I Met Entrepreneurs in 11 Countries in 2013, Here’s What I Learned

2013 was a rewarding year of travels for me. Three continents, 122,000+ miles, and lifelong memories with some of the most amazing people around.

I wrapped 2012 with a quick trip to LeWeb in Paris and a visit to London’s startup (party) scene. That set me up for a holiday back home with the family in California and some well needed rest for the whirlwind, I had no idea, 2013 was going to turn in to. I’ll keep this somewhat TL;DR as there are a number of great in-depth startup ecosystems reviews of Europe and South America. Read on…

I started the year with a quick trip to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Besides the expected winter weather, I was surprised to find a bustling startup scene in a place not really know for it. Perhaps you’ll see more from this city which happens to have the 5th highest concentration of Fortune 500s in the US.


This is the awesome CoCo co-working space on the historic Trading Floor of the Minneapolis Grain Exchange.


In March, I finally went to SXSW in Austin, Texas. My assessment is that unfortunately the conference has really jumped the shark. It is referred to as “Spring Break for Geeks” and though plenty of people from Silicon Valley still make the pilgrimage, it is no longer a “must-go”. Don’t get me wrong, connection are to be made and the BBQ is amazing, but the hotel/transportation hassle and over-emphasis on the startup party scene makes it a less than productive place. My suggestions is go once for a few days… with low expectations.



In March, I also visited New York and presented Keen in front a joint New York Angels and Georgetown Angels. crowd. In general, I’ve become extremely bearish on Angel Groups. Something I’ll write about at length separately. It was however interesting to contrast NYC investors with those on the West Coast. Just about everyone I met there is running a hedge fund and “dabbles” in private equity (of which VC and Angel investing is a small sub-segment). What’s worth noting is that people from the finance industry are even less technical than the doctors and dentists you’ll find in Silicon Valley angel groups. And this means that social proof on your deal (who else is investing) is even more important… almost the only thing that matters. The other thing most don’t realize is that as rich as NYC is in other financial sectors, the Angel/VC segment is only 1/4 the size of Silicon Valley’s. Overall, NYC is one of my favorite cities but is very different for startups.

Here’s what Union Square looked like in the middle of a weird March snow storm.


End of May and most of June I spent on the European conference circuit.

First stop: Kyiv, Ukraine. I was born in Ukraine and this trip rekindled a special relationship with my motherland. The startup ecosystem in Ukraine has a ton of potential. The two primary drivers are the 16,000+ annual programmer/IT graduates produced there (fourth in the world and 40% of which in Kyiv) and it is a gateway to RUNet (Russian language Internet) which is second only behind English in Europe and growing rapidly. On this trip I began working more closely with Happy Farm as an Advisory Board member and did a well-attended talk on Design.

Next stop was LeWeb London – though I didn’t end up actually going to the conference. The startup scene in the UK reminds me of a mix of NYC today and Silicon Valley circa 1999. There is a metric ton of investment capital, yet it is skewed heavily towards later stage.  Founders there complain of a lack of professionalized Seed capital endlessly. Despite this, there are more than enough startups getting up and running in Shore Ditch. One thing I noticed is that the startup scene tends to throw itself a lot of parties. While this may simply be the very social culture in England, it reminds me of the dot com days in Silicon Valley where flamboyant parties celebrated things like raising a round of funding. You’ll seldom see the real movers and shakers of the startup scene venture out for a pint in the early evening on a school night. I’m curious to see how this may change in the coming years as the sexiness of startups wears off when this wave runs dry as does follow-on capital for non-revenue producing businesses.

I was also invited to speak at an event for the UK Print Industry at one of the coolest print (and book) museums I’ve been to.

Putting on the Startup Island conference on Hvar, Croatia is pretty genius – hands-down the most scenic venue around. This wasn’t my first visit to Croatia but I gain an even deeper insight into the Balkan scene. It is incredible how motivated and productive the startup ecosystem is in Croatia given its tiny 4.25M population. For contrast, the Kyiv greater metro is 6M alone. This seeming disadvantage has been turned into an opportunity, as most startups there naturally start with a global (or at least European) target market. A top-tier event in the region usually brings together players from the entire Balkan region and that’s access to a population of almost 60M.

Next on the program was a trip to Trento, Italy to mentor teams in the newly formed TechPeaks People Accelerator. Though there are 100+ accelerators and incubators in Europe, TechPeaks stands out by welcoming talented individuals to mashup into teams and come up with investible startups during the program. Incredibly scenic Northern Italy and a great mix of 70 founders from numerous countries that yielded 23 startups by demo day in early December. I look forward to visiting this summer for the second iteration of the program.

Poland has one of the healthiest overall economies and startup communities in Europe at the moment. It is being driven by a number of experienced investors and is home to the well-Polished (har har) Bitspiration conference where I was invited to speak. On this trip I also took the opportunity to visit the Schindler Holocaust Museum in Krakow. An emotional experience not to be missed. Poland’s Innovation Nest was one of the first accelerator programs I joined as a mentor and regularly spend time with their startups when they visit Silicon Valley.

