Adversities build resilience. It’s a lesson markedly relevant to the world over in this pandemic, but it’s one that the Greek tech space has known all too well over the past decade of economic hardship. Greece’s high unemployment rates and government bailouts may not be the fertile ground that international investors would have sought previously, but for those based within the country, it’s been a unique time and environment to launch a business.
In fact, many of the most successful Greek startups were founded during the 2010s economic recession, with entrepreneurs working this challenging environment to their advantage. Names like Blueground bridged the gap between landlords dissatisfied with their rental yields in Athens and local renters looking for a complete furnished housing experience (such a successful model that they’ve now exported their model to over 13 cities to date). Or Ergon, who spotted the untapped potential to support the country’s small-batch players in gastronomy and promote their top-quality products abroad and in their handsome concept stores in Greece. With this in mind, this fighting spirit and creativity under constraints has prepared Greek entrepreneurs well for this on-going and unpredictable economic climate from COVID-19.
This latest long-term shift for the country has brought on new curveballs. It most definitely spells wider adoption of e-commerce on a consumer level, an increased need for collaborative and remote work software for an entire workforce and on a strategic level, a differentiation of businesses away from touristic demand. But working under difficult and changing external conditions is nothing novel for Greek tech, and rather it is its asset.
One doesn’t need to argue that changes in an organization are more easily adopted when everyone from C-suite down to interns is adjusted to frequent change. This flexibility to crisis situations, fluctuations in demand, competitive risk and hypergrowth are common to those in Greek startups.
This fortitude was highlighted at a recent Endeavor and SEV panel by Dimitris Kalavros-Gousiou, co-Founder & General Partner at Velocity, a VC fund. Kalavros-Gousiou applauded the “Greek entrepreneurial stamina” that’s been developed over the past decade. He defined it as the resilience to not take anything for granted as an entrepreneur and to hone creativity throughout.
Taddy Hall saluted the resiliency of entrepreneurs in a recent talk with the Endeavor network. He noted that “Uncertainty and change really does favor entrepreneurs because we are not as attached to established capabilities and ways of doing things that are difficult to change.” The Senior Partner at Lippincott and an Endeavor mentor himself adds, “We are nimble, we are fast, we thrive on opportunities that maybe our larger competitors can’t act on.”
That nimbleness is all too familiar to smaller businesses who can switch gears and work in a more agile manner than large institutional companies to better adapt to uncertainty. That can be exemplified by shifting customer offerings with shorter rollout runways, a workforce that has worked in more generalized roles, and a situational awareness that permeates throughout the organization.
Greek startups now find themselves with a more business-friendly and reform-oriented government in Parliament. Government intervention early in the first wave of lockdown worked to stem job losses, with data showing employment level stabilizations in the short- and medium-term.
Nicky Goulimis, co-founder and COO at Nova Credit, summarized it succinctly this month in that, “out of any crisis, there is opportunity.” She spoke specifically about the jump in digitalization (whether defined as two decades-long, or the acceleration in the past 12 months) and the need to create products and services that address new groups of users and consumers. Fortunately for Greek tech, its competitive advantage lies in its skilled talent specialized in the development of digital products. Products that have lower barriers to sell and “ship” to markets abroad.
On an individual level, startups are powered by a young, eager, well-educated workforce that have launched their careers in a particularly competitive time on the job market (like when the unemployment rate peaked at 28% in July 2013). Anecdotally, the lack of typical job pathways was actually a catalyst for many entrepreneurs to launch their ventures seeing it as being comparatively low-risk.
Dust + Cream, a Greek cosmetics startup, pivoted part of their perfume production facilities to hand sanitizers in the early days of the pandemic. The shift to e-commerce also gave the company extra incentive to redesign their online store to transpose the shopping experience from their 76 brick-and-mortar locations to an online space.
Recruitment platform Workable also launched Workable Bridge during the pandemic to set up laid-off employees with other Workable-partnered employers that were looking to hire. Another opportunity the Athens-based startup identified was to make video interviewing software more accessible through free access in addition to tailor-made COVID-19 response content including internal communications templates and talent insights.
Experts are already excited about what’s to come from a potential diversification away from tourism as a core economic driver. Industries like cybersecurity, cloud computing and renewable energy could tangibly propel Greece’s infrastructure in a few short years thanks to the pandemic. Encouragingly, the Greek public has recognized the value of STEM degrees at new highs. A 2020 survey in the midst of the pandemic saw trust in “science, technology degrees and experts” shoot up to 85% among survey respondents, putting it only behind the army and their own families.
A government-wide recognition of the potential for Greek tech in lifting the economy out of the economic and health crises was echoed at the launch event Innovative Greeks, a platform to connect major players in Greek tech. Tax incentives for employers and “digital migrants” have already been legislated as well as plans to bring more public funding into tech R&D projects (Greece’s R&D investments were tracking at 76% less that the EU average) and launching dedicated innovation districts in Piraeus and Thessaloniki. More broadly across the economy, Alex Patelis, Chief Economic Adviser to the Prime Minister of Greece, recently outlined the 10 major reforms taken by the government to incentivize talent and investments in Greece with Endeavor.
Encapsulating this spirit of optimism during challenging times, Marcos Veremis, founder of Upstream, reflects on the global network of Greeks in innovation that “the darker the night, the brighter the stars”. Those same stars born from one crisis are now guiding another generation of tech startups through the present one.
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