In the course of the second panel discussion of the 2015 ProAktivity Summit, on “Opportunities and Difficulties for Business in Europe”, we came to realise that the number of misconceptions regarding the entrepreneurial landscape in Europe might even be bigger than expected.
This is actually good news, for the idea that big companies and major corporate groups were virtually the only ones left standing following the outbreak of the crisis, while SMEs underwent something resembling a scorched earth policy at the systemic level, might portray a somewhat distorted image of the existing realities. Yes, many SMEs did not make it and many others are experiencing great difficulties in, for instance, getting appropriate financing. But the ones who did persevere and the (many) others that were created over the past years have taught us that while not possessing the range of human, financial and physical resources of many fortune 500 companies, they are, in many ways, better equipped than the larger companies to face the systemic changes in the market.
In fact, as pointed by Simone Baldassarri, Julie Foulon and Sisekelo Sinyolo, the vast majority of European companies remain the SMEs. One of the reason for this arises from the fact that their often small range of resources actually renders them a decisive flexibility to adapt to whatever changes may occur both at the national and international level. Nowadays, SMEs stand as the main providers of jobs in the continent.
In times of recession, exploring new and innovative solutions, or the full – and seemingly boundless – potential of the online realm can also play a decisive role. Julie Foulon and Sisekelo Sinyolo drew our attention to the fact that people nowadays do not need an office to work, and yet they can customise everything about their businesses to an extent that would be impossible in the physical realm. Furthermore, online platforms are available 24/7 and allow us to supervise from our laptops every step from the earliest stages of product conception and design until its delivery. Proactive people have all the tools they need to adapt their old businesses or explore sectors that show great potential, such as aging population, transportation and social business.
This, of course, raises a more fundamental question: if we never had it better and easier when it comes to starting and managing a company, why are so many young Europeans reluctant to give it a try in the entrepreneurial realm, having all the necessary means (and more) at their disposal? Andrey Novakov opened up to the audience and told us that he had to start working since he was 14 and continue to do so to pay for his studies until he graduated. His first job was to sell watches and nowadays he is the youngest Member of the European Parliament. Both his life experience and current professional position allow him to understand that Europe has a big problem in coping with failure. For example, in Bulgaria, his home country, if one goes bankrupt it cannot open a new company, while in the USA the system is built in a way to allow people to start over the very next day. In his view, however, we can only overcome this problem if the EU Member States agree in standard procedures that facilitate both the start-up process and the re-start-up process. The Watify platform, launched by the European Commission, allows entrepreneurs to share both their failure and success stories might play an important contribute towards a shift in persisting cultural paradigms in Europe – what Simone Baldassarri calls the “stigma for those who fail” – and instead start seeing failure as part of the overall enterprise, from which we can learn and improve ourselves.
Learning from the best can be, of course, a crucial asset, and the Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs allows young aspiring entrepreneurs an invaluable opportunity to be coached abroad by successful and far more experienced ones. The crisis has offered a fertile ground for the emergence of potential leaders of tomorrow because not only has the demand for skilled labour increased but also the number of young people starting up and trying to implement their ideas. Estonia and Denmark are good examples of this trend. Julie Foulon and Simone Baldassarri, in turn, underline the amazing opportunities offered by crowdfunding and how it can be an important safety net when testing a new idea or product, while also warning against the risks of not choosing a proper crowdfunding platform. For all reasons, more information of this important tool is crucial.
Finally, our speakers gave us their valuable advice on how not to start-up. While Julie Foulon stressed the need for entrepreneurs not to isolate themselves and network as much as possible, Andrey Novakov reminded the audience that starting up is not synonymous with reinventing the wheel and that sometimes the best course of action is to start small and doing something simple to acquire vital business routines, instead of just waiting for that big, game-changing idea that might never come or come too late to be brought into fruition. Lastly, Sisekelo Sinyolo highlighted the importance of testing the waters before adventuring in an entrepreneurial enterprise by conducting a thorough research of the market and of our competing companies and potential customers.
More importantly, all aspiring entrepreneurs must be told “Start now! Start today! And do it being passionate about what you do”.
By José Guimarães