A small country located in the center of the Balkans, mainly featured on media because of political issues, is not often a place to be taken into consideration when you talk about the startup scene of Eastern Europe, but when you look closer, things are seen past their appearance.
A GDP per capita of around $ 3,600 (World Bank, 2011), Kosovo, with a population of 1.85 million inhabitants, is still considered to be one of the poorest countries in Europe, where signs of an unemployment rate of above 40%, show the tough conditions of the labor market.
The educational system is still fragile and creates professionals with a strong theoretical knowledge, there are professional and certified training institutions in different fields (we’re talking about the ICT market here) that tend to fill in the gaps between academia and company needs, and support the development of existing companies, new ones and foreign investments.
On the other hand, a strong average of English and German skills, similar work culture to Western Europe and US and tech-savvy people with an average age of 25 years old, have created an outsourcing culture that is currently developing towards the field of inbound and outbound call-centers, handling services like support and customer services that include telemarketing, surveys, direct mail follow-up, fundraising, etc.
Entrepreneur, not unknown anymore
Reading about successful startups from US and Europe is something that we do every day, but we’ve barely heard of any success story from a country like Kosovo. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t any. I’ve been in tech industry for many years in the region, while constantly following the development of the scene that only since 2011 started to come alive and put some dents into the map.
Two years ago, I remember when people were building “innovative fountains” for “startup competitions” (not for Kickstarter!) and winning over 10,000 euros worth of grants from international donors. There were even famous TV folks who now call themselves entrepreneurs, and used to call “Startup Weekend” a trade-fair.
But anyway, looking back on that, nowadays being in the middle of things with some very active friends who like to make their hands dirty and giving the people the place where they are now, you see startups aiming global markets, true business angels and self-proclaimed ones, and also some self-declared experts in different fields, entrepreneur gurus, etc. which is not a bad sign at all. It shows that people are reading and that the market is jumping on the wagon.
For the first time the word entrepreneur started to become a common one, not only because it became a trend around the world, but because there were events happening al the time like Startup Weekend, AppCamp Kosovo, WikiAcademy Kosovo, BarCamps, Community Boost_r, Digital Days, Social Innovations Camps, etc., and everything in less than 2 years. It was not a goal anymore to earn degree after degree to find a job, but the time of being your own boss came to the horizon.
Aiming it big
We have Solaborate.com, a niche social network for IT Professionals based in Los Angeles, founded by Kosovar diaspora Labinot Bytyqi and supported with a strong local team based in Prishtina. Solaborate.com has already 1 million dollars of investment, from unnamed investors.
XIIIK and Puntoria are two other startups from the virgin market of Game Development in Kosovo, where the first one is almost launch ready with their game Highland Lute, which is a RPG based on traditional stories around Albanian Mythology, while the other one has reincarnated a traditional Balkan card game called Pishpirik, which is now a killer game on Facebook with more than 180,000 players on the biggest social network of the world.
Something worth mentioning and highlighting is the success rate of startups coming out of Startup Weekends. The latest one to mention is Math 4 Kids, a startup aiming to serve educational based applications, and which was one of the top three teams at Startup Weekend Prishtina in May 2012. The founders of the company have taken things to the next level with two other companies Appsix and Netsix, one focusing on application development for different platforms with some of the products (including Skendermen – Game for iOS & Android, Kosova Banks – iOS & Android, Folkan Shqip – iOS, Math 4 Kids – iOS, Duplex Club – iOS, etc), while the other is a startup with a strong base in engineering and already working on some outsourcing projects.
Interestingly app development companies or even app developers are not a rare breed any more. A Kosovar-Dutch company, called Sprigs, which is still operating in the market and has clients across Europe, was one of the first one to mention, and is continually growing, thus giving the signals that the market getting more crowded every day. A big player not to be mentioned as a startup but rather than a role-model, is also 3CIS, which was set-up in 2008 and now has over 170 employees, serving major telecommunication carriers (Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent, Motorola, etc.) across the globe with highly specialized services, including architecture design, planning, consulting, implementation, etc.
Key actors in rising the spirit
Some key actors into brining the scene where it is nowadays are organizations like The Association for information and technology and communication in Kosovo – STIKK, Innovation Centre Kosovo, IPKO Foundation, CEED Kosovo, EYE etc. With the opening of the first business incubator in the country, an incubator supported by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which now has more than 17 companies with more than 60 employees and over 300 trained professionals in unique course through its training department (which I managed for more than one year), a new era embraced in the market, bringing in to life other “sleeping” actors and brining in even Albanian diaspora like Vllaznim Xhiha to open up the first Business Angel Fond (EYE) in the country.
Some people, who have been proceeding this new startup scene, will leave behind them a great legacy, an impact so big that is beyond a startup/entrepreneurial culture, affecting even government organizations to keep up with the energy level of a startup community.
What is left with the tools and infrastructure set, is for the people to innovate and challenge the traditional mindset of grant hunting and remittances, and starting to take things into the next level.