Greek Start-ups? Nope, That's Not an Oxymoron
It's not only the U.S. that has start-up fever. Europe has caught the bug too. And as entrepreneurial ambitions seized the continent from Estonia to England, they also took hold in Greece. Only problem: the country was soon rocked by an economic crisis of epic proportions. But that didn't eradicate the dreams of the country's small but dynamic entrepreneurial community.
Take the second annual Startup Live Athens coming up in June, for example. The event combines elements of a pitching competition and a networking gathering to help nurture the Greek start-up scene. "Startup Live enables participants to know each other, interact, and find partners to work with in the future," explains Thanos Makris, who is the co-founder of apps studio iMellon and was a participant in last year's event.
But the event doesn't just link Greek entrepreneurs. Held in English and a part of a series of similar events held in other cities, such as Hamburg and Copenhagen, the Athens version of Startup Live aims to tie Greek entrepreneurs to the rest of the start-up community in Europe. "We have international mentors coming in and the pitches will be in English in order that [participating entrepreneurs] can communicate their ideas also to an audience that might be more interested than the Greek market because there may be ideas that are not applicable to the Greek market or the Greek market is too small," explains one of the event organizers, Konstantina Zoehrer.
The fact that the Greek entrepreneurial ecosystem is part of a larger European and worldwide blooming of start-up dreams is something Zoehrer stresses, making it crystal clear that interest in entrepreneurship predates the crisis. "It's a European and global thing and not only about Greece and not only about the crisis," she says.
The crisis may not have given birth to the Geek start-up scene but it has certainly affected it. Firstly, by aiming the spotlight on growing companies. "Things were happening before the crisis but because of the crisis they get more media attention," Zoehrer says. The crisis has also brought more urgency to the efforts of Greek entrepreneurs.
Dimitris Glezos, who founded localization platform Transifex in Athens, agrees. "High-tech, high-growth innovative start-ups create value fast, efficiently and effectively, and can be a strategic asset for a country like Greece at this time," says Glezos, whose company has joined the small but growing ranks of promising Greek start-ups such as Gipht.me and Metavallon. The country still awaits a blockbuster hit of Skype or Spotify proportions.
Of course, despite a motivating crisis and the fertilizing effects of events like Startup Live, the scene faces headwinds—not all of which are unique to Greece, according to Glezos. "My biggest challenge was the lack of start-up culture and good advisers, but this is not specific to Greece. Silicon Valley has a unique vibe in the air where you feel that you're destined for something bigger. That's why I've moved to Silicon Valley for the last year—it's the place to be for a founder of a promising start-up," he explains.
But this lack of sizzle in the Greek scene also offers advantages to founders there, namely the available tech talent in the country. "Greece has a big talent pool with great and undeveloped potential. By having an engineering office in Greece we managed to create a team of star developers and at the same time be very cost effective," reports Glezos.
Makris agrees, noting, "the biggest advantage in Greece is its human resources. There is a plethora of highly educated, hardworking and skilled people in combination with low salaries." But Makris also stresses that Greek entrepreneurs face serious problems unique to the country. "The interaction with the public sector is a mess and a lot of things need to be fixed in order to promote the creation and the harmonized day-to-day operations of a company in Greece," he says.
Between the kick in the pants provided by the country's economy falling off a cliff, scene-supporting events like Startup Live (as well as a handful of coworking spaces that act as hubs for the community), the wealth of educated (and underemployed) potential hires and the ties to the larger, growing European entrepreneurial ecosystem, all is not darkness and depression in Greece. "There are a lot of people trying to change the situation apart from the government. The situation might be very, very bad, but there's a lot of light and a lot of hope. It's not that Greece is just a black sheep and nobody's working here," concludes Zoehrer.
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.