Can Central European Startups Compete?
The following was set to appear in a Czech business publication, but was, possibly to our credit, deemed a little too controversial. Thus we’re publishing it here, because we do stand by what we’ve said.
2 years ago, StartupYard set out to answer a single, vital question. Can Central European, and especially Czech startups compete on the global market? After validating the concept of an internet accelerator for 2 years in the Czech Republic, mostly focusing on local startups, we set out in late 2013 to turn StartupYard into a platform for Czech and other Central European startups to go global. Here are the answers we’ve found so far:
Global Vs. International
To answer this question, first, it’s important to understand the distinction between a “global company” and an international one. Many Czech companies are, by necessity, international. Czech tech companies typically rely on clients and customers from abroad, often Germany, the UK, and the US, who can count on Czech agencies, developers, and manufacturers who are reliable, high quality, and above all, cost effective.
But being the cheap alternative to the local workforce for comparatively rich markets does not make Czech companies global in scale, nor in ambition.
Instead, a global company is one that provides an innovative product or service, with the potential to disrupt the way all sorts of things are done, regardless of geography. A global company is one that has no borders, and that does not rely on its primary location as its main competitive advantage.
The Curse of Cheap
What we saw straight away as we turned StartupYard into an accelerator for global projects, was that the Czech tech ecosystem was addicted to “cheap.”
Today’s Czech software houses and digital agencies came of age when the costs of development, even for relatively simple products, were significantly higher abroad than they are today. Even now, these companies keep their international edge by keeping salaries low.
But this pattern of subservience to the bottom line has become a trap for the Czech ecosystem. By continually restricting itself to the low-cost alternative model, the ecosystem has encouraged some of the best and most ambitious innovators and engineers to flee to markets where investors have more appetite for risk. Czech startupers who are serious about global growth tell each other to leave the Czech Republic, and seek opportunity elsewhere.
Global is The Future
Czech entrepreneurs have been slow to enter the global market because of some obvious practical and structural barriers. Access to capital, and the ambition to match that access, has been limited by the size of the Czech market. It’s now easier for an American company to launch in Europe than for a European company to launch on the American market. That is owing not only to an imbalance in access to capital, but also to the historical fragmentation of the European market.
Language is another barrier , and the maturity of Czech business practices and the educational system have been another. Czechoslovakia’s long separation from world markets kept this country’s golden hands from important new ways of working for decades.
But today, these barriers are eroding. The Czechs are catching up, as the European economies integrate, and Czechs have several important advantages, not least a strong public education system, a smart and hardworking employment base, and a strong technical infrastructure. Today, as an example, the Czech Republic has faster average internet speeds than the UK and the US, ranked 9th internationally by Akamai Technologies.
No More Excuses
Wannabe Czech entrepreneurs are addicted to excuses, rather than to positive action. And we hear every excuse in the book. “Investors here are too conservative, there’s no capital,” or “we have no Czech role models,” or “we’re not good at storytelling and marketing,” and “we’re just a small country after all… this isn’t Silicon Valley.”
Identifying problems isn’t solving them. And we could dispute every excuse there is.
Two StartupYard investors alone, Credo Ventures and Rockaway Capital, have 10s of millions of Euros to invest in Czech startups, and they are constantly on the lookout for new opportunities. In our mentor group alone, we have a dozen angels actively looking for smart investments, and willing to invest early on.
And we have dozens of entrepreneurial role models, like Roman Stanek, Tomas Cupr, Michal Illich, and many others who are actively seeking to support Czech startups. The problem, more often than not, is that the startups just don’t reach out, and aim too low to begin with, assuming they won’t be of interest to these figures.
If small countries can’t make big waves in the international tech economy, then someone should inform Estonia, which has given the world Skype, and Transferwise, and is little more than a tenth the size of the Czech Republic. Estonia has turned its tiny size to an advantage by being globally minded for over 25 years. Czechs have no legitimate excuses for not doing the same.
I’m from “Silicon Valley,” which is not a real place in the sense that many Czech entrepreneurs imagine. I was born and raised just south of San Francisco, and I can tell you there is nothing special in the water there; no magical advantage that startups gain when they land at San Francisco Airport. Nor are most of the people there particularly entrepreneurial by nature.
People used to take buses to LA to “become movie stars.” Now it seems they think they can take a flight to San Francisco to become tech billionaires. But it just doesn’t work that way.
San Francisco arose from a gold rush which never really ended, but has constantly changed its focus for nearly two centuries, from gold, to silicon, to smartphones, and now to ideas.
Silicon Valley is a state of mind. It is just full of people who have strong views about the future, and refuse to see limits to their ambitions. Going there won’t change who you are. You can set your personal goals higher, no matter where you live.
The global marketplace has its own demands, and presents new challenges to Czech startups. Chief among them, is the importance of soft skills that Czechs have not yet emphasized sufficiently. The Czech Republic severely lags Germany, Estonia, and all of Scandinavia in English proficiency, and the vital (for a startup) skills of storytelling and brand building are de-emphasized in a business culture that is all about the bottom line, or about technical innovation over customer focus.
Telling stories, the act of constructing a convincing narrative for success that a customer, an investor, an employee, or a partner can engage with and which can inform and inspire people about your company and your products, is a precious and vital skill among startups.
If Czech entrepreneurs face these challenges head on, they will find that they can win investments, gain customers, and attract talent anywhere in the world. Silicon Valley may be where a lot of startups live, but it isn’t where they all come from, and it isn’t where they will ultimately win customers, and make money.
The Czech Republic has produced generations of ingenious builders, who already have the skills to create some of the world’s best tech products. It must now produce a new generation of ambitious, thoughtful communicators in order to sell those products to a wider audience. Czech startups have to stop doing what comes naturally: they have to stop focusing on being builders for hire, and start focusing on building their own future, with their own customers, and their own stories.
Signs of Success
The Czechs, it seems, are in a constant state of crisis of confidence. But one wonders why that is. The Czech Republic is the only country in Europe that has developed a viable competitor to the global search giant, Google, in Seznam.cz, and it hosts two of the world’s leading computer security companies, Avast and AVG. AVG became the first Czech company to IPO on the Nasdaq just 3 years ago.
Today, the Czech Republic is a net technology exporter, and its name is associated internationally with quality workmanship, efficiency, and creativity.
As barriers to the global market come down everywhere, and as consumers and businesses all over the EU and the world become more used to innovative and disruptive global startups, nothing stands in the way of Czech startups, and their global ambitions.
Today, Czech technology products touch the lives of millions of people, all over the world, in ways visible and invisible. From StartupYard alone, companies like BrandEmbassy, TeskaLabs, and BudgetBakers, to name a few, serve hundreds of thousands of people daily, and are growing fast.
A future in which a local resident of Sao Paolo, of London, of Bangkok, of Delhi, or of San Francisco, can make a Czech technology product a part of their daily lives and routines has already arrived, and there remains no excuse for Czech startups not to compete for the attention of customers and businesses everywhere.