The past and future of Krakow’s start-up community
The Hive53 Innovation Swarm event brought together eight prominent entrepreneurs from the Krakow start-up community to discuss how the community formed and its prospects for the future. The Krakow start-up ecosystem has grown over the years, but it is still waiting for the “next wave” of entrepreneurs to contribute to its growth
Local entrepreneurs in Krakow are likely well aware of Hive53, the series of regular meetings that take place at The Stage and bring interesting technical and creative people to speak to the local startup community. However, the meetings had been on hiatus for some time, so when they started back up again, they did so with a bang – by rolling out the red carpet for Krakow’s tech VIPs.
The Krakow Innovation Swarm meeting, which took place on April 28th, featured a whopping eight speakers (usually there’s two or three): Kuba Probola of Hub:raum, Ramon Tancinco of Cisco, Ela Madej of Base and Innovation Nest, Piotr Wilam of Innovation Nest, angel investor Richard Lucas, Paweł Nowak of COLAB, Wojtek Burkot of Allegro and Samuel P.N. Cook of Project Kazimierz. The last speaker, Samuel, is the new host of the Hive53 meetups, and this was his inaugural meeting.
The panel consisted of a series of stories told by the panelists about their personal entrepreneurial journeys as well as the development of Krakow as the start-up hub it is today. “There’s something really special going on here,” Samuel said about Krakow, and as an outsider, his goal is to show the local community what he sees. “The startup community is part of an ecosystem, and we can’t do it alone, which is part of the reason we brought you here,” Samuel told the audience.
The panel started off, appropriately enough, with Richard Lucas, who is known as “Krakow’s original angel investor”, having been one of the first to invest in the budding Krakow start-ups in the 1990s and early 2000s, long before the city had a community. Richard talked about the changes he’s seen since he came here in the 1990s. “You’re living in a completely different world than the world that grew up with communism,” Richard emphasized. This means that the number of opportunities has grown exponentially since those times. Today, Krakow is “a city where you can arrive as a stranger, you can make your way and you can do something”.
However, he also stressed that just because an opportunity is there, you shouldn’t always take it. “Don’t always take the investor’s dollar or euro; if you can bootstrap it and not share your money, do that. If you feel like it and can do it, do it,” is Richard’s advice for the entrepreneurs that approach him for funding.
Following Richard, the other panelists gave some of their own advice. Paweł Nowak told of his story of trying many different university programs and leaving all of them before going out on his own. While in some circles he would be seen as a college dropout and a failure, Paweł values his experiences, saying “I don’t have a degree, but I do know how to learn”. Thus, his advice to the budding entrepreneurs in the audience was to learn from more experienced entrepreneurs: “There are people who have been where you are right now, and you can get where they are”. Host Samuel Cook agreed, admitting that entrepreneurship is very lonely, so “finding other entrepreneurs who are going through the same thing are very important”.
The next speaker, Piotr Wilam, wanted to stress that entrepreneurship isn’t all about failure and loneliness – “being an entrepreneur is fun!” He talked about his early days as co-founder of Onet, and how part of their success stemmed from simply timing, as well as the ability to think big. It was Poland in the 1990s, when capitalism was new and Poland was still the Wild West. “My partner Tomasz and I had this vision that we wanted to build a big company, like Yahoo!, in Poland,” Piotr explained. They knew that it would take time and vision to get that big, however. “When we started this business, the revenue from Internet advertising in Poland was zero. In the second year, it was still zero. In the third year we had half the online business in Poland. Then there was the bubble.”
When the bubble burst and Piotr exited the company in 2000, he made the biggest mistake of his life – he decided to change industries. However, he found his way back to the tech world, this time as an investor. When he came back, in the late 2000s he noticed that while there were a ton of Polish start-ups springing up, they were all making the same mistake – thinking only locally, when the world was becoming more and more globally linked. This became the idea for the Innovation Nest venture fund – supporting companies that think globally.
The next speaker, Ela Madej, is the newest member of Innovation Nest, and has become their “American ambassador” as she’s spending much of her time in the U.S. these days. While many know her from Applicake, which later became the success story Base CRM, she explained that through those years she had been involved in “so many other things never got anywhere”. She stressed that people usually only hear about your successes, and not all the failures it took to get there.
Speaking of how Krakow has changed since she begin her entrepreneurial journey, she said that the “quality of ideas is way more mature” in Krakow in 2015 than it was in 2011. She also echoed Richard’s views that the opportunities have multiplied. Today, “for any smart person in the community, there’s possibilities to get all the resources you need”.
Both Ela and the next speaker, Wojtek Burkot, have an academic background in physics. Wojtek started the Google office in Krakow after finding success during the transition between communism and democracy. He described it as a “crazy time – whatever stupid idea you had just worked. Now it’s much more difficult and success comes from spotting trends.” One of those trends he sees is that the future will consist of “small mobile devices”. Today, “more searches are done on mobile devices than on laptops, though it’s still extremely difficult to monetize the mobile world”. Whoever does so, Wojtek stressed, will definitely make money.
The next speaker up, Kuba Probola, was responsible for convincing T-Mobile to locate their next Hub:raum office in Krakow instead of Vienna or Budapest. Kuba knew that Krakow couldn’t compete on infrastructure or money, but it had a stronger community, and that’s what finally convinced the corporation. He explained that corporations are future, but the start-ups that function around them are better at execution.
Ramon Tancinco is another person who has seen the Krakow start-up community develop from nearly the beginning. He stressed four key elements of any start-up ecosystem: universities and students, multinationals, serial entrepreneurs and venture capital. Krakow is getting to the point where these elements are “mature enough that they can evolve into a version of Silicon Valley”. He also explained what can keep the ecosystem going and growing: “You guys [the audience] need to be up here in five years, talking about how you built the community”.
The future of Krakow’s tech community
This thought about the future opened up the next main topic of the meeting – what do we need to do as a community to get to the next level? Samuel asked all of the panelists what they thought the answer was, and what Krakow’s future will look like.
Paweł said that in some sense, the Krakow community is waiting for the “next wave” – three to five years from now when the 1,000 people working at start-ups now will begin founding their own companies. Ela thought a shift in focus could happen: “I’m excited about not just looking at software products, but social good innovation and technology – not just ‘changing the world’ but doing really important things – biotech, where innovation is going, etc.”.
Wojtek explained that “you build on what has been build”, and if exponential growth really took off in Krakow, the city could become a tech hub not just for Poland, but for the entire region. Piotr stressed that “the most important are entrepreneurs – we need more entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs who have the desire to change the world, to build big companies, who have the creativity, bravery to build something new”. Richard explained that an entrepreneur should be like a guy trying to get a date, who should approach that girl he’s afraid to talk to: “don’t be afraid to approach a business with an idea – they’ll probably say no, but they might say yes”. Kuba explained that a good idea is not enough if it’s not executed quickly enough. “Execution makes a difference,” he emphasized, “don’t wait”.
Finally, Ramon told the audience to “be curious”. According to him, the foundation of entrepreneurship is curiosity, while intellect and emotional ability are less important than curiosity.
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