Greek entrepreneurs have been pushing against the odds ever since the country's economy hurled into a nosedive at the start of the eurozone crisis in 2008 and the present debt crisis is requiring them to dig even deeper in order to order to survive. Greece desperately needs these entrepreneurs to succeed: small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) are the dominant driver of the Greek business economy, accounting for 86% of all employment in the country. Since 2008, SME employment has dropped by 27% and roughly, 205 000 (or one in four) of the SMEs operating in 2008 has closed shop. Regulatory red-tape, as well as access to capital and global markets are challenges faced by many entrepreneurs, however as evidenced by Greece (in its sixth year of recession), entrepreneurs in some regions of the globe bear the overwhelming brunt of an economic crisis. It may seem incomprehensible to some but these challenges have not dampened entrepreneurial aspirations. Self-employment as a career choice continues to be viewed positively by the Greeks (more so than elsewhere in the Europe).
Are entrepreneurs building companies in conflict regions or economies of scarcity, more innovative and resilient than other entrepreneurs?
Elmira Bayrasli has spent the past two decades of her career working on foreign policy, international development, and with startups worldwide. She is the author of "From the Other Side of the World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places" (Public Affairs) being released in September. As she's met with entrepreneurs in Turkey, Pakistan, Russia and yes, Greece, I asked Elmira whether she thought there were differences between U.S. entrepreneurs and their global counterparts--and in her mind, there is no real difference. According to Elmira "an entrepreneur is an entrepreneur any where in the world - passionate, driven, persistent, optimistic, determined". Irish entrepreneur Susan O'Brien, founder of Smigin (app for travelers or anyone desiring to learn another language as it enable you to build and hear common phrases spoken by a native speaker) agrees, but also adds the U.S. startup founders stand out in the capital raising game because they have confidently mastered the art of the sales or investor pitch:
American entrepreneurs have perfected the art of the pitch. They are confident and can tell their story with aplomb and conviction. Other nationalities are storytellers, but pitching your idea/company for financial or other support requires much more than just storytelling. A self-deprecating sense of humor is adorable and funny, but when it comes to pitching your company, a level of confidence and conviction are required if you want the best possible chance of swinging the vote in your favor.
While global entrepreneurs should study the bold, confident pitching prowess of their American counterparts, what are the lessons for U.S.-based entrepreneurs? One lesson is tenacity. Living in a country with a strong rule of law plus an established startup infrastructure in place to support entrepreneurs (such as networking groups, co-working spaces, conferences and meetups) can soften your determination when things just aren't going your way. As Elmira points out:
Entrepreneurs outside the US have to grapple with tremendous obstacles that we often take for granted here in the US - obstacles such as corruption, poor infrastructure, weak rule of law, lack of collaborative space. As a result, entrepreneurs abroad have to be more creative about circumventing them while trying to build and scale up an enterprise.
Those same entrepreneurs likely have to find a revenue model--and fast--while U.S. entrepreneurs often have the luxury of testing several business models through their Angel, Seed or even Series A funding rounds. According to Elmira, the three most important questions for an entrepreneur abroad are:
- What problem am I solving?
- How can people access my product or service?
- How can they pay for it?
With the banks closed, credit cards frozen and ATM's out of cash, question three necessitates getting innovative fast as trust erodes and Greek entrepreneurs must seek solutions outside of the traditional banking system. In Uganda (another highly entrepreneurial country) the currency has depreciated by 21% this year. How do you price, let alone sell your product when there is inflation, speculation and currency panic? With a strong dollar, plus Venmo, PayPal and access to credit cards, most U.S. entrepreneurs will never face this daunting product pricing challenge.
Startup fever may have launched in the U.S. however, the rest of the globe is not lagging in entrepreneurial spirit. According to the 2014 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Report, the total early-stage entrepreneurial activity (TEA) rate for the U.S. is 13.8%. The report defines TEA as that percentage of the adult population (18-64 years old) who are "individuals in the process of starting a venture and those running a new business less than 3 12 years old". Compare the U.S.'s 13.8% rate to Cameroon's 37.4% or 35.5% in Uganda, and 32.8% in Botswana. Ecuador has a 32.6% TEA. Elmira sees these variations as being caused by economic necessity and as a positive outcome of globalization:
It’s important to remember, the rest of the world is largely more entrepreneurial than the United States. In the US only 14 percent of the population are entrepreneurs. In places like Chile and Guatemala it’s around 20 percent. That’s not because Chile and Guatemala are more entrepreneurial: lacking employment and education alternatives, the adult populations in those countries have to create their own jobs. The second reason is globalization. As the US outsourced to places like India, Israel, and China they not only transferred knowledge, they created jobs that have pulled people in those places up into the middle class. And with information being shared in real time throughout the world - people are able to see and then act on ideas.
As some countries grapple with debt and ponder future GDP growth, more and more people will turn to entrepreneurship out of necessity. But for others, it will be the attractive career choice to pursue. In the U.S. being an entrepreneurs is not just about starting a business, it's about solving big problems and disrupting global markets. As Susan said to me the "term [entrepreneur] rings of adventure and excitement, of one pursuing one’s life goal, or the ‘American Dream‘".