Travelling start-up salvation

By Ivo Spigel on August 28th, 2012

Neil Diamond fans will be familiar with Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show, and we all know the traveling salesmen of the Old West from the movies. They’re usually harmless guys with a donkey pulling a wagon that would serve as a shop in the daytime and home for the weary salesman during the night.

The chaps organising travelling shows in and around central and eastern Europe these days are a far cry from those dusty, grimy Western characters, but they do share one characteristic: they will travel far and wide to spread the love.

Love, that is, for great start-up projects and founders and a passion for boosting start-up communities, often in what would seem to be unlikely of places such as Pristina, capital of Kosovo, Kampala and Lagos.

Start-up events are an important part of any start-up community. Central and eastern Europe is no different. Three organizations and their related activities in particular caught my attention, so I took a little time looking at their work and speaking with the people behind these traveling shows.

“Central and eastern Europe” is a bit of a stretch for Austria and Finland, but nevertheless in my book they are so closely entwined with CEE proper that they very much belong in the region.

startEurope out of Vienna, Startup Sauna from Aalto (Finland) and Garage48 from Tallinn are organizations that have grown out of their native cities to organise and spread the start-up Bible far and wide, together covering dozens of cities across four continents: Europe, Africa, North America and Asia.

Closest to my Zagreb home is startEurope, which Michael Schuster has already mentioned in his Kernel piece about Vienna. The team is quite large for such an organization – 21 people – and they produce three kinds of events. Startup Lounges are semi-formal gatherings at the Sektor5 coworking space in Vienna with keynote presentations by guests, pitches by startups and discussions on various topics.

startEurope’s flagship event is the Pioneers Festival, renamed from last year’s Startup Week: a large festival and conference gathering of more than 2,000 people in Vienna’s imposing imperial Hofburg Palace. The third activity, and my principal concern here, is Startup Live.

Startup Live is a series of weekend events, a combination of a weekend conference and start-up competition. I spoke with Jürgen Furian, cofounder of startEurope, about their motivation for these events and the production level for this year.

“Our model is self-designed and not based on other models like Seedcamp or YC,” he said. “It is solely based on the effective networking environments we create.

“From the beginning, our motivation has been to promote and foster more entrepreneurship within Europe. We strongly feel that an essential component to stemming the tide of these challenging economic times is to foster entrepreneurship, offer concrete solutions and create pathways for creative people to bring their innovations to fruition.

“In short, many creative people have excellent ideas, but lack the know-how to capitalise on their passion.”

Startup Live will host an impressive 27 events this year in 19 different countries, from Cluj in Romania and Tirana, Albania to Copenhagen in the north and Alicante, Spain in the west. Ambitious plans call for 50 events to take place by 2013 – almost one a week.

Events are always co-organized with local startup community leaders. Here in Croatia, Ivan Burazin was the key person behind Startup Live Split in early June.

How is startEurope funded? “About 75 per cent comes from the private sector and 25 per cent from public money,” says Furian.

I mentioned to Furian I was slightly suprised to find among the sponsors the large, family-owned Ströck bakery chain. The familiar Ströck logo on the startEurope web partner listing seemed a bit strange next to Microsoft, A1 telecom and Konica Minolta.

“Ströck is a family-owned company,” he explained. “And one of the family members is an active angel investor, very interested in the startup community.”

From lovely Vienna our story takes us north, to Aalto in Finland. Startup Sauna, the accelerator happening in the Aalto Venture Garage coworking space, has come a long way since getting started back in 2009. Ville Simola has had the official title of Captain of Startup Sauna until just recently. He is now moving to a start-up himself.

Other quasi-official titles in the organisation include Wingman and Head Coach. Startup Sauna is different in many ways from other accelerators but the focus of my interest was the Sauna Warmup series of events.

For each warm-up, a team from Aalto heads out to a particular city looking for interesting start-ups to invite to the program. The team includes Startup Sauna crew members, three coaches (in other programs they are called mentors) and are joined at the event by three local coaches and co-organizers.

Last year’s Russian tour took the Sauna traveling show through 5 Russian cities during September, including the obligatory Moscow and St. Petersburg but also Kazan, Jekaterinburg and Novosibirsk. How many accelerator organizers go to Siberia to look for the best teams Russia has to offer? Not many.

Startup Sauna warm-ups usually cover the Nordic and Baltic countries and Russia. When one of the coaches invited Simolla and team for a trip to Shanghai last year, however, they were happy to pack up and go on short notice. That warmup brought two Chinese teams into Sauna’s 2012 spring batch, as well as one American, making it the first tri-continental group of the program.

Out of 300 applications, 20 made it into this group. The spring program ended on June 7 with a Demo Day attended by 800 participants, many of them, of course, investors with cash to splash. Ville is passing on his Captain’s position to his former Wingman, Antti Ylimutka, and the Kernel will keep an eye out for news and developments spreading from Aalto.

The third organisation I wanted to look at is based near Helsinki, in the Estonian capital of Tallinn. Garage48 runs hackathons in and around the Baltic region but also in other, faraway places. How and why did it get started? Cofounder Priit Salumaa explains: “We saw that Estonia and the region in general lacked a proper hackathon with a startup twist.

“We looked into Startup Weekend and other bootcamp style events, learned from them and devised our own format to give our participants a stronger feel what it means to work in a startup-like agile and lean team under strong time pressure and conditions of low resources.”

Garage48 events are happening, as I mentioned, not only in Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine and Finland but also far from the organisations’ homes, in Africa. 2011 saw five African events, in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and South Africa. Why Africa? “The continent has huge potential.”

We also talked about statistics. Has Garage48 been tracking any key metrics for projects coming out of the weekend hackathons – follow-on funding, number of employees, and so on?

“Investments as such are not our goal: we are not an accelerator program but a weekend hackathon. It is more important for Garage48 to offer our participants an unprecedented opportunity to network – you get to know people better when working with them side by side for 48 hours.

“Garage48 can be considered an extreme training program where you get to know new technologies, new people, yourself and where you see what kind of pace and attitude is expected from a startup team.”

How about funding – private or government backed? “We started out having only commercial sponsors,” says Salumaa, “but after a year of excellent execution we were recognized as a worthy enough partner for certain amount of governmental support as well.”

How much do they charge their financial sponsors? “It’s confidential, but generally we don’t charge that much and they get a lot out of it!”

Aside from these regional organizations, global start-up events, of course, are spreading through central and eastern Europe. Having been to Tallinn and Zagreb already this year, Seedcamp is coming to Budapest for the first time in late October.

Startup Weekend has either taken place or is scheduled for almost every CEE city mentioned here. Also, in late October, the Zagreb chapter of the Founder Institute program starts, as well as an exploratory one in Kiev, Ukraine.

So there’s no lack of events and opportunities for startup founders in the region to get up and go. The Kernel will be following these developments closely, with coverage expanding from Istanbul and Vienna to (soon) other key cities in so-called “New Europe”. Exciting times.