Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can vividly see my first summer in Sofia, ten years ago. In 2011 there were no metro lines 2 and 3, there was no Sofia Tech Park, and there were definitely no almost-daily announcements of new startups, funding rounds, and exits, like we are used to today.
That summer, I remember taking my first meetings with the very few people who were into tech entrepreneurship in Bulgaria, and almost everyone giving me a strange look when I said I’d like to stay here because big things will happen.
Yet ten years later, here we are: give or take a thousand serious startups, many hundreds of funding rounds, 10+ local funds with over EUR 200m in venture capital invested, and as many as 15,000 people who are or have been part of venture-funded businesses. And we’re only getting started.
Our story in Sofia is that of luck and hard work. Lucky to have the opportunities offered to us by Bulgaria’s EU membership, and the incredibly hard work of tens of thousands of engineers, executives, designers, finance professionals, lawyers, and politicians, who over the past three decades have built the brain trust of Bulgaria-based engineering and founder talent.
What we have in Bulgaria is without doubt a first-mover advantage in a region where most of our neighboring countries have very similar potential, yet less progress and more obstacles when it comes to realizing it.
From the very beginning of Sofia’s ecosystem story, it was obvious to all of us in this game that connecting and collaborating with our neighboring ecosystems is of key importance if we are to build a truly strong regional entrepreneurship community. The first seed funds active in Bulgaria, Eleven Ventures and Launchub Ventures, made over 40 investments in startups with founders from Serbia, Romania, Croatia, Greece, North Macedonia, and beyond.
In previous years, I’ve been very lucky to find partners with whom we could spread the lessons learned and possibilities achieved in Bulgaria, to communities across the region. We organized founder workshops based on acceleration programs we did in Sofia, held roundtables for local investors, based on our investment committee experience back home, and brought over experienced entrepreneurs and VCs for conferences and in-residence stays.
With Vitosha Venture Partners, from the moment we started putting together our team and fund strategy, a strong connection to the rest of the region has always been a cornerstone focus. But right as we kicked off our operations last year, the Covid pandemic set in, and all we could do is take a Zoom call or several to speak to our venture neighbors.
With the pandemic finally and hopefully in its last stretches this summer, it was high time to start reconnecting with the other venture hubs in Southeastern Europe.
One of the organizations that’s been working the hardest in the past several years, when it comes to building skills, acumen, and connections for founders and investors in the Western Balkans, is the Swiss Entrepreneurship Program. Backed by the government of Switzerland, its team is composed of well-intentioned and highly able connectors, venture builders, and community professionals, engaging with local communities and helping improve the skills and operations of startups, angel networks, coworking spaces, and any other venture initiatives that exist.
And so earlier this month, it was a big joy for me and Kamen Bankovski on behalf of Vitosha, together with Launchub Ventures’ Mirela Yordanova, and TheRecursive’s Irina Obushtarova to hop in the car, like in the good old days, and set out for a few days of meeting founders, investors, and venture networkers in Tirana, Prishtina, and Skopje, with the helpful facilitation of the Swiss Entrepreneurship Program.
During more than 20 meetings over the course of five days, we saw countless excellent examples of venture growth and opportunity. From meeting the founder of Albania’s biggest online retail platform, to speaking with a Kosovo edtech startup that is graduating from Techstars Berlin, to congratulating the just-exited CEO of North Macedonia’s biggest e-commerce success.
Albania, Kosovo, and North Macedonia all three have vibrant founder communities, who have grown immensely in the past few years. All three countries, to various degrees, also have budding and promising investor initiatives: from the growing angel communities in Tirana and Prishtina, to the small system of funds and accelerators around the Fund for Innovation and Technology Development in Skopje.
What was truly striking is how well the entrepreneurs coped with the setbacks from the pandemic; compared to previous visits, I saw much better pitching skills, a far greater understanding of venture dynamics, and a drive to grow and succeed that is miles ahead compared to only a few years ago; sometimes, even within the same people or startups, which I found the most gratifying and exciting.
It’s undeniable that venture ecosystems in the Balkans countries that aren’t yet in the EU are developed at least as well as Sofia was in 2011, if not more. Ten years ago, Sofia had one venture fund, give or take 20-30 startups, and one meeting space, in an old residential apartment that was converted to a hacking lab with donations from a few successful tech entrepreneurs.
It’s also undeniable that in the next decade, one way or another, our neighbors will come back home to the European family of nations. Whether directly through EU membership, as intended by the European Commission’s Accession Roadmap, or through intermediate pre-accession programs, borders will open further, and capital investment programs will become available, either within the local ecosystems, or by association from neighboring countries.
With all the work we’ve done in Sofia as a community over the past decade, multiplied by the excellent efforts of such groups like the Swiss Entrepreneurship Program, there is a huge potential to leverage our advantages in including the partners in all of the countries that surround Bulgaria. What we enjoy today in Bulgaria will undoubtedly become a much bigger constellation of cities and communities where we can feel at home, and where we will be founding our next successful companies and setting up our next investment funds.
All part of the bigger footprint that we all owe to the group efforts we’ve been making so far, together across borders in this beautiful part of Europe.