Southeast Europe Startup Report 2017

EIT Digital together with Slovenian-based innovation partner, ABC Accelerator, has published the first-ever South-East Europe Startup Report.

The report depicts in detail the most promising Startups and Scaleups of the region and the state of the innovation ecosystem in 8 countries (Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Albania).

https://abc-accelerator.com/see-report-2017/

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The startup ecosystem in Southeast Europe (SEE) is alive and well. In all eight countries of the region, there are startups, supporting institutions, interesting technology, and founders with an ambitious mindset believing that even in this part of Europe, globally successful companies can be created. In 2017, there was evidence that this is indeed the case. Outfit7, a family entertainment company with Slovenian founders and pioneer in the field of digital entertainment, has been sold for 1 billion USD  to a Chinese investor in January, thus becoming the first unicorn in the region. It might not be the last

  • companies like Celtra (SLO), Rimac (CRO), NSoft (Bih) and Nordeus (SRB) are increasing their valua- tions fast, joining partnerships with high-profile corporations, and planning for potential IPO’s.

These companies also act as focal points in their local communities/ecosystems. Inspired by Norde- us’s success, the nascent mobile gaming industry has started to develop in Belgrade, Serbia. Similarly, NSoft is supporting the development of the local startup ecosystem in BiH. Zemanta, the pioneer in digital marketing, has arguably spurred the development of the whole startup community in Ljubljana, Slovenia, after its establishment a decade ago. In addition to providing direct support, these companies have motivated and inspired an entire generation of entrepreneurs and promoted startups as a potential career choice to young professionals with global ambitions. These startup pioneers are still guiding the way forward.

Zemanta has been acquired by the global leader in its industry, Outbrain from Israel. Additionally, Rimac has raised money from its most important partner, the global leader in electric battery supplies from China, which is also its potential exit partner. The frame (SRB) has raised a 16 million USD round from Bain capital and Microsoft. Partnering with the global leaders in their strategy to succeed – and to exit. Successful exits seem to be the next step in the development of the local ecosystem and its leading companies. These will help to spawn the next generation of regional startups. When successful, an exit can bring new strategic partners, significant amounts of new money, forming the basis for the next round of investments, and experienced founders that want to repeat their success story.

The next generation of startups in the region will be more experienced, better funded, and faster. They will aim for global success from their inception. A series of successful Initial Coin Offerings (ICO) by this new generation of Slovenian startups has raised more funding in 2017 than the total combined value of public financial support in the whole region – in the last decade. These startups are now among the global tech leaders and have turned Slovenia into a hub for blockchain technologies, and an example for ICO startups in the SEE region. Other industries are sometimes less well known, but no less funded or ambitious. Seven Bridges (SRB) is a three-time Bio-IT World Best of Show winner that has raised 50 million USD to transform biomedical data companies, and Genialis (SLO) follows in similar footsteps.

While the regional startups’ ambition and potential are not in doubt, they could use more support. Regional governments are often unable to support these financially or simply lack knowledge about how to

do it best. Moreover, the lack of equity (the ‘equity gap’) for seed- and early-stage financing is especially detrimental for the development of regional startups and impacts their survival rate. Additionally, the lack of national cooperation is worsened with significant obstacles to travel, especially in terms of visa requirements. Most importantly, however, potential founders in the region need to believe that they can create globally successful companies – and convince others to follow them on their path. Recent successes are the best growth drivers the SEE region could hope for.

For more … https://abc-accelerator.com/see-report-2017/

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PowerPoint or Prezi: Which Will Tell Your Story Best?

This is a guest post by Dakota Findley 

OFICINA BLOG

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Delivering a speech or presentation to a group of people? You need a visual aid. Visual aids not only help keep the audience focused, but they can enhance the overall experience of your presentation and prevent audience boredom.

There’s been a lot of negativity lately about PowerPoint, but many of those bad feelings come from poorly designed PowerPoint presentations. PowerPoint slides aren’t meant to be something the presenter reads directly from, nor should the presenter attempt to cram every word they plan to say into the overall slide show presentation.

When done well, PowerPoint still offers quality options and many benefits to presentations, but there’s another type of presentation that’s become popular: Prezi.

People tout Prezi as the answer to PowerPoint, but in reality, they serve very different types of presentation styles. The tool you choose depends entirely on the kind of experience you want your audience to have. Let’s take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of both and how you can decide which one is best for your presentation.

PowerPoint

PowerPoint is a straightforward, workhorse presentation deck that allows you to summarize information for your audience and keep them on track.

It helps with linear storytelling or presenting in which all the information builds on the previous information, and there are logical introductions and conclusions.

How it Works

PowerPoint works best with simple fonts (only one or maybe two) and using only highlighted points instead of typing out paragraphs of information.

Think of how you might outline a text to study for a test. The format of PowerPoint works much the same way and is intended as a focused guide for your audience. Delivering the slides is a matter of using the outline without reading the slides directly. Never turn your back on the audience.

It’s best at getting the audience to a stopping point. All the information builds to one conclusion or summary.

Pros

  • PowerPoint is easy to manipulate, and most anyone who has used a computer will be familiar with the program’s design. It provides templates for simple drag-and-drop text and pictures, plus video capability. It is excellent for introducing the topic of the presentation and highlighting key points just as headings do in an article.
  • At the end of the presentation, the slides are printable so you can send the audience home with the highlights and resources to remind them of the core of your presentation.

Cons

  • To be honest, a lot of the drawbacks are due to user error. PowerPoints tend to look the same because people rely on the pre-created templates and boring fonts.
  • If your story or presentation isn’t linear, then you’re faced with flipping back and forth through slides, which looks unprofessional, or recreating slides over and over, which seems redundant. It also can’t be used for free because it is part of the Office suite, and Mac users might find that converting to Keynote loses some formatting.

Prezi

Prezi is a newer presentation software that uses motion, space, and zoom to create effects that mimic the freer flow of conversation or non-linear storytelling. When you need to build information to a wow factor, or you are attempting to inspire your audience to take action through a pain point, Prezi’s dynamic presentation is the best choice.

How it Works

Prezi doesn’t use slides. Instead, it uses a “path” design that leads viewers from information point to information point.

The main points on the path are clickable, and each click zooms in so that the audience can see the details. Returning to different points is easy because as you zoom back out, all the clickable headings are visible.

This is a more intuitive setting that doesn’t have you flipping through slides or exiting presentation mode to the dreaded computer view to find a piece of info again.

Prezi is best at getting your audience to a starting point. The information presents a scenario or story, and your audience should leave fired up to take action at the end.

Pros

  • One of the great features is that in exchange for making your presentation publicly searchable, you can use the presentation software for free, which is great if you’re trying to reduce expenses.
  • It starts with a virtually blank canvas, so each presentation tends to be more creative and less like one thousand other presentations. It is excellent for non-linear storytelling, and for presentations where you know you’ll be returning to the same piece of information again and again.
  • Even though it’s about seven years old, it’s still less familiar than PowerPoint for many audiences, giving it the instant wow factor. It’s excellent for inserting sound files and other kinds of media.

Cons

  • It takes more time to create a quality Prezi presentation because you have to start from scratch. If you’re looking to create a quick presentation in a couple of hours, you might find yourself out of luck.
  • Prezi does offer a few preset templates, but these are very limited in scope and less customizable than PowerPoint templates. Prezi shines when you start from scratch but is very limiting otherwise.
  • You have to upgrade to a paid version if you plan to keep your presentation private, and unless you upgrade, you won’t be able to work on your presentation offline.
  • A huge downside is that Prezi presentations aren’t printable. You’ll have to alter the format of your presentation or create an entirely different printable handout to give your audience the recap handouts.
  • Ultimately, if you aren’t very tech-friendly, it can be a steep learning curve to use Prezi, unlike the ubiquitous PowerPoint format.

Which is Best?

In the end, the software you choose will depend on what sort of conclusion you want your audience to reach and what sort of experience you are designing for your presentation.

