“We Are Not Far Away From A Connected Ecosystem”, StartUs CEO David R. Prasser

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An exclusive interview with StartUs founder David R. Prasser on connecting the European ecosystem, the distinction between “know-how” and “know-who”, and the bottom-up challenge to top-down attitudes.

David, tell me a little about what’s going on with StartUs?

We had an excellent year for 2015. With a notable increase in our member base from 500 in December 2014 to over 12,000 today, as well as a fivefold increase in overall traffic and reach, 2015 ended extremely well for us. We are now working on optimizing user traction. There will be a number of IT initiatives this year to increase the usability and possibilities of the website, which will solve the main challenges we have.

For example, when startup enthusiasts join the community, they will instantly find “easy fit” solutions for their needs– people with common interests, jobs, internships or co-founders they are looking for – which makes it easier to match talent and skill within the community. If someone is a technical talent, they can find a business person; if someone is a business talent, they can find mentors, and then later the initial people to invest and help them “start up”. In essence, we are creating a “people and opportunity search engine”, which has never existed before at this depth and magnitude in the startup and innovators community.

So that’s the promotional pitch. Out of interest, could you tell us a little as to how you got to this point? And what difficulties did you have to overcome to be in a position to offer it now?

It came out of my need to find the right people. When I arrived in Vienna at the end of 2013, I was looking for a new project, and a co-founder. I noticed that it was really hard to find the people I was looking for, because to find those, you first have to meet everyone else. So if you’re at a networking event, and there’s potentially one out of 500 person of interest to your current and particular needs, then you potentially have to talk to all 500 to be 100% sure to meet the right one. This is inefficient and for the most part impossible.

So that’s really the core of the entire project. In addition, with all the availability of information on the web, people pretty much have the sense they should be able to do all of this themselves. And because there’s so much volume, it’s really difficult to know what to go for. So in a sense you’re a mediator…

In the information age, one really can google just about everything. The majority of challenges people, and especially founders, face, however, are not solvable with a quick Google search. You need knowledge and experience to program your app, raise funds, build your community, etc. This is called intangible information – the information which resides within people rather than on pages available on the internet. The only way to “access” intangible information within people (know-who search) and put it to use is by finding and engaging with them. This is what StartUs does – a search engine designed for startup enthusiasts to find people and opportunities within the ecosystem.

So in a sense, it’s like introducing the humanistic element lacking in the immediacy of technology, which seems very necessary. I think a lot of people might be feeling lost, in terms of just “googling” stuff without it necessarily giving people the sense of what they need. Do you have a, if I may, quasi-political objective here as well?

Yes, because this innovation ecosystem is one of the biggest challenges for Europe. We need to create our own innovation engine, just like in the US. There is lots of commitment, but not really a deep understanding of how to do it just yet. We will basically solve this “know-who” problem: to really know how to find the right people, startups or professional opportunities, which will contribute to increase mobility within Europe. Hopefully then everything else will fall into place.

So what are the biggest differences between the US and Europe as far as startups are concerned at this point in time? And how does one overcome the gap, if that’s one of StartUs’ central objectives?

The biggest difference is that Europe has a very fragmented ecosystem, whereas the US really has a broader innovation network with specialized hubs, and an immensely strong mobility between them. You know the typical American story: you’re born and go to school in Ohio, go to university in New York, do your first job in LA, etc. Everything in the US is built around interstates with an emphasis on mobility. Out of 300 million people you can really find and seize the best opportunities, and this leads to really strong innovation hubs, and thus a strong overall innovation output.

So Silicon Valley is obviously the most famous one in terms of IT. Wherever you are in the States, if you really want to make your mark on this industry, then you go to the Valley. There are also lots of new hubs emerging. For example, there’s stuff happening around content publishing. People who want to do things in that industry would probably go to New York. And that’s what the European ecosystem needs, because it needs to have the best people within certain interests and industries brought closer together. In network theory this is called “density”. If you have 100,000 people who are founders and want to work in the IT business, if they live in a city of 1,000,000 inhabitants, the density is high and the overall output will skyrocket. If the same 100,000 people would live scattered across a country or even continent, then the productivity will be severely diminished.

And that’s the thing with Europe. In Europe we have many small countries with citizens still very much thinking within their regional borders, and this mindset makes it difficult for entrepreneurs to be truly mobile and seize the right opportunities, irrespective of location. We will start tearing these borders down by putting the most important thing out there: information. Information like: here’s a person in Vienna and one in Bratislava, each professionally complementary to the other, and these people should meet up. And that’s the essential thing. If that information is there, the mobility will come by itself. And that’s the beautiful thing about startup enthusiasts: they are really the first generation to be able to overcome these borders.

