My personal view of Entrepreneur Week in Greece 2012
Recently I joined a delegation of young Saudi entrepreneurs to the Entrepreneur Week Greece conference, which took place from 22 February 2012 to 25 February 2012. The delegation included Maria Mahdaly (co-founder of media firm Rumman Company, publisher of Destination Jeddah), Lateefa Alwaalan (founder of Arabic coffee business Yatooq), Abdullah Al-Munif (founder of such local brands as Anoosh, Baby Burger, and Pane Piatto), Abdullah Al-Mutrif (founder of Protech, a Saudi leader in IT services), and Omar H. Al-Madhi (Assistant Deputy for Research, Analysis & Councils, Investment Affairs, Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority). I myself am founder of Innovative Business Solutions, a Saudi pioneer in the design of smart buildings and the development of e-commerce business models.
We were invited to this conference by Dimitris Tsigos, the president of the Hellenic Start-up Association. Dimitris is also president at YES, the European Confederation of Young Entrepreneurs. As an entrepreneur, he is founder and CEO of Virtual Trip Group, a group of eleven international IT service companies. He also invited delegations from Belgium, Hungary, Russia, Serbia, Spain, Australia, Portugal, the UK and USA.
I was fortunate enough to participate in a panel on fiscal policy. I discussed how the Saudi government supports our entrepreneurs through various programs. Such programs include the SFG100, organized by the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA). This is an annual ranking of the 100 fastest growing Saudi companies (SFG – Saudi Fastest Growing), based on revenue growth. An annual awards ceremony is held at the prestigious Global Competitiveness Forum in Riyadh. For science and technology entrepreneurs, the Badir (Arabic for “initiate”) program aims to accelerate the growth of emerging science and technology business. For example, the Badir Advanced Manufacturing Technology Incubator provides access to resources necessary to bring a product to market. Badir Biotech encourages and facilitates the establishment of biotechnology businesses, in order to create a successful and sustainable Saudi biotech business sector. Badir ICT similarly works with ICT companies in order to develop the Saudi ICT sector. Finally, I discussed the Centennial Fund, which invests in small start-ups to help bring young Saudi entrepreneurs to financial independence.
I talked about the different challenges that face young Saudi entrepreneurs, in summary:
-availability of funds for growth for companies that have moved past the start-up phase
-availability of science, technology, and retail talent
-access to government contracts – the biggest capital spender in Saudi Arabia
A member of the audience asked my opinion on which country has the best environment for entrepreneurship. I replied:
“There is no benchmark and each market has an area that it excels in. If we look at the model developed by Prof. Daniel Isenberg of Babson College, and examine which country is better at which domain of the entrepreneurship ecosystem, I would say that the United States succeeds in the domain of culture. Entrepreneurs are celebrated and turned into rock stars, which encourages more and more entrepreneurship. India is excellent in the financial domain – many young entrepreneurs make it to the public capital market in only a few years, and this means they can become global players. The United Kingdom has done a great job in the field of social enterprise, which comes under the support domain of the model.
I have spent the last seven years traveling from one country to another, searching for the Atlantis of entrepreneurship. I have jumped from one country to another because the grass looked greener on the other side. It often turned out that the grass was not greener, and in many cases there was no grass.”
Here is a summary of the sessions I attended during my days at Entrepreneur Week Greece:
Day 1: 23 February 2012
First on Day 1 was a series of start-up pitches from local Greek entrepreneurs. Here they are summarized below:
-First was a pitch for a Facebook app, written by a psychologist. It was called Tomato Wall, and involved personality testing.
-Wind turbines were up next, from an assistant professor. His pitch needed some work, as he was simply reading from a presentation. However, his idea was quite good, as it would increase productivity in a large market.
-The next pitch was for a social media approach to traveling, called Go Pro Traveling. This would involved sharing maps and trips – current social media and social networking platforms are not specialized for travelers. You would be able to socially build travel maps, with time-based tagging. A delegate from Silicon Valley liked the idea, and offered the pitcher money – quite fortunate, as he had previously been working hard on his own.
-Another app pitch came next, for Yummy Mommy. This location-based app would show you the nearest place to get home-cooked food.
-Bug Sense was the next pitch. This is a service for app developers, that provides mobile app insights. This allows developers to improve the quality of mobile apps, and fix bugs quickly, alerting users when bugs are patched. This was the best pitch.