If you want them to leave informed with a synthesized conclusion, PowerPoint is your winner. If you want to inspire your audience to see the big picture and to make their own judgments and take action, Prezi is the clear choice.

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Why “Document Everything” is Poor Advice

This is a guest post by our Entrepreneur in Residence Michael Boland (@michaelbolandco)

OFICINA HUB BLOG

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A Developing Trend

I’m frequently approached by start-ups and entrepreneurs looking to build up their brands, create relevant content, and expand their networks. Oftentimes, these same people have Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts for their businesses with no actual product or service in existence or on the horizon.

I’ve been guilty of this mindset too and find that we often get tied up in “building our brand” instead of proving our value to customers — a great customer experience is sometimes neglected altogether. I expect the fields of service and experience design to boom in the coming years as this problem persists.

This trend is something I like to call the “Gary Vee mistake”. Emerging as an extremely popular entrepreneur and now media guru among my generation, it is easy to get excited and inspired by Gary Vaynerchuk’s short videos, interviews, and advice clips. He is a hustler who spent much of his teens and 20s building successful businesses and brands.

He has spurred a new marketing fad with his famous mantra “document, don’t create”. Entrepreneurs everywhere are now filming their every move, photographing their logos all over cities, and publishing content at a borderline obsessive rate. Because of this new movement, I’ve heard entrepreneurs from all walks of life representing different industries offer the same advice: “document everything”.

But this article is not a hit-piece on the people following Gary Vee’s words and mass-producing content. It is rather an alternative perspective — one backed by collected start-up and business experiences from around the world: North and Central America, Western and Eastern Europe, North Africa, and most recently the Middle East.

In a 2012 Nielsen Report, data from 56 countries revealed that 92% of respondents trust “earned media”, such as recommendations from close friends and family ¹. This number has fluctuated between 88% and 92% in recent years ². Online consumer reviews were the next, most trusted media.

This is where I find the conundrum: I see entrepreneurs producing content before ever developing a viable product or a trusted user/customer base. I can’t recommend your product if I can’t find value in it or in your customer service — regardless of your brand’s “likes” on social.

Therefore, I’ve thought through a few of the main reasons I think constant content production is just bad advice (or at least very short-sighted). It’s a mixture of feelings and facts so please take what you will from it. Let’s begin!

@stickermule

Media Saturation

As the Gary Vee craze sweeps the globe, you better bet business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs are taking notes and joining the content bandwagon. Even on this platform, Medium, it can be difficult to determine if an article is a genuine piece of human creativity or a subtle, impish marketing ploy.

I predict that as brand content creation rises on social media, praised by the marketing and advertising realms, people will continue to turn to trusted reviews and family and friends for sound product/service advice and recommendations. When content ads are disguised as authentic articles, who can you trust?

Wouldn’t it be a shame to find out when you scroll down to my name that I work for ___ Media Company? It makes you question everything I am expressing in this article. Hopefully, it makes you question my intentions and motivations.

I think as the social media marketing trend grows, the companies that thrive will be those that engage in “deep relationships”, borrowing from the terminology of Cal Newport. In his book Deep Work, Newport defines deep work as uninterrupted work — the kind that sends us into a trance-like state ³. It is work that brings us true passion, fulfillment, and expertise. It also works that is missing in most of today’s companies.

Similarly, I think “deep relationships” are the future of business. A human-centered, trust-focused approach to product/service design and customer experience will win out in the long run. As constant noise bombards our senses to buy this product or rep that brand, we’ll continue to fall back on the companies that offer real human help, quality products, and genuine care for the best interests of their users.

Adding to this, companies that return to their roots and focus on building the best company culture while investing in and caring for their employees will reap the rewards of good work. Word of mouth is powerful and I’m more willing to buy your product if I know you treat your people right.

It is entirely possible for a brand to have a strong social media presence and bring real value to the lives of its customers. But what I’m seeing is a growing imbalance of priorities in which content production takes the wheel while value, trust, and genuine relationships are left to the wayside.

@jfelise

Unrealistic and Unhealthy Expectations

Just the idea of constantly documenting sounds like hell to me. Then again, I am that person who frequently considers deleting all of my social media accounts and taking a digital hiatus.

Let’s think about this logically. What happens when you promise constant content and documentation? Well, you set unreal expectations for your customer base and brand identity.

I’ve seen too many entrepreneurs who make this mistake burning out early, struggling to keep up with content creation. Their content quality eventually fades away and they resort to dirty tactics: accepting any and all content on their platform or copying/stealing content from other producers (often without credit or hyperlinks to the creators).

Furthermore, what happens if you ever decide you want to stop? How much of your customer base support you because of your content? How will they react to your decision? What I’m trying to say is, if you’re going to “document everything” and promise content, you better know your customers and be able to make true on that promise.

My suggestion? Only document what brings you joy. Share what you think is going to add value to and positively impact human lives. The world doesn’t need more static or disingenuous content. More than ever, it needs your realness, your passion, your humanity. However, I don’t think that it is effectively being fostered through media content (at least not in its current state).

Focus on developing strong bonds in your local community. Get to know the entrepreneurs and businesses working around you. Listen to people and try to find sustainable solutions to their real needs. Give back to your community. Planned obsolescence is not the future and you will be far ahead of the curve if you realize that today .

Documenting everything is also unhealthy. There is countless evidence to support the negative psychological, mental, and emotional health effects of constant social media use and content sharing . Instagram was recently noted as “the worst social media platform when it comes to its impact on young people’s mental health” . Maybe it is time to reconsider those implications…

@xteemu

The Commoditization of Humans

Humans are becoming brands in their own right. Many of us have personal brands, customized logos, and freelance websites that we use to market our work and skills to the world. While innocent on the surface and a way to be relevant and competitive in a globalized job market, there is a pernicious and dark side to this.

I call it the commoditization of humans. We are more and more becoming products, selling ourselves: our advantages, creativity, skills, experiences, etc all the time. We don’t need to have a personal brand to do this either. We do it every day when we post on social media. How often do we share the struggles, pain, and sadness that we feel in our lives? Rarely, if at all. Anything deemed less than happy is kept hidden while we project a perfectly fake representation of ourselves.

We’re always trying to show the best sides of ourselves, whether we use social media professionally or personally. From this fact alone, half of our humanity is already sterilized by the network. The other half we share is at best, a semi-accurate snapshot of our lives and at worst, a planned misrepresentation of our current realities.

Mix these warped sociodigital norms and behaviors with content marketing and the monetization of human networking and we’re left with a shallow culture of selfishness, paranoia, anxiety, and unhappiness.

We need to remember that the ability of humans to communicate with the world is still a new phenomenon. We’re still infants learning how to use this internet medium, making mistakes and abusing privileges along the way.

As of right now, the “Big Five” technology companies own and guard most of the data you share on the internet (Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft) . The power of these companies is raising a global red flag. Dishonest and manipulative tactics have already been leaked via documents from secret meetings while intrusive marketing practices are engineered based on the rich personal data people and businesses share through their platforms.

We have become the products. The products, services, and brands that you are promoting on social media can and will be used against you, to sell you the things these companies want you to buy, to show you the media and news they want to influence you, all in order to siphon as much data from you as possible . Where do you draw the line for privacy? Are the brand and marketing gains worth the intrusion and violation?

@rpnickson

Dunbar’s Number

The human brain can only maintain a finite amount of human relationships at one time. This was first realized in the 1990s by anthropologists studying the brain sizes of primates and the average group size they lived within.

By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the primate data, the scientists came to the conclusion that the human brain can manage between 100–250 simultaneous relationships, sitting comfortably at 150 .

I have close to 1,400 friends on Facebook. I recently created a business page to share some of my creative works and connect with others interested in collaborating or working on similar projects. I sent an invite to all ~1,400 friends to follow/like my page. As of today, I have 131 likes on the page. After scrolling through, these are all people I, at one time or another, had a close relationship or friendship with. This is Dunbar’s Number at work.

Dunbar’s Number is the same reason that historically, human tribes would lose stability and dissolve into separate factions. After 250, humans have extreme difficulty observing and keeping track of their relationships.

