18 July, 2013
Well, I think I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of entrepreneurship in Lisbon! I’ve been running around talking to so many small business owners, startup hopefuls, and accelerator-program facilitators that it’s started to seem like each conversation (or pitch) matrixes out and leads to hundreds more people to contact, new programs to look into, buzzwords to decode and on and on…
One thing is for sure: Lisbon is bubbling – everywhere you look there’s a new business initiative being advertised or co-work space being promoted or fresh Portuguese-design shop hawking its wares. Then, when you stop to eat there’s enough homegrown food concepts to make your head spin (and your belly growl). As one person here put it to me, “These days, anything that smells of entrepreneurship is packed.” The activity is so overwhelming that it’s going to take me a bit of time to step back and sort through the hype. As of now my brain may be melting into a goo of jargon-y startup language!
But, even if my brain feels like goo, all the activity is a really good sign because my whole interest with startups and entrepreneurship in Europe began on the question of – why aren’t there more of them? What are the barriers to beginning them and what kinds of conditions would stimulate more innovation? And then, would entrepreneurship become some kind of answer to problems in crisis-stricken countries? The culture differences between the U.S. and Europe sometimes stand out really strongly in the ways each approaches entrepreneurship. What could the two regions learn from each other?
To explain a little more of where those questions came from: my spark of interest was really triggered last November when Luca and I attended Nova Italian MBA Association’s annual Ivy league conference. This year it was called “Wake up Italy!” and though the whole weekend was really interesting, a panel called “Start up Italy!” stood out the most to me. The speakers discussed how to combat the “stigma of failure” prevalent in Italy and there were jokes about the “creative” ways an Italian might approach an innovation contest. (One example: “look, I made a square pizza instead of a circle! It’s an innovation! Give me money!”) There was also a startup showcase of new Italian companies– but almost all were based outside of Italy and they all lamented that the laws and climate in Italy were not very conducive to starting and investing in new ventures.
The most exciting speaker was Alessandro Fusacchia, who at the time was an Advisor for European Affairs, Innovation and Youth for a minister in the Monti government, and he seemed to be jumping out of his chair to talk about ideas to make it easier to launch startups in Italy. “Six months ago, nobody in Italy knew what ‘startup’ meant!” he declared. He was working on a task force to promote an entrepreneurship-friendly environment in Italy and the fact that such a task force even existed really got me thinking about all the opportunities that might arise if attitudes changed and some key barriers to new business were removed. (Unfortunately, this specific task force may have gone out the door when the Monti government failed and the Letta coalition took over in the spring.)
I still have a lot to learn, but Lisbon has been a great place to start sniffing around because they are making a huge effort to become the home of “the next Skype” (as they say in the industry).
I’m still not sure how much the current trend for entrepreneurship in Portugal is a reaction to the crisis or just a matter of changing times in general across the entire globe. I definitely meet a lot of people who say, “well, I was unemployed or felt stuck in my job, so I figured it’s time to start my own thing.” But without the ecosystems in place, their chances for following this path would be extremely difficult, and the people who built up the ecosystems were not necessarily concerned with the crisis per se, but with building an entrepreneurship network because they believe in supporting it.
It also remains to be seen how much of the current boom in entrepreneurship will lead to lasting effects – there can be a lot of interesting ideas, but will they lead to full-fledged companies, lower unemployment figures, and contribute to a healthier economy? My time in Lisbon so far has given me plenty of food for thought and I’ll probably be writing a lot about this in the coming days!