I often think back to how I got involved with the startup scene in Bulgaria in the first place. It was a hot summer day in July of 2011, as we went to InitLab in the Sofia neighbourhood of Lozenets to meet representatives of the local startup community. The meeting was part of the SocialEast project that we were running together with my fiancee Ellie: at the time the first English-language blog on startups in Southeastern Europe.
Back in the Days
Earlier that year, in February, I made the decision to move a part of the dev work at my Dutch online legal services company to Bulgaria, a place I had by then visited often on holidays. Comparing to Amsterdam, I was excited about the multitude of great and affordable talent, and by the general atmosphere in Sofia: young, vibrant, with a knack for outdoor adventures and healthy food.
Then in April, rather unexpectedly, I was offered to sell my shares in the Dutch company, which I did with little hesitation. By July, Ellie and I came up with the idea to tour the Balkans in our old green Volvo, meeting interesting startup people in different cities, and writing up our encounters on our new blog.
So there we were at InitLab in Sofia; after a few e-mails with Startup Bulgaria Foundation, Start It Smart Sofia, and NEVEQ (then the only venture fund not only in Bulgaria but in the whole Balkans), I was told this was the place to meet startups. At the door, we were greeted by Vlado Vassilev, who to this day does an amazing job running the hackspace. Inside, we met two founders hacking away at B2B platform prototypes, and were told there was one other guy who didn’t show up that day.
I remember leaving InitLab with mixed feelings; after Belgrade, Zagreb, and Ljubljana, it was clear there is way less entrepreneurial activity here in Sofia, compared to other regional capitals. On the other hand, perhaps this was an opportunity to help build that community.
Fast forward almost three years, and things have definitely undergone a dramatic change. After I joined the founding team at Eleven, we have, together with LAUNCHub, set up an impressive acceleration and seed funding infrastructure, investing in over 100 teams from Bulgaria and the region. NEVEQ is on its way to launch a second fund. Two more VC funds are in setup phase, including my own Teres Ventures. And there are many events: hardly a week goes by without a pitching contest or a founder talk in Sofia.
In all honesty, we have so far done a great job in this city, but this shouldn’t distract us from the challenges we face going forward. As is often said about startups, once you overcome the fear of failure, a far more serious fear sets in: the fear of getting real. This is exactly where we are today in Sofia.
The Biggest Challenges
When you’re trying to sell a geographical location in the venture business, you always get asked the same question: tell me about a couple of successful companies in your city. In Bulgaria, we have a pretty clear divide between pre-venture-era companies, and the ones that came up during the last several years, when early-stage venture funding became locally available. While the first group has a couple of big names, like Telerik, Datecs, or Sciant (which was acquired by VMWare), the latest wave of 100+ newly founded businesses has yet to yield a story similar in impact.
For any of these 100+ companies to break out and become globally significant, they need to adopt skills and attitudes not common in Bulgaria’s reality today. While the rich history in computer engineering and outsourcing has led to a broad availability of apt technical talent in Sofia, the lack of a local market for products as well as locally minted serial smart entrepreneurs make it impossible to multiply experiential product and business development talent. This gap between tech skills and product/business skills is the single biggest challenge that we need to solve this year and the next one.
I see it every time when I take meetings with local founders or attend demo days: bright people, good ideas, impressive pre-MVP execution. And then the next step has to be taken: set up distribution channels, hustle partnerships, sell a vision. When you don’t have any exposure to this kind of achievements, it’s hard to find out how to do it.
Maintain the Growth
I believe that if we are to maintain our growth as a promising venture community, we need to build in that direction. We need to:
- Get more experienced founders to relocate to Sofia (precedent: Instinctiv moved from NYC to Sofia before getting acquired by Soundcloud).
- Become more conscious of our resources: as mentioned, there have been a number of Sofia-based companies that have made big impact before the wave of venture-backed startups. Current founders should hustle much more to get these experienced executives to join their teams.
- Adopt a competitive attitude. Since Bulgaria is hardly a market for any technology, and never an early adoption market for anything, only teams that have the vision to execute global market entry or develop a highly disruptive product will succeed. For this, we need to realise that we are competing with the best and the brightest, and that we need to be better than them.
Step up and face the challenges
In fact, the challenges facing Bulgaria today are awesome, inspiring, and exciting. And we aren’t the first to face them or successfully pass them: Israel, Singapore, The Netherlands are all small countries that emerged from a backward agricultural past to become technology powerhouses today.
But in order to do that, we need to step up our game. Worry less about local and more about global. Train our attitudes to be able to gather attention and admiration abroad (often this means answering e-mail on time, and improving our language skills). Shift our focus away from insignificant local problems, and instead channel our brightest minds to solve problems for the whole of humanity.
I’m going to stick around, as I have in the past three years, and I’m convinced that the coming times hold opportunities and excitement that we not only haven’t seen, but can even barely imagine, and I intend to be a part of that movement along every step of the way.
Let’s step up our game, maintain our momentum, and start forgetting about our fears and superstitions, and instead validate the best we have and multiply it by ten.
Editor’s note: This is one of the first articles giving an overview of the Bulgarian entrepreneurship and startup community. There are a lot more coming.