Dijana Despodov: What’s Up With Startups?

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the startup conference Pitch. Match. Grow organized by PwC Macedonia, the Macedonian Stock Exchange, and Startup Macedonia, in an unusual but forward-thinking partnership. The result was an engaging, informative, and thought-provoking conference that highlighted the key developments in the emerging Macedonian startup ecosystem.

Credit must be given to PwC for being among the first corporates to understand the importance and potential of startups and shine a spotlight on this often-overlooked sector. The conference is an extension of PwC’s global effort to support startups and build the next generation of clients and I hope it is only the first step towards a continuous, sustainable, and strategic support for startups. 

The people responsible for the content of the first day of the conference are Startup Macedonia, who have managed in a very short time to profile themselves as the go-to guys for all things startup. In 2018 they mapped the still-disjointed startup ecosystem and published the findings of their research. They have since developed a digital startup platform to support the consolidation of the ecosystem. The platform is also open to supporting organizations and partners so if you have any interest in startups check out the platform and see how you can use it.

The two panels assembled and moderated by Startup Macedonia were the best I have attended in a while. The first panel featured some of the brightest stars in the startup ecosystem – H4, Paket.mk, Elevate Global, Cognism, and Notarised. The founders, however, were real, honest, and relatable and spoke about their journey from ideation through several rounds of investments to growing pains. Several key insights emerged from this conversation: that investor relations is a process and that finding the right investor is only the first step; that readiness to adapt the product and vision to the demands of the market is key; the importance of understanding the environment of your product (compliance requirements, standards, licensing, intellectual rights), the need to grow mindfully, and everybody’s biggest pain – the lack of human resources, particularly product managers.

The second panel assembled the investors – the Fund for Innovation and Technology Development, SEAFSouth Central Ventures, CEED Macedonia Business Angels Club, Seavus Accelerator, SEEUTechPark, and Business Accelerator UKIM. It was encouraging to see a stage full of allies ready to support the budding startup scene. The investors spoke about their active programs and funds and about what they look for in a potential investment. What caught my attention was a slide that showed that most of the investors offer pre-seed and seed funding and few go beyond the first round of funding. This might prove to be an issue going forward as more and more startups become ready to scale up.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the second day of the conference organized by the Macedonian Stock Exchange who presented the global investing and trading platform Funderbeam, but this seems like a very worthwhile effort and shows progressive thinking by the Macedonian Stock Exchange, so I want to recognize them for their leadership.

The first day was capped by a pitching session during which 10 startups presented their ideas. The startups’ level of development ranged from ideating to scaling and was an illustrative microcosm of the Macedonian startup scene. The founders also ranged from those who have a clear idea or a prototype for a product, know their market, and know their value, with numbers to support it, and those who have a “great idea” about a “cool product” that “everybody will use.”

This and other pitching sessions I’ve attended maybe unintentionally illuminate the weakest spots in the development of startups in the country. Many founders are still unable to talk about their product in a way that is engaging, brief, or even understandable – sometimes  it’s impossible to tell what the product is half way into the presentation. Founders with a technical background often assume that their audience knows about their field a much as they do and waste precious time on technical details nobody understands. A disturbing number of startups stand before investors without having done market research or having created a business plan first.  Other founders are so married to their original idea that it makes pivoting impossible, even in the face of evidence and numbers. Yet, I see more and more incredible ideas and smart and dedicated founders who sometimes need just one final push or a helping hand to set them on the path to success.

Startups need advice, guidance and support, especially on the business side of things, expertise that is already available in the private sector. I’ve met many competent professionals in Macedonian companies and foreign firms operating here, and if they were to share their knowledge and expertise with the next generation of entrepreneurs the whole economy would benefit.

In this sense it was disappointing that I didn’t see any noticeable corporate presence at the startup conference. Macedonian corporates are lagging behind their European and global colleagues in understanding the value of startups, both in boosting the whole economy, and as acting as innovation and R&D engines for bigger, slower companies. A corporate-startup relationship is essential for building a culture of corporate innovation and we need to start this process by meeting and talking and learning about each other so we can understand the value that the other brings.  I hope Pitch. Match. Grow becomes a regular event and that next time the corporate world will be out in full force.

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