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!