A U.S. Visit Helps Ideas Grow Into Businesses in Greece

This piece was first published Nov. 20, 2012 on Huffington Post here.

Anna Garcin recently and “by accident” discovered that Greece produces high-quality and underutilized silk. Anna is one of the entrepreneurs behind five new startups in Greece that visited the U.S. last month. For many of them, this was their first visit. They are all finalists in the first Startup Series organized by Metavallon (“bringing change” in Ancient Greek), an organization that accelerates ideas and new ventures in Greece.

“I was at the metro in Syntagma last winter,” she recalls. “There was an exhibition of Greek products. I was not in a hurry so I stopped: there was a booth with a couple from Soufli, selling silk.”

Soufli is a small town in the northeast corner of Greece, where sericulture, or silk production, flourished in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. Production of cocoons dropped significantly in recent decades with the invention of synthetic silk, automated production and competitive Chinese silk.

“I never heard of Soufli but I immediately saw their silk was beautiful! I asked many questions, and went online as soon as I got home…A few weeks later, I went to Soufli, met the producers, saw their capacities, and this is where I decided to start my company.”

Anna is launching ANNA TSALDARI, an affordable luxury silk clothing accessories brand. The venture includes a social impact goal: earn profit while generating income for the local community and keeping alive local know-how and tradition.

Andreas Litis and Constantine Leimonis also want to help local communities. They came up with the idea for wander.ly during a visit to meet friend in Brussels: “We were strolling for a couple of hours with a traditional waffle in our hands and seeing some ‘ordinary’ tourist attractions. Then our friend suggested we go to a nearby city called Brugge. He took us to a place called De Garre, where the locals go and do one thing: they drink Garre, a locally produced beer that you can only find there. The most exciting part was that although it was situated in a very touristy place, it was very difficult to find the entrance.” Formerly Greece Insiders, wander.ly seeks to match travelers with trusted residents to facilitate unique and local experiences based on the particular interests of all involved.

For Manolis Nikiforakis a kite surfing hobby and the “major disappointment” resulting from inaccurate wind forecasts led to an idea. “As an engineer I wanted to do something about it.” He and Stefanos Apostolopoulos co-founded WeatherXM, which will aggregate weather forecasts and crowd-source weather observations to not only improve the kite surfing experience, but to “to accelerate the progress of weather forecasting and promote the prosperity of our weather-sensitive economy and life.”

The entrepreneurs’ trip to New York City and Silicon Valley highlights the value of international exchange and partnerships in bringing ideas, creativity and innovation to life.

“Experiencing a thriving and potent entrepreneurial ecosystem is not only inspiring, it is an essential spark for our minds to grasp and envision the potential of our ideas, talent, and efforts,” says Metavallon founder Alexandra Choli. “It is more than hope or aspiration of what may be; it is actual realization and the onset of planning for action towards what can be.”

Metavallon team and fellows at oDesk offices, with Odysseas Tsatalos, Co-Founder & CTO at oDesk, and Spiros Xanthos, Director of R&D at VMware. (Image not included in original post.)

At the conclusion of the Silicon Valley visit, Metavallon announced a new partnership with Mozilla’s WebFWD (“Web Forward”), a program to support entrepreneurs and products that promote openness and innovation on the web. The experience also had a direct impact on each venturer:

“The environment, people and sheer creative energy in the atmosphere are unique,” says Stefanos. “Go to a cafe, meet a stranger and chances are she or he is working on some IT project. People approach you to pitch their ideas and ask for feedback. The synergies created this way are invaluable.”

He and Manolis received some advice during a chance meeting. “On our last day, outside an Apple Store, we bumped in to Yiannis Varelas and Katerina Stroponiati, creators of Weendy, a Twitter for watersports app…they provided us some great tips for our revenue model, based on their experience and investor feedback.”

“I think the entrepreneurs in the U.S. are more confident and ambitious,” observed Gloria Konstantoudaki. Driven by her own desire for healthy, affordable and fast food options, Gloria, a biologist, yoga instructor and food enthusiast, is launching Trozato, a healthy food and beverage chain of takeout stores. Through the stores and healthy living courses, she aims to help people achieve a healthier and more conscious way of living.

The New York visit included a presentation and networking reception with individuals from the Greek-American community and others, organized by the Greek Press Office and the Hellenic Chamber of Commerce.

The Fellows agreed that the Greek-American community and Greece can help aspiring and startup Greek entrepreneurs by supporting accelerators and incubators like Metavallon. They also encourage more educational trips to the U.S., and internship opportunities for Greek youth in large companies.

Yiannis Gkoufas and Stratos Theodorou suggest the community organize “meet-ups with successful Greek startups both in Greece and in the U.S. to offer their valuable insights and advise [young people] to the right direction.” They founded Reethm, a web platform to bridge the online and offline activities of music enthusiasts – DJs, music venue attendees, venue owners – and enhance the social interactions around music experiences.

