Is funding, alone, enough to help create more Scale-ups? What is the future of Southeastern Europe’s startup ecosystems? How critical will the collaboration of adjacent startup hubs be to their success? These were some of the questions we had the opportunity to answer during our latest Scale-up Greece event, with Eleven Ventures.
It’s been almost two years and five months since our latest live Scale-up Greece meetup and, this time, we had the honor and pleasure of hosting Eleven Ventures; an early-stage VC from Sofia, Bulgaria, actively investing in technology companies in the Southeast Europe region.
Daniel Tomov, founding partner at Eleven Ventures and his team visited our offices here, in Athens, last week and offered us great insights on investments and startup building. And we also happened to have Nick Gonios, a technology executive and entrepreneur with 30 years’ experience across private and publicly listed software technology ventures and early-stage tech investments.
Let’s discuss all about it.
The story behind Eleven Ventures
The team started their venture back in 2012, quickly becoming one of the largest accelerators in Europe; funded by the Europe Investment Bank. At the beginning, they had to kickstart a number of startup ecosystems; not only in Bulgaria, but also in the broader region. This helped them evolve quickly into one of the most effective early-stage investors in Southeast Europe. As Daniel mentioned, they’ve done more than two hundred deals so far; supporting more than 600 founders over the last ten years.
Portfolio and investment focus
Eleven Ventures focuses on fintech, healthcare, future of work and future of food; but they’re also open to ecomtech ventures if an opportunity presents itself. Their rich portfolio of companies thrive in all aforementioned sectors; and they recently got their first unicorn, Payhawk, an expenses report platform. Gtmhub, an OKR management platform, is also in the unicorn area according to Daniel.
They focus on pre-seed and seed companies, located in Southeast Europe and they offer an initial ticket of €250K to €1M. As Daniel mentioned, they’re flexible around the size of the ticket. In case they see mature companies with bigger capital needs, they gravitate towards accommodating their needs.
It’s also worth mentioning here that Eleven Ventures has already invested in three Greek startup companies. WOLI, a fintech platform for kids, is one of them; and we had the pleasure of hosting their CEO and founder, Vasilis Zoupas, too.
What makes portfolio specialization critical
According to Daniel “Money is one component needed when helping companies. You also need to offer all the infrastructure they need to help them build their company, bottom-up.”
Eleven Ventures initially focused on building the pertinent infrastructure to support companies that trade in fintech. According to Daniel: “In fintech there are a number of areas essential for a startup launching their idea. Among other things you need to resolve issues related to licenses, to infrastructure, to how you’ll get your first clients and all different things.”
Their next step was to build the equivalent infrastructure for the rest of their focus areas.
Specialization creates win-win situations both for startups companies and investors, according to Daniel. In his own words: “If you don’t specialize, it’s very difficult to spread in different investments and be helpful to the companies. Once you do, you prosper on investments; you become more experienced, more knowledgeable and companies in your portfolio help each other a lot.”
Insights and lessons learned over the years
Current times are just like old times
Everybody is talking about volatility and uncertainty but, if you think about it, the uncertainty of building a startup company is inherited in the life of the founders. So, there is nothing new, especially in the life of founders, coming from this part of the world. All founders must overcome all sorts of challenges and barriers, as opposed to their counterparts from Western Europe or from the US.
Founders are like cockroaches
They always find a way to survive. “There are thousands of reasons why a startup could fail and probably only two or three ways they could succeed”. There are examples of founders; they’ve seen failure hundreds of times, till they find their path to success. Simply because they are too resourceful.
“Good times” are the best times for founders
It’s not only because now you see a lot of opportunities. Corporates are getting scared. It’s time for bold decisions. Quoting Ayrton Senna’s words, Daniel mentioned that “On sunny days you can overcome maximum one or two cars. On rainy days you could overcome fifteen cars.” It’s a very similar thing with startups according to Daniel: “Some of your competitors may disappear, over time, and you have to be really resilient.”
Now is the greatest time to invest
Because now you can find the boldest founders; and you should support them. Many founders they talked with, got hesitant responses from other investors. But, for Eleven Ventures, now is the greatest time to invest.
Team is extremely important
If you have a great team and you have a great culture, you could go for anything. In Daniel’s words: “We’ve seen teams that were together and went through much bigger challenges.”
In terms of financing, decision-making, and strategy. It helps a lot.
Take care of your customers
Do whatever is required to make them feel happy; listen to them. They’re the ones to show you the way in dark times.
Play for the long term
You shouldn’t just focus on one cycle. You need to play for the long term. It may take some time for your company to mature. In some cases, it may even take ten years; so, you go for a number of cycles.
Have a strong stomach
There are so many difficult moments. You’ll have to deal with challenges such as when a key employee decides to leave you; or when your co-founder decides to leave you. You have so many different difficult situations to deal with, over time. Be prepared.
That was Eleven Ventures’ story, kindly presented by their founding partner, Daniel Tomov. On to the Q&A part of our event, to get more insights, as to how things work in our neighboring startup ecosystem
Q: If you could identify two or three very typical scaling pains, what would they be? Suppose you have a portfolio company; they started very nicely, they got your investment and grew from five people to ten, fifteen and then to twenty team members. And, suddenly, there’s stagnation in their growth. What would you say is the most common scaling pain such startup companies struggle with?
One of the most critical issues startups in scaling up mode deal with is that they have to reinvent a few systems. For example, if you’re starting with a contract of $2000 and suddenly you’ve got to deal with $100K, you need to be taught a different skill set. You need to bring other people.
