balcans startup scene

31.03.2015

Entrepreneurship in the Balkans, a region with little-known but big appeal

San Francisco, Tel Aviv, Berlin and… the Balkans? This European region is experiencing a great expansion as far as startups are concerned. Business associations, original projects — all are welcome!

A person who knows this ecosystem very well is the Kosovar Kushtrim Xhakli, an international entrepreneur who organizes Doku:tech every year. The tech event is associated with the veteran international festival Doku:fest and brings diverse speakers from around the world to the young country, which became independent from Serbia in 2008. This year, Kushtrim tells us that he hopes to attract more than 30 speakers to discuss entrepreneurship, as well as topics such as privacy, the Internet of things and connectivity. This event is complemented by others in the region such as Spark.me, which is held in Montenegro, and has hosted speakers from companies like WordPress, Dropbox and Skype.

Kushtrim describes the situation in the Balkans by noting that there is still no specific legislation for startups, although there have been initiatives promoting entrepreneurship or investment in general. Moreover, while there are some venture capital funds, they are scarce (there is one based in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, RSG Capital). “We have people who have come from the construction sector and the industrial boom, and they would like to see money invested in startups,” he said.

Kushtrim demands specific legislation for new companies: “Governments believe that jobs can only be created if a foreign investor comes into the country, but jobs can also be created if you create favorable conditions for startups.”

Kushtrim is also one of the founders of The Digital Kosovo. The project encourages websites to recognize Kosovo in order to “put it on the map”, in his own words, as an independent country. He explained how they got various websites (business, travel, etc.) like Amazon to recognize it in their listings. If you see a drop-down list on a website that includes Kosovo, probably he or one of his colleagues was responsible.

Lots of talent and low cost of living

“I see a lot of pros [in these countries] […]: excellent talent, less expensive, and less competition with other companies. Also, the talent will be more enthusiastic and more involved with the company,said Branko Milutinovic, a Serbian entrepreneur and founder of Nordeus, a video game company that has nothing to envy from the Finnish Rovio (forgive us, Angry Birds).

Nordeus is headquartered in Belgrade and has offices in Dublin, London, San Francisco and Skopje. His greatest success is the Top Eleven Football Manager, an app that takes football gaming life to mobile devices. The premise is simple: create and manage your own football team and bring it to glory.

As reported in the New York Times in December, Serbia has an innovation fund financed by the European Union that has awarded 53 grants for a total of 6 million euros. From this fund, VetCloud was born, a popular management software for veterinary clinics that has crossed borders and is now being used in London.

During the war years many young people from the Balkans migrated throughout the world, learning and gaining experiences, often in the most innovative cities. After a few years many have returned to their home countries eager to innovate and launch new projects, creating excellent environments for innovation. We should add that the costs of doing business are much lower than most of its European neighbors, although in some cases there may be certain aberrations or institutional hurdles.

But Kosovo and Serbia are not the only countries in the region committed to innovation. Beyond the former Yugoslavia, in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, a technology park is being built to link local businesses with universities, and in 2012 two venture capital funds provided the project with 21 million euros. In this country, Kushtrim stresses the importance of LaunchHub, a seed capital fund for the most promising companies in southern and eastern Europe.

It also highlights some of the most promising startups in the region: in Bosnia its Kolikoo, an online store where you can create your own sales space, while in Macedonia there is G6Solutions, dedicated to developing web and mobile solutions for companies in the country. Finally, Serbia has also seen the creation of Tickera, a WordPress plugin that anyone can use to install a virtual stall to sell tickets on their own site.

And if all these reasons and companies seem to you a small reason to put your eye on the Balkans, Kushtrim throws one last motivational message, full of optimism: “One of the benefits of being based in any country in the Balkans is that, because we are small, we think globally.”

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