The day after fundraising

One of the best lessons about fundraising, I learned through a hobby of mine: photography. You see, amateur photographers, like all hobbyists, tend to spend a lot of time obsessing about cameras, lenses, tripods and other pieces of gear. The latest and greatest and how to get it. They stuff their bags with the best gear money can buy and they frequent forums talking about it.

But the best gear in the world, doesn’t guarantee you any good shots. Spending your time taking photos does. Waking up at 5am for that morning light. Walking up a hill for the better view. Picking the best gear can often worsen your chances to get good photos. Time spent in forums and shops is time not spent taking photos.

Worse, focusing on gear is addictive. It’s easy to talk about. There’s so many options. Every fool can talk about it online so there’s a million blog posts about the best mix of lenses. And many clever people compete for your attention, to make money with photo magazines, events, classes, you name it. Meanwhile there’s fewer blogs that make you a better photographer, there is no recipe or brochure to help you there, and the best photographers are not chatting on forums — they’re out there taking pictures.

Like many of my friends in the Greek startup ecosystem, I was elated to hear last Friday, that 40+ million euros, maybe even up to 80, have been secured for technology venture capital. I admire the people who put together the funds and I’m excited about the possibilities. It was a day of celebration, and celebrate we did. It was a day of optimism, and as someone who left his job to start a new company a few months ago, optimism is my lifeblood.

On the other hand, I can’t help thinking that amounts far greater than those were thrown in the Greek market before, with little impact. Yes, I know, this time is different. There’s an entrepreneurial ecosystem much more eager to pick up the money and make something of it. But let’s not fool ourselves — it’s nowhere near as mature and as large as it would need to be to absorb these investments. So the hard bit is still ahead of us.

Coming out of 2 months spent fundraising for my own company, I know first-hand how debilitating this “gearing up” process can be. Every hour spent fundraising was an hour not spent improving our product, getting customers, hiring, marketing, getting things done. Perhaps worse, when fundraising is at the top of your mind, your focus on the stuff that matters is not as sharp as it should be. You think, “let’s secure the money, and we’ll solve that later”. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in this state of mind for 1 year or more — as it happens with many entrepreneurs.

I can’t imagine what it’s like for a whole ecosystem to be focusing all its discussion on fundraising for years and years. And this was generally the situation in the Greek startup scene for far too long. It’s mind-numbing.

Last Friday, I could almost hear the sigh of relief from that pressure in the amphitheater around me during the Open Coffee presentations. But I also sensed the emptiness of a numb community that arrived at the end of an obstacle course only to realize that the journey just begun. And there’s no blogs to tell you what’s next. No events or competitions are suddenly going to crank out the 100-something good startups it will take to absorb these funds.

The freshly minted funds treated us with a sudden dose of stimulant(don’t you love seeing VCs pitching to entrepreneurs for a change?) and while we were busy cheering, they hit the big red reset button on our collective conversation. The lights came back on and all our ecosystem was collectively expecting had been delivered. A shiny new camera but no pretty pictures yet. All the “let’s get people into startups” and the “let’s find money to do startups” discussion is kind of over. So what will the next discourse be about?

I think it should be about what kind of companies we build. How do we make products that are exportable, instead of trying to mimic concepts from “the valley” and simply import bad copies of them in our immediate (and impoverished) region. How to build companies that can grow larger than we are, how we can be better managers than our predecessors, how we can train people to greatness, something that few Greek companies did in the past. It should no longer be about the courage to start up, but the stamina and responsibility to keep feeding the families of your employees, to seek revenues, to get out of our little echo-chamber and compete with the best in the world. Sounds glamorous, but it mainly involves getting punched in the face without quitting.

And I bet this discussion is going to bring some realism into our discourse, because the problems of actually making a great company are no longer a theoretical discussion about what we would do if we had the money. For starters, I’ll be glad to see some stupid fluff discussions fade into irrelevance, like how you need to go to “the valley” to find funding. Now it’s easier to get it here. I won’t miss the startup competitions either.

Quaint as they are, I’m sure people would rather spend their effort pitching for capital than pitching for a winner’s certificate. I won’t miss the “mentors” (with no money) and the “bridges” (to nowhere). Let’s start talking about what kind of products can be built in Greece with 50k or 300k that can be sold abroad.

Let’s start talking about how to build an advantage in the EU market over an American company with the same product. Let’s start talking about what kind of people skills are in shortage, and find ways to fill the gap. We can all chip in money to things that train them. Or find countries where we can import them. Or outsource the activity? Don’t know, let’s discuss.

Let’s start talking about how to put together efficient operational economics, cheap offices, infrastructure bundles, co-hosting workspaces, you name it. Let’s start talking about the services we need from the market. Lawyers, accountants, suppliers, and how to breed an ecosystem of people doing these jobs who can benefit from our funding and create know-how around us.

Let’s start talking about work ethics and employment culture, mainly how to build healthy companies with happy employees who don’t work 80-hour weeks “because we’re a startup.”

Let’s start talking about where we’ll find the people that can manage 100-staff companies, because it’s not a given that we, the founders, can do it just because we started the thing.

Let’s start talking about banks, loans, liquidity, and a financial systemthat can connect to online payments, provide guarantees to international suppliers and is prepared to do it for young companies. It’s not. We will need to find ways to make them play well, too.

Let’s talk about many things. But now, the talk must not be about finding the money. It must be about using it and returning it.

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.