Thursday, July 31, 2014

A (Road) Trip Through Poland’s Startup Scene

Or, Non-Native Opinions on the Polish Startup Community: Part I of III

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a marketing strategist, a developer evangelist, a calling service founder, a CEO of an interpretation app and a serial entrepreneur go on a road trip together…

It sounds like the start of a joke from the show “Silicon Valley”, but it’s exactly what happened when Lisa Lang of 
Twilio decided to invite a few European (and one American) startup founders and developers, all of whom use Twilio in their companies, to take a five-day road trip from Berlin to three Polish cities: Poznań, Warsaw and Krakow.

It was in the last city and on the last day that I met up with the group, just as their trip was coming to an end and they were enjoying a final dinner in Poland, to get their thoughts and impressions on the Polish startup community.

The merry band included Lisa Lang, who is the European Marketing Strategist at Twilio and the one who put the whole excursion together; Tony Blank, the Developer Evangelist, an app for syncing email data; Jonas Huckestein, CEO and founder of HipDial, a conference calling service built on Twilio’s API; Josef Dunne, the CEO and co-founder ofBabelverse, a simultaneous interpretation app and winner of last year’s European Twilio Fund, and their Polish guide, Maciek Laskus, the CEO and co-founder of Startup Safary andTash (along with half a dozen other startups). We were also joined by Gustavo Bessone, the co-founder and CEO of, who happened to “crash” the road trip and join the group in Warsaw and Krakow.

Throughout the road trip the group met with Polish startup teams, developers, entrepreneurs and VCs as they took part in such events as Hive61 in Poznań and an Open Round Table in Krakow’s Hub:raum. I asked the group what their thoughts were on Poland, both before and after this trip, and what they had learned about the local startup communities here.
Tony Blank: This way my first time coming here. I knew that Poland was a good place to get outsource engineering work, but I was not aware of a couple of things that I learned on this trip, which was the talent of the engineering and the drive of the startups.

Before I came here I didn’t know of any startups that came from Poland.

I knew a couple of agencies and I knew of some startups in the States that got outsource work here. The thing that I learned throughout the tour – I met so many people that have the drive and the ability to really innovate and build stuff, and that’s different from my previous perception of just [Poland being a place for] outsource engineering.

Josef Dunne: I came here in May 2013 for just two days, and I was only in Warsaw, but my impression is that the post-communist era is probably coming to an end right now, in terms of mentality. I think there is something that is about to be unleashed here, and there is a lot of passion and a lot of people who want to do things for themselves. They do get stuck up on trust issues and things like that, but I think that Poland is going to be unleashed on the world very soon.

In the next three or four years, this is going to be a hotbed of the ecosystem in Eastern Europe. My impression is that things are looking very positive for Poland right now. The recipe is there.

Tony Blank: That’s right. Today we went to Hub:raum, we went to Base CRM and we went to Estimote – and I think those are a couple of startups that are trying to break out, and they’re going to be role models for other Polish startups. I think they’re going to inspire the local community, [convince them] that they really can do it and there are no roadblocks in their way. And I think in the next year there’s going to be one or two more, and in two years there will be five or six…

Josef Dunne: When Lisa brought us on this trip, I’d never met Jonas and I’d never met Tony – Lisa found us independently from different parts of the world and we all had a story to tell of our own journey, and I think we were here just to tell our stories and really show that failure is OK, that trial and error is OK. I lived my life through failing and trial and error; I broke many things.
What I’ve found is that Polish people are quite reserved. On this trip we had a few emails from our journey sent to us afterwards and you find that the most quiet person in the room will write a really long email to you and will tell you really positive things, but it all happens behind closed doors.

Tony Blank: One of the points that I made when I spoke at a couple of the workshops and meetups that we did was a story of a startup that completely failed, and I got comments both in Poznań and in Warsaw that I was crazy for talking about failure in a public setting. And I said no, this is a thing that you need to do, because you learn a lot more from failure than you learn from success.

If you succeed, you don’t really know why – maybe it was the team, maybe it was the product, maybe it was the timing – you don’t really know exactly why you succeeded necessarily. But from failure, you have the advantage of hindsight, so you know all the variables and you can learn a lot more from that.

So the act of talking about failure is a cultural thing that I think will be a lot more common in the next couple of years as there are more startups that succeed or fail and people move to different projects.

