This week, Kafkadesk spoke with Peter Kovacs, co-founder of the Global Startup Awards (GSA) – one of the largest startup ecosystems in the world – and CEO of its Central and Eastern European variant. We also met with Attila Sándor, founder of the EuroAsian Startup Awards, GSA’s latest regional expansion in Eurasia and ex-USSR countries.
Both based in Budapest, they told us about the startup ecosystem in Central and Eastern Europe, the pro’s and con’s of doing business in the region, and how these countries are slowly emerging as an incredibly attractive destination for driven and passionate entrepreneurs.
Could you tell us a bit about the origins of the Global Startup Awards?
Peter Kovacs: The Global Startup Awards hails from my friendship with Kim Balle. Both of us came from a small country, him from Denmark and me from Hungary, and we realized we didn’t know anything about our neighbours – apart from being tourists there. We found it slightly ridiculous to know more about the startup scene in, say, San Francisco, than in our own neighbourhood, and we wanted to change that. We were partially inspired by the Eurovision contest, which played a crucial role in reconnecting Europe culturally after the second world war. We loved the idea of using a friendly competition as an excuse for bringing positive people together, people who are thinking forward and globally about bringing solutions to problems on a large scale.
We initially launched the Nordic Startup Awards, followed a year later by the Central European version. We knew that other regions in the world could be interested, and the click to launch and start building the Global Startup Awards came after an encounter we had with a group a people from Malaysia.
Seven years after the foundation of the Global Startup Awards, what are the key takeaways? What has changed the most in the startup community?
Peter Kovacs: Seven years ago, there was practically nothing. Startups were restricted to underground activity and the word itself was not a positive and sexy one. Slowly, it started coming out of the shadows and becoming a cool thing to run a startup to build solutions in the digital world. Today, we have a true ecosystem, and large corporations want to listen to what startups have to say. It wasn’t the case seven years ago. As a result, it’s also harder to stand out of the crowd today: you really need to bring something cool, something that matters and solves a problem, or else the company and the idea will just die. Seven years ago, for instance, it was easy to organize an event for startup ecosystems and engage with people. Now, it’s becoming extremely challenging, as every day something new is coming out on the market!
You present yourself as “the world’s largest no-pitch, no conference startup competition”: what exactly do you mean by that?
Peter Kovacs: It’s important to differentiate yourself and make sure people understand who you are. There are millions of startup competitions in the world, some of which are very shady. We wanted to show that it’s not only about a pitching contest, but that the competition is only the vessel to bring a group of amazing people together. It’s also important to mention that we don’t only have categories for startups, but also for investors, co-working offices or journalists for instance, depending on the special requirements of a given region. By size and geographical outreach, we are the world’s largest startup competition: with “only” four regions last year, we received over 11.000 nominations. This year, we’re running in seven regions in the world.
Cold you tell us a bit more in detail how your awards work? How do you identify and choose the key players? What are the main criteria?
Peter Kovacs: The whole process is explained in great detail on our website. But the most important thing to know is that we have a large network in each region of local ambassadors and partners to help us identify companies to join the competition. After closing the nomination process, we reach out to the nominees and ask them if they really want to participate. Without a clear and proactive feedback from them, we won’t qualify them. But if they do, we’ll send them questions, specifically developed for the category they’re running in. Then we have different processes of community-driven selection with jury members or public voting to identify the finalists and the winners.
Does the award focus on or emphasize any specific industry?
Peter Kovacs: We try to get an overall picture of each region, which means that apart from the so-called baseline categories that exist in all regions, we develop, together with our regional partners who give us suggestions and inputs, specific categories to address local specialties. We don’t focus on any specific industry: we really try to find the innovators from all the industries that make sense in that region.
When was the Central European Award launched? Who do you partner with in the relevant countries?
Peter Kovacs: The Central European Startup Awards was one of the first launched, six years ago. We partner with everyone who has access to their network, in specific countries, cities or areas. For example, if someone knows the best IT startups in a specific city, we’re happy to partner with him/her! We also have a program for ambassadors, which brings great values and benefits for the best performing of them. The way we function is really community-driven, so we always try to involve the community in making nominations and in the selection process, for instance.
In the West, Central and Eastern Europe is rarely seen as a foremost destination for startups and entrepreneurs: why is that, in your opinion?
Peter Kovacs: Probably because Central and Eastern Europe lost almost 100 years of its history! This region only got back its freedom in the early 1990’s after being completely isolated for many decades. So we still have a lot of work to get there, both culturally and capital-wise, and have a lot of challenges. But I think we’re picking up nicely, including thanks to our younger generations: once you meet them, I assure