mobile, social networks or anything digital whatsoever for that matter. A group of three technologists has developed a process to produce bricks out of – ash! Millions of tons of ash, of varying degrees of toxicity, need to be stored all over the globe, mostly in landfills. This project creates bricks out of ash, locking the toxic substances permanently / chemically into the material. The bricks are vastly cheaper to produce and have massive positive influence on the environment. I’m not an expert on this stuff but these guys might be kings of the global construction industry if things work out right. If they do, I’ll be able to say I was “present at the creation” of the project. By the way – they have been working on this for 8 years!
“Present at the Creation” was my overall feeling after these two weekends. We all know the Serbian economy and politics is … well.. challenged. After the Startup Standup event I ran into a political meeting in the center of Belgrade where harsh words were blasted into the streets over the sensitive issue of Kosovo. “Wow – two Serbias!” I thought. Needless to say, we have a ton of issues with the economy and politics in Croatia as well. Startups are the best way for the most talented amongst our younger generations to create their own future, regardless of whether they stay in the region or take off to London or the Valley.
Driving back home from the idyllic forests of Fruska Gora, a tune kept going on and on in my head. It wasn’t the famous singer from Vojvodina, Djordje Balasevic. It was Michelle Shocked and her “Memories of East Texas“…
What a fantastic and exciting experience to be involved with the early stages of the development of a startup community in the ‘hood. Startups from neighbouring countries, the whole New Europe region and worldwide need to pay attention – some hot shit is coming out of Serbia.
Next interview: Branko Milutinović, Nordeus
04. 04. 2013 § Leave a comment
Rejoice, friends! I’m off to Belgrade later today to mentor at Seedcamp Belgrade. Also – more pertinent to this project – I’m having coffee tomorrow morning with Branko Milutinović, the founder and CEO of Nordeus.
Many of you know what Nordeus is. For those who do not – Nordeus is a completely incredible and awesome gaming startup out of Belgrade, Serbia, with 80+ talented people producing “Top Eleven, the most played online sports game in the world, with more than 9 million monthly and 3 million daily users on Web, Android and iOS devices.” (as explained on the web site).
Football fans will certainly take note of the fact that, as of a few days ago, Jose Mourinho is “the new face of Top Eleven.”
Startup pundits, analysts and many others will take note of the fact that this juggernaut is bootstrapped. Branko and his cofounders have built it from the ground up, having taken no outside investment. Word on the street is that the company is so profitable it’s more likely to invest than to look for investment.
But anyway – fuck the word on the street. I’ll be talking to Branko in person over coffee at his office. You all have the opportunity to fire away with questions and comments for Branko. C’mon – don’t be shy!
And … of course… spread the good word about the book and the newsletter 🙂 and ask your friends to subscribe!
The next interview: Andy McLoughlin
02. 04. 2013 § Leave a comment
Heads up, friends!
I’ll be interviewing Andy McLoughlin for EuroGeeks in a few hours!
Andy and his cofounder, Alastair Mitchell, have done amazing things with Huddle. Back in 2007 the Huddle team was Andy and Alastair and their office was a bedroom. Since then they have built a collaboration and document-sharing platform used by more than 100,000 businesses and organizations worldwide.
Along the way, they have raised $40 million dollars in three investment rounds, with each investor from previous rounds investing in the subsequent ones. As of mid-2012 Huddle was scheduled to grow to more than 200 people by the end of that year – I’ll be talking to Andy about that and other numbers when we speak.
Your comments and questions for Andy are welcome! A big “thank you” goes to Jon for making the intro.
Btw – subscribers to my newsletter got an exclusive heads-up on this last midnight (CET). So… what are you waiting for – sign up!
23. 03. 2013 § Leave a comment
I’ll be sending out news and updates about my work on the book via multiple channels. One of these will be an email newsletter. Since David and Guy recommend it, I guess it’s the way to go 😉
Reading this blog and following my Twitter is a good way to keep in touch as things progress. Subscribing to the newsletter is even better!
So c’mon and join the mailing list – I promise to keep it brief and to the point. Also … who knows, there might be some exclusive stuff coming into your mailbox (wink wink).
Time to get going
02. 02. 2013 § Leave a comment
This blog has been dormant for a long, long time. Now it’s time to restart it. There is a reason for that & I have an announcement to make.
