“Are you going to be the Twitter of Poland or are you going to think big?” How to tackle Europe’s “big idea” problem

Mike Butcher @ Pioneers Festival 2012
Mike Butcher @ Pioneers Festival 2012

Pioneers Festival 2012

Take 2,300 tech-heads, put them in the Hofburg Palace with a magician, a pro biker, an electric car and an eclectic mix of international speakers. Something’s bound to spark…

The message left after this week’s Pioneers Festival in Vienna is that entrepreneurs everywhere, but particularly in Europe, need to be more ambitious. Less local, more global goals. Less apps we wouldn’t miss if they vanished; more bids to change the world and tackle education, health and poverty.

Salim IsmailHacking the family dog

In a rousing keynote, Salim Ismail, the global ambassador for Silicon Valley’s Singularity University, pushed the learning institute/incubator’s mission to help young leaders understand accelerating shifts in technology and use it to solve the world’s problems. “The next generation will be hacking the family dog. How will we manage that?”

The Singularity University’s students – 80 this year from 36 countries, out of 4,000 applicants, average age 30 – spend ten (apparently often sleepless) weeks together. The group absorbs lectures and workshops from about 160 different speakers, then settles in to work on projects that aspire to have a positive impact on a billion people within ten years.

That might be using 3D printers to build houses; it could be flying food and medicine into remote villages using drones. “FedEx is very interested in this…”

About two-thirds of the Singularity University’s student projects are still active, and about half of those have received funding, Ismail said.

Mike Butcher @ Pioneers Festival 2012 Mike Butcher announcing the startup winners – image copyright Heisenberg Media

Stop complaining. Start creating.

TechCrunch’s Mike Butcher, meanwhile, ran through the cons and pros of being a startup founder in Europe. Top of the plus list: culture, and cultural diversity: “Amazing design, amazing sensibilities. You go to Palo Alto, it’s full of fucking parking lots. We are in a palace,” Butcher said, in full leather-jacketed, rabble-rousing, “fuck”-emitting mode.

“Design, culture, fashion, music. Leverage this stuff. This is part of you. This is where you are from. The world buys this. China buys this. Come on!”

Fear of failure? Lobby to fix it.

Top of the list holding founders in Europe back, according to Ismail, speaking to VentureVillage after his speech, is fear of failure:

“It’s actually three things. Self-belief. The gumption to go do that… People suffer from the impostor syndrome – ‘I don’t know enough to go do that’.

“So that’s one. The second is cultural. People especially in Europe don’t think at a global scale. They think at a local scale. They’ll build a cool company for the suburb of Rome they live in or whatever…”

The third? Different company regulations. Silicon Valley is “littered with Europeans” who come to try their luck where it’s easy to shut down a company as well as start it. “When you’re doing startups it takes two or three or four before you get the hang of it…”

That’s one we hear often – along with a lack of mid-stage venture capital funding, small and language-diverse consumer markets, more cautious investors and a lack of big exits (IPOs or otherwise) to bring cash back into the system.

GetStarlightThe Clash of the Founders hackathon at Pioneers Festival:
Europe versus USA – image courtesy @_Bernhard

mountain bikeWhy a pro mountain biker? Why not…

So, what’s the solution?

Structural shifts are already happening – tech clusters in Berlin, London and other emerging hubs are starting to pull, there’s more early-stage funding available, more accelerators… (Butcher: “Are there too many? Fuck no, more, bring more!”)

In the end, it rests on founders’ personal choices. To close with another choice one from Butcher: “Are you going to be the Twitter of Poland or are you going to think big?”

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