So in a sense you’re very much a European Federalist, as in the original vision of uniting Europe. It’s been moving away from that politically for a long time but in a sense you’re revitalizing this attitude.

Europe really needs a unified innovation community, with high mobility, and this will make it possible to create strong hubs. Wherever people are in Europe, if they want to do something in, say, Fintech, they are likely go to London, and that benefits the ecosystem. And vice versa, other industries will find other hubs in Europe. And thus people who really want to make their mark on an industry will find the place where thousands of others want to do so, and then the magic happens.

So there we have the background for the StartUs vision. Talk to me more about what’s going on right now.

We always have several things going on at the same time. The most important progression this year will be the social network, where you build your personal network and find the right people. We just finished the beta version of our recommendation system which will make it easier to find people, as thousands of people are not so easy to filter any more. We will build up on this great technology to provide recommendations that truly have the depth and understanding, as if a great networker would recommend you to meet a certain person. So once you sign in, the website will have strong awareness of who you are, where you want to go and what the challenges are, and provide meaningful recommendations for your next steps. Whether there are people you should get in touch with, whether you want to expand your market from from Slovakia to the DACH area, or if you search for ideas and opportunities in a certain industry, our platform will understand that and connect you with people who in the first instance can get a discussion going.

But interestingly enough, the magazine is a fundamental part of your enterprise, which is a very traditional means of getting information across, but it’s vital nevertheless, as you do have in-depth reporting as to what’s going on in hubs all over Europe. You have people contributing from all over Europe, on an easily accessible basis.

There are three main components to StartUs: The platform, the magazine and the events. All three are vital to the objective of connecting the European startup ecosystem.

The magazine is a very important element because it really shows what you can do with a bottom-up community-building approach. So we’re sitting here in Vienna, though you could just as well imagine we started up in Aarhus, or in Paris. It should not matter where we are, because it’s Europe-wide. But we have the problem that wherever we are, we have a limited scope of information. So if we’re in Vienna, how can we write the story about Aarhus, or how can we report on the startup community in Paris? The answer is very simple: We, as the people sitting in Vienna, can’t – but we, the community, can. So instead of trying to write it down in the office 1000 KM away from the action, you need to do it straight out of the community. So you need to go to Paris, connect with the right people you previously connected with on StartUs who are cornerstones in their startup community, and together with them you will be able to write great content.

This is how we created a very strong series of city guides – over 50 already. City guides are basically guides that mirror what the startup community looks like and make it very easy for you to make the first steps, find the places where you can find the people and see who the founders, business angels, etc. are. With this bottom-up approach that we really excel at – by now we have over 120 authors – we have written in-depth guides, hub reports, and interesting interviews telling stories of the European startup community.

Tell me about the events?

Events are interesting because they are in one sense local. But on the other hand, they have the objective of connecting people across borders; again, the pan-European community. By now we have organized events in 7 countries. When we do events, we always try to get mentors who are founders from other hubs in, to get this exchange going. And that’s why we really like this, because it gives people a good place to connect locally but at the same time see what’s happening in other cities, and gives them another physical dimension of not only thinking too much within their city or within borders, but also to look outwards. We have welcomed around 1500 people to these events so far and I think it won’t be long until the number has 5 digits.

Finally, what are your forecasts for 2016? Firstly, in the sense of the broader European ecosystem, and secondly, on behalf of StartUs itself?

We observe that the European Ecosystem has strong traction. For example, there was around $9.5 billion of Venture Capital investment in Europe for 2015, so this already starts to become competitive with the United States. Also, we have 35 European “unicorns” in the traditional sense, so companies which haven’t had IPO’s yet, but which are valued above $1billion, and this trend will continue. We also see more incubators being created, they are very important because they give people an early direction, a good start and make sure founders don’t fall into common traps. More and more accelerators are also being created, more capital is coming, and the number of people who see opportunity in entrepreneurship is exploding, and will continue to do so. In total, we are not far away.

I think it’s just a matter of time to let the community evolve, so you really don’t need to solve everything top-down. If you just make sure the wheel is turning, more people found a business, they will again support founders because they believe, they made money there so they will naturally re-invest, and things will take their own course.

So “We are not far away”?

Developments in Europe will be truly amazing. We really will nail this European innovation ecosystem as a manifestation of European identity. We will achieve that very soon, and with that a strong output in innovation, technology will come which will secure Europe’s place in an increasingly changing and digitized world economy. I should add, I am an optimist!

In terms of StartUs, we have 40,000 monthly unique users today, and we will continue growing that. The objective for Europe is to connect 1.000.000 founders. We will not achieve this by the end of 2016, but in the course of 2017 we will fundamentally connect our startup community, helping one million founders to excel at their ventures.



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