STARTUPS IN BULGARIA BULGING (sorry :) AT THE SEAMS

Yes, there are still more than a few places where startup ecosystems are in their infancy. But a few days in Sofia Bulgaria show that the Bulgarian baby is clearly growing up, healthy and fast. It’s got many but by no means all of the key ingredients: passionate, ambitious entrepreneurs and many richly talented engineers and developers. And it has the support of the EU, and of the turbulent Bulgarian and US governments. Both the US Ambassador to Bulgaria, Marcie Reis and the Secretary for Healthcare and Science with the Office of the President of Bulgaria, Anna-Marie Vilamovska, (two powerful women, I might add), attended, spoke, and promised their continued support to building the Bulgarian ecosystem faster and stronger.

Most important, speaking of babies, Bulgaria has its very first incubators, largest of which—called Eleven—I got to visit and meet up close. Lots of the usual smartphone apps and ordinary startups that’ll never be Google, especially in a country with a smaller population than New York City, not to mention a language spoken nowhere else. Using EU investment funds, the incubator has hosted and funded (with anywhere from 25,000 to a max of 200,000 Euros). The valley-like facility was electrifying and energetic. And a small cadre of its earliest startups have graduated to further funding rounds already.

Slightly later-stage funding is provided by another bold team at LauncHub, founded in 2012 by several of Bulgaria’s first successful exiting entrepreneurs (yes there have been a few lovely exits). Seven partners travel throughout the region, vetting startups, funding and then guiding startups from Serbia, Croatia, Greece, and half a dozen countries that are otherwise underserved by startup financing. They’re building bridges to Series A VCs in London and Moscow, and clearly have several candidates already worthy of serious consideration. LaunchHub was conceived by two such talents (Lyuben Belov and Todor Breshkov) who lead the shop.

Most impressive to me were the 3-minute pitches by four founders, each of whom was solving a serious “hard tech” problem ranging from serious, intriguing enterprise software to scalable signal compression and more.

Several startups were so clearly innovative in Eastern Europe, if not the Valley, that they’re already signing customers from far beyond Bulgaria’s borders—crucial for startup survival in such a small, cloistered market. And their investors are helping with the biggest obvious weakness in Bulgaria—the lack of strong sales and digital marketing skills, which are growing slowly and need to accelerate.

This emerging ecosystem is still missing a lot, not the least of which is a better Bulgarian economy. But at the ecosystem’s core I found a surprising organization: Junior Achievement. JA, as we know it in the US, seemed always rather benign to me and focused on junior and senior high school entrepreneurship like bake sales and cafeteria school supply tables.
In Bulgaria, Junior Achievement has grown up and immersed itself right in the middle of the startup community: offering training, community-building, and programming, and also leading the 500-person startup conference they brought me over to teach and lecture at. Headed by a driven, entrepreneurial wonder woman, Milena Stoycheva, and a team of a dozen, JA has multiple parallel entrepreneurial programs and projects under way all the time. They’re generously supported with cash and volunteers from HP, Citi, Microsoft, and more, and JA is as ambitious and entrepreneurial as any of the startups it serves. Five years ago it was as dormant as any JA I’d ever seen. Today it’s in the eye of the entrepreneurial storm.

While Silicon Valley has nothing to worry about, don’t be surprised if it has a small, strong Eastern European cousin that’s all grown up in another year or two! Wow!

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For a Prayer of App Store Success, FOCUS is king!

In many if not most smartphone categories, there are already more than enough apps to go around. In recipes, for example, iTunes already boasts more than 900 apps…and adds about 75 more every six months.  So if you have a brilliant recipe app idea, think really hard. In all likelihood, if it’s not focused on something really special, your’re probably dead.  (How about “hit this button and a French chef will jump out of your iPhone!)

One of my best-ever MBA class students, Will Falcon, a stellar Columbia engineering student and entrepreneur, wrote a great treatise on the issue of focus, based on experience in his hot app development shop. It’s well worth a read, guaranteed…

How Focus Helped Flic Dominate the Apple App Store
My Co-founder and I met Brandon in a coffee shop outside the Meat Packing district in Manhattan. After a brief introduction, he jumped right into explaining the project he wanted to hire us to build, Flic. Within minutes it became clear why this app was going to succeed.

At our boutique mobile development shop — Harlem App Collective — my Co-Founder and I hear pitches from entrepreneurs every day. Over time, I’ve learned to identify apps that I want to build and entrepreneurs I want to work with. The biggest trait I look for in a potential project/client is focus.
Even if you’re not building photo apps, there’s nothing more important than a tight, narrow focus for your smartphone app…after all, there are already more than 900 “recipe management” apps on itunes. The world hardly needs another, and if it’s going to have a prayer of success, it needs to be truly focused and magical. Imagine an app where you hit a button and a french chef jumps out of your iphone and starts cooking the best meal you’ve ever eaten.

Here’s a good look at the reasons why this is so important at the start of your app development thinking, according to a fabulous former student who’s an even better app developer, Will Falcon of nyc’s hac studios. Learn more directly from him via hi@hacstudios.com

Flic’s value proposition is laser focused. Its mission is crystal clear — to help you delete photos from your camera roll. Flic is not crammed with 30 features. It isn’t 12 apps rolled into one (#sorryImNotSorryFacebook). Focused functionality translates into fast development — we built Flic in just 3 weeks.

“Fast development saves you tons of money and makes my job more enjoyable”

Fast development saves you tons of money and makes my job more enjoyable. I re-write less code and don’t build features that will go unused. It also means you can Fail Fast, as my Lean Launchpad professor Bob Dorfwould say. Thus, you can try your next idea or watch this one dominate the App Store.

Focus also makes apps intuitive. Most people will not use 80% of your features (pareto principle), so why build them? Your apps are too complicated if you have to rely on a tutorial to explain functionality. Flicuses a one-page welcome screen to improve the user experience and not to explain the app. Do not waste your money on apps that will confuse users.

If you take away one thing is to not spend ANY money on development until you have focused your idea and crystalized your vision. If a development shop is eager to onboard you without trying to poke holes in your idea, run away!

Download Flic at: http://getflic.com/

Harlem App Collective is a Design centered, mobile development shop in Manhattan, NY. Reach us at hi@hacstudios.com

William Falcon
William Falcon