There have been several articles lately where Marcin Szelag of Innovation Nest in Krakow, Bartek Gola from Speedup Group in Poznan, and Andrzej Kosminski of Kosminski University in Warsaw, asked this question,"Why is there no Polish product which is internationally famous? Why is there no Polish Apple or Google? Why hasn't Poland produced our own unicorn yet?"
Well guys, do you want the easy answer or the hard answer?
Mind of a Programmer
You say that Polish programmers and coders are constantly winning coding competitions and hackathons but they can't build a great company. This is the same as complaining, 'if I am such a great guy, why can't I get a girlfriend'?
Sometimes nice guys don't make good boyfriends. Girls are looking for something that they guy can't offer, thus he remains in the friendzone. Just like the nice guy the awesome coder are not able to offer what the customer want. Sometimes the startup is made of great designers and developers, but to be a great startup, that is not enough. Poles are great at doing things that take great deal of concentration and being able to manipulate the code to fit a certain need. The Polish language is very influential in this regard. With conjugation and declination, forming a sentence is like trying to write a line of code.
However, research says that this type of cognitive activity does not foster creativity. In order to be creative, you need to have a good awarness of the world around you and be able to see things from different points of view. Unfortunately, Poles lack this capability. Most Poles are target oriented. And those who work in corporations providing BPO services could suffer even more from this. Most have a difficulty being able to feel other's pain.
As a result, Polish businesses and startups will continue to plow forward pursuing that target without much notice of what the customer really need. They will think, well, we have a good product, so you must want it or you are a fool. This 'take it or leave it' attitude is good in some cases but it is deadly in customer acquisition. The thing is that in this globalized society, the customer has choices. If Estimote will not satisfy me, I can literally go down the street and talk to Kontakt.io.
Going back to the mind of a programmer, because he can't see thing from the user's point of view, he will not be able to build what the user really need or want. And because he can't grasp what is going on in the world around him, he would not understand the market trends and where the market is going. As a result, innovation would be very hard.
The most difficult three words in the English language are,"I don't know."
When you talk to most supposed Polish executives, professors, and supposed experts. They love to show you how much they know. In fact they can be just as bad as the most obnoxious Dr. Who fanboy. They will never admit that they are wrong. In an Economist article, it state that most Polish firms are reluctant to invest in R&D. For telecoms like Orange and TMobile, they have opened incubators. However, the more traditional Polish powerhouses, no.
For a long time, Polish firms and institutions are seen as experts who know all the answers. The shopkeeper knew when the banana was coming in. The professor was able to depend on some theories in fields like business or science. However, as technology becomes more complicated and the customer has more choices, the answers weren't so simple anymore. However, the business being very stubborn decide to continue as if they knew everything. As customers are not satisfied, they leave. This is what is happening to the Catholic church.
As a good business, you need to be able to adapt or you will face oblivion. To adapt, you need to go by the idea that you don't know everything. Then, you experiment and try to find new answers and new models and products that will satisfy the insatiable appetite of the customer.
What a difference 2 percent makes
The great Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson once mused: The difference between humans and chimps in terms of DNA is 2%. Just imagine, if there were aliens that are 2% beyond us, what would they be like? The biggest problems and hardest questions of 2014 would be like something that even their 5 year old would know.
Sometimes, giving that extra little extra will make a big difference. Countless times have I gone to stores with just 5 to 10 minutes left in the day and the store personnel would not let me in or I would be chased out of the store with just 2 minutes left. The other day, I went to get a hair cut, the place was empty, the appointment book was empty, and there were one employee free. I was turned away and told to make an appointment for another day. The same thing happened after the TechCrunch event here in Krakow where we had many really influential and wealthy people in our party, but we were turned away because they were closing. Many of my American friends will acknowledge this, we will be going to a restaurant or a bar and have to wait like 30 minutes before we are served.
Spending money is supposed to be a pleasant experience. My dad always says,"when a customer comes to your store, he is bringing his hard earned dollar to you, he deserves the best treatment because he can just as easily go the the next guy."
Polish businesses continue to miss this point. These businesses treat the customer like a statistic, not a person. The cashier will not even give a customer a few seconds to gather his goods before pushing it out of the way to do the next order. Spending money is a really unpleasant experience in Poland. Businesses are less than transparent when showing you a deal. This again proves my point with the inability of businesses to see things from their customer's point of view.
Poland with its population of close to 40 million people, it is enough to do businesses domestically and earn a good living, but if you want to be a unicorn, you need to go global. More and more incubators and VCs are looking for startups that is looking to go global. However, you can't go global speaking only Polish. You might get as far as Greenpoint, London, or Chicago. You will need to up your English game really quickly. The reason why startups in Germany and Scandinavia is succeeding is because their average citizen speaks better English than the average Pole. One of the reason why there are so many unicorns in Silicon Valley is because success breeds success. And America is a big country with lots of customers who speak the same language and love new technology. Americans love downloading the next clever app. Because of the idea of Manifest Destiny, Americans are constantly looking for the next frontier. And it doesn't hurt that the US is currently the only global superpower and tastemaker. There is a bridge in Trenton, NJ that says 'Trenton makes the world takes.'
In order to go global, you will need to speak at least a B2 level English. When you are pitching to American VCs, unless your product can explain itself, they will tune you out if your accent is too heavy. You will need to have a comprehensive website that is in both Polish AND English. When doing the English version of the website, don't get cheap, it should have as much information as the Polish version. Have a native speaker go through it to make sure it sounds right. I cannot state this enough, all major startup meetups and conferences should be in English. You need to get used to talking about your product in English. Don't be too concerned with using correct grammar. The reason Poles are not confident with English is the fear of using incorrect grammar. It is good to use good grammar, but it is even better just to speak.
What does it mean?
The reason why so many seasoned business professionals are asking the same question is because Poland has reached a plateauing point. It doesn't know how to grow anymore than it already has. The domestic atmosphere can only provide so much help but sometimes can inhibit growth. In biology, in order for a physiological activity to progress, you need a catalyst.
You have two options:
1. Revamp the whole system to one that will foster entrepreneurship and update the education system for the children, and re-educate the workers.
2. Get help from outsiders like those from the Valley or people from other parts of the world who have done some amazing things.
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