2013 is the year that EuroGeeks hits your screens. You choose the screen – phone, phablet, tablet. Some people might read it on a laptop. Some people may even get an old fashioned dead tree paper printed edition in their hands.
I’ve been working on this book for a long time – many delays, a *lot* of procrastination and a zillion things that have gotten in the way. Those things aren’t going away. However… I’m close enough to having enough interviews piled up – and a few more to do – to know that the raw content production – interviewing Europe’s top entrepreneurs and startup founders – is coming to an end and the time to start “production” is at hand.
I’ll be asking more than a few of you, dear readers, for your help and thanks in advance to those who respond. I will be documenting the progress and process as I go along.
Quo vadis Rebate Networks after DailyDeal sale to Google?
29. 10. 2011 § Leave a comment
I had interviewed Michael Brehm, CEO of Rebate Networks, back in February for Forbes Croatia and the EuroGeeks book. On hearing the news that Rebate had sold DailyDeal, their „DACH“ (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) group buying operation to Google, I asked him for a chance to catch up on Rebate’s development thus far, the Google deal and particularly plans for next steps.
We didn’t focus much on the deal itself, but previous reports, particularly Holger Schmidt’s Frankfurter Allgemeine online piece, had outlined it. According to Schmidt, the sale price was anywhere from 150 – 200 million USD, and Rebate Networks was reported to take a third of this amount, alongside the founding Heilemann brothers, the Insight Ventures VC fund and a smaller chunk to swiss Adinvest.
This wasn’t the first exit for Rebate. Just this June Rebate sold parts of their Asian network – Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia – to US-based LivingSocial. At least part of this latter deal was an equity swap so Rebate now has a stake in LivingSocial.
Was there a specific strategy for selling these assets, I asked Michael when we spoke?
„In each of our properties we are working closely with the founders of that company who are always significant shareholders. Therefore, we evaluate every business opportunity carefuly. Regarding the Asian transaction, as well as the European one, the package in both cases was an attractive one, both for Rebate and for our partners in each of these cases. You could say that, rather than having a specific strategy for selling or holding on to assets, we go case by case.“
Now that they have a significant war chest courtesy of Google, can we expect Rebate to move aggresively into new markets where they are not present yet?
„The group buying model is by now very established and it’s difficult to build from scratch in any market. The global trend is for larger companies to grow through acquisitions. Although I wouldn’t exclude anything, our focus is primarily building and growing our business in the markets where we are already present. We are really happy about the way these markets are developing. The specific steps we might take depend largely on the circumstances in each market and on the judgment of our teams on the ground. We want to be quite careful with potential acquisitions – in general, we prefer to grow organically but, as I said, I wouldn’t exclude anything out of hand.“
The interwebs have seen a ton of discussions and commentaries on the best-known group buying company, Groupon, and their (so far) ill-fated preparations for an IPO, featuring – among other „interesting“ moments – the current owners taking 870 million USD into their collective pockets from previous investment rounds. I was curious to hear how a potential wave of negative sentiment towards group buying in general, sparked perhaps by the Groupon controversies, migh affect Rebate?
„We have been in the business for two years. All of our data shows that, overall, both the end customers and the merchants find this to be a very, very attractive value proposition. So – we don’t worry about the competition that much. From our point of view, if you deliver value to your employees, customers and merchants, you will succeed. Part of our mission, also, is education. There is a need to educate the markets and customers about how these relationships can work best.“
It’s going to be an exciting show following the next moves by Rebate. Those of us from Eastern Europe will be watching particularly closely, as Croatian-based Kolektiva, part of the Rebate family, continues to hold a strong leading position in Croatia, amongst dozens of other „Groupon clones“, but has also successfully expanded into 4 other regional markets: Slovenia, Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria, giving this „subnetwork“ within the Rebate portfolio a reach from Ljubljana in the West all the way to the Black sea in the East.
Fingers crossed for Michael, his partner Stefan Glaenzer and the whole global Rebate team!
Seedcamp week 2011 – teams & finale
12. 09. 2011 § Leave a comment
I’ve been following Seedcamp one way or another – mostly as a mentor at Mini Seedcamps, and now at Seedcamp Week – for some time now. My first mentorship was Ljubljana 2009. Two and a half years might not be much for some businesses, but the European startup community has developed and matured significantly in this short time, and of course Seedcamp with it.
