The first 30 months of a first time startup founder in a new ecosystem

(Originally written and published in 2015)

The city

The Greek business community was very ill prepared for such a hit and had nothing to hold on to. Athens (and Greece for that matter) had and still has no headquarters of multinationals or globally leading tech businesses that would spur growth/innovation around them. It has only a handful tech focused entrepreneurs.

So if you combine the above with the fact that in a country of 11 million inhabitants, 95%+ of the private sector workforce was employed by very small companies with under 20 staff (2013 stats) and 10%+ of the country’s population is unemployed… the tech ecosystem starts with huge disadvantages.

In addition to that, on the consumer side, only 59% of Greeks use the Internet (2014 stats) putting Greece below Albania and Argentina on the global ranking. In other words: not the new “tech eldorado” if you ask me…

The first legacy

So we all wanted to learn from their mistakes. (Some leading examples being: DailySecret, BugSense with an early exit to Splunk [NASDAQ: SPLK], TaxiBeat who closed a 4M EUR round and others).

The start

Some founders had read Ries’ book, many people also bought Blank’s other books, some had also designed their idea on the Business Model Canvas, but anyhow everyone was convinced that their idea (including me) was the next billion dollar idea.

We all kept reading everything on TechCrunch, TheNextWeb and the like, and all teams had this excitement in their eyes, when we would all meet on every pointless event that the Athens startup community was going to.

The ecosystem

That brought unbelievable levels of bullshit in the air, making it difficult for us newbies in the beginning to distinguish those who had value from the rest. It quickly became obvious though.

The assumptions

None of the founders had any prior experience in developing a global tech product (no ex-Google or ex-Apple employees here), putting it to market and testing it, so we didn’t even realize what we needed to do for testing or how we could do an MVP, this is why I used the term alpha.

Eric Ries’ lean startup model is great when you read it, but when you try to apply it, all your perceptions and preconceptions mess it up, and you end up asking the answer in the question. Yet, you don’t see it.

The popularity effect

At that point the ecosystem’s dilution with startup-wannabes (in my humble opinion) has hit an all times high.

Being presented in the media became something of a hobby. Every week or two, some of us either independently or together with other founders would be on TV, on major radio stations, on national newspapers and news websites/blogs you name it! And we became also frequent speakers at events taking place in Athens (for no particular reason).

Later on in 2014, we were even invited to speak at events of the two major political parties and to meet Angela Merkel (the German Chancellor and most influential European politician) at a private session with our Prime Minister #what_ever!

They then continued inviting us in closed door meeting with Ambassadors from 50+ countries to Greece, and special missions for Greek exporters…along with orange and olive oil producers #wtf.

The funding

Some of us manage to raise early funding from the two Greek tech startup funds of that time (OpenFund and PJTC), together with some angels that were interested to take part in this Athens startup hype, and we move forward.

It was a new weird thing, both for us and for the people at the funds.

Looking back it, I think we all tried to simulate the “Silicon Valley best practices and standards”, while neither of the two had any similarity to the Valley’s equivalent. We are so far from the Valley in so many ways, and it was just weird…

The two funds mentioned above are financed 70% by the European Investment Fund in Luxembourg and 30% by private mainly Greek investors.

So it’s largely public money they were investing in us. That didn’t make any of us happy, but for the first time it was being given as equity through investment and not for free via pointless EU programs as it happened until now.

Greece has had a tragic experience with EU programs and financing, as well as regional and local “Funds for Development”. Wrong political decisions and wrong implementation at EU level, combined with record high Greek corruption and incompetence, led to a chaos. That started from 1981 when Greece joined the EU and probably is still happening until today, although I don’t know the details, I only hear what is being said by people who are involved in such activities.

The networking

The credit for this goes to the founders of Locish (It failed. The founders now started Weengs in London) who started this idea. It was a great initiative as in this chaotic situation, we needed to speak with each other, and share our ideas, as it generated more than just suggestions for solving our business problems.

Although we didn’t care how other saw us, we were an integral part of the startup hype for few months. We were the first wave of multiple (small) investments that happened in Greece in a short period of time and with all the publicity, it made a splash.

The business

As time passes product & business decisions become harder and harder. Our skill sets start not being enough, and the beta success for those of us who had it, makes us feel like we jumped from a plane and we are trying to create our parachute while falling…as Reid Hoffman has said about the startup journey.

The learning curve

This is why funded founders represent a tiny % of the population of developed countries. (Note: This is now growing in developing countries with social entrepreneurship but the numbers I estimate are probably still very low)

In Greece, what most people lack though is what I would call “context”. For building a great tech product you need to understand how products are built, I mean the tools, methods, techniques and approaches everyone uses in the world’s leading tech companies, when trying to build a tech product.

In an ecosystem like Greece where basically no one (apart from… 4 people) has done it, no one has the slightest idea of how it can be done, so being a new startup founder in this ecosystem is like if you are…trying to learn how to drive (for the first time) at the F1 Grand Prix Final Race.

The year 2014 and beyond

If the Greek (or any other) startup ecosystem which lacks 100% “context”, hopes to succeed (=exits & IPOs), it must first of all understand it will take 20 years of failures, and that the stats about startup success rates won’t represent 15% of all companies started, as most people say in tech.

It will be more like 0,1% or 0,5% for the first 10–15 years and this should be seen as normal. It won’t solve the unemployment problem, it will need to attract foreign talent and it may push several companies to relocate some or all of their resources at some point outside Greece.

It can’t be done only from within (i.e. only Greeks in Greece without global tech experience) as we all need external input from people who have done it before.

Having said all that, if you are planning to start in any place apart from the Valley, London or maybe Berlin, may the force be with you :-)

If you think others should see this, please share it. I really appreciate it 🙏

Founder of HelpfulDocs. Always learning. 2x founder. 1x VC-backed. www.helpfuldocs.com