The Bulgarian startup scene needs to build a stronger community and focus on education and mentorship – those were some of the conclusions of the two-day StartUP Conference NEXT in Sofia. Held on 30 November and 1 December, the event gathered over 450 wannapreneurs and startup founders for lessons and debates on the future of the startup community in the country and the region.
While the speakers generally agreedthat Bulgaria is already nurturing one of the greatest startup environments in the region, they also admitted that CEE has a long way to go before reaching Israel or Silicon Valley. In fact, as Steve Keil of MammothDB said in his sobering speech, Europe, and especially CEE, doesn’t have the same resources and cannot play by the same rules as Silicon Valley. “What’s next is bloody hard work, that’s what’s next,” he said.
To set the scene for those who couldn’t attend, some numbers are in order. With a total of 467 tickets sold, the annual event lived up to its advertising as the largest in the country. This year, there were 35 speakers, participating in 14 keynote speeches and seven panels.
The event was live-streamed for those who couldn’t attend, and the enticement of a dinner with the financial gurus for the top Twitterers led to a flurry of online activity. With the first day’s tweeting war over, the chance to pitch in front of the accelerator representatives and the second day’s prize being a copy of The Mom Test, it is unsurprising that there were over 900 tweets during the entire event. What is perhaps even more interesting is that only about 70% of them originated in Bulgaria, according to data from Radian6.
Photo credit: StartUP Foundation
Speeches were varied and looked at different aspects of the startup business – from the initial pitch to selling to big business and enterprises and the drive behind starting a company. On the latter, Stavros Messini from The Cube in Athens offered a pirate’s piece of advice, urging the audience to be “more like Jack Sparrow than Barbarossa” and underlining that “the problems we solve must be global problems”. Jordan Schlipf of #1seed reiterated the honesty point, saying that “principles are the most important place to start (…) you can sell ice to Eskimos, but only once.”
Representing the second most developed startup environment in the world, Shira Abel from Israel-based Hunter & Bard talked about marketing, emphasising that product-market fit is gold and that “nothing kills a bad product like good marketing”. Also touching on the topic of hyping a product, Filip Dobranić from Hekovnik Startup School focused on telling good stories and ensured the audience that being a successful speaker is not an innate skill, but rather an acquired one. “VCs are the only people in the world, who probably have everything they need, so they invest in your story, not your product,” he said.
The panels resulted in more valuable lessons while sparking lively discussions. Focused on what lies ahead for the region, panelists discussed the biggest trends in startups across the world today, including crowdfunding, medtech and the Internet of Things. They all agreed that more bridges need to be built between the regional entrepreneurial communities and discussed ideas of startup visas and exchange programmes.
On a purely local level, there was talk that the community needs to grow and become more active, that more representatives of startups, which have secured funding, should join such events as mentors. Education and the role of the government were also discussed, with criticism on the latter, somewhat surprisingly coming from Evgeni Angelov, the Economic Advisor to Bulgaria’s President. He said that under the current framework, the government was only hindering the startup businesses and that they needed to “get out” until they improved the ecosystem.
On the education front, Svetlin Nakov, from the software university, which he created himself, called for a complete overhaul of the education system, while other panelists were more cautious and stressed on the need for more practical training. Education needs to start early, Zornitsa Tomova from 42 ideas and Radostina Boycheva from Able agreed, with Stani Milev from StartUp Academy ultimately noting that “it’s not about being or not being an entrepreneur, it’s about thinking like one.”
The conference’s relaxed setup was at somewhat of a disaccord with the futuristic hall of Sofia Event Center, with additional speakers spontaneously climbing on stage and joining the panels, inside jokes and a few technical glitches. At the end, the atmosphere was so relaxed that the audience acted quite like fans at a baseball stadium, plunging to catch one of the four copies of The Mom Test that organiser Chris Georgiev from the StartUP Foundation was tossing to the back of the room. It was this dissonance, however, that underlined the feeling that the organisers were trying to achieve – a sense of a heartfelt meetup in the forward-looking community of Bulgarian entrepreneurs.
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