Under normal circumstances, egotistical individuals and those with malicious intent could be discovered within the tribe and punished. But when the tribe grows beyond its limits, bad actors are not as easily tracked, imbalances of power form and the tribe splits.

Personally, when I realized the significance of Dunbar’s Number, it released a tremendous weight from my shoulders – one that constantly nagged me to build, connect, network. I still do those things, but I am more aware of the process and selective in my decisions.

My point? It is not feasible to build such large networks and maintain them. Therefore, try to form authentic relationships with those in your vicinity wherever you may be. When you move on, do the same thing in the next place. But don’t try to force the growth of your brand, because the truth is you probably only really connect with 150 people casually and 4 to 6 people deeply at any given time ¹⁰.

@weilstyle

A Giant Clusterf**k

It’d be an understatement to say that we have no idea what we’re doing. Most of us want to be successful (however we define that), make an “impact” (again, however, we define that), and have a fulfilling work-life ¹¹. Yet, I don’t see how that is possible when “document everything” and its other variations are the popular advice of the day.

I don’t just find this advice particularly useless, but see its staunch simplicity and general lack of awareness (of the emerging negative implications it has had in many avenues of human life – health, media/journalism, sustainable business practices, etc) as careless and harmful.

The culture of social media may be more toxic to individuals than it is helpful. This isn’t set in stone and can definitely change. But for now, the oligopoly running the show and the successful companies making big gains off your data is more than happy to persuade you to market yourself, document and publish content, and become dependent on their platforms for the success of your business.

By the same token, social media culture eliminates what truly makes us human in the shallow interactions, networks, and content that it fosters.

The human element is becoming increasingly uncommon in modern business practices and great customer experiences are becoming rare and surprising. Yet, we insist that more content, photos, and videos is the answer.

@daanstevens

Looking Ahead

Having worked alongside businesses and startups around the world, helping humans find clarity, meaning, and true community, I am convinced that the way moving forward for entrepreneurship does not lie in documenting or publishing content, but in focused intentionality and relationship building.

Those who produce less (or no) content but put all their energy into providing the best service possible, unique and meaningful customer experiences, and strong, close-knit company culture will be the ones who flourish into the future.

When content is produced, those who record impactful moments and document genuine and unadulterated human experiences will be the ones who gain the continued trust and support of customers and communities.

As I mentioned in the beginning, the future is human-centered and trust-focused. Content obsession and social media overstimulation will only hasten the entry of this new paradigm (which is already upon us in many respects).

Until then, I’ll continue to observe the clusterf**k that is compulsive content production wherever I am, hopeful to help end the self-destructive tactics many entrepreneurs are using to promote themselves and their products.

Maybe it is just part of growing pains and learning how to use social media and communication networks. That is why I do think (and hope) that this is just a passing phase, a quick fad that wakes us up to what is and should be important in business: trust, relationship, community, and creating awesome things that will improve the lives of the people they reach.

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OFICINA HUB BLOG – Michal Bohanes: The one thing that has made the biggest difference in my development as an entrepreneur

This is a guest blog by our Entrepreneur in Residence Michal Bohanes @mbohanes.

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Supercharge your own learning and networking by creating an email list for startups in Albania.

Who is this blog post for: Anyone in the Albanian startup community. Either you are working full time at a startup (congratulations!) or you have a full time job and work on a project on the side. Either way, you are trying to get something off the ground.

Imagine an entrepreneur, let’s call him Arber. Arber is starting a business selling personalised gifts online. He has a few thousand email addresses from potential customers and he would like to do some good email marketing with this list. He has never done any email marketing. He doesn’t know much about it — should he just send through his personal email? Or are there tools he can use?

credit: Mike Wilson

Now imagine that Arber has access to a group of 250 experienced entrepreneurs. He simply sends an email to an email list with these 250 people on it, asking if there’s someone who has experience in email marketing and who could spend an hour with Arber on the phone giving him some instructions.

A few hours later, he checks his inbox (yes — Arber works productively and only checks his inbox three times a day). And there’s seven people who responded:

  • Three of them offering to speak to Arber
  • Two saying that they are interested as well and that they would like to be included in the learning session
  • One sending a link to an email marketing agency that they have worked with and recommend
  • One sending a link to a book and a series of blog posts where Arber can learn about email marketing

Does that sound like too good to be true? Well, this is daily life in most startup ecosystems. And it’s probably the single most important thing for my work in London.

In London, I’m part of a group called the ICE list. ICE stands for International Conclave of Entrepreneurs. You can join if you are the founder of a business, two people who are on the list recommend you, and if you participate in a trip with a group of ICErs. Once you’re on the list, you get access to 250 startup founders, investors, and tech industry executives.

This is how I get introductions, how I learn new things, how I hear about interesting events — and how I came to be in Albania: Someone I know posted on the list in January “Hey, some people in Albania are looking for an Entrepreneur in Residence. Get in touch if interested.”

I can’t overemphasise how important it is to have such a group. If there’s anything that will turbocharge the Albanian and Balkan startup ecosystem in its learning and development, this is it.

If there’s anything that will turbocharge the Albanian and Balkan startup ecosystem in its learning and development, this is it.

So, how do you build such a community?

You will say — Sure, set up an email list, easily done. What’s the big deal?

Well, this is actually harder than it sounds. Why? It requires quite a bit of trust. Why?

  • You are often putting your ignorance on display. There’s nothing wrong with ignorance. We all are ignorant about 99.9% of everything. But not always are we comfortable saying this publicly. If you don’t ask for help, you won’t learn. So you need to be vulnerable sometimes and ask for help.
  • People need to feel that there is a give and take. If you help others but never receive help in return, you will disengage. If there are free riders on the list, their presence will slowly spoil the experience for everyone else.
  • When you provide introductions, you want to make sure that the person who gets introduced will not do or ask for something inappropriate. It could damage your relationship with your contact.

The trust requirement means that you can’t allow just about anyone to join the list. You can only let in high quality people who will share their knowledge, follow through on their promises, and not embarrass you.

What’s the first step?

The first step is to build a community core. 2–3 people. The ICE list started in 2007 when 3 friends in London, Alex, Peter and Andrew, realised that being a founder was pretty lonely. So they decided to go on a trip together and take a few of their friends along. After the trip, they all stayed in touch through the email list.

Don’t start this alone. Get a friend or two who are as committed to the idea as you are. Consider the email list a little startup in itself. It’s always better to have a co-founder.

Set up the technical solution

It doesn’t really matter which service you use, as long as it’s reliable. The ICE list uses groupspaces.com (£12.99 / month), but you can also use Google Groups as a free alternative (Select group type “email list”). Another good paid option is copyin.com — get in touch with me via Linkedin or Twitter, I should be able to get you a discount. You can initially pay for the service yourselves, and once you have 20–30 good members together, spread the cost out and have everyone pay €10 per year as membership fee. You will be able to pay for the emailing tool and have a bit of extra budget for incidentals.

When a member sends an email to the group alias, all members receive the email in their normal email account. (When a non-member sends an email to it, it bounces and informs them that they are not authorised as senders.)

“Can’t we use Slack or Snapchat or Whatsapp or Instagram or Facebook?”

No. And I’m very serious about this. Don’t be tempted by these services. Do boring email instead.

Why?

  • None of these services have good archiving functions. One of the best things about ICE is that you can search for past discussions. ICE is now 10 years old — that’s a real treasure trove of information. At some point, you will remember “ah, we once had this discussion about equity distribution between co-founders, let me look it up” — and you search in gmail, and boom, there it is, a discussion you had 3 years ago. Try THAT on Facebook.
  • You can’t send attachments on these platforms. Yea, maybe on Facebook — but it’s a bad user experience. And you can’t search within attachments on Facebook. In Gmail, you can.
  • The signal-to-noise ratio is very, very poor on social media. You will get a lot of idle chitchat on them, people sending GIFs and LOLs and emojis and similar stuff. The valuable information will get drowned out.
  • You will get distracted. Thousands of engineers in all of these companies are spending their waking hours coming up with ways how to distract you. You may plan to interact with your entrepreneur friends, but you will find yourself, after watching 12 cat videos and clicking on 3 random news stories, wondering where an hour went.