Bitspiration: Tony and Josef are from the U.S. and the UK, so it’s understandable that they hadn’t heard much about Poland. Jonas, you’re a lot closer over in Germany – were your initial impressions of Poland any different?

Jonas Huckestein: Not really. I basically had no expectations whatsoever. In fact, I like going to different countries and seeing how the tech scene develops, and I had zero insight into Poland before.

I think the two most interesting observations I made were that, first, in Poland there are a lot of great engineers and there is a lot of engineering talent. We saw this yesterday at the hackathon, where the results were really, really good. But I think there is a problem in that engineers aren’t considered, and don’t consider themselves, to be mission-critical to success. There’s not really an engineering culture from what I could see. Often, engineers are the resources that entrepreneurs use to become successful, and they don’t make the greatest salary. Even if they make a good salary for Polish standards, they aren’t compensated according to the value they deliver, and they aren’t considered to be good co-founders.
Yesterday we saw this in the presentations, where there was not a single engineer that struck me as very confident when they were presenting to a group of people. This is the polar opposite of what you now have in San Francisco or Berlin, where it almost sways in the other direction.

You have this whole rock star, ninja crap, where even though you dropped out of school, companies throw so much money at you that you think you’re the best.
Still, I think it’s very notable, and I wish the engineers would consider themselves to be more important.

The other thing that I thought was really interesting, was that yesterday I was talking to Jakub [Krzych] from Estimote – which, by the way, I had heard of the company but I wasn’t aware that it was from Poland at all, and I don’t think they want to be known as the company from Poland – and yet what they did with putting their entire team here seemed very smart. They have a very lean operation, and they can combine their software engineering team and their headquarters and their entire management team together with the hardware engineering. [Jakub] said that if they wanted to make custom hardware for some kind of end-to-end integration of their technology, they could do it with a one-week turnaround, and other companies have to fly to Shenzhen for that.

Poland has the hybrid of things that require cheap labor but also has enough high tech talent available.

I think there’s something there for companies that need to leverage a labor force but also need to be high tech companies.

Bitspiration: Maciek, what is your view of all of this as someone at this table who is from Poland, but who has also lived abroad?

Maciek Laskus: For me it was super interesting to see how Poland has changed in these last two years since I moved. Two years ago, when I was moving to Berlin, I actually wrote this blog post about Poland being ready to hit the big time. Back then I saw companies like Estimote just about to go abroad, or Base starting to grow very fast. More and more companies with all of this engineering and tech talent were slowly learning how to build global companies or slowly acquiring the first investors from abroad.

Now, it is actually happening, and I’m very optimistic about the future, of especially Krakow’s startup scene, because it seems like the ecosystem is finally blossoming. All of the pieces of the puzzle are slowly falling into place. I think more and more companies are going to become global players.

Another observation I made in the last couple of days is that slowly we’re breaking off from this very poisonous ecosystem in which there was no healthy capital. I strongly believe that EU money poisoned the Polish startup ecosystem for many years, because there was so much capital available on the market, and yet this capital wasn’t really fit for building companies. You can’t really build a successful startup with money that you have to plan ahead for six or twelve months prior to actually executing the idea, and then if you want to change something you have to write a long document to a government institution so that they can allow you to change your concept. And yet, most entrepreneurs would use this European money as a benchmark for investment, so the end result was that we didn’t have any real institutional funding here, because there was no space for VC funding to emerge.

I think that’s slowly changing, where the EU money is either drying up or shifting to different programs that are less harmful. At the same time, real VC funds and real investors are emerging and finally we have some smart capital available. You can already see the results of this, because even a couple of years back we had most of the interesting startups coming out of software houses and agencies whose owners would bootstrap their products while providing their services. Now we finally have a solution in the market where good software houses start to grow their operations and focus on being a software house, and at the same time, founders that want to build products can just focus on building products. They don’t have to run a software house on the side, they can raise money from investors and focus on their product.
I think the next couple of years are going to be exciting in Poland, and Krakow especially seems to have a very optimistic future ahead of itself.

On that optimistic note, we end part one of our three-part interview with the Twilio road trip team. Stay tuned throughout August for the continuation, where you’ll hear from Lisa and Gustavo as well, and be sure to follow the #TwilioPL hashtag and read the Silicon Allee blog for the team members’ individual impressions of their trip.

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This is a repost of an article that appeared on on July 30, 2014

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