Emmanuel Macron believes we need to create ten €100 Billion tech companies to make Europe competitive again. I disagree. If there is one thing I learned in my time as AustrianStartups’ managing director, it’s that measuring success in unicorn valuations is ultimately flawed. Don’t get me wrong, of course we need much more strong European tech champions – but their strength will need to come from creating real value, not some paper valuations that can ultimately be steered via monetary policy.
So before popping the cork on the champagne, let’s get the fundamentals right: We need 10x more entrepreneurs and a 10x better environment for them to thrive in – if we succeed in that, the 100x unicorn valuations will follow organically. If we fail, we miss out on the foundation of Europe’s future economy. The stakes could not be higher.
The problem with working on fundamentals is that it’s a process that requires patience, has little PR value and is full of setbacks. No wonder most politicians prefer to focus on valuations. That’s why it needs organizations like AustrianStartups. We won’t stop until we get those fundamentals right and Austria is known for it’s entrepreneurs the same way it’s currently known for its skiers.
Hannah’s Takeover and My New Role
Simply continuing with our current approach will not be enough though. If we want to make Austria competitive within a reasonable time frame, we need to do much more as AustrianStartups. We have to grow our impact beyond the startup bubble and find ways to turn entrepreneurship into a topic of national interest. To get there we will need to improve structurally on three key dimensions:
- Raising more funds to scale up our operations
- Building a stronger network to increase our influence
- Broadening our reach to build bridges to all parts of society
We believe that there are several stakeholders out there who share our belief in the importance of entrepreneurship and could help with one or more of these points. It will be my job to test this hypothesis and find these people & organizations.
As a result, I have recently transitioned into a new role as Chairman, which will allow me to focus on this new challenge. I’m super excited that Hannah Wundsam will take over my previous responsibilities as Managing Director. After co-managing the organization with Hannah for a while, I couldn’t imagine a better person to lead AustrianStartups into our next chapter. She is an exceptional leader and a true entrepreneur at heart.
When in Doubt, Just Do It
So why are we doing this? Let’s jump back 4 years to the time when I took over as AustrianStartups’ managing director. I came in fresh from my own startup rollercoaster, joining a powerful grassroots community with a strong brand and a wonderful team of volunteers. It was my job to grow a professional organization around all of this and find out how AustrianStartups can add the most value to a more and more developed Austrian startup ecosystem.
It took us a few months of soul searching, but we soon realized that the one thing that unites us all is our strong belief in the power of entrepreneurship and the conviction that we are missing out on too much of that power in Austria. The conviction that entrepreneurship is not just a stand-alone discipline, but a foundational means to growth. A foundation everyone should have access to. A skill as fundamental as reading, writing or – in Austria – skiing. Thus, making entrepreneurship as common as skiing in Austria was to be our new north star. To get there, we defined three strategic cornerstones have become the foundations of most of our work today:
A no bullshit approach to innovation policy
First, we were convinced that we wouldn’t get anywhere as long as the public discussion about startups was driven by ideologies, baseless claims, and gut feelings. Thus we built up a think tank to increase factfulness & accountability, giving birth to the Austrian Startup Monitor, the Austrian Startup Agenda & the recently published Policy Dashboard.
A new generation of founders
Second, we had to find new ways of equipping young people with the right skills & mindset for an entrepreneurial career. Clearly, none of our big dreams would come true if Austria continued to have Europe’s worst entrepreneurial education. Taking inspiration from school skiing courses & ski clubs, the Entrepreneurship Week & the Entrepreneurial Leadership Program were thus born to foster a new generation of founders.
A stronger belief in entrepreneurship
Third, we had to deal with the mother of all problems – if you ask people on the street what they think about entrepreneurship, you will most likely hear a lot of questionable dreams of quick money or old horror stories about evil factory bosses. What’s missing all too often is the essence of entrepreneurship – solving problems, having an impact and building the future. To create a more realistic image of entrepreneurship and allow people from all walks of life to experience it themselves, we started Hack the Crisis, Circle17 & Future Weekly.
Making the Dream Work
At times our quest felt pretty hopeless. Austria is still shaped by a frustrating mix of protectionism and cultural resistance to change. From people who are willing to let this country go to ruins to protect their ego, to questionable explanations for grant rejections and ambitious projects being cancelled because of government breakups (not once, but twice) – we definitely had our fair share of big disappointments on the way.
Despite all these circumstances and setbacks we are as loud and proud as ever. This is largely due to the wonderful group of people that have grown to be the AustrianStartups Leadership Team. What started with one single employee back in 2017 has become a team of 10 rockstars constantly pushing each other to new levels.
It may sound too optimistic, even un-Austrian, but our persistence is starting to pay off, and it is increasingly clear that we are at least taking steps in the right direction. The figures in the Austrian Startup Monitor have shown how Startups have become an important growth and job engine, which has helped us to get 18 of our 37 Agenda recommendations into the latest government program. On the educational level, close to 70 schools will take part in Entrepreneurship Weeks this year and the fellows of our ELP pilot are conquering the world with two thirds of them on track to start their own venture. Meanwhile, Future Weekly is inspiring people to dream big as one of Austria’s leading tech podcasts – and when more than 700 people teamed up to fight against Corona during Hack the Crisis, it hopefully inspired many more to believe in their own entrepreneurial power.
Our Path to Scale
Still, there is one central issue that we have been talking about for years and haven’t managed to solve yet: Scale. We have successfully shown that we can create meaningful impact with minimal resources. But to make entrepreneurship as common as skiing in Austria, we need the resources to scale these initiatives beyond the startup bubble. That will be my focus in my new role as Chairman: finding institutions and individuals that share our dreams and help us reach the next level with funds, network or reach.
Curious what the next level looks like? It’s full of growth for our existing initiatives and quite a few new ideas like a youth organization for entrepreneurship, a book about potential moonshots for Europe or a campaign for a new entrepreneurial age. You can check out a sneak peek of our pitch deck here – and if you are interested in supporting our efforts, I would love to meet up and tell you more about our plans in person.
So before I start in this new role, I want to sign off as managing director with a big thank you. Thank you to the wonderful people who have been a part of the AustrianStartups team as employees, volunteers, board members or fellows during the last few years and put their heart and soul into making this country a bit more entrepreneurial. Thank you to all our partners, who have grown with us from a small grassroots initiative to a cornerstone of Austria’s startup landscape. And of course, thank you to our exceptional AustrianStartups community who have always been an incredible source of inspiration & motivation. This first chapter was awesome, the next one will be even better.
And with that it’s time to pass the torch to Hannah – and to all of you. Let’s spread the fire of entrepreneurship and build the future together!