A new generation of Portuguese entrepreneurs is emerging. But their biggest opportunities lie outside the country. Milo Yiannopoulos reports from Lisbon.
You can pick out the Brazilians in a room quite easily from almost any other nationality. It’s not just the looks; It’s the energy and friendliness. You almost want to hate them for being so clever and funny and gorgeous, but they’re just so amenable you can’t quite do it – and, anyway, the one with the misty eyes looks like she might be interested.
But I digress. I’ve just returned from Lisbon, Portugal, a city in a country in crisis, where the kind organisers of Silicon Valley Comes To Lisbon, local non-profit Beta-i, and of course Seedcamp, whose Portuguese instalment took place last week, invited me to come and meet the local talent. Technology start-ups, I mean.
The advice being dolled out by speakers on stage was relatively uniform. We see the investment happening in South America by pioneers like Rocket Internet. We hear about the thrillingly vibrant emerging venture capital scenes in southern Florida, which are quietly hoping to gazump those in New York and on Sand Hill Road.
And we ask: why on earth aren’t Portuguese entrepreneurs focusing exclusively on Brazil, which is so well represented in Lisbon? After all, it’s not like there’s much of a domestic market left for the most lucrative technology products. And the economic situation in Portugal shows no sign of improvement any time soon.
To be sure, it’s fab for tourists that you get change from €12 for a half-hour cab ride, but plummeting prices hardly bode well for a generation of entrepreneurs hoping to develop what are essentially luxury digital products for the middle classes.
The answer is that they are. All sorts of companies are using Portugal as a place to prove their concepts before exporting them elsewhere. The low costs of living and cheap developer talent in this struggling economy are a boon for entrepreneurs, who are leveraging the low overheads to test out their business ideas.
We’ve written before about Brazil. It’s certainly not the easiest place to set up shop. But for all its limitations, it’s safer than the other land of cocaine and fake boobs and the market there, especially for social networking software, is absolutely massive – and growing all the time.
Lisbon entrepreneurs are uniquely positioned to take advantage of emerging markets in South America, thanks to the linguistic and cultural overlap between the two geographies. There’s a great deal of cross-migration between Portugal and Brazil, so localising products can be as simple as asking a family member what wouldn’t go down.
That’s not to say there isn’t hope for Lisbon talent that wants or has to stay put. And there are many signs that the country’s historical reliance on public sector employment and its legendary hostility to founder culture are softening, albeit through economic necessity.
In March, the GO Youth Conference expects to garner 600 attendees – an extraordinary achievement, if it comes to pass, in a country where entrepreneurship is still something of a dirty word. The assorted events of Global Entrepreneurship Week teased out a small but enthusiastic crowd in Lisbon, with the sort of feverish energy you only find in nascent scenes.
I wonder what sorts of companies these young bucks will be dreaming of? Because here’s an advantage to operating in an adolescent start-up ecosystem: people are still solving real-world problems. During my stay, I met technology entrepreneurs devising innovative solutions to legacy problems. One start-up hopes to bring transformative new efficiencies to the shipping industry, replacing Excel spreadsheets with cloud CRM systems.
It’s extraordinary that haulage and shipping firms, some of which are carting around 35,000 containers a year, still manage their inventory and logistics with a spreadsheet, but they do. And it’s only in countries like Lisbon that twenty-somethings appear alive to such pragmatic challenges in such huge but neglected verticals.
Can London or Silicon Valley claim to be innovating like this any more? Not really: the seductive cult of the app rules all. So I have hope for these youngsters – particularly if, as I think many of them will, they use their homeland as a test-bed before launching full throttle into those blossoming emerging markets.
If supposedly more sophisticated entrepreneurs in Britain, Germany and America are blind to such possibilities because they view the possibilities of technology through the prism of the internet industry and the tech blogs, more fool them. My money’s elsewhere these days.