The drachma startup

This post was originally published in 2012. Back then, we’d just started a tech company in Greece and — unsurprisingly — people were asking if we were out of our minds. This was our attempt to answer that question. Three years later, I still stand by it.

Is this a terrible place to start a startup?

I don’t think so. Greece has one of the most educated, and most unemployed workforces in Europe. There’s a ton of young engineers, with great degrees, experience studying or working abroad, speaking good English and eager to make a career in a difficult job market. They typically work harder than the average European and the best among them are determined to prove that they are just as good as their European or American peers. And, at least in my experience, if you give them a meritocratic environment to compete in, they will often prove themselves above expectations. I’ve said it before, the myth of the lazy Greek is only a myth.

A meritocratic, export-oriented company is spoilt for choice in Greece. Try hiring engineers, or finding a great designer in a place like Silicon Valley. You’d think it’s the best place to find good people, right? Right, some of the best are there. They’re working for Google and Facebook, they’re getting hired by the latest, hottest Y-Combinator startup sex symbol. You’ll pay top dollar for the middle of the pack. In Greece, you are the hot startup, the exciting young company that the best will try to get a job at. You’ll get the best folk. Remember, tech startups live or die by the talent they can get.

It’s cheap

A startup is fighting against the clock with limited resources. Your funding will last longer in a country where your salaries and opex will be quite a bit lower than London or San Francisco. As my co-founder is fond of saying “paying three times the rent won’t improve the quality of the code.” A few extra months on the runway could make much more difference to your product than a better tax system or a livelier startup scene.

It builds character

A political and economic crisis that turns everything on its head is practically challenging. It’s also a new deck of cards to be dealt. It’s also a time of opportunity that rewards inventiveness. It’s also a time that gives you perspective about what are the big things and what are the insignificant things, helps you set priorities. A time that makes you think carefully, extra carefully about your every step, plan your finances, protect against risks. A company born and tempered in the midst of a situation like that may find opportunity that was inaccessible in a stable market, may be better trained for future adversities. Nothing says “wartime CEO” like regular Grexit speculation.

It’s (still) an EU country

The trade, employment and mobility benefits you get anywhere else in the EU are not so different than what you get in Greece. Yes, it’s a country ran by muppets, making headlines for all the wrong reasons. But you’re free to be different; just ignore them. As for the bureaucratic hurdles, they’re only a hassle, not a show-stopper.

It’s nice

It’s possible to build a good lifestyle here. You don’t need to earn a lot to enjoy a nice home, good food, great entertainment options, replenishing weekend breaks from work and good weather most of the time. Despite the countless nuisances of life in Athens, it’s still an interesting city to live in, it’s beautiful in many ways, and social life can be great. A startup is a lifestyle choice as much as it is a career one, and if you do things right it can fit well with a life in Athens.

You’re making a difference

An entrepreneur is driven by the desire to make a dent in the universe. It’s pretty clear that Greece won’t be magically saved in the short term, and that a better future will not be carved by its political class. If in ten years we have a healthy economy it will be the result of nerds working behind the noise of the news, building productive and profitable enterprises, giving work to people, restoring the credibility of Greece as a place that makes good stuff. When my children ask “Where were you in the crisis of 2012?” I want to say I was there and did the best I could.

Perhaps the last point is the most important one and all the others are mere rationalisations for it. I believe the good guys win in the end. There has never been a better time for the good guys to give it their best shot, it would be a bloody shame if the adversities of the crisis scared them away. Besides, entrepreneurs thrive in situations that make no sense.