We’ve seen CEOs being very much opposed to having a CFO, for example. Their mindset was that “I could manage everything”, by mis-calculating how much they should take on. With the help of a CFO, they could have seen things that were piling up; and would also take notice of things that needed their attention, early on.
In short, there would be no dilution for them and their team. What happens in such cases is that once they’re convinced to hire a CFO, they’ll probably realize how valuable the offering of this role is, in that particular stage. We’ve seen that happening.
All in all, scaling up requires you to change your mindset. You’re no longer a small company doing everything alone; but you should really get used to structure where, now, everything is distributed. It’s not in your own hands and you should orchestrate a much bigger organization. That’s the most critical scaling pain resistance in changing your mindset.
Q: One of the greatest value propositions of our region is the fact we have access to good talent; mainly developers, with salaries that cannot be compared to West Europe or the US. However, the opening of remote work in the post-pandemic era now offers developers the option of working remotely for other markets, with higher salaries; challenging hiring and increasing turnover with talent withdrawal. Have you seen that in your portfolio companies?
It’s a very legitimate question. It happens, but there is an antidote to this phenomenon. One part of it is that, from what we have seen, it’s a problem about supporting the office option. We’ve seen that the moment people have this possibility they start coming back to the office, because they need this type of socialization. So, in that case, the employer branding and the story that people could be together and have a chat a few days of a week, actually works.
For us, it’s not as much pressure as we thought it would be in the beginning. And we’ve also seen people working fully remotely, deprived of social contact, mentally struggling, feeling isolated and anxious. People really need the social interaction happening within the office. So, I think remote work has its limitations.
From my perspective, the challenge lies in a failure in the culture, examining it from an organizational point of view. Bringing brilliant teams together and having clarity around the big “why” they exist, helps a lot. It’s not just about salary. You need a long-term objective, a long-term mission of the organization. And if those challenges are coming up, amongst team members accordingly, then it’s a reflection of the culture itself, from my point of view.
Q: Why did you make the decision to base Eleven in Bulgaria? Also, when it comes to hiring, do you prefer developers located in your country or not?
Well, I’d say that it was simply because we were born there, we live there; and because we strongly believed in this tech ecosystem. Almost 22 years ago, I believed there was potential in it to grow. We were ambitious, believing that something great could happen out of that region.
Back then, it was very tough to build a company, because you didn’t have the resources needed.
All founders in the region were people working in small offices, in residential buildings; with no access to peers, mentors, capital or to the market. And, my mission was to help such founders overcome these challenges; and build companies that are well-integrated into other systems. That was a long-term dream that started twenty years ago.
As for the second question, I’d say that this is not necessary. For many years, Bulgarian tech companies have been hiring from other markets. I know companies that have offices in Ukraine or in North Macedonia. Also, there are cases of companies hiring in India.
And, what started as pure outsourcing twenty years ago, gradually moved into collaboration between teams. But, the thing is that they became really expensive later on; and there was a big drama in people becoming very expensive. Personally, I think it’s a great thing happening, because it means you have high-valued people.
Today, there are programs with special visas for people coming from other countries — including Eastern Europe — to Bulgaria. In addition, though it’s not quite known, the Bulgarian is a major hub for a number of peak companies; their R&D offices are there. And there’s an increase in that every year.
Q: Have you seen cases of companies with excellent technology, amazing developers that, for some reason, fail?
There are many cases that fall into this category. Technology is necessary but, that alone, is not enough. At the end of day, you have to make profit out of this technology. Even today that we have more experienced people with product skills and the right efficiency, you still have to make a product that will get in the market.
We should not underestimate the value of technology. The fact that Bulgaria has so many good software engineers has worked as fertile ground for the development of the hub but, that alone, is not enough.
It’s not just about product, it’s also about growth and commercialization.
Q: Is there a critical benchmark that you’ll hit while growing and/or one that will force you to internationalize?
From day one, you start thinking about internationalizing because, otherwise, you are dead. And this is the blessing of small markets: you have to think about going international and competing with the best.
Which is not the case with slightly bigger markets, such as Turkey. There were a lot of Turkish companies that got stuck with their market, simply because their market was just enough for the founders. The same goes for Germany, for example, where very few companies ‘get international’. Quite the opposite happens with small countries such as Israel, Estonia, Bulgaria or even Greece. There’s no alternative. We have to get out!
Q:Having already invested in a few Greek startups, what are your observations about our region and what’s the way forward?
What we’ve seen over the last years is that the hubs in the region are picking up at their own speed. We’ve seen companies such as Epignosis that have interesting investors from the US.
Over the last few years, there were more and more people that just discovered that there is Southeast Europe on this planet. For them, it’s a twenty-year-overnight success in this region.
All in all, hubs in the region are picking up. But, now, there needs to be more collaboration between these hubs. And this means that, in the future, you should not think about your own hub; but you should think more about building bridges with other hubs and focus on how to utilize resources.
For example, here in Greece, you have much more skillful commercial people and that you could team up with engineers from Bulgaria; and also people from Turkey and so forth. We’ve seen that happening. By doing that, you amplify the strength of that region. When you stop thinking about just Greece or Bulgaria and you think about the whole region that helps collaboration and development in the region.
On our part, we have angel investors from Greece along with us; and we have Greek investors in our fund, as well. So, we very much believe in that and we try on every possible occasion to have that. We have the same collaboration with Romania and so forth. And, for us, this type of integration is of paramount importance for the success of the founders.