Almost two years ago, I put a promising career in business reporting on hold, packed my bags, and headed to Athens. No, not Athens, Georgia, but Athens, Greece, the “birthplace of democracy” and modern cultural hub under recurring media limelight for that dreaded six-letter word: “crisis.”
Neither my colleagues and friends, nor my family in the States seemed to identify an ounce of sense in my decision, but there I was, doing the unexpected. As for the Greeks I knew, they thought I was downright crazy to be joining them in a land of economic instability. The trend back then had people fleeing the country, not to find a better-paying job, but simply, a paying one.
During my first days in Athens, however, I met an educated group of young people with a creative attitude, praiseworthy ambitions, and an unquenchable thirst for success. I was hooked.
Truth be told, I didn’t expect my stay to last this long, but beyond the country’s stunning natural beauty, lively lifestyle, and interesting locals, I found myself charmed by the emerging startup community of Greece – a talented breed of go-getters I could not have imagined existed.
Exhibiting a strong sense of global and local community, these twenty to forty-somethings are determined to leave their mark, creating new business approaches that have altered the local status quo.
A report by the non-profit entrepreneur movement, Endeavor Greece, identified only 16 existing startups in 2010, but that number grew to 200 by 2013, and then doubled in 2014. Today, there are more than 1,000, according to the Hellenic Startup Association. Approximately half the active startups are in the technology sector.
But does this new wave of young entrepreneurs have the right ammunition to beat the odds in this Wild West-of-sorts business environment created by the recession and teetering Greek politics? Though the Greek startup community has seen a quick growth rate in terms of new businesses established annually, it’s not strong enough to battle the country’s widespread joblessness.
A more than sad job market, (the worst in the EU), and crisis-born necessity are what triggered the budding of a new era of entrepreneurs in the first place. But the upcoming months, experts say, will be “sink or swim” for these companies, many of which are at the mercy of pending political deals which will determine the country’s economic wellbeing, or lack thereof.
Indeed, it seems to be Greece’s sociopolitical structure that has been inhibiting emerging and small business growth, once established. Coming from the U.S., I was taken aback by how complicated starting and running a business in Greece really is, from the immense paperwork, to the various delays, high taxation, and now, crippling capital controls.
“New entrepreneurs in Greece face several challenges, from limited available venture capital funds and private investors to a harsh tax and red-tape environment and a limited pool of professionals with international experience,” says 25-year-old Demetrios Pogkas, an Athens-based startup and tech business journalist who has followed the industry for three years.
But innovation and business cultivation seem to be the only way out for debt-ridden Greece, something leaders should not ignore. With the recent debate over whether to stay “in or out of the EU” apparently settled for now, a question of importance remains. Can a relatively small group of young entrepreneurs save Greece? The answer, I believe, is yes. But the government and EU have to play along.
MEET THE GREEKS
Take the example of Kostapanos Miliaresis, the 24-year-old founder of GloVo, a non-profit global platform connecting volunteers to various efforts and events. I met Miliaresis in 2013 while we both worked out of a startup incubator called Found.ation near the graffiti art-clad, old industrial Athens neighborhood of Keramikos in 2013. With some 6,000 registered volunteers offering assistance at 224 events and social actions in just two and a half years of existence, Miliaresis’ team has sparked an organized modern volunteer culture in Greece.
“The crisis, I believe, is one of the main reasons why volunteerism has taken a step up over the past couple years,” Miliaresis says. “People see the pain of others and they want to help. Young people see it as way to gain new experiences, to travel, and of course to offer something to those in need.”
For Miliaresis, the concept of turning an interest into a profitable movement in Greece has proven worth the stay, despite the country having lost many bright minds to the more attractive job prospects abroad, following the so-called “brain drain” effect.
“Young Greeks are multitalented and fully capable of achieving success, they just need some guidance to give them that first push forward and help them find their passion,” he says.
Tucked away in a neoclassical building in the quaint neighborhood of Plaka are the Athens offices of London-based Qrator, a chic web and mobile branding platform and networking community for creative professionals and enthusiasts. Overseeing a team of 11, founder and CEO Nikolas Ioannidis says that compared to countries like the U.S., Greece’s tech talent makes for a very cost-efficient hire. Even so, the local business environment’s consistent instability makes it difficult for foreign investors to take a chance on Greece, he says.
Having received $830,000 in funding last December, Ioannidis’ team is part of a fortunate group of businesses partially backed up by EU funds and angel investors.
“With the problems we are facing now, we cannot be sure that the EU investment fund will continue investing in Greek startups,” Ioannidis says. “It’s a hard call.”
In the upscale area of Kolonaki, bordering the notorious anarchist-packed Exarchia Square, 45-year-old political and social activist Areti Georgilis runs a small cafe bookshop called Free Thinking Zone where she hosts gatherings with a cause.
As the Communications Manager at the Hellenic Startup Association, she is on a mission to help talented youth advance in Greece by fighting bureaucracy, exchanging know-how, and initiating collaboration, she says.
But after nine months of heightened uncertainty, recent developments have even the most positive individuals worried that not enough is being done to protect the ailing young business environment.
“Uncertainty is the biggest enemy causing an inevitable delay in scaling up plans…there are times that I catch myself regretting having started this effort in Greece in the first place,” Georgilis says. “We need some trust and some guidance, two things that the Greek state keeps refusing us,” she adds.
