There’s a “living wall” of lush greenery hung in the breakout space. Oversized windows allow light to bounce off painted concrete floors and exposed AC pipes. Segways and post-modern lamps. MacBooks and beanbags. An astroturfed terrace and, of course, the ubiquitous Startup Vitamins motivational posters urging you to “Get Shit Done” “Fuck Mediocrity” and “Be Amazing”.
But this isn’t a coworking space in Berlin or a Silicon Valley tech hub. This is Riga, Latvia, and the building is the ultra-glossy “Startup Factory” Draugiem Group, home to the only social network in Europe to still outpace Facebook, umbrella for a stable of over 15 other products with over €15m turnover in 2011 and the very originator of those posters that have been blooming over bare-brick startup walls from Seattle to Shoreditch.
We explore the Draugiem startup empire, find out if they are swallowing their own startup vitamins, and if wall-mounted motivation really creates a healthy work environment…
Sowing the seeds of a startup stable
“I wish I was more outgoing, including talking to press,” says Lauris Liberts. But the media-shy “Entrepreholic” has preferred to spend his time growing Draugiem, a brand that saw its genesis in New York at the end of the 90s. “In 1999, I was a busboy in New York, and the internet bubble was in full force”, Liberts recently told a business blog.
“I was reading about all these new technologies and the internet in the New York Times, and I didn’t have a clue what it was all about but I knew I needed to get involved. I went back home to Latvia and I launched my first Internet company. Ever since that I’ve been in the tech world.”
The 36-year-old seems to be proof of his favourite Get Shit Done poster – since then he’s launched various ventures in a broad range of markets, from micro loans to furniture, alcohol and soft drinks to GPS systems – but the road isn’t always easy: Liberts admits 11 failures as well as his successes in social media and motivational artwork.
In 2004 Liberts’ stellar idea was a localised social network for the Latvian market. Draugiem.lv now has over 2.6m registered users – not bad for a country with a population which tops just 2m.
“I’ve never heard of being called Mark Zuckerberg!” Liberts tells us. “I have far less responsibilities and accountability. He is managing a public company, with a much more complicated task of trying to please stockholders, users, employees, and press all at the same time. By being independent we enjoy a lot more freedom to pursue things that we find interesting. That would not be possible, had we been a public company… Draugiem.lv has Latvian soul, Facebook doesn’t.”
Indeed, it’s the success of the social network that has afforded Liberts the freedom to pursue his many projects… and lay the foundation of a startup empire.
Organic growth to scratch the company itch
A marathon runner in his spare time, Liberts always seems to have multiple projects on the go – and is the type that can execute the entrepreneurial ideas that bubble to the surface. Julia Gifford, Content Marketing Specialist at Draugiem, described on the site simply as “our Talker” agrees: “At first every other company at the Group was founded out of a specific need of the social network. We were always scratching our own itch before offering it to someone else. If we need it then chances are someone else does too.”
A text micropayment system to feed the monetisation of the social network (take heed, Zuck) plus a Hootsuite-style social media service that would also align with Russian and Latvian services are proof in point.
“Startup Vitamins was the same – we were looking for some interesting, startup-related posters for the new office and we couldn’t find anything. So we started designing them ourselves and selling them and now a lot of people know what they are,” says Gifford.
The Startup Vitamins story
Without a doubt, Startup Vitamins is the company that has brought Draugiem international recognition. While the parent group and its other products may fly under the radar, the high-energy soundbites and trendy typefaces of SV have become the de facto decoration for any budding startup.
In the ten months of its existence, the relentlessly upbeat posters have come to epitomise the startup mentality – determined, optimistic, stylish and often contradictory. (Don’t Compromise, or Done is Better than Perfect – which should it be??)
For the more established brands such as Zappos, Nike, Path, Google, Fab, LinkedIn, Twitter or Comcast, they have become an easy shorthand for a progressive attitude – “Look at us, we’re still cool. We have posters that say Shit and Fuck It despite our multi-million operations. Oh, and have you seen our beanbags?”
Getting shit done
Cynicism aside, Draughiem seems to be a genuine font-spring of the Startup Vitamin ethos. Perhaps because, Latvia is, as Gifford describes it “a still-recovering post-Soviet country”. In this context, the dewy-eyed optimism of the entrepreneurial world seems a far more real and attractive prospect than it might to our jaded sensibilities.
“Latvia is a tiny country and talent is very limited… We want to hold on to the most talented minds – programmers and designers,” says Gifford. “And to do that we want to offer a really attractive work environment. We have lots of team events, great catered lunches, we had a birthday event at the seaside, we’ve gone rafting together…”
Liberts adds: “I’m driven by curiosity and passion; being surrounded by smarter people than me. The combination of the two has fuelled the goal to work in bigger markets.”
As well as team-building, Draugiem mirrors the Google model, allowing a percentage of employees’ time to be spent on Special Projects. “We’re really trial and error,” says Gifford. “One of our four wings are given over to startup experiments. if they’re successful, we support them to startup.” Some interesting mini-projects right now include Inboard (an app to organise screenshots) and Conversions Box (a cute pop-up to remind you to “Like” a page on Facebook).
The newly launched print fulfillment company Printful now scratches a specific Startup Vitamins itch. Up until recently Liberts was printing the posters from his own living room – he couldn’t find an adequate printing solution, so he started his own. As he put it in the same interview: “When we launched and we started selling things, we wanted to outsource our fulfillment, we couldn’t find any fulfillment companies. One would do cameras, the other one would do T-shirts, and communicating with them was quite hard and a hassle… I thought there should be a better way. And out of these small ideas came Printful, which now helps other entrepreneurs like us with their fulfillment and production.”
But it can sometimes seem that all companies really need is a fussball table, a breakout zone and a couple of Startup Vitamins posters to be seen as open and progressive – have these things simply become the trappings of the startup world?
“Here it’s definitely part of the mindset too,” Gifford argues. “Here we *are* going to move fast and break things, we *are* going to get shit done. One of the reasons that Draugiem is still alive is because we are able to move so quickly and adapt so quickly to the Latvian market.
“I came to Latvia because I wasn’t impressed with the options Canada had… It all seemed so easy and predictable. Go to a good university. Graduate. Start in an entry-level position. Work your way up the corporate ladder. Start a family. Repeat the cycle. That lifestyle didn’t appeal to me, so I looked outside the borders for adventure. The economy, political climate, and everything is changing so quickly here, it’s exciting to be a part of it all.”