My suggestions to the Hellenic Start-up Association were to provide pitch training to entrepreneurs, before they go in front of a panel of investors. For example, one entrepreneur said to the panel that they just wanted their business cards, and that they would call them when their business plan is ready. If you do not have the skills, ask a friend to do the pitch for you. Practice it, and attend as many pitches as possible to see what kind of issues are common. Ask yourself why a pitch isn’t convincing. Don’t just read from slides, always face the audience, and if you need to read, use a screen in front of you.
Following this, the day’s sessions opened. The main points made through the whole day remained fairly consistent, given Greece’s financial situation:
-The Greek economy will need much more than loan programs for it to be saved.
-Entrepreneurs are needed to turn ideas and knowledge into employment, in order to generate money and develop society.
-Our traditional sectors, such as the shipping and maritime sector, are not enough to rescue the economy.
-The previous economic arrangement of Greece means that now young people mostly have ambitions for the public sector.
-Building a culture of entrepreneurship is as important as more immediate solutions for the crisis.
The first speaker was Anna Diamantopoulou, Greece’s Minister of Education. She said Greeks needed to be more willing to take risks and to fail. She stated her wish to incorporate innovation and to integrate the philosophy of entrepreneurship into the education system, and signed an agreement to that effect with the entrepreneurial association. She wants to teach students to start their own business, and integrate industrial research and development into academic research centers – both theoretical and applied. There was a big difference between this speech and a recent speech on similar subjects by the Saudi Minister of Education.
Next we heard from Yanos Gramatidis, president of the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce. His main points were that the Greek debt-to-GDP ratio was too high – the current national debt is 163% of GDP, when the maximum should be 120%. The Greek mentality, with a culture suspicious of business and entrepreneurship, needs to change. There is an ideological stubbornness that will prevent Greece from reaching its goals. He also mentioned a roadshow the AHCC is running in the US to get American funding for Greek business.
Gary Whitehill, the founder of the Entrepreneur Week, spoke next. He discussed how New York city is now number 2 in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, when a few years ago it was barely on the map for entrepreneurs. He recommended the use of video conferencing for pitch sessions, and told the audience that times of economic crisis and uncertainty were the best time to be an entrepreneur. However, he also warned that he thinks there is a coming bubble in entrepreneurship. What will save entrepreneurs, by giving their ideas mainstream applicability, is scalability. He also argued that it is important to create a reciprocating entrepreneurial ecosystem, which will lead to disruptive innovation on a global scale.
Another session I attended that day was on the media industry. Debate focused on whether there was any growth left in media – many sectors of the media industry are collapsing, such as newspapers and the music industry. The panel generally agreed that keeping on top of new technology, and making transparency a virtue, would ensure future media growth. Mobile media is the most important arena, and media can be distributed over greater distances than ever before. The panel also regarded the amount of content now being created as not necessarily all good news: there is more noise, and it can be hard for messages to get through. It also means that creating relevant and timely content is more difficult, as someone else is more likely to beat you to it. No offense to the gentlemen on the panel, but Lauren Perkins really rocked on that panel.
Day 2: 24 February 2012
Europe is generally not an environment that supports entrepreneurs. Indeed, the only two countries that I find truly support and foster entrepreneurship are the USA and India. Also, Greece’s issues with entrepreneurship are similar to those found in Saudi Arabia. For example, they both have a language problem – events like this in both countries are held in English. There are similarities in financing options too – Greek financing options for SMEs are similar to those in Saudi Arabia. With the changes in financing structure, it will actually start to look similar to the Saudi banks’ financing structure. This is a problem – does this mean the financing system I am against is a viable one that other countries wish to move to?
Andreas Athanasopoulos, General Director for Retail Banking of the National Bank of Greece, addressed the audience on the topic of financing. He asked – would you invest in a bank or a young entrepreneur? If the bank guaranteed the return, would you invest? He saw the problem in financing of entrepreneurs being down to the fact that entrepreneurs end up spending 20% of their time developing the project, and 80% of their time on getting investors. This needs to be reversed. We might learn something from the Portuguese example – they don’t teach marketing or business planning in their school entrepreneurship classes, but attitude, by putting students outside their comfort zone at 14 or 15 years old. These programs cost very little for the government.