CHALLENGES & FUNDING
Greece is not alone in the struggling global business arena. Take for example the U.S., where some 50 percent of small businesses born to new firms in 2000 failed within the first five years of operation, according to a Small Businesses Administration report citing the U.S. Census. A 2014 report by UK insurer RSA Group states that 55 percent of small and medium sized businesses in the UK do not survive past the five year mark, noting the local tax system to be top among listed growth barriers.
Despite the global norm, however, numbers show that Greece lags well behind other nations in a number of key points determining a country’s overall economic health. From the notoriously shaky politics, to rotten loan deals, and the highest unemployment rate among the 28 EU member states, few would disagree that Greece’s economy has suffered a tough number of years.
In fact, roughly 1.2 million Greeks, or a quarter of the country’s population, were unemployed in May, according to a report released by the Hellenic Statistical Authority, the most recent data available. With the number of unemployed persons doubling in 2015 compared with the same period in 2010, Greek youth are the hardest hit at over 53 percent, unemployed compared with 23.6 percent in France, 15.7 percent in the UK, and 7.1 in Germany, according to data portal Trading Economics.
Nowadays, in the midst of a post-referendum environment and EU deals up in the air, Greeks face a number of extra daily inconveniences including the inability to make certain payments outside the country. For example, popular services like PayPal and iTunes recently placed temporary blocks on transactions coming from Greece because funds could be transferred, rendering numerous businesses unable to accept foreign shipments, and startups struggling to pay for foreign web hosting services
“All companies need stability and predictability in the markets in order to survive and plan ahead, and this is not the case in Greece these days,” says Endeavor Greece Managing Director Haris Makryniotis.
An immediate lift of capital controls, followed by increased liquidity, are key priorities for Greek businesses right now, according to a July report released by Endeavor.
“Though in the long run the country has significant competitive advantages and great human capital, it is critical to stabilize the financial and political environment in order for entrepreneurship to flourish,” Makryniotis says.
The only other options, he notes, are for companies to shut down or move their legal establishment, and perhaps even their operations abroad, where they can hope for more business stability.
“[The startups] open bank accounts abroad for starters, then a registration change takes place to raise additional funding,” says PJ Tech Catalyst Fund CEO Ion Tsakonas, noting that there is a general fear of bank account “haircuts.”
Of 300 companies surveyed in the Endeavor Greece report, 23 percent plan to transfer headquarters abroad for security, cash flow, and stability reasons, while 64 percent plan to remain in Greece, and 13 percent are already based outside the country.
A total of 69 percent of companies surveyed have suffered significant losses on their operations caused by imposed limitations to cross-border transactions, according to the report, while 97 percent want Greece to remain in the Eurozone in the next two years.
“We are all trapped in a situation with no other solution than to ‘live by the book,’ keep up with unbearable austerity measures and work hard, hoping that someday the institutions will understand the Greek debt is not viable and further assist us with a reasonable-for-all [debt] haircut,” Georgilis says. “Until then, and as long as my country needs me, I’ll stick here and do my best to contribute to escaping this nightmare,” she adds.
And where is the money and support coming from? For startups and young businesses, it’s been a mix of private and EU funds. The PJ Tech Catalyst Fund, for example, has to date supported a total of 12 Greek startup businesses with 6 million euro. It is one of four designated investment funds backed up by the Joint European Resources for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises program, known as JEREMIE, an EU fund specially set up to promote entrepreneurship in Europe.
JEREMIE offers select businesses 70 percent in funding, while the remaining 30 percent has to come from private investors. The four investment funds have until the end of 2015 to fully distribute some 70 million euro to promising ventures in Greece, according to agreements.
A LEAP OF FAITH
Funding may be well-invested when put in the hands of the younger, more educated, and more open-minded generation. As Makryniotis explains, Greece’s “Generation We” is the “first to have more in common with global youth than with the country’s previous generations.” They are a new class of domestically and internationally mobile, private-sector-focused entrepreneurial types who have taken the reigns of change in their hands.
“Even though the Greek State and society have done very little to infuse extroversion, creativity, and collaboration into the country’s younger generations, there is a part of the Greek youth that demonstrates an inherent flexibility, mobility and willingness to drive change,” he says.
The tough environment in Greece is indeed breeding a strong-willed generation of leaders who can significantly contribute to contemporary global entrepreneurship, should certain barriers be lifted. But why do they continue to fight for their causes in Greece when they can take their talent elsewhere?
“The situation in Greece is very volatile and there doesn’t seem to be a plan for the long-term. We are very concerned,” says 36-year-old Maria Calafatis, Community Curator at Exarchia-based startup incubator The Cube Athens. “But we are here, we’re very invested, and we need to do our bit to make change happen. We like challenges,” she adds.
Back in the Free Thinking Zone bookshop, Georgilis remains hopeful, despite her evident disappointment with certain government decisions. “Greek startuppers have a unique learning opportunity few other startup ecosystems worldwide have faced before -to solve problems the crisis has put into light,” she says. “With a little trust from foreign investment schemes and business angels, they can easily overcome the temporary difficulties and fly,” she adds.
Perhaps these young businesses people live for the challenge, and perhaps the world can learn something from Greek entrepreneurs.