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 Startups(and most of us), SELL is not a four-letter word

I started my first of seven companies about 100 days after my 22nd birthday, and if there’s one thing I wish I knew back then, it’s what’s totally clear to me 40 years and more than 40 “venture adventures” later. It has been said thousands of times since, by thousands of pundits: “Entrepreneurs are always selling.”

I quit an amazing, lucrative job as a senior news editor at WINS Radio, New York’s all news station, to start “Bob Dorf Communications, Inc.,” a pr/marcomm agency. No investors, no board, and almost no idea what I was doing, other than launching a business that was totally mine to build and far more challenging (and perhaps rewarding) than the wonderful job in a high-rise newsroom in Midtown Manhattan.

But what I didn’t know really hurt, and took a while to learn — namely that the entrepreneur is always selling.

The day I gave my two weeks’ notice, I did one other thing: I prepared to put about 500 engraved “birth announcements” in the mail to every friend, colleague, interview subject and “prospect” I could conjure up, so that they’d arrive on “opening day.” It cost a fortune. And I still remember the morning of October 13, 1972 (my first day) vividly, almost as if it were yesterday. Got up extra early, showered, shaved, and put on my best suit. Why? To stare at the telephone, certain that it would ring with inquiry after inquiry, prospect after prospect. By noon, the phone had rung exactly once — my wonderful mom, calling to tell me how beautiful the announcement was!!

It was the very first, excruciatingly painful lesson that selling is proactive, not benign, and that even seasoned professional journalists like me had to do more than mail a bunch of crap to get some attention for my value proposition! Selling was “beneath me,” I thought, the province of stockbrokers and car salesmen and the like, hardly the task for an entrepreneur or a marketing and journalism pro! Ha!

So what exactly did I learn along the way that I wish I’d known at 22?

1. Selling is a proactive, full-contact sport: Mail and voicemail don’t do it. It’s all about getting face-to-face with people, watching their body language and their reaction to you, your ideas, your “what ifs” and more.

2. Selling doesn’t happen in one visit: Sure it does, if you’re selling magazine subscriptions or Girl Scout cookies. But when you’re selling big-ticket stuff like professional services, it starts with a “getting to know you” phase that can often span multiple meetings and weeks or months, particularly in professional services where the product is really “you.” Selling demands investment, persistence, and patience — or it just doesn’t happen.

3. Sell the idea first, then the deal: Before you can get the order, you need to establish that the prospect has a need. Get the need to or near the top of his or her priority list. Then convince the prospect that your (or your product’s) solution — coupled with your reliability, wisdom and value — are the best possible solution to that problem in the customer’s eyes, not your biased view.

4. People buy from people they like, so make yourself likable if you can. Show a genuine interest in the person and their business, as well as the business opportunity. When all else fails, resort if you must to the old W. C. Fields line, “if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.”

5. Selling ain’t just for customers, either. I had to sell Lisa Wanderman on why she’d want to work part-time in some guy’s apartment, and get her to share my vision about where the company was going. I had to sell two leasing companies on why they should trust me to pay the bills for office equipment in my fledgling business. And that selling later came to include other vendors, landlords, bankers and many other people who would take — not give —money to or from my business.

6. There’s nothing shameful or déclassé about selling at all, as long as you’re honestly selling and delivering a great product. After a few years, I actually found it to be the most fun, challenging part of each business I was in.

In closing, remember, though, that selling never ends. It’s what entrepreneurs do, all the time pretty much.

So if you’re not a salesperson, somehow, you’re not likely much of an entrepreneur, either!

Learn more about the importance of selling in the book i wrote with Steve Blank, “The Startup Owner’s Manual,” sold at Amazon and everywhere else.

Your Picks: The Six Most Popular Bob Dorf Blog Posts of 2013

The only way to determine what I’ve said that’s important is to do customer discovery on the question, and ask YOU!

With thanks to my thousands of followers all over the world, here’s the “Bob Dorf six-pack” of startup opinions and customer development ideas most widely read by YOU:

  1. Why too many startups (er) suck (I don’t think this headline requires much explanation)
  2. The “Ugly Baby” Rule in Customer Discovery, or why you must never conduct discovery interviews with friends, family, or people who know you–the results will be severely biased.
  3.  Ask Yourselves the “Billion Dollar Question” (Keep your eye focused on the long-term goal.)
  4.  Are Business Plans Really Dead (minimal interpretation required. Answer: “sorta, especially early.”)
  5. Start Discovery with the “Give a Crap” Question…the most important, most overlooked issue in startup planning is whether there are hungry, eager, passionate customers waiting for your product.
  6. My Opinion (about your startup) Just Doesn’t Matter (my wife’s favorite, but important for founders!)

Bob Dorf speaks with, coaches and trains startups in lean customer development all over the world. He blogs at dorfonstartups.com and tweets @bobdorf.

Just ask my wife: my opinion DOES NOT matter!!

Nobody will affirm this more loudly than Fran, my wife of (gasp) 36 years…”Bob’s opinion doesn’t matter!”

This is true both with domestic Dorf family decisions and even more importantly, when it comes to my opinion about your startup!

I was reminded just how little my opinion means during a wonderful series of discussions this week at Wharton and at Philadelphia’s hottest co-working space, Benjamin’s Desk, where in informal chats with a variety of entrepreneurs, many were soliciting my opinion.  My opinion is no more valuable than any other professor’s, advisor’s or investor’s. The only opinions that should drive your startup are those of the only people whose opinions matter, your customers, since they’ll provide revenue and momentum to your startup and I won’t!

Your job as the founder is to create a fluid system of soliciting and processing that feedback on a consistent, ongoing basis. You don’t respond to every customer opinion…only to emerging dominant patterns where, for example, a clear majority of “highly likely” buyers say they’d be more likely to buy if you offered the software on a SAAS basis, or at a different price, or with these features those highly-likely buyers would value greatly if added to the product.  It’s your job to continuously process that feedback, and to monitor the data stream to look for newly-emerging patterns or direction. Only when you’ve seen a consistent, important pattern do you pivot, or change one of the key components of your business model based on that new customer-driven information.

When can non-customers help?

A “non-customer” opinion of your startup only matters because it’s fueled by two important resources:

  • A library of dumb startup mistakes the observer has personally made or seen. (In my case, it’s quite a collection.)  Hopefully this learning can save you time and mistakes by pointing you to past sins of commission or omission, so you can learn about and avoid the mistakes rather than actually make the same mistake painfully yet again
  • Opinions based on exposure to scores if not thousands of startups and their experiences, good and bad, which can provide guidance for the next startup that rolls down the track.

So keep asking everyone you can talk to, but always listen the hardest when talking to a potential customer!

NEXT: How to process piles of feedback.

Bob Dorf speaks with, coaches and trains startups in lean customer development all over the world. He blogs at dorfonstartups.com and tweets @bobdorf.