Did you ever pause to think what it takes to get a massive event off the ground? What drives the team behind it, who are they, and why do they devote their time and energy to this particular cause? At inventures we’ve wondered more than once, so we talked to Andreas Tschas (32) and Jürgen Furian (30), the two cofounders of the Pioneers Festival.
It’s all about the impact
In 2009, when they were still studying at Vienna’s University of Economics and Business, they wanted to make a difference and youth unemployment was the topic of the day. “We wanted to create a startup ecosystem here in Austria,” Andreas says. “We organized the first event where we brought together people with ideas to create new companies.” It was indicative of the times when startup was almost a foreign word. There were 28 participants and 12 organizers but they powered through and saw interest of the region beyond Austria. At the time “we had no business model, we just said ‘let’s do something, we want to have an impact’, but we did not have a clear picture of what Pioneers really is,” Andreas, who is clearly the more practical of the two as he keeps circling back to the business model and matters of structure and goals, remembers.
It wasn’t just structure that led them to hosting the Pioneers Festival in the Hofburg Imperial Palace just three years later. In fact, it only came with time, as ideas they didn’t even know they had, slowly took shape. The fuel for their fast success was something else altogether: “A lot of passion, I would say,” Jürgen speaks up. That is his domain, as Andreas agrees: “It was definitely Jürgen who was a visionary and thought big.” Visions and dreams were about all they had in the beginning but that, coupled with a lot of hard work and some useful contacts was enough to fuel their growth: “Being passionate about what you’re doing and doing it for the right reasons was their goal. “This is basically the backbone of what we achieved and why we achieved it,” Jürgen says. “In the first three years we made no money at all, it was a zero-sum game, but we helped a lot of people, not just in Austria, all over Europe, and I think they really appreciate it and the community then helped us grow in size.”
Defining the Future
And grow they did. From that small event with an audience of 28, they surpassed a thousand relatively quickly. They had about 1,300 people at StartupWeek, the predecessor of the Pioneers Festival, in 2011, and for the past few years they have kept a limit on their numbers. “I am pretty sure we could have way more than that, but looking back at the StartupWeek times, people were really excited because by the second or third day it felt like a family so you could network very well,” Jürgen explains. “2,500 people is the max number where you can really deliver value, so that is the reason why we limited it.”
They have chosen to focus on quality instead, as can be seen from their agenda and the grand choice of location. “That was on purpose,” Jürgen says with a coy smile. “We are a future conference, we talk about the future, next three to five years that’s our sweet spot. And if you do that in a 500-year-old imperial palace, the contrast is amazing.” Ever the pragmatic, Andreas jumps in to clarify just how much of a leap that was: “At Pioneers we set big goals and have this big vision. In the future the Hofburg should be at the epicentre of the festival and we are thinking of expanding. It is expensive but we stick to it.”
Speaking of the future, now that their business concept is cleared up and they have events and partners all over the world, the two original Pioneers have some surprises up their sleeve. “Together with SpeedInvest we are now working on not just giving startups the network, but also giving them funding,” Andreas, who takes care of the partnership says. “But there will also be another big announcement at Pioneers. Everything will become a little bit bigger, let’s put it that way and more focused.”
Their event is becoming increasingly relevant in more ways than one as politicians and big corporations are also coming on board and accepting that one cannot discuss the future of business without embracing startups and entrepreneurship. “In the future we won’t have this typical old economy or a new economy anymore, we are convinced that we will see the synergy of old and new – we call it a true economy,” Andreas explains. “This is where we want to position Pioneers at the intersection of the old and new economy. With the Pioneers Festival we want to own the word future so we really want to give an outlook of what’s happening.”
The best kind of partners
Perhaps none of the growth and success would have been possible without the dynamic in their partnership. Friends from school and later university, the two have learned how to play to each other’s strengths and recognize the importance of finding a good “sparring partner” in business. “It’s a good complimentary team,” Jürgen says and it is evident in the way they interact and the moments they both burst out laughing at the same time, sharing an inside joke. “I can only encourage people who want to start companies to have a good sparring partner to bounce ideas off.” Their friendship has held strong too – they still take holidays together, even though there has been very little time for that: “It is actually the first time we are going to have a summer break in five years,” Jürgen eagerly says. “Yeah, and we don’t know what do with our free time,” Andreas is quick to add before they both share a laugh.
When they do get some free time, they try to focus on the people around: “In all honesty, I have to say I have failed miserably in the past with this, that is the truth and you just have to learn how to deal with a really intense business life and still have time for family and friends,” Jürgen says. Sports are also a favourite that has been neglected because of work, but Andreas, who is expecting a baby in summer, seems to have the better grip on spare time: “My girlfriend gives me a lot of energy and we are pretty good sparring partners too. I really try to have time for my family, and my dog. She is also on our website and comes to the office once a week.” “She is a good connector,” Jürgen jokes. One of the reasons they have so little time is the size of their team. A total of 35 people in Vienna cover the Festival, the international events, business intelligence and a venture fund. “We are very, very effective, basically to the limit, in setting this up,” Jürgen says. “At the end of the day we are firefighters and we are taking on the challenges that we are given.”