Do not use social media as the main vehicle of the community.

Once you’ve selected your email delivery service, get your 2–3 friends on it. Congratulations. Your community was just born.

For the rest of the article, let’s call your new group CEB (Conclave of Entrepreneurs in the Balkans) — yep, you should aim at going beyond Albania soon — there’s no point limiting yourselves to a 3m market. (Also, come up with a catchier acronym than CEB. ICE is cool (ha!) because you can play around with it with various initiatives — holiday on ICE, Icicles, ICE on fire, whatever)

Establish who is in and who is out

You need to establish who you want on the list. Discuss this in your founding team — it’s an important decision you’ll be making.

The risk is, if you allow people on the list who are too different, you risk losing engagement.

Imagine you’re all startup founders on there and someone on the list asks “what is a startup?”. You’d be rolling your eyes and think “who let that one in?” — Right?

This may sound elitist, but it’s a fact: You need a certain level of common interest and shared experience.

It doesn’t have to be terribly exclusive. Your rule could be that membership is limited to people who

  • Are founders — defined as someone who is working more than 15 hours a week on a project that, if they received funding for it, they would quit their full time job for. Their project must be something that, if successful, is profitable and self-sustaining.
  • Or who work in senior positions in startups. This allows the second-in-line person to join who has almost as much responsibility as the founder/CEO.

This is just a suggestion. You come up with your own membership criteria. But you need have SOME criteria.

You need a certain level of common interest and shared experience for the list to be successful.

When in doubt, don’t let people in. It’s better to grow slower but maintain quality.

If you are selective, it gives you the advantage that you can reach out to high-profile entrepreneurs who are more ahead than you, the founders of CEB, are. If you can guarantee them that the community are all founders and a trusted circle, you can get the star power, and with it, great knowledge and contacts.

The list will be a convenient excuse to start networking with entrepreneurs you don’t know yet.

Establish the list rules

At some point, you will get behaviour on the list that you’re not happy with and you’ll have to establish some ground rules. For example, on ICE, we started having too many people who were posting their job adverts. This became a bit of a drag — too many “we’re looking for a marketing manager” type emails. Others started to complain, and some said that they are opening ICE emails less, as a result.

So we set up the rule that job postings are not allowed. When someone breaks the rule, we remind them publicly for everyone to see. If they broke the rule despite warnings, we would remove them from the list (hasn’t happened so far).

Don’t be too detailed about the rules — you don’t want this to be too regimented. But do remind people of a few good practices such as:

1. Don’t ask questions that can be easily found online (e.g. “what’s the difference between a patent and a trademark?”)

2. Be specific what you want from people on the list. Eg. asking “I need help starting a business” or “How to advertise on Facebook?” are not good questions to ask because they are so broad. Instead, phrase things in a way that makes it easy for people to respond with a specific offer to help. E.g., in the above cases:

  • “I need some advice about which kind of co-founder I need. My own background is X and I wonder if, for my business idea, I need something with skill Y or skill Z.”
  • “I have problems understanding how I can use Lookalike Audiences on Facebook advertising. Can anyone who has used this feature jump on the phone with me please?”
  • Not only does this make it easier for others to offer help, you also show the group that you’ve done your homework and that you don’t want people to explain the world to you — you only need specific advice.

3. Don’t go fishing for likes or follows. CEB is not your marketing pool but your mastermind group. It’s not respectful to use them as click cattle. There is a fine line here — on the one hand, you want to keep people informed about what you do and get a little bit of support, on the other, you can’t go around asking people to like every picture you put out on instagram. A good compromise here would be that it’s ok to ask for support when you launch a new business or product. These things happen rarely enough. But asking for support on marketing campaigns etc — that’d be a big no-no in my book.

English is the list language

You won’t be surprised to hear me advocating for making the list language English. You will of course be tempted to use Albanian, but I think you should be strict here and consider list postings in Albanian a rule-breaking that can, if repeated, get you banned from the list. Why?

  • You want to expand this soon to other countries. I’d much rather have the best 100 people from Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia on the list than the best 100 people in Albania alone. The earlier you show yourself open to non-Albanian-speaking audiences, the easier it’ll be to get the best people to join.
  • Forwarding threads — imagine someone has a question which leads me (being a member of the list) to think “oh, they are discussing this topic that my German friend knows a lot about, let me ask her.” If the thread up until then is in English, I can simply forward to my German friend and ask her “hey — can you please comment on this and say what they should do?” If the thread is in Albanian, I either have to summarise (which takes time) or use google translate (which can result in gibberish).
  • It’s much easier to start with new habits than to break existing ones. This is why it’s not a good idea to start in Albanian with the plan to later change it to English. People will forget that there’s new members on board and it’ll be a struggle to change.
  • It builds goodwill in a region where language barriers run along the fault lines of ethnic tensions. You’re looking forward and not back.
  • It’ll improve people’s English.
  • Albania is such a tiny market — any successful startup has to think beyond the country. No unicorns will get built by serving the local market alone. Speaking English on the list will further instil this globalist perspective.

To reinforce this, I recommend you get some of the best entrepreneurs in Macedonia on the list from the beginning. That way, you’ll have an easier time convincing the most obstinate Albanian speakers that it’s rude to exclude the Macedonians from the conversation.

English is the lingua franca of startups. Speak and write it well.

Have an offline initiation activity, ideally a trip

ICE is ICE because of the offline interaction of the members — largely facilitated by the trips we take. It makes a HUGE difference to know each other in person and spend some quality time together. You’re much more likely to help someone out if you played beach volleyball with them or built a snowman together.

You can’t join ICE if you haven’t been on a trip. ICE does 2 trips per year — a ski trip in March and a summer trip in September.

The first ICE trip I went on was one of the best vacations I ever had — we went to South Africa, did a safari, visited local entrepreneurs, drank wine at vinyards near Cape Town, climbed Table Mountain and swam with sharks (ok I didn’t do that bit). The group were existing members and around 20% newbies. Early stage founders, experienced entrepreneurs, investors, recruiters… all in one big group of 40+ people.

If this sounds expensive, it wasn’t too bad — ICE is so big and influential by now that we regularly attract sponsors for trips — companies with deep pockets who benefit from exposure to a group of ambitious entrepreneurs. Their contributions lower the cost for everyone.

You don’t have to go on trips abroad to build relationships, though. A long Sunday hike in the mountains, a weekend at the beach — there’s plenty of fun activities that you can do on a super low budget. Even a regular evening playing board games will do. But the more time you spend together at once the better: A weekend together is better than 5 evenings in a row.

credit: Phil Coffman

Whatever you do, it should be something that allows you, the founding members, to see if whoever wants to join you has the right personality and mindset — are they generous, positive, helpful, fun to be around? What do they bring to the table?

Avoid activities that minimise interaction (e.g. trips to the cinema or museum). Also just doing drinks in a café isn’t great because it’s such a low-stakes environment — you only sit and talk, and words are cheap. If you travel with someone, however, you get a much better idea of their personality — do they share? Are they good at organising and improvising? How do they react if things don’t go their way?

Do applicants have the right personality and mindset? Are they generous, positive, helpful, fun to be around? What do they bring to the table?

Drinks are better than nothing, of course — and I recommend you do at least a dinner together. But the more actual activities you do together, taking yourselves out of your normal surroundings, the better.

After a trip, you decide on who should be accepted into the group. In ICE, the pre-vetting has been usually done before the trip already, so it’s an exception that someone on a trip won’t get invited to join the group afterwards. We’ve had an instance where a candidate behaved improperly towards a few women on a trip, and we paused his application. He apologised to the women in question and his behaviour was not bad enough to ban him outright, but he had to go on another trip to try again. He behaved well this time and was allowed on the list.

