Start Trek felt like a love story to me. The sort of whirlwind love story that turns your whole world upside down in just a matter of days. As any true love story you never really know what is coming for you until it hits you head on. Before we left, I would use the following description again and again to convince fellow travelers from near and far to come along:
“A 12-day tour around Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) organised by Eleven accelerator with a mission to inspire the local communities from Istanbul, Bucharest, Sofia, Belgrade, Podgorica and Zagreb and empower community leaders from all over Europe.”
Vesselina Tasheva (Eleven) shows the official Start Trek greeting; Photo credit: ElevenIt was a summary that I would soon realise, did little justice to the reality but thankfully did convince travellers to join, and they were the special ingredient that made the journey so much more. If I had to convince you, fellow traveller, to join us on the journey, even if just in reading this diary, today, I would rather use a different description:
“Slàinte!” shouts. 40 inspirational talks. (Too many) espresso shots. 12 days. Six cities. Inside jokes no one else will even understand. Dozens of plates with delicious food. Eight flights. (Nearly not too many) beers. 42 startups pitches. Really dear friends!
And because a picture is worth more in resolution than in words, I will use the next photos to retrace our steps for you.
Sunday, 28 September: Leaving Sofia
All good adventures start with a passport in hand, a bag on the shoulder and a particular twinkle in the eyes. Tomorrow will be our first Start Trek event in Istanbul.
Monday, 29 September: Opening strong in Istanbul
Once on the road, you usually make new friends and yet when you least expect it you bump into old buddies. In Istanbul, the Start Trek crew stumbled upon the man who always wears flip flops, Mr. Dave McClure. With his distinctive “aarrr’s”, he told us about the “500 startups” accelerator, as well as the numerous (could even be another 500) startups he has invested in during his twenty years in Silicon Valley.
Connor Murphy, on the other hand, was a new friend we made. He told us about storytelling, about which words founders should never use in their presentations (apparently “and” is a big no-no) and about how he grew Datahug to a company of 26 employees that raised 5.5 million dollars. Like a real trooper, he was with us from the very beginning and stayed until the very end.
Daniel Tomov and Dilyan Dimitrov – founder of Eleven accelerator, Dave McClure (500 Startups), Connor Murphy (Datahug)
Thursday, 2 October: Wild, Wild Bucharest
Every Start Trek event had a mix of international and local speakers. When we got to Bucharest for our second event, George Dita (How To Web), one of our hosts, did a great talk comparing the East and the West called “Wild, Wild, East”. We loved him so much that we roped him into joining us for the rest of the trip!
The Romanian crowd listened carefully but also participated actively – in Q&A sessions and workshops, suchas Salim Virani’s Customer Development. We love the curious. And we love Sal – one of the key “Start Trek” ingredients of the trip.
Saturday, 4 October: A Home in Belgrade
Along the way we visited some of the teams, who had visited us before – our very own Eleven family of founders we once funded. We had stayed in touch and they made sure we feel at home at their hometown as they had felt at home in our shared space “under the roof” in Sofia. Even better, they were our insider guide on the best places to eat and drink in Serbia.
In the mornings six local startups would get a chance to pitch their ideas to the Start Trek crew of Eleven and friends. Every evening, we would mentor them in return, usually over a beer.
As fun as all the beer and mentoring was, we will remember Belgrade mostly for something else. We learned something that would change life as we knew it forever. And for this we thank you, David Scanlon of Enterprise Ireland. We will always think of you as we say “slonche.” A word that means “a baby elephant” in most of the Balkan countries we trekked through, is used by the Irish to say “cheers”. With a slightly different spelling, “slàinte” became the official greeting over drinks for the rest of Start Trek. Nothing bonds adventurers more than the playback of “baby elephant” on repeat.
Irina Nikolic and Igor Nikolic (CyberCity), Ivan Mojsilovic (Yanado); Dilyan Dimitrov (Eleven); David Scanlon (Enterprise Ireland); Photo credit: Eleven
Monday, 6 October: Young in Podgorica
47 times smaller than Istanbul and with a population of 300,000 people, Podgorica was the tiniest of cities Start Trek visited. Nevertheless, Montenegro’s capital suffers no shortage of bright minds and entrepreneurial spirit and our venue was packed. We met a very special team and, without any hesitation we invited them directly to Eleven’s Selection Days. Dear Nikola Rašović of smart-home startup Agnec, we will see you in Sofia in late November.
A highlight from Podgorica was Srdjan Vukcevic, a life and business coach, who filled our glass more than halfway with his talk on Optimism, Pessimism and Entrepreneurship. He has one advice that we want to pass on to you: “Don’t turn your kids to pessimists. However, make sure your accountant is no delusional optimist.”
Tuesday, 7 October: Dubrovnik Day-Off
Right after our event in Podgorica, we got on a bus to Dubrvonik for a well-deserved day-off.
On the next day we all woke up early. Dilyan did his morning 10km run. The Irishmen, Connor and David, went for a swim. The rest of us had a long walk along the beach. Reunited, we did what every man, woman or child should do on a beautiful day like that one – we had ice cream in the old city.
As tourists and locals were jumping from the rocks, we laid back relaxed, sipping some more coffee (and beer) and enjoying the gorgeousness of a well-deserved session of dolce farniente.
Teodora Mircheva and Vesselina Tasheva (Eleven) at the beach, an ice cream break and Dilyan Dimitrov, Srdjan Vukcevic, Natasa Djukanovic; Photo credit: Eleven
Wednesday, 8 October: Speaking up in Zagreb
While Dilyan and I did the whole trip – 12 mornings, 12 nights, eight flights and a little rickety bus that crossed five border controls in three hours, the rest stopped by for a few cities. Went away. Only to come back again.
We were lucky to have Luca Sućić (hub:raum Krakow) with us inIstanbul, Bucharest, Belgrade and then again in his home town of Zagreb. I can’t wait to see him again later this month in Vienna at the Pioneers Festival!
Zagreb was Lucie Montel’s (Rainmaking Loft Berlin) first Start Trek city. Lucie shared her story and talked “Why Speaking Up Matters”, especially when it is of the tough topic for many women in tech – sexism and casual sexual harassment.
Saturday, 11 October: Grand Finale in Sofia
We wrapped up our trek in style back in Sofia, where the startups pitched to us on a Saturday morning in the cinema. No popcorn but entertaining nevertheless.
For the rest of the day, Start Trek joined Startup Conference NEXT 2014. Start Trek had a parallel stage where I finally got to stand in front of the crowd. My topic was pure and simple – playing with serendipity and the fabulous things happen to you, one motion at a time, such as officesurfing at Eleven. Serendipity was how I met David and it was my pleasure to introduce him to the crowd in Sofia.
After the official speakers dinner we headed to Kanaal bar, my second home in Sofia, for a few more beers and the birthday party of Dronamics’ founder Svilen Rangelov.
Daniel Tomov and Dilyan Dimitrov – founder of Eleven accelerator; David Scanlon and Vesselina Tasheva; the Start Trek Wrap Up; Photo Credit: Eleven
Sunday, 12 October: A Bittersweet Goodbye
The adventure was coming to an end but not before another round of “slàinte” with mimosas. What was Start Trek like? New and old, real and dear friends. And many more tiny surprises here and there, like this magenta nail polish, the perfect shade for Eleven’s logo – a gift from a stranger!
Photo credit: Eleven