Last month, I was in Kiev, Ukraine keynoting a conference called IDCEE. It's the leading tech conference in Central and Eastern Europe, attracting 150 start-ups and 70 speakers from all over the world. I felt lucky to be there, discussing what the future of work might look like from oDesk's perspective.
Chances are Jon Bradford, the managing director of Techstars London, felt even luckier to attend. Bradford founded a London-based accelerator called Springboard, which the Boulder, Colorado-based TechStars merged with earlier this year. At TechStars, start-ups apply from all over and stay in London for the duration of the three-month long program and $118,000 in funding. The first program launched over the summer and so far, the buzz has been positive.
When Bradford wrapped up his discussion on global entrepreneurship, I decided to ask a few questions myself. Read on for his thoughts on fostering entrepreurship globally, what makes America so special, and why Seoul, South Korea is a city to watch.
You've been logging a lot of miles lately. What's the focus of your travels?
More than 50 percent of Techstars applicants are coming from outside the U.K., and putting your feet on the ground is often the best way to meet great companies and get a real feel for what's going on there. Part of my job is to look ten years out and think about how start-ups and entrepreneurs will evolve. The developing ecosystems I travel to will play an important role.
What makes a community ripe for entrepreneurship?
Opportunities exist everywhere, they just come in different forms. In looking at India and China, the sheer size of the markets create a lot of opportunity. There aren't many billion-person markets out there. For locations like Tel Aviv, it's about the concentration of talent. You have a lot of very smart people packed into a relatively small area. Areas like Berlin have an interesting blend of technology and creativity. The mixture of a strong technical foundation and design sense results in very interesting businesses. Every location is different, but when you have multiple factors coming together it can make for a very interesting opportunity.
In America, phrases like "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" dominate conversations, which reflects our entrepreneurial bent. What other parts of the world have a cultural inclination toward entrepreneurship?
Americans have very affirmative, strong language. They talk about what they will do and what will happen. Even if it doesn't work out, they go into it with the assumption that it will.
There was a quote attributed to George Bush that the French don't have a word for "entrepreneur." It was falsely attributed to him, but there is some truth that Europeans and the British have a very different way of talking about entrepreneurship. Europeans are almost apologetic in a way [when we say things like] "we are planning on doing this ..." or "wouldn't it be interesting if we ..." or "should we think about this approach ..." The English are natural diplomats and that's reflected in their language as well. They hedge their language rather than making bold and aggressive statements.
We talk about this with our TechStars companies, and often invoke Yoda: "Do or do not, there is no try." Professional athletes spend a lot of time visualizing success. They follow the course, they run through plays, they have a clear vision of what winning will look like. American start-ups do this naturally because they have so many role models to follow. Rocket Internet has played this role in Germany. They've had some big wins and are building the right disciplines to building start-ups and scaling them into successful businesses.
Start-ups outside the U.S. have a harder time visualizing success because they don't have decades of successful start-ups to follow. We have to help our companies develop that vision, we have to make it an explicit act. It will take time for the newer start-up ecosystems to develop the same muscle memory that you see in Silicon Valley.
I've heard entrepreneurs in Europe, Australia, and the Middle East say the same things about their local investors.
I would estimate there's a 5:1 ratio of available venture capital in the U.S. versus Europe, and the lack of competition in key cities allows investors to make demands that wouldn't be possible in the U.S. That said, there is a shift underway with investors.
Silicon Valley investors also have a unique muscle memory. You bet on ten start-ups, knowing nine will probably die and one will succeed, and you pay for all of them and then some. That's not a natural state for investors in other markets, but we're seeing more conversation in Europe about "patience capital." Investors are evolving alongside the start-ups and we see more of the advocating for gaining scale and removing friction from the startup's business model rather than trying to monetize early and reach profitability quickly.
What regions or cities are most interesting to you right now?
I'm really impressed with what's going on in South Korea right now. The country has 50 million people, and 25 million of them live in Seoul or the surrounding area. This population density has forced them to make massive infrastructure investments. You can get a 4G signal in the underground. They actually have trouble exporting their mobile apps because their mobile bandwidth is so much better and more pervasive than anywhere else in the world. South Korea has a better political relationship with the Chinese than many of its neighbors, and the Chinese government is looking to replicate much of what South Korea has done. If you want to see what big cities will look like in the future, look at Seoul.