The right mindset on the list: Share and contribute

I once knew a woman who quit her job in risk management in a large bank. I asked her if her boss already had a replacement for her. He didn’t. I told her that a friend of mine had the perfect profile and was looking for a job. What a lucky coincidence, I thought! I was excited to be able to help my friend out and that the leaver’s boss would fill a position without paying expensive headhunter fees. Everybody wins.

I asked the job leaver if she could do an intro to her boss. She told me “why would I do this? I don’t get anything out of this.” I said that her ex boss would be grateful to her and my job hunting friend even more so. She replied that she didn’t know my friend and that she’d be taking a risk to her reputation if my friend ended up being a bad fit.

This story is meant to illustrate the exact opposite of what you need on the list. You need people who enjoy helping out — with their contacts, their expertise, their well-informed opinion. When I heard that the woman was leaving her job, my pulse jumped! I was so happy that I could possibly help my friend out. (Sorry to bring myself in as an example of virtue — but this is the kind of attitude you need to have on the list.)

One of the reasons I enjoy working in technology so much is that people are so incredibly helpful. It’s an attitude that permeates the entire sector. Asking someone I know for an introduction, picking someone’s brain about a topic they know a lot about — all this is daily bread in the London tech scene. And ICE reflects this — Here’s a random list of topics on ICE in 2017

  • 41 “talent available” emails: People recommend non-ICE friends who are looking for jobs. Because great people are always in short supply, we encourage ICErs to recommend them. In 2016, over 14% of these recommendations have directly resulted in a job, which saved the hiring companies a combined £125,000 in recruiter’s fees.
  • A question from someone about non-compete clauses in a consulting contract. 9 people responded (on a holiday!) within 3 hours with very specific advice on how to handle it.
  • Over 20 requests for introductions. Almost every request had at least one response.
  • And so much more.

Asking questions on the CEB list

My conversations with entrepreneurs in Albania and Macedonia have given me the following ideas for possible topics to discuss on CEB:

  • I spoke to the inventors of a device that saves money for people who use solar panels at home. They needed introductions to independent engineers who can help them get credibility with investors by providing a testimony that their product works as advertised. These founders could therefore write on CEB “Dear all, does anyone of you know an electronics engineer / technician who has a background in solar panel energy? If not, do you know anyone who works in company X, Y or Z*? We are looking to get external validation on our product and need someone to review our work and provide a public endorsement. Of course, we are willing to discuss a possible equity participation in our business for the right person.” (* you’ll have to research which companies are relevant for this)
  • Another request the same guys could do on the list is about filing a patent: “Dear all, we’re looking to file a patent application for our invention. I’ve read up about the process and wanted to ask if there’s anyone on here who has done a patent filing recently and who we can ask a few specific questions we haven’t found answers for. (I think it would take around 15–20 minutes of your time). Even if there’s noone on the list, I’d greatly appreciate an intro to someone off list. Thank you!”
  • I met a company in Skopje who had a good consumer product and were already selling in shops. They were ready to pitch for investment. However, their pitch presentation was very poorly structured and they lacked confidence when pitching on a stage. A question they could ask on the list is “Dear all, we have a product, we have traction, but our pitch sucks. We are ready to get investment, but I think we’re selling ourselves short. Is there anyone on here who is good at pitching? Could I ask you for an hour of your time to give me some actionable feedback? Also, can anyone on here recommend any good online resources for pitching? I found a few random things on Youtube and it all felt very artificial. I’m a bit of an introvert, so need to find a style that suits my own.”

Btw — remember how I said earlier on that you need a certain calibre of people on the list? This is where it becomes important: If you have too many newbies and inexperienced people, such difficult questions have a low likelihood of receiving an answer.

Make sure you don’t tolerate questions that can be easily answered through Google. That’s really annoying. For example, notice that in the above question about patents, I phrased it in a way that shows that I did my homework. There must be SOME online information about patent applications in Albania. I am being respectful to the CEB members’ time by first reading up online and only then asking for help on specifics and direct experiences.

Answering questions on the list

Every email you receive on the list should trigger your desire to help. Unless you already have a very giving mindset, you need to change the way you think about requests on the list. The list is now a bit like your family — and when a family member needs help, you should try to provide it.

In an average month, I probably respond to 1 email on ICE in depth and to another 5, I respond with short messages. This is not because I’m lazy to do more, I simply don’t have anything to contribute in the other cases. But thankfully there are enough people on the list so that almost every email gets an answer.

The list is like your family — and when a family member needs help, you should try to provide it.

Examples for how to answer requests:

  • Someone asking for an introduction to someone at Google? I go and check Linkedin to see if I am connected to someone relevant. If I am, I write to the inquirer asking: “Hey, I can intro to XY, I’m reasonably close to him and he’d probably answer my email. He’s a bit junior but let me know if you don’t receive a better offer and I’d be happy to help.” I’m writing this to the person privately (not via “reply all”) because it’s not necessary to let everyone else know that I know XY. I don’t want to spam the list.
  • Someone asking for recommendations on email marketing platforms. I’m using Aweber and I like it a lot, so I write a longer email (replying to everyone on the list because there could be others who might find this information useful) where I describe the pros and cons of Aweber in detail.

I’m a member of all kinds of networks (alumni group of my university, Facebook and Linkedin groups etc) but no other list triggers my willingness to help as much as ICE does. Because of the personal connection I have with these people.

Your role as a founder of the list

Imagine someone asks CEB for help three times, and they never receive a response. That sucks, right? And if it continues like that, they will stop asking. Because they feel bad that they haven’t received help, they will be less willing to help themselves. And CEB will slowly die.

This is a big risk early on, when the list starts. A big responsibility lies with you, the list’s (co)founder, to not let this happen. People need to feel that they can find help.

Make it a habit to monitor questions people asked that didn’t get (good) answers and try to help them, especially if one person is affected multiple times. If they are asking for an introduction and noone responded, see if there’s any possible way you can help. Spend a few minutes searching Linkedin if you can find a relevant person. Send an email to 10 people (outside of CEB) you know and ask them if they know someone for this person.

Obviously, again, you can’t completely lose yourself in these efforts. But this is why it’s so important to have co-founders so that you can spread the burden.

List hygiene

Besides suspending people for bad behaviour on the list, it’s a good idea to regularly “purge” the list from members who don’t contribute. ICE doesn’t have a rigid formula for it, but we do a yearly review of members and if someone has never written anything on the list, we consider removing them. Every year, we remove somewhere between 10 and 30 people from the list.

Regular summaries

Sometimes ICE gets so busy that we don’t see the forest for the trees — so one of us does a monthly summary email where we highlight the key points what happened on the list in the past month. This also helps separate the important from the trivial. The summaries then are compiled in a giant summary document that everyone can access and search in.

credit: Kevin Curtis

Knowledge repository

Based on people’s recommendations, we keep a database of products and services. Someone asks for a good PR firm and seven people respond with their recommendations? I take these recommendations and translate them into the database for future reference. Three months later, someone else needs a PR firm? They can go straight into the database and don’t have to email the group.

And that’s it! Don’t hesitate — just do it. Be the first to launch a Conclave of Entrepreneurs in Albania and beyond. It’s going to be one of the best things you’ll be doing for your professional and social life.

Let me know in the comments section if you have questions. I tried to anticipate a few of them below

Questions?

“I can’t give up my life to help people out. There must be a limit to my support to others — I need to take care of my business first”.

Of course, that’s true. You can’t be all Mother Teresa on your friends and sometimes you will have to say no when tempted to help someone. Your business is your first priority.

However, helping others out is a close second in my list of priorities. I’d much rather sacrifice some spare time watching a film or hanging out with friends if I can genuinely help someone I value and like. (There’s also endless evidence that being useful to others is a fundamental driver of meaning and happiness for pretty much everyone across all cultures, faiths and classes.)

I think the best middle ground is to establish a boundary for yourself and allocate e.g. 3–4 hours per week that you will spend helping your network. You know when your limit is reached — but try to push yourself. The more you give, the more you receive in the long run.