Next up was a panel on high-tech companies in Greece. One of the panelists was Vassilios Makios, the General Director of Corallia. This seemed to be a Greek equivalent of the Saudi Badir program, and is a Hellenic Technology Clusters initiative. He argued that the first ingredient of success is young people, returning again to the theme of education as in the opening speech from the education minister. He thought the joy of creation is what is needed in Greece, to counter the ugly image of rioting and discontent that the global media is portraying. Yorgos Koutsoyannopoulos (founder and CEO of Helic Inc. and president of the Hellenic Semiconductor Industry Association, HSIA) said that HSIA started with no funds and yet has become successful. What is left in Greece is what he had for this task – talent. Entrepreneurs should not wait for a government program or someone else to help you – they need to stand up and reach out. Small, multinational companies are the way forward, with early hires of technical advisory boards. If you can, you should go to San Francisco or Narita and network – don’t stay in the current misery of Greece. His final point was that cooperative competition is the only way to succeed.
Stratos Sofileas, an Olympic bid consultant and communications expert, criticized how Greece has ignored the opportunities brought by sporting events to improve the image of the country. Had Greece leveraged the Olympics better, the impact of the financial crisis may have been lessened.
On Day 2 I argued that Greeks should not waste too much time looking for start-up capital – instead they should be thinking in terms of creating a Greek Google. A few years ago it would have seemed ludicrous that US companies would come to buy Saudi IT companies. Yet today this is what is happening – Kammelna is an example. Saudi entrepreneurs created a whole new subsector on YouTube, with a whole new business model, in less than two years. Greece can learn from this example. Starting without capital means you should use under-utilized existing resources. Smaller start-ups are also at an advantage – a start-up with over Eur 1 million has a higher risk of failure. Also, start-up management works better if the founding members have equal ownership and equal salaries. And finally, there is an often-repeated myth that you do not need extensive business plans. My experience with investors and banks has been quite the opposite.
The last panel I attended on day 2 was on how entrepreneurship could help the social unrest and crime seen in the centers of Greek cities such as Athens. The UK leads the world in social entrepreneurship, and Alex Mitchell (Vice-President of YES and President of G20 YEA) was on the panel to discuss the impact it has on crime in the UK, sharing several examples.
Day 3: 25 February 2012
The climax of the conference was our opportunity to meet and talk to representatives of Greek businesses. The Business-to-Business Matchmaking and Mentoring Sessions gave us on the international delegations the chance to meet local Greek entrepreneurs, and share contacts for future business together. We are sure many fruitful links were forged here.
Omar H. Al-Mahdi summed up the feelings shared by all of us in the Saudi delegation on attending this conference: “It is a great privilege to be part of the Saudi delgation to Entrepreneur Week Greece in the midst of a turbulent time for the global economy. Entrepreneurs provide the platform upon which a stron economy is built and we fully believe in their ability to lead individual economies back to the right track, if provided with the proper eco-system that nurtures their initiatives and enables their success.”
“Walking down Athens streets, there was a clear gloomy atmosphere hanging around businesses. Yet, start-ups can thrive in a depressed economic climate. One bright example was Carpo store in downtown Athens. Visitors of Athens chamber of commerce – where EWgreece conference was held- kept walking in with black coffee cups in there hands. Fortunately, we stumbled upon this bright store busy with shoppers and got to hear the story behind a brave family who took the risk and opened the place just a month ago, when most of their neighbors were closing down. Serving delicious premium chocolate , oven baked nuts, and coffee, the fresh concept was well received in the area, and had a clear competitive edge compared to similar business down the street. Those entrepreneurs have created a positive buzz which the community responded to. The message was clear: the resources are there, Greece only needs a change in the mindset. Change will come one start-up at a time” that’s how Lateefa Al-Waalan summarized her view of the Entrepreneur Week Greece.
The Greek financial crisis has had the unexpected effect of massively encouraging entrepreneurs and innovative business models. Greece needs them more than ever. Growth can only be restarted effectively with products and services found outside the traditional economy. The former backbone of the Greek economy, the maritime industry, is no longer enough. Financial and fiscal restrictions on the economy, derived from the need for Greece to pay down their huge national debt, mean that the massive institutional investment necessary to significantly grow the maritime and shipping sector are unavailable. In addition, the diversification and expansion of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Greece will give a solid foundation for future Greek growth. The culture of entrepreneurship found in countries such as the USA or India is now needed in Greece more than ever.
I thank Dimitris Tsigos and the Hellenic Start-up Association for inviting us to see another side of Greece. It is a shame that the media coverage of the financial crisis is hiding from view the entrepreneurial and innovative Greece we saw here.
Greece is a country that is rich in the resources needed for entrepreneurship – it has huge numbers of young people looking for a way to get ahead, it has a very well-educated population, and it has the research facilities for science and technology. However, it is being let down by weak leadership in many sectors, preventing it from blossoming.