The young entrepreneurs aiming to rebuild Greece
- 18 May 2012
- From the section Business
Now may seem like a strange time to be setting up a business in Greece.
The taxes are high, and there is virtually no prospect for growth. It is also a bureaucratic nightmare.
And the country is at the epicentre of Europe's biggest economic crisis for a generation.
But while many Greeks wish to go in search of opportunities abroad, there is a small community of young entrepreneurs choosing to stay in Greece and tackle the crisis head on.
For the last 50 years it has been nearly every Greek's dream to work in the public sector; earn a good wage and retire young. But with the structure of that society crumbling by the day, the mentality of Greeks is beginning to change.
"Five years ago, 'start-up' was a non-word," says Panos Zamanis, vice president of the Hellenic Start-Up Association (HSA), a not-for-profit group supporting high-growth and innovative entrepreneurship in Greece.
The organisation is little more than a year old, but its membership now totals more than 1,000.
"Business used to be a bad word," says Mr Zamanis. "Previously when governments considered helping the private sector, opposition parties would moan. We thought we could change this."
Mr Zamanis says the crisis has pushed people's survival instincts, that now it comes down to fight or flight.
And although a recent survey suggests that 76% of people wish to emigrate, there are pockets of individuals in Greece coming together to discuss innovative ways that will enable them to stay.
Stavros Messinis runs Colab, a working space where this like-minded community gathers. In hard times, Colab provides cheap office space and free advice, and regularly hosts events for technology based start-ups.
"Greeks are thinking in a different way now," he says. "More people are coming here looking for advice, because, they're more innovative; they are out of their comfort zone. Every day a new project walks through the door."
But for those projects, the statistics do not look good. Since the start of the crisis the number of businesses in Greece has been steadily falling year-on-year.
Every day in Greece, it is estimated that 900 people lose their jobs, and for last year alone the National Confederation of Greek Commerce reported that the number of small and medium-sized enterprises decreased by 68,000 compared to 2010.
But by focusing on new sectors and a more modern business-minded approach, young enthusiastic entrepreneurs feel they can buck the trend.
Mr Messinis says Colab - which often attracts high growth, technology-orientated companies - hasn't had one failed start-up yet.
Recent successful projects known for their originality, include apps such as Taxibeat - that allows you to locate, select, and hail a driver - and i-kiosk, a company that builds software helping Greek kiosk and convenience-store owners track inventory and sales.
Founders of both now return to Colab to share their knowledge with others at various talks.
For Bugsense, a Greek software company that's designed a tool which collects and analyses crash reports from mobile apps, success lies beyond Greece - somewhere where the banks have the necessary liquidity and mentors offer the best advice.
"It is important to travel. Leave Greece and network," says co-founder Panos Papadopoulos.
"Greece is stagnated. We tried to find funding here, but Greeks don't want to take risks in the hi-tech sector and they don't understand the technology. There is a huge lack of capital, even the healthy businesses are suffering."
Yet the team still chooses to stay in Greece. Having gone to the US and found funding from Greek Americans in Silicon Valley, they then returned to run the entire operation out of Athens.
"We actually turned down a $1m [£630,000] acquisition that would have meant us permanently working in the US," explains Panos' business partner, John Vlachoyiannis.
"It made sense to incorporate the company there, as the legal and financial system is more stable, but I wouldn't want to be permanently based there.
"Here in Greece we can find excellent developers at reasonable prices, who are loyal and creative. Plus many people work their whole lives to come here for a one-week holiday, so why leave in the first place?"
But few young people in Greece feel their country offers them enough to stay put. When questioned in a recent survey, only 14% of students at Panteion University said they wittingly wanted to stay in Greece, because they believed their generation can help to improve things.
Many members of the business community blame the government, saying no party in power has ever done enough to support the new generation of entrepreneurs.
There is still hope though amongst the community that with new elections positive changes may ensue.
For many Greeks in business, a renegotiation of the current bailout would be a welcome relief. The majority does not want to leave Europe, but sees no room for growth in the current agreement.
Stability is what's needed, but if the markets are anything to go by each new day seems to bring nothing but uncertainty.
One thing is certain. Greece can no longer survive in its current form.
"We need Europe," says Panos Zavanis, contemplating what the outcome of the next election could bring.
"They have the know-how and the power we need to change things. If we went back to the drachma, things would not be any easier.
"Without the necessary infrastructure in place this country would never benefit from a devalued currency. We need Europe."
But Greece also needs Greeks.
And despite the high amount of people contemplating leaving, the invaluable few entrepreneurs determined to stay hope they will soon number enough to make an impact on the social, political and economic landscape of an ancient country in such desperate need of transformation.