“Great advice.” (oh, thank you :-)) “But what if, after this blog post, dozens of mini-CEBs start cropping up? They will end up competing and fragment the already small startup ecosystem in the Balkans into tiny fiefdoms. Shouldn’t we try to unify everyone into one big group?”

It’s a fair question. But it shouldn’t lead to you to spend a year planning. It’s better to act quickly and later to consolidate competing groups.

First of all, let’s not forget — quality over quantity. A group of 50 helpful, committed leader types is vastly better than a hodgepodge group of 300 disengaged people whose only unifying trait is that they vaguely like the idea of working in a startup.

Just set up the group. Then, as you network your way through the ecosystem while recruiting new members, you might hear of another group. Chances are, they will have a different focus than you. And if not, if they literally are doing the same thing — perfect! Just join forces and don’t have a big ego about it if the other group is bigger and has higher calibre people on it.

“What if I don’t know any influential local founders?”

Try to get an introduction to them via someone who knows them. This is why it’s so important to have a good presence on Linkedin. If you really can’t find anyone to introduce you: Find out their contact details and write to them. What’s the worst that can happen? They will ignore you. Chances are, they won’t. Because after all, you are stroking their ego by telling them that they are among the most influential founders in the region.

“We already have a Facebook group where founders help each other out.”

Read the section on Facebook and other social media higher up in this article. Trust me on this. Facebook is NOT the tool to do this. It’s distracting and offers far worse features than email (no good searching, loss of history, poor attachment management). Facebook would be good if you wanted to maximise reach and get as many people in as possible. But you don’t want that — you want quality over quantity.

“But email doesn’t allow for likes and comments.”

This is not a popularity contest. Likes don’t matter in this context. And you CAN comment on email — it’s called an email response. The problem with Facebook comments is that they tempt you to write quick, low-quality responses that you wouldn’t dare making on email to a large group of people. It’s so easy to post a silly emoji or an LOL in a comment thread. All this amounts to a massive sea of clutter and distraction where it’s hard to filter out the relevant stuff. I challenge you to dig up an interesting comment someone has made 3 months ago. It’s going to be very hard. Try the same in email. Far easier (especially if you use gmail with its amazing search functionality).

You can follow me on Twitter: @mbohanes

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Investors say: “Good teams never become out of date…”

It is commonly thought that in the Balkan region future entrepreneurs do not lack of ideas but of funds… 

In fact, several Accelerators have funds to invest in the region, also almost every country in this area has an Angel Network and a couple of Venture Capital Funds also are active in the Balkans. At a closer look we can notice that the region does not lack funds, should we think the opposite also for the idea part of the statement?

In less than 8 months, a Venture Fund comes in Albania twice, this time to invest. During the Global Entrepreneurship Week in November, a week full of activities to support the entrepreneurship ecosystem all over the globe, and Tirana as well, for two days you could have met them at Oficina. The team of three, led by Mrs. Tatiana Zabasu, the Managing Partner of South Central Ventures, supported also by Swiss EP, met with several actors and listened to the pitches of 11+ startups. During one of the breaks, Mrs. Zabasu was very kind to give an interview.

  • Can you describe South Central Ventures in 50 or less words?

SCV is a team of professionals managing the largest early-stage fund in the Balkans, the Enterprise Innovation Fund. The fund has been operating since early September 2015 and is focusing on tech companies with high growth potential, coming from the Balkans. We are a team of 9, operating from their offices in Zagreb, Belgrade, and Skopje. The core team has been active in VC investing for more than 10 years, and during this time we gained valuable experience and knowledge of the start-up ecosystems in the region.

  • How can Albanian Entrepreneurs benefit from SCV Fund?

Albania is one of the seven countries SCV focuses on, and although we do not have an office here, we are trying to do our best to screen the Albanian start-ups and promote the fund among them. We are primarily looking for early and early growth stage investment opportunities, but also have an allocation for seed investments. There is no specific procedure for raising funds from SCV; start-ups just need to get in touch with us and present what they are doing. If we find a business interesting, we’ll definitely get back to them and discuss the opportunity further. For a start-up, getting an investment should bring more than just money – access to our network of investors, entrepreneurs, potential partners… We can in some cases “open the door” to larger established companies, and help young teams with our experience and knowledge.

  • What kind of Startups is SCV looking to invest in?

We are focused on tech companies, in their widest definition. Nowadays, most industries are changing due to new technologies, and we are looking for companies that know how to apply novelties in a variety of areas – from agriculture to medical products. What we need to see is the potential to grow, thus we are seeking teams with global aspirations, the ones that look beyond the borders of their country and its immediate neighbors.  We want to help start-ups to expand in new markets and grow, so what we are looking for is interesting, scalable products/services developed by good teams, which are operating in growing, potentially large markets. We look for teams that can “make it big”.

  • What does it take for a Startup Team to impress you? What are the things you do look in these teams?

Well, first they need to convince us that they know what they are doing and why they are doing it. Solving a big pain of a group of people, or creating an opportunity to improve the way things are done or general well-being of people. They need to present the opportunity for growth and explain why they are the ones who will seize it and win the market. We need to see the determination, passion, and persistence, as we all know a life of an entrepreneur is oftentimes not easy, and there are ups and downs to persevere.  Without passion and persistence, that is very hard. Plus of course experience, domain knowledge…

  • Except of the financial part, what other perks can a startup team get from an investment of SCV?

For one thing, raising an investment means you’ve managed to convince a group of people that there is potential and that you are the ones taking advantage of this potential. This may help you with building trust with your partners, clients, people you’d like to see on your team… It sorts of contributes to your credibility. It gives you access to a wider network – of investors, potential customers, maybe an investor can help you get a meeting with a large company you otherwise wouldn’t have the access to. Through the network, also the pool of knowledge you can tap into is much larger, which can be really important and beneficial in any stage, but particularly in the early stage, when most likely your team is not complete and there are “holes” you need to fill. Also, sometimes it may be just good to have someone monitoring your startup more objectively; as your business is “your baby” you tend to see things differently than someone who looks at it with less emotion. Not to mention that when deciding between different options, you can discuss possibilities with someone who has probably seen companies in a situation similar to yours and may be able to give you good advice.

  • Comparing the two concepts that often are misunderstood in our region, Idea/Product and Team, which one is the most important based on an investor point of view?

They are both important, although I’d say we pay a bit more attention to the team. A great team can always improve the product or pivot it or adapt to the changes in the market. Every product needs to be sold at some point if you want to make a good business, and even if the product is not perfect, a good team will be able to get some value from it. On the contrary, you may have a perfect product, but if you are not addressing the right customer segment in the right way, or if you have no one to sell it, it will be difficult to win. Plus, the product if not developed further and tailored to market needs may become obsolete. Good teams never become obsolete…

  • What advice would you give to a first-time entrepreneur or a young startup?

Once you define what and why you want to achieve, get the market feedback as soon as possible. Adjust based on that feedback and then work hard to “make it happen”. It sounds very simple, but we all know it is not.

Vasken Spiru

Digital Media Content Coordinator Swiss Entrepreneurship Programme

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Iain Bennett: We can’t expect to directly replicate a model from the US.

Probably you have noticed that after a very active month (February) on vaskeni.com March has been a little quiet. The truth is that I, and the Albanian Entrepreneurial Ecosystem, have been fully immersed in three weeks of workshops and meetings with international experts for Mentoring, Ecosystems, Accelerator Programs and Business Models brought to Albania by the Swisscontact SECO Entrepreneurship Programme as part of its mission to build a self-sustainable ecosystem.

The first week of March was kicked off with three Major Events for mentors and accelerators/incubators of our ecosystem. Mike DuckerJ.E. Austin expert for Ecosystems and Mentoring introduced the benefits of mentoring to mentors and accelerators. He also worked with the actors that want to build a mentor pool for their activities in another workshop and a series of individual meetings.

Also, Iain Bennett, an expert from the UK, was in Tirana during the same time. He focused on supporting accelerators/incubators and other actors to improve their business models and accelerator programs.

Impressed by his in-depth experience from the London Startup Ecosystem and his long professional career focused on Accelerators I asked him some questions to have a better understanding of the stage our young ecosystem is in and what we should do in order to make it grow faster and work better.

