Eastern Europe for Entrepreneurs: The Good, the Bad and the Hustle
This is a story of a kid who dropped out of college at the age of 19, moved with two of his friends to another country and started a company -- Planable. Back then, I had no clue where this path would take me. Not to mention I had no idea how to create a marketing strategy, reply to angry users, make sales for a B2B company or even what a startup was.
I've been through a lot over the past few years. I went through depression, I've been completely and utterly broke, and I've crashed on so many couches I'm surprised I still have friends. And most importantly -- I've struggled with a lot of very specific local challenges in Eastern Europe that are different from any other parts of the world.
Let's begin with the fact that Eastern Europe is one of the best places to build your own startup -- I honestly think that. It's cheap, has lots of great talent and high-speed internet. But, there's also a bad side. Growing a startup in Eastern Europe comes with struggles that are not business- or product-related. It's specifically a problem of culture and mentality.
As a young person here, I was not sure if anyone even wanted entrepreneurs in this community. It seemed like my only purpose in life was to finish school, get a job and make sure I had a diploma, because that's the safe way to a good life. And even if most youngsters study something related to business or entrepreneurship, 99 percent of the time professors have absolutely no background in the field. That makes it hard for them to pass on any hands-on experience about building a company. It makes school just years of scrambling for a piece of paper.
That's why I love the Facebook groups Romanian Startups, Ukrainian Startups and Startup Moldova -- they're helping the local community, connecting me with other professionals, and guiding me along the way.
General mentality and support
I've been through the struggle of convincing my parents every single week that I'm doing something important and not just working on a "project" but building a company. For them, what was important was to get a degree in international relations, which I never did. It's hard to get support when society believes that getting a stable 9-to-5 job is the only choice you have.
Even freelancing is considered "not permanent" and "project-like." I believed in my company from Day One. Now, what we imagined is real and helping thousands of teams out there, used by more than 5,000 brands globally, including Volkswagen, Moto, Virgin Mobile, SkyTeam, Costa Coffee and ESET.
Lack of opportunities
It's true, there are no big accelerator programs, VCs or angel investors in this region, but things are moving in the right direction. We've already seen multiple accelerator programs, such as Spherik Accelerator, Startup Wise Guys and MVP Academy. Any Western startup will be surprised by the fact that an early stage company can sustain itself with $20,000 for a whole year -- in San Francisco that would just cover rent for six months.
It seems like people don't understand that there have never been so few obstacles for starting a company -- you can easily buy a laptop, start learning development, buy a domain and hosting for $2 a month and you already have something.
No entrepreneurial culture
Remember when Apple said it took "courage" to drop the headphone jack from the iPhone 7? That's exactly what I hear when telling people that I'm building a startup. You'll never see people amazed in the U.S. by that. That's just the way things are -- it's OK to build a company in the West. Eastern Europe believes that you risk everything for just an idea you have, and you're always too young, too unprepared, too inexperienced to build a company -- which isn't true.
Consumer mindset in Eastern Europe
We're not used to paying for a product or service and it's hard to convince us that services like Netflix, Spotify or HBO GO are worth it. We're still fans of torrents and pirate streaming websites. Europe has the highest online piracy rates, by far and people are just used to getting free things and they're not afraid to ask for them.
It's even worse in Eastern Europe, where piracy is actually on the rise. It's one of the best go-to options for anything -- software, music, icons, design, etc. If you're targeting U.S. and Western Europe customers you should definitely keep this in mind.
Long story short, it's been a journey indeed, and while the region made it hard it also came with advantages. Oh, and I suggest you should keep a close eye on Eastern European founders because they've got the whole hustling thing in their veins.