This was most clearly visible to me at Mini Seedcamp Ljubljana earlier this year. From 2009 to 2010 and now 2011 the rising level of quality and maturity of the teams and projects was clear and obvious to many of us who were there, and one of the dominant topics of discussion. Bringing together the best teams from all the Mini Seedcamps to London only reinforced that observation – as I’m sure many of my mentor colleagues would agree. Seedcamp as a project is growing as well, adding people to the team, money to the fund and new venues and partnerships – but you can read all about that on their blog and numerous other sources.
The emergence of Eastern Europe as a hot startup region has been acknowledged by both Fred Destin and Robin Klein.
To me, coming from Croatia, that in itself is extremely gratifying. Only a few years ago, when discussing strategies of exporting software or services with colleagues from other companies, many commented “Hide your Croatian roots deeply, no one from the West will trust a company from this region.” While this may actually still be true in enterprise software to a degree, it gives me such great pleasure to see that in the world of startups, saying “I come from Eastern Europe” is starting to be a positive thing, implying in some way that you are “trendy” and “hot”. Of course this is a somewhat frivolous and perhaps temporary thing – but nevertheless, for so many engineers, enterpreneurs and founders from this part of the world, it’s a tremendous point of satisfaction. Just for the record, after Mini Seedcamp Ljubljana we have put together a Facebook group with most members coming from this region, and for the purposes of that group and this discussion I’d like to state things more precisely. From my point of view, “our region” is something I call “New Europe”, and when I say that I mean a bunch of formerly socialist countries – some of which are now EU and others not – stretching from our #EstonianMafia friends in the north to Turkey down south and including former Yugoslav countries but also Austria. Austria has – of course – centuries of tradition and heritage to share with all our neighbours, but more importantly great ties are developing between the startup community of Vienna and all of us others in this “New Europe” region. In any case – if you want to join our “New Europe Startups” group on Facebook – welcome!
As I’ve mentioned before, a basic distinction could be made this year amongst the projects which were in already well-defined and well- populated areas and those that were breaking new ground and / or attacking new spaces. Mind you – going into an already established area isn’t bad in and of itself. All you have to do is beat the guys that are already there, and – it’s been done before!
Now – let’s look at some of the teams:
Vox.io wants to displace Skype as your Internet phone. With an elegant concept and super simple interface, they generated not only many favourable tweets (“This is the future of communications!”) but more – as I’ll explain later in the post. The VoIP space is crowded and hot, and Skype is certainly not sitting on its laurels, so Tomaž and his teammates – freshly transplanted to San Francisco from lovely Ljubljana, Slovenia, have their work cut out for them.
“Renting is broken!” declared the Rentlord crew, promising to move us beyond real estate agents who don’t give a crap about our flats into social renting, connecting landlords and tennants directly to provide a much more efficient platform to conclude their business. If UK and other markets are anything like Croatia, I’d say that at least their battle cry is totally spot on.
Clearly startups are meant and expected to disrupt industry sectors and markets, so “this is broken” and “we will disrupt this industry” can be heard many, many times at Seedcamp and other startup events.
Another project shooting at a broken market – in this case, online dating – comes from Russia with – presumably – love… a lot of love that might be generated if Zin.gl (which I mentioned in my previous post) is really so much better than what’s out there today. I have a few friends who have been frustrated by online dating sites, so if Alexander can really make this work so much better as he claimed in his pitch, he might be on to something. I need to note, though, that I’ve heard of new dating sites quite often in the past few months – will be interesting to see who really pushes ahead of everyone else, and how this will develop from market to market as it’s clearly very local content and customers.
GrabCAD started as two guys a year ago. Today this online community of mechanical engineers is the third largest group of these people in the world, just surpassing the benchmark of 25,000 members during Seedcamp Week. They aren’t quite seedlings any more, having raised 1,1 M dollars from top level VC’s and angels during the summer.
Transferwise lets you do currency exchange spending less – a lot less – money on banker’s fees. During the pitch, they explained that they have saved their customers – in the very short time since they launched – more than 100,000 Euros in banker’s fees. “That’s at least one banker not getting his bonus this year” was their remark, to the great satisfaction and admiration of the money-conscious investors in the audience. “Where have you been until now?” someone shouted “I’ve been waiting for something like this forever!” What better remark could you hope from this demanding and critical crowd.