Iain, after two weeks and two workshops and lots of individual sessions with key startup ecosystem actors in Albania, how would you describe the state of the ecosystem?

The ecosystem is in an earlier stage of development than had been assumed by many of the actors!

Actors had assumed that there was an idea of a startup culture based on the Silicon Valley model. We now recognize there is a need to go back a step to scope what capability, capacity, expertise, and experience exists both in ICT and in awareness of enterprise as an opportunity for growth and jobs.

We can’t expect to directly replicate a model from the US and other developed economies. We need to understand better what can grow in Albanian soil.

What do you see as the key strengths and weaknesses of existing accelerators/incubators?

Strengths:

  • ​Some past commercial experience in some of the accelerator managers
  • A desire to make it work
  • Some great environments
  • (In most cases) willingness to work together

Weaknesses:

  • ​No track record
  • Hardly any direct experience of managing an accelerator or incubator environment
  • Overall lack of market awareness, particularly of high growth sectors and the barriers to entry to those market opportunities
  • Lack of sector experience in a number of cases
  • Inadequate horizon scanning of the prospects for: start up; ICT; the digital economy in Albania
  • Inadequate planning; in particular, lack of market research into demand for acceleration
  • No structured customer relationship management at any level (clients, multipliers such as Universities and employers in the sector, mentors, investors)
  • No defined programme for the businesses
  • Lack of data on the liquidity of the market: are there investors and purchasers in Albania/the region for the type of startups the accelerators are looking for? What kinds of valuations have other companies in the region achieved? Is there anything to support the idea that international investors already have, or may be attracted to establish, a presence in the Albanian market? Without this knowledge, the idea of seed capital is meaningless.
  • Lack of effective risk management strategies – very closely linked to the point above – how would the accelerators themselves or other investors be able with any certainty to know if their portfolio had any value? If there is no prospect of investment or M&A, what kind of multiples of turnover and profit would make an accelerator sustainable on the basis that it would continue to be a shareholder and receive dividends? Are there other risks associated with maintaining holdings over a longer period?
  • Poor marketing plans – indistinct value propositions + lack of research = likely failure

Where do you see opportunities for the accelerators/incubators in Albania?

If ICT is viewed as an enabler, and not an end in itself, the digital economy can drive the transformation of Albania’s service sector. Projects that target collaboration and research between digital startups and people and teams with domain-specific experience and expertise in administration, communications, distribution, logistics, manufacturing, retail, etc could work on a number of levels:

First of all, it could increase efficiency and productivity through tools and platforms offering to improve control, measurement, and management information of existing processes.

You may identify some companies that can disrupt inefficient ‘legacy’ providers and fine online substitutes or complements for existing vertical markets that are poorly served (eg Amazon and booksellers).

In some cases, finding solutions to the specific barriers that confront Albanian businesses looking to scale up may provide solutions for many other markets at a similar stage of development, or help identify solutions that may not be so pressing in other contexts. For example, the call center industry, whilst successful, is currently far down in the value chain of the industries it serves, and often foreign-owned, reducing its net impact on the Albanian economy as a whole. If intelligent agents can be designed that overcome challenges imposed by the large number of different ‘natural’ languages used by people in the region, this could not only offer a cheaper substitute in this market but also create commercial value that could be reinvested to use the natural language of call center operators more productively. The resulting solutions could also offer the export potential to other developing markets where the cost of providing customer service in a multitude of ‘natural’ languages is a brake on the growth of other service industries – eg Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa.

Based on your recent experiences with the accelerators/incubators in Albania, what are your predictions on the further development of the startup ecosystem in Albania?

I’m not in the business of making predictions. I am making a case for change. If the current actors don’t change there will not be any further development: without intervention and restructuring, there will continue to be insufficient demand for the product as currently configured.

What actions would you suggest to the actual actors to take in order to expand the actual small community in Albania into a much larger ‘startup’ community?

I pretty much answer this in my responses to (2) and (3) but to sum up:

​In order to properly scope and interpret the true scale of the opportunity, first think about how the transformation of the digital economy could disrupt and transform other sectors of the Albanian economy to result in much higher levels of productivity, growth, jobs, and entrepreneurship.

The outcomes are likely to occur in the order described above –  clear examples of how investment of knowledge, time, and money into new digital startups are needed to drive increased demand for accelerator/incubator support.

Encourage entrepreneurs to think about the transferability of anything you do: to adjacent territories, adjacent markets, or other territories or markets that share characteristics and barriers to those addressed by your product.

In the process, you will crystallize the opportunity to make Albania a ‘living lab’ for the design and testing of global solutions, taking advantage of what will hopefully be a short-term window in which you are a low-cost and low-wage economy.

Don’t limit your recruitment focus to undergraduates: successful entrepreneurs can be drawn from all parts of society, and need to if the economy is going to grow. Think about which of your current employees and interns can be mentored to try a startup. Get to kids in high schools before they are captured by the institutionalized thinking of their University lecturers. Participate in wider and more imaginative outreach in cities and towns outside Tirana.

Design programs that are attractive to a wider group of sponsors and clients – whether they offer solutions to specific problems in other industries, or speak to the CSR ambitions of (particularly) foreign direct investors in, or looking to enter, Albania.

Get some better data about the number and value of investments and M&A activity in early-stage companies in Albania in general, including those in ICT, and if possible the wider SE European region. Without it, you can’t with any authority establish the valuation of any of the companies in the ecosystem from time to time. There are very few institutional investors, and even fewer private investors prepared to act on that basis. No investors = no deals = no sustainability.

If there really is no existing evidence or culture of investment, and there is insufficient risk capital or public funding available to cover your operational losses the 5-10 years it may take to challenge the status quo, don’t be afraid to think the unthinkable – about how the sector might be bootstrapped in its entirety, or whether this is just not an activity that can take root in Albanian soil.

Initiate and publish research that demonstrates what Government could do that could really help build a tech sector – even if that is just to discourage it from investing in programs and facilities that duplicate existing activity and diminish the return on the private sector or donor investments.

Continue to think of yourself as one team and promote the entire package – you have a competitive advantage in your openness, your lovely surroundings, welcoming personality, great food, and a host of other benefits that have yet to be drawn to the attention of entrepreneurs and investors across the world. If there isn’t demand (yet) for startups in Albania, and the Government remains unresponsive or obstructive, could you bridge the gap with foreign private investment coming in to take advantage of Albania as a low cost, low wage but well-educated environment with great and widespread language skills, in particular English and Italian?

Keep in touch with me and with other international actors as part of your horizon scanning and market awareness – you’ll find people are glad to share their knowledge and contacts.

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In Albania, Tech Attempts to De-Balkanize the Balkans

On a balmy, spring evening in Tirana, around three dozen Albanian entrepreneurs are sat in a room of the same building where secretaries once committed communist government files to the software. The presentation they’re about to see might just be their best-ever chance at funding. The visitor: South Central Ventures, a recently-assembled fund that’s based in Belgrade, Skopje, and Zagreb. €40 million of public and private money is on offer for early-stage injections, managing partner Tatjana Zabasu tells the audience. It’s a chance to bring Balkan tech together.

Few in the room, part of the public/private Protik ICT Resource Center, are under any illusions: these are early – very early – days for the tech community in Albania. Indeed as more than one entrepreneur will tell me that evening, the whole crowd is barely three years old. But some success stories are beginning to appear in the small country. And, perhaps more excitingly, they could be a chance to cross borders that, for decades, were shut tighter than any others on Earth.

Albania is a small, kidney-shaped country at the foot of the Balkans, located in Southeastern Europe. It has a population of just under three million, and a GDP per capita barely prodding at $5,000, aligning it with similarly developing neighbors like Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Kosovo.

But while those countries became part of Yugoslavia in the aftermath of World War Two, Albania fell into deep isolation, at the behest of its Marxist-Leninist dictator Enver Hoxha. His regime banned religion, beards, and almost all foreign travel. So afraid of ‘revisionist’ outside influences was Hoxha, that he had 750,000 machine-gun pillboxes erected all around Albania. They are still to be seen today – beside roads, places of worship, and even public parks.

