Riding a speeding bullet
I’ve been working on startup-related activities in Romania since 2009, when, almost by accident, I decided to get involved with the Bucharest tech community. Inspired by Le Web, I co-authored a small, educational-oriented event called How to Web that took place in one of the bigger halls in the local computer science college of University “Politehnica” Bucharest.
Back in 2008, there were at most 20 active Romanian startups doing decent enough products to worth mention. However, in 2007 Erepublik was winning the award for the most innovative startup at Le Web, in 2008 and 2009 uberVU and Brainient were already accepted in Seedcamp and the Summify team was very close to the BootupLabs admission. There were no major tech events, no co-working spaces for startups (in the entire country) and one business angel fund, a general lack of knowledge and experience, but a lot of enthusiasm. And, as always, enough enthusiasm can go a long, long way.
Back in 2010, on a misty Sunday morning in mid November, I was having a coffee and a cigar with Anca Albu, the chief organiser of the first Startup Weekend Romania, at the entrance of the newly opened Bucharest Hub.
The first edition of Startup Weekend Romania was close to an end and we were all dead tired after a few months of struggling work, trying to convince partners, participants and media that tech is the new big thing. While sipping from our huge mugs, eyes half closed, almost exhausted, we were wondering: “Is this thing really going to work? Should we continue to do it, and hopefully improve the ecosystem?”.
Well, there was no simple answer. We hoped for the best and we all carried on.
Just three years later, the landscape looks very different. More than 40 Romanian startups have been accepted and funded by acceleration programmes or business angels, with some major successes like Mavenhut and 123ContactForm. There are more than 10 active business angels, with quite a few active investments, and soon to be two active VC early stage funds. Events like How to Web and Startup Spotlight are connecting the local ecosystem to the international tech world, while Venture Connect, Startup Weekend (held in six cities this year) and many others are helping local communities grow and develop. And the enthusiasm has stayed, but it has also started to be doubled by a more systematic approach to building tech businesses.
There are multilple causes for this massive growth of tech innovation.
While locally there’s still just a little bit of early stage capital for Romanian startups, many entrepreneurs have got the chance to get a little funding from the (now) numerous European accelerators. But getting financed outside Romania hasn’t decresed the growth of the local ecosystem. With just two exceptions (Summify and TheSunnyTrail), all the teams that have left Romania to go through an accelerator have returned and developed their R&D teams locally.
While the number of startups has grown, so has the number of big R&D centers. Once known as great places for outsourcing, cities like Bucharest, Cluj, Timisoara and Iasi now host the R&D centers of EA, Amazon, IXIA, Intel, Adobe and many, many others. Developer jobs still count for the majority of existing openings, but product developers, UX experts, community managers and other client-oriented jobs are more and more numerous, and the entire local expertise seems to move from a engineering-centric one to a customer-centric one.
Once startups, some companies have matured and the side effects are easy to see. George Lemnaru, co-founder of Erepublik, has left the company in 2012 to start a new gamming venture, called Green Horse Games. Cristi Badea and Elvis Apostol, also previous Erepublik employees, have co-founded Mavenhut along with Bobby Voicu. Lucian Todea, the founder and CEO of Soft32.com, has become lately an angel investor, same as Adrian Gheara, co-founder of Titan Backup.
As the number of stakeholders of the new innovation economy grows, more communities emerge. TechHub Bucharest, Startup Hub Timisoara, Cluj Hub and many others provide not only resident and hot desks, but also a reason for the local communities to meet, interact and exchange knowledge, and putting entrepreneurs, investors, R&D centers, product companies, developers and product experts together.
And while this ecosystem matures, growth is happening exponentially. This is just the begining of a great ride, fast as a speeding bullet.
About the author:
Bogdan Iordache is a Romanian entrepreneur, the co-founder of How to Web, Startup Spotlight, and Tech Hub Bucharest among others. Read more from Bogdan and get in touch with him on his website.