I could go on and on about the teams and pitches but the post would really be too long. So I’ll just say a few words about my – but not only mine – favourite team. Clearly I’m not objective since the Farmeron guys are from my native Croatia – but at least that’s full disclosure :-))
I first heard about Farmeron when preparing for Mini Seedcamp Ljubljana earlier this year. They want to help farmers work better and feed more people by bringing them sophisticated, yet easy-to-use and nicely presented analyitics for their farming (think Google Analyitics for your cows and corn). My first thought was – wow. What a wide open space! This was not “yet another Groupon” or a clone or lookalike of anything I’d heard of before.
Hearing their presentation then and again now I was really impressed. There are more than 160 million farmers out there who are their target audience. These guys know their farming, both from family tradition and from university studies. The web site design is simple and cool and attractive. Perhaps most telling of all, however – I was clearly not alone. In the discussions amongst mentors in Ljubljana and in London as well, and of course online on Twitter, you could see that Farmeron had gained the sympathies – and, more importantly, the business interest – of a group of hardened, experienced and often sceptical and critical people who are the Seedcamp mentors. Besides all that – the guys are really nice guys :-)) (So are all the others, by the way, so that’s no competitive advantage!)
Coming into Seedcamp Week, they were one of the 16 teams who had already been selected for investment by the Seedcamp crew, so in a sense they were already winners and on the way to great things. As the Seedcamp blog points out, of the previous portfolio fully *90%* of companies had received follow-on funding – a superb track record.
Well… after Demo Day on Thursday we came back together on Friday to hear the final announcements. There were fewer people than the day before and the atmosphere was more relaxed now that the grueling schedule of prezos and mentoring sessions was all done.
A competition had been announced at the beginning of the week. Mentors received a form to grade the teams, and whoever we voted to be the best would get a 25,000 Euro cash prize. The second team would get 15K and the third 10K.
Straight to the point, Reshma announced the winners – the fantastic GrabCAD crew. Hardi Meybaum, founder and CEO, then walked to the stage and, without missing a beat, thanked everyone very very much and explained that, as they had already received sizable funding, they wanted to give back to the community so they would give their prize to – Farmeron!
I tweeted this feverishly on my little HTC phone and this was probably my most retweeted tweet of all time. Great move by the #EstonianMafia representatives!
Next came another announcement, which was not as spectacularly reported but was, in my opinion, just as important. Saul and Robin Klein, through TAG, offered five of their favourite teams a convertible bridge loan of €50,000 each to “extend their runway”. These teams were – you can probably guess some of them by now – GrabCAD, Farmeron, Transferwise, Fractal (makes sure your email newsletters are properly formatted) and Vox.io. Another home run for the New Europe gang!
Finally, the four teams that were not yet funded coming into the London event – Blossom, Rentlord, Appextras and Crowd – were all welcomed to the Seedcamp family as new portfolio companies.
All in all – a great event taking Seedcamp and all the participants – but mostly the portfolio companies – to a new level. What will be the next steps for this community? I’ll offer some of my own thoughts in the next, final blog post of this series.
Seedcamp week 2011 – part 1
11. 09. 2011 § 2 Comments
„So… how did you like my presentation?“
The question from a Seedcamp enterpreneur was probably one of the most often asked during Seedcamp Week… I told Alexander, the founder of the dating site Zin.gl, what I thought about the project and the presentation. He was in a crowded space – I said – with zillions of dating sites all over the place. On the other hand, his assertion – that none of these were actually working well to the benefit of their customers – was true, at least as far as I had heard from my friends who use them. We went on to discuss the strengths his project has and the obstacles he was facing.
Our conversation was nothing if not typical for Seedcamp Week. The Seedcamp team had brought together an amazing group of European, US and Canadian startup teams to pitch their projects to a group of mentors and investors which it would have been hard for any other team to pull together. Here, in one room of London’s Imperial College, were some of Europe’s and the world’s smartest and most powerful angel investors and venture capitalists.