In August I took a quick visit to Boston for Keen. Partially through conversation with a long-time friend who’s a researcher at the MIT Media Lab, I realized just how far behind their startup scene has fallen. In the dot com boom Boston was a strong #2 player. These days it is not even in the top-5. Though MIT is certainly still there, most graduates and budding startups make a quick run for Silicon Valley or New York. It is unfortunate, but very real.

September started with a quick trip to Chicago where Keen picked up yet another award from the print industry and put on a Printoberfest Party to celebrate.


Later in September I had the privilege of joining another Geeks on a Plane adventure! This time to Latin America.

First stop was Mexico City. The financial capital of Latin America, one of the largest cities in the world, and home to 500 Startups Mexico. Most startup ecosystems are looking for a way into the US. Mexico’s founders see its diaspora in the US as a major advantage of entering the biggest market in the world. Even without it, the Spanish speaking world is absolutely massive and Mexico’s bustling economy of 121M people is an attractive base on its own. Typical developing market problems and opportunities exist here: most ecommerce categories wide open, payments and logistics still being figured out, and smartphone penetration is growing though most people don’t subscribe to data plans and instead hop wifi to wifi for their fix. I look forward to visiting in 2014 as a 500 Startups mentor to work with the twice annual accelerator program there.

Next was (don’t call it Columbia) Bogota, Colombia. A high elevation city with the population of the entire San Francisco Bay Area. It holds a somewhat stifled startup scene at the moment but has support from great organizations like HubBog and the government with programs like Apps.co. Though sometimes more well-intentioned than effective, government support in South America is something Central and Eastern Europe could really learn from. This stop was also home of the most epic Monday night party ever (see if you can spot the pics in the gallery below).

São Paulo, Brazil yet another massive city, the Brazilian’s financial capital, and home to 500 Startup’s Brazil-focused fund. One thing clear right away was that Brazil and the rest of Central and South America (Spanish speaking) see themselves as COMPLETELY different markets and cultures. Brazil famously enjoyed a financial boom for the last decade but the startup scene has quieted down as of late. Venerable VC firms like Sequoia have actually pulled out of the market after getting bruised up in a frothy environment. However, the economy is bustling and the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics will keep keep it going for at least the foreseeable future. So, despite the setback, people seem to be getting down to business, Internet and app-enabling the almost 200M population.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil was our final stop. It must be hard to focus on work in one of the world’s most beautiful cities, but there seems to be quite a bit of activity with several well-organized accelerators including 21212 which is actually a mix of Rio and NYC. After two intense weeks on the road full of meetings, we actually got a chance to unplug a bit and just enjoy the scenery a bit.

Geeks on a Plane is just as much about the destinations cities as it is about the hand-picked group of entrepreneurs and investor travelers. Much like the Eastern Europe GOAP trip in 2012, I made life-long friends from all over the world on this one.

With a short break at home, I headed to the Spain Startup & Investor Summit in Madrid. A well-organized conference put on with the help of IE Business School’s Venture Lab. The event has massive support from the Spanish government and even had Spain’s Prince and Princess in attendance… and I had the distinction of meeting them while wearing a tshirt and jeans. It is evident that the government sees innovation as a potential way out of its terrible economic and unemployment situation.  Though it would be more encouraging to see fewer bankers and politicians and more geeks in the audience instead.

In November I was invited to be one of the keynote speakers at the How To Web conference in Bucharest, Romania. Another well-organized event several years running. It was my first visit to Romania and and a reminder of the Soviet influence once there. A great mix of startups from around the region which focused primarily on South-Central Europe.



Late November and early December I spent working around the clock with my team in Kyiv at the run-up to our Startup AddVenture conference. Nothing worth doing is easy and our first-time event was filled with challenges. Not the least of which was a “little” revolution breaking out a week before. We stood in absolute solidarity with all of the Ukrainians and were even more motivated to make the show go on.  So despite well over a million people taking to the city square to protest the corrupt President and administration, the startup revolution went ahead as planned.

We hosted 50+ speakers from all over Europe and the US, as well as upwards of 2,000 attendees from 28 countries and two dozen top European accelerators. Our 10 startup competition finalists represented 9 countries with UK’s PlayCanvas taking first, and Ukraine’s own LeadScanner taking second places. Both came away with prizes in the form of investment from 500 Startups and Cross Border Angels. Coverage by TechCrunch’s Mike Butcher.

Main Stage

Expo & Workshops

VIP Reception

Investor & Founder Reception

After Party

The day after the conference, we arranged GOAP-style private tours with four of the top startups/endups in the Kyiv region.  ModnaKasta – leading fashion flash sale site in Ukraine and one of the biggest ecommerce sites in the country, while only 3 years old, InvisibleCRM – leading enterprise integration and middleware company, Terrasoft – #1 Russian language CRM… soon coming to the US market, and Avarla – spinoff logistics company providing Ukrainian warehousing and delivery for some of the world’s largest brands.  The tour was called “Kyiv City Open Doors”.

With the close of our Series A, Keen is coming to Ukraine with a development office officially launching in January. While my team at Europe Venture Summit is already working on again hosting Startup AddVenture in Kyiv (Dec 3-4) and Investor Harvest (Sep 18-19), an invitation-only seaside conference for Angel and Seed Investors in Odessa, Ukraine – my hometown.

2014 promises to be an even busier travel year for me with events on the books already almost every single month. I look forward to sharing my learnings with you here on the blog.