While people across the rest of the Balkans received traditionally high technical training under Yugoslav, or Soviet, rule, Albania remained an educational backwater. Early human rights successes, like gender equality and healthcare, were squandered from the 1960s on as Hoxha severed ties with all of his communist allies. By the time his Party of Labour fell, in 1992, Albania was Europe’s poorest nation.

Almost a quarter of a century on and the legacies of the isolationist rule are still evident, despite stabler politics in recent years. In fewer places is it felt more acutely as in SME development, which requires not only an injection of cash and tax breaks but a complete cultural shift.

“We have this way of learning where students are passive – there are no labs,” Vasken Spiru, a local ecosystem facilitator, tells me. “With coding, it’s like trying to write Java on a blackboard.”

“It comes out of a society where the majority of young people still wants to go and work for the state,” Jakob Modeér, a Swedish-born but longtime Balkan-based expert, tells me. “If you come from Britain or the U.S. it’s almost amusing. It’s clearly in the mind of people and their parents that state employment offers you stability.”

Modeér is Spiru’s colleague at swisscontact, whose SECO Entrepreneurship Program is trying to raise interest in startups and entrepreneurialism across the region. That we meet at a trendy café in The Block, a district of Tirana famed for its past as the hermetically-sealed neighborhood of Hoxha and his closest confidantes, is poignant. Today The Block is a vibrant, variegated humdrum of bars, restaurants and hotels. If The Block can change so quickly, Modeér asks, why can’t Albania?

“If you’re not a critical person, you don’t see problems. If you don’t see problems, that’s what a startup is all about,” he adds. “These are things that don’t come easily in such a hierarchical society. We need to break it down a bit. You do that with smaller groups – there’s no big bang.”

Neither is there a problem with space. Whole swathes of central Tirana, including some of its most famous communist-era buildings, lay eerily empty today. Even the Protik building, with its vast history and modern tenants, lays half-bare, its top floor empty aside from a blackboard, on which tech buzzwords are scrawled. “No,” Modeér says, frustrated, upon seeing what should soon be an accelerator. “We definitely don’t have a lack of space.”

Success stories are what Modeér, and Albania craves. Recently it got a few. 123.al is a discounts site founded by Laidi Ferruni, who recently launched Ireland-incorporated Quibli, an events marketplace. Shpi.al, a real estate portal, was founded by young entrepreneur Tomi Kallanxhi, with just $400.

Beyond Albania’s borders, in ethnic-Albanian Kosovo, Gjirafa (‘Giraffe’) recently became the first Albanian-language search engine. Altogether it has raised $2.5 million, including sums from Prague-based Rockaway Capital and serial investor Esther Dyson. Founder Megrim Cahani, who spent 12 years in in New York City, tells me that finding a viable model was a conundrum.

“It was very difficult because there are two really big problems in the region – first is the region in terms of macroeconomic indicators – GDP overall is very low compared to developed markets,” he says. “Then there’s the population. It’s a very small market with tiny purchasing power. Plus the economy of Internet is not very developed.”

Web penetration in both countries is pretty good, however, with Kosovo at 88% and Albania around 75%. “We recognize that the market is small,” adds Cahani. “It’s small if you want to grow the product horizontally. But if you’re doing a few basically and you grow vertically, the market is big enough. We want to be the leader in news, advertising and e-commerce. We don’t have to be top-of-the-line Amazon to cut it.”

In total there are 12 million Albanian speakers in the Balkans and diaspora populations in North America and western Europe – not including millions of undocumented speakers in Turkey. Gjirafa recently hired ten more staff to add to its team of 22. An upcoming office in Tirana will accommodate ten more, with plans to move into Skopje, Macedonia’s capital, Slovenia and Prague. “Gjirafa can give Albanians services that are so basic elsewhere but not here. A lot of ten-year-old services still aren’t here yet.”

At the presentation in Tirana, Zabasu has turned her focus on the audience: what are the advantages of the Albanian scene, she asks. Developers’ wages can run very low, Ferruni says: “An average one could be just €200-300. Advertising is really, really cheap here too, so it’s easy to get to market and gain customers very fast.

“Even in Macedonia, which is right next to us, the cost-per-click can go up to a dollar,” he adds. “But here the average is just $0.02-03. So it’s really easy to gain traction.” Facebook penetration is also high in Albania, another person adds, at 1.3 million users. It’s a good platform for change.

The aforementioned lack of technically-skilled personnel is a problem, Modeér admits. But that drawback might actually be a chance to do things better, cooperatively: “If you’re set on the global market you will need resources. So here, you have to ask: which countries have coders and programmers? Some have more coders than marketers. Albania is very strong on marketing but it has no coders. We should think as a region.”

And that, it seems, is precisely what many in the local ecosystem are doing. SCV is looking at investing in Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania. And EU money from Bulgaria and Slovenia is beginning to sniff out talent in the region, too. Tirana itself boast several startup resources committed to looking beyond the country’s borders, such as Startup Grind; Oficina; GARAZH (‘Garage’); Talent Garden and Protik.

Balkan adroitness in second languages could provide another key opportunity for collaboration. Most Albanians speak excellent Italian (from Durrës it takes a night-ferry to get to Bari), while Kosovars, thanks to old family links, tend to speak good German. Other areas promote English, Russian and more.

“I think collaboration is key between Albania and the other nations in the region as we grow as a cluster together,” Erkens Gjini, Oficina’s Business Development Manager, tells me. “If we can identify our advantages and symbiotically use them, then we can challenge other nations and become a global factor.”

Neither Gjini nor any of the entrepreneurs I spoke to voiced concerns about dealing with Serbians, Macedonians, or any of the region’s other nationalities, whose dividing conflicts and enmities have coined the very term ‘Balkanism’ to mean the cleaving of deep ethnic, religious and political lines. Tempers often flare on a governmental level even now. But, adds Gjini, which is not replicated in the boardroom: “I have been to Serbia and have many friends who share the same idea. All this political propaganda is used to secure those votes from the ultra-nationalist, which do not represent the voice of the nation.”

After the event, I speak to Bashkim Sykja, Albanian director of entrepreneurship policy at the Ministry of Economy. He stresses Tirana’s encouragement of entrepreneurialism, and its opportunity to bridge old divides. “ICT helps the Balkans in terms of connectivity among the countries,” he says. “If we want local companies to become competitive in this global market, we must make sure ICT is considered one of the key sectors.”

That will help enthuse state institutions and banks to invest in startups, something Spiru admits is sorely lacking right now. “It’s a chicken-and-egg situation,” he says ruefully. “Why should the government invest when there are only a few startups here?” More money would spur investment in online payments, he adds, which would inspire a wave of e-commerce firms to set up shop – usually the first line in ecosystem development.

Working across borders will, above all, adjust local entrepreneurs to the global market and its requirements adds Modeér. He tells me about an accelerator that brought Kosovars from Skopje to Serbia without a hitch, before adding, “We can bring the Balkans together but through the startup community. The real mindset change will come when you start working for a German customer. Not your cousin down the street, who will make concessions on timescales and quality. A German will never do that. Quality, price, delivery time. Reality.”

Despite what they might tell you, the people of the Balkans share a huge amount of their customs and culture. Many national dishes, for example, share an Ottoman heritage, while similar adherences to Sunni Islam and Orthodox Christianity have swept up from empires from the south, west, and east for centuries.

There are legends, too, which have crossed borders. Take that of Muji and Halili, highlanders who, having drunk the milk of a fairy, challenged each other to lift and hurl boulders three miles away. A modern, post-communist Balkans may have endured a litany of wars, genocides, and political repressions. But finally, it appears a new regional generation is ready to band together, pick up the rock of industry together and hurl it as a globalized market.

“Everybody here has their competitive advantage,” Modeér adds. “This is grassroots, so it will win. It has to be from the bottom up, not from the top down. The only stability you will find is in the private sector.”

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