Seedcamp is the brainchild of Saul Klein and Reshma Sohoni. Introducing one of the sessions, Saul made a powerful statement: „There are 3 or 4 billion dollars of capital in this room. I guess that takes care of the myth that there is no capital in Europe for startups.“
Back to my discussion with Alexander. As I gave him my impressions of his presentation and his project, he took out a notebook and feverishly jotted down much of what I was saying. Normally, this would not have been unusual. The whole point of Seedcamp is to connect startups with „mentors“ – those of us who are supposedly „older and wiser“ (as the song goes). Very often after speaking to founders I feel that although I am undisputably older, the second attribute is very questionable when compared to these guys. But anyhow…
This whole situation would not have been unusual were it not for the context. Alexander and I were not at Imperial College or any of the surrounding cafes. In fact, we were at „Frank’s House“.
Frank’s House had been communicated to everyone at Seedcamp as the venue of Thursday’s party. There was a bit of confusion – was this a bar, club or restaurant called „Frank’s house“? In fact – no, this was the apartment of Frank Kelcz, a successful businessman who had graciously offered to host the party for all Seedcampers. So it was here, at Frank’s house, that Alexander asked me for feedback on his presentation. It was also 11.30 pm. Booze was flowing freely. Most normal people were talking about something else – wine, women, sports, music, art or… I guess … Frank’s apartment.
This, to me, was the epitome, the symbol of Seedcamp. Alexander was so focused, so determined, so dedicated to his project that he had no problem pulling out a notebook and writing down – in detail – what I said in spite of the fact that we were at a party and it was near midnight. Moreover, he had been through the grueling process that is Seedcamp Week – multiple iterations of presenting your project to mentors, and then receiving feedback (not always positive, but that’s the point) and perfecting your pitch. It’s an exhausting experience, and this was Thursday in the week, and all normal people would have been either asleep or chillin’. To be a founder of a startup in todays fucked-up world, however, you need to be abnormal in one way or the other. At that late, late hour in Frank’s flat, I thought “This guy is nuts. That means his partners placed a bet on a really, really tough dude.”
Needless to say, my thoughts and comments to Alexander were not „world-shattering“. Clearly he had spoken to many, many other mentors besides me and it was up to him to sort out all of the confusing, conflicting feedback he – and all the other teams – had received during Seedcamp Week.
I had been to Mini Seedcamp Ljubljana in July and was really happy to see a good number of teams from that event pitch at Seedcamp Week. In fact, Central and Eastern Europe has been really growing within the Seedcamp family, from the first portfolio members (Zemanta, Ubervu) to becoming – I dare to day – almost a dominating force. Without question, our region at this Seedcamp Week was led by the Amazing Estonians. Four projects – out of twenty – came from this small Baltic powerhouse with a population of 1.3 million people. The Twitter hashtag #EstonianMafia, apparently coined by Dave McClure, caught on and stuck throughout the week.
The Estonians were, however, only the most visible amongst the Central and Eastern European crews. Two teams each from Slovenia and Austria (which I count into CEE, but that’s another discussion), one from Croatia and one from Russia made up this formidable Eastern lineup. Investors have noticed this and I hear more and more interest amongst them to look more closely at what’s going on behind the former Iron Curtain.
But apparently it’s not just me. Let’s see what others have to say:
„The big “aha!” moment for me was to see how much talent, energy and passion we’ve discovered coming out of Eastern Europe.“ says Fred Destin of Atlas Venture, a Seedcamp investor and supporter from Day 1. Fred’s presentation on the life cycle of startups in Ljubljana was a totally inspiring event in and of itself, super cool for those of us who attended in person, but also available online.
One distinction during the event which I noticed was the one between crowded and empty fields. Many of the Seedcamp finalists were in “hot” areas where they needed to beat both established players and up-and-coming competitors. These areas include location based services (Oust.me), VOIP (Vox.io), dating (Zin.gl)… Others, however, were creating projects in segments that had not been approached by others before – at least not by many others.
All told – disruption seemed to be the phrase du jour, along with „broken“. Many sectors and industries were declared to be „broken“ by the ambitious startup founders: telecoms, financial services, online dating, renting out your flat… It remains to be seen, of course, whether our friends from Seedcamp will succeed in „busting“ these large, established industries. We all certainly wish them success.
I’ll get into discussing some of the teams in subsequent posts – watch this space 🙂