According to Stefanos, the economic crisis exacerbated the risk-averse culture already prevalent in Greece and pushing against entrepreneurship. “People will look down on you for leaving your job to focus on a new, unproven idea. Failure is considered career-ending and the result is that most people are forced into the role of a follower rather than a trailblazer.”

As an antidote, Yiannis and Stratos urge people to motivate youth to think outside the box and develop exciting and innovative ideas.

“Don’t be afraid to talk about your idea,” Gloria advises aspiring young entrepreneurs. “The feedback you get is valuable. If you feel it go for it, and the ecosystem will follow.”

Metavallon also has its eye on the broader ecosystem. It supported this year’s STARTup Live Athens event focusing on Social and Cultural Entrepreneurship as a mentor and award partner, and participated in Global Entrepreneurship Week Greece activities.

Metavallon’s Startup Series is a comprehensive program to educate, mentor and support aspiring entrepreneurs in their path from idea to business launch, securing funds, and first venturing footsteps. It is currently reviewing applications for its second Startup Series.

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Innovation: “In With the New” Without “Out With the Old”

This past January, the New York Times ran an article highlighting the struggle of a Greek entrepreneur to get a Greek beer onto the Greek market, and to convince the government to repeal an outdated law preventing his brewery from producing mountain tea – or anything other than beer. Timely article. Currently there is a heightened focus on the need to reform laws and regulations that impact (read: hinder) business, entrepreneurship and innovation in Greece. According to the World Bank Group’s Doing Business 2010 report, the country’s business regulation environment placed it in a ranking of 109 out of 183 economies on the ease of doing business.

To address these challenges, the current administration is passing new legislation and courting large international investors, particularly in the Greek diaspora communities, and turning to its own new and potential entrepreneurs. In a speech at the 75th Thessaloniki International Fair in September, Prime Minister George Papandreou announced that: “Over the forthcoming months we will create an Investments Council with top investors and businessmen from abroad and with Managing Directors from the best companies in the world, especially of course from the Greek Diaspora so that they can contribute to drawing up a new investment effort and give us their credibility when talking to the investment community.” More recently, at a Regional Development and Competitiveness Ministry event, the Prime Minister reiterated the administration’s focus on encouraging and facilitating innovation and business.

In addition to going after large international investors, the Greek government is looking to its young entrepreneurs. As Kostas Mallios pointed out in his presentation at the TEDxAcademy in Athens last year, young people are an excellent source of innovation and creativity. Many of our most recognized inventors – Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Bill Gates – were in their 20s when they made their big discoveries or creations.  In January, the Greek parliament passed a new investment law that includes incentives for young entrepreneurs (see a discussion, in Greek, of the new law on the Generation 700 euros blog here).  On October 20, 2010, the Regional Development and Competitiveness Ministry organized a gathering of about 100 young entrepreneurs. Much of the news coverage missed the significance of this event, covering mainly the comments of Prime Minister and Minister Michalis Chryssohoidis. What I found more interesting was that through this process, the prime minister invited comments and suggestions from participants, and responded to their input. Key feedback included the need for less bureaucracy and more regulatory and financial support for entrepreneurs and startups, recognition of the importance of failure, and facilitation of relationships between universities and entrepreneurship. Search “#younginnovGR” on YouTube to see videos of participant comments.

As part of this initiative, the government, in collaboration with young entrepreneurs, launched StartUpGreece, an online networking and collaboration platform where members (currently 2,163) can meet and exchange ideas. The site also hosts information on starting a venture or obtaining government funding. Further, the new investment law, passed in January 2011 and launched April 13, includes incentives for young entrepreneurs. In March, the Regional Development and Competitiveness Ministry announced the New Innovative Entrepreneurship, a program to offer incentives, including financial support, for innovative new enterprises or products.

While innovation may open up new job opportunities and attract foreign investment, the country’s population faces a range of hardships, such as layoffs, loss of small businesses, decreasing social welfare services, increasing taxes and fees for services no longer provided by the government. Any approach to economic development must also address how to ensure the impact reaches the broader population, from the middle and lower classes to marginalized communities. The administration must work with the private sector and citizens to address declining industries, in addition to creating new jobs. Given the specific context of Greece, investment professional and economic sociologist Aristos Doxiadis emphasizes that economic development in Greece should include a focus on the small scale economy, including small and household- or family- owned businesses and the informal rules and institutions which many of these observe.

Most importantly, the government and private sector in Greece will have to focus on developing a national strategy. As Steve Blank argues in a discussion on Startup America, a White House Initiative announced in February 2011, “an entrepreneurship initiative needs to be an integral part of both a coherent economic policy and a national innovation policy,” and must recognize and support different types of entrepreneurship. While the economic crisis is weighing on policy leaders in Greece right now and many pressing reforms need to be made, this is a desperately needed opportunity to develop a new, strategic and inclusive approach to helping both new and existing industries or businesses grow. Just as importantly, as the Greek diaspora community joins the discussion and mobilizes to support the efforts of Greek entrepreneurs or to invest in Greece, it should also consider how its efforts contribute to or impact a national growth and innovation strategy.