The How To Web conference takes place in Bucharest, Romania on November 9-10. It’s one of the biggest Eastern European conferences, with one purpose – to connect tech folks living and working there with their business potential and to show to the world that there are some brilliant ideas there.
The Next Web will attend the conference, and being its media partner, we’ve talked to some ‘Young guns’ of the Eastern European startup scene to get a flavor of the what life it like for tech entrepreneurs there.
Here we talk to Vladimir Oane, founder of uberVU which is a social media analytics startup; Alexandru Costin, founder of InterAKT, which got acquired by Adobe, making it Adobe’s only South Eastern Europe acquistion, and Adam Somlai-Fischer, founder and head of design at Prezi.
TNW: What triggered you to get into the business that you’re currently envolved in? Tell our readers something about your company:
Vladimir Oane: ”uberVU is the leading social intelligence platform. We help companies to understand what’s being said about their brand, industry, and competitors in real-time. Our end-to-end service helps businesses improve sales, customer service, marketing, and more from a single dashboard. We started 3 years ago.”
Alexandru Costin: ”I am running Business Catalyst for Adobe, after successfully building InterAKT, a Romanian software startup that I sold to Adobe 5 years ago. Business Catalyst, in a similar way to the InterAKT products, is targeting the same customer base – Web developers serving the SMB market, and I am attracted to this from a pure technical perspective. An engineer by heart, I love the Internet and I’ve learnt how to create powerful solutions on it. When I realized that my knowledge can be reused in creating products for web developers, I moved my whole focus here.
“Business Catalyst is a 7 year-old company – founded in Australia by Bardia Housmann. Adobe bought it 2 years ago and after Bardia moved on I took it over and I am taking it to new heights. Business Catalyst is an all-in-one hosted solution to allow small businesses to have a web presence – it includes a CMS, a CRM, an e-commerce engine, an e-mail marketing campaign engine and a core analytics piece.”
Adam Somlai-Fischer: “I spent the last decade working as an internationally renowned architect and visual artist, where I travelled and lectured extensively. To support this, I have been working with zooming presentations since 2001. I found that a zoomable user interface (ZUI) enables me to explore the “big picture” overview of a floor plan and then zoom into the detail of individual rooms.
“Because there was no commercially-available zooming presentation editor, each presentation had to be coded by hand. Audiences were wowed and approached me to discover what presentation software I used. A few persuaded me to give them access to the code. Finally, in 2007, Budapest University of Technology professor Peter Halacsy convinced me to develop an editor so that anyone could make zooming presentations. After creating a prototype, we recruited a business-minded entrepreneur, Peter Arvai, to join as CEO — to help us build a product and a company. Prezi was launched in April 2009 from Budapest, leading to investments from TED Conferences and Sunstone Capital. The San Francisco office was established in November 2009.”
Both Vladimir and Alexandru had some difficulties running their business. For Vladimir it was getting the commercial part right; it took them quite a while to figure out pricing and sales process. As for InterAKT, the biggest challenge was finding talented, world-class business people. As Alexandru states, it was very hard for him to find people to join his team, and even if somebody applied, he had to train them first.
Adam had trouble with understanding bit by bit that other people think differently and the conceptual mind-shift needed to create superb ‘prezis’ is not at all that obvious.
The Eastern European scene
TNW: If you had the ability to change things in SEE startup scene, what would you do?
Vladimir Oane: ”I think it’s more of a mentality problem. People need to think international. Once you consider yourself part of a global market things start to happen.”
Alexandru Costin: ”I would love to see more investment in education. We need to build the entrepreneur’s team, which means that we need talent to complement an entrepreneur in doing product discovery, marketing, sales, documentation, distribution channels, business development.”
Adam Somlai-Fischer: “I really think its the attitude that matters. If you have a vision, and are ready to work really really hard for it, out environment is not substantially different from Silicon Valley. Sadly, many don’t believe this and are aiming too low, to be hired by an international company, rather than starting their own.
“I would change education – actually even from kindergarten and up. Also, the perception of entrepreneurship is sadly negative in the SEE region, after the old political systems fell, in many countries it wasn’t hard work and intellect that resulted in accumulation of wealth. Luckily, this is changing as we speak.”
SEE vs. Silicon Valley
When asked to compare the SEE region with the Silicon Valley, Vladimir’s reply was:
There is no comparison to be made here. It’s like comparing the USS Enterprise with a bike.
Alexadru noticed the missing of many crucial parts for a successful startup; talent, education and local VC funds. Based on his experience, most of the VCs are coming to Romania to hunt our talent and relocate it to the Bay Area or other Bay Areas wannabes.
There is also a lot of lack of understanding on how the more mature countries live, Alexandru notices, which leads sometimes to completely weird products that are great from an engineering point of view, but completely lack the business or consumer angle required for success.
TNW: Would you leave SEE region if you were given an opportunity to move to, let’s say – the USA?
Vladimir Oane: “We already have offices in US and I am spending more and more time there. So it’s happening already.”
Alexandru Costin: ”Only if I would receive “an offer I can’t refuse” :). I’m quite connected with the Adobe Romania office, I’ve built it from zero to 250 people and I feel like it’s my company now.”
Adam Somlai-Fischer: “We have 2 offices, one in San Francisco, one in Budapest. We love it this way, despite the nightly/early morning Skype calls :)”
However, the SEE region has its advanteges.
Vladimir Oane: ”I really, really like the people. We learn new things very very fast and I can see a time when the gap will start to disappear.”
Alexandru Costin: ”Great engineering resources at a decent price. That’s the pitfall that everybody is talking about, Romanians can make an easy life just implementing somebody else’s ideas, but this keeps us in the commoditizable outsourcing services class – giving us a very little advantage in the long term.”
Adam Somlai-Fischer: “I have been teaching creativity to artists and designers in the last decade. A common trick we use there, is to give constrains. However artificial, they make people become creative and inventive. I believe the financial constrains we have here can be of value to invent even more effective, better, more accurate ideas.
“Also, from the same experience, I learned that its not always great to teach students from top schools – they have a strong sense of entitlement, which makes them work less hard. The caveat here is – I think SEE region is a great resource for fantastic people, given that they get into the right environment. If the mindset was more entrepreneurial, this right environment would be created by the individuals themselves.”
Next stop: How To Web
So, based on these statements, you can see how the SEE region really has some great potential to become Europe’s Silicon Valley. If you want to learn more, join us at How To Web and see for yourself. One thing is for sure – if things continue as they’re going, Silicon Valley might get a bit crowded with all the great startups from SEE region moving there.
The Next Web is a media partner for How To Web and we will be reporting from the event. We’ve lined up a 10% discount on tickets for our readers. To take advantage of the discount, go to the ticket registration option in the top-right corner of the event’s website and click the ‘Click here to enter a promotional code’ option. Enter TNW_ROCKS as the code and you’ll be given 10% off your ticket price. See you there!