The local entrepreneurial scene may be a young one, but don’t be fooled.
Only less than four years ago the future plans for young graduates in Bulgaria were to get the best corporate 9-to-5 they can manage and to start climbing the ladder. I know, because I was one of those young and enthusiastic professionals. The word ‘entrepreneur’ almost had a dirty context in the minds of the majority. Today we find Bulgaria in a very different state.
In the midst of economic and political instability, Bulgaria’s gaining speed as a European start-up hub, attracting the attention of VCs and seed funds from across Europe. The boom of IT outsourcing, hardware and software solutions as seen in 2012, opened the eyes of a lot of international companies, resulting in the position of Bulgaria as an excellent source of bright minds. The natural spill that followed was a rapid activation of entrepreneurship, as many professionals with years of corporate experience started their own ventures, motivated to reach international recognition and investment.
Currently, seed funds like LAUNCHub and Eleven, as well as venture funds like NEVEQ and accelerator programs like Start it Smart and StartUp Academy keep the buzz growing. Some have seen this quick scalability of the ecosystem as a sign of a bubble waiting to burst, but the truth is Bulgaria is only gaining speed. In 2013 Bulgaria was named the top 3 hot-spot destination in Europe for start-ups, with over 150 supported ventures to date. Of course, little of this would have been possible without the direct involvement of the European Investment Fund (EIF). Like much needed medicine, EIF ‘injected’ more than EU 21m in the form of seed funding to foster entrepreneurial growth in tech and software solutions, innovations and energy efficiency.
And with little time, the trust the EU put in Bulgaria started paying off. As an example, earlier this year, Flipps, a local seed funded venture, received significant ‘Series A’ investment by the Earlybird Digital East Fund. Proof, that our start-ups have what it takes to conquer the European entrepreneurial scene in a flair, because besides the formula for success – brains, teams and good ideas, we have a special ingredient that perhaps Western European ecosystems lack – a strong feel of community and cooperation.
This unique sense of community is constantly being fostered through interconnected entrepreneurial events. Take the StartUp Weekend for example – an inspiring atmosphere where young businesses to be learn the nooks and crannies of growing a successful company from the best and brightest in the region. The initiative comes from the Bulgarian chapter of the US based non-for-profit organization StartUp, with a global reach of 200 cities and more than 1800 past events. Locally, the organization contributes to the continuous rise of the ecosystem with annual events in all major Bulgarian cities, successfully spreading entrepreneurship as a profession in other cities besides the capital.
Besides the formalities of conferences and lectures, the Bulgarian start-up scene doesn’t fail to deliver on casual meet-and –greets either. One such initiative is the Silicon DrinkAbout, a casual after-work drinks held every Friday night in different locations around Sofia. Brought by 3Beards, a London based start-up, it was quickly embraced by the local community as the go-to event for meeting like-minded individuals. Another similar format is Open Coffee, organized since 2008.
When you ask some young Bulgarians what it is like to live in the country, they will quickly start drawing a picture of a grey reality, poverty and a society with a twisted moral system. This is not what our ecosystem stands for and by far not the only reality in Bulgaria. Take a walk in Betahaus or SoHo and feel the murmurs of a thousand ideas being discussed. Attend one of the frequent entrepreneurial events, like Digitalk and get inspired by the first hand stories of companies in the rank of Ubber and Twitter. If you are tired, go grab a beer with the brightest tech minds at a Silicon Drinkabout, where a casual discussion can easily turn into the next big thing on the market. Only then will you know the true colours of Bulgaria and the brightness of our continuously rising ecosystem.
And if there is any doubt left in entrepreneurs from all around, that Bulgaria is a cost-friendly and flourishing environment for your companies, let me assure you – the trend of expats establishing local ventures is here to stay. Serial entrepreneurs from all around are founding local companies acknowledging Bulgaria as an Eastern European power house. Not only that, but locally founded companies can be seen showcasing their success during most of the entrepreneurial events in Eastern and Central Europe. Perhaps we won’t become a mastodon of Silicon Valley proportions any time soon, but we take comfort in our charming chaos. We’re here to stay and we’ll welcome the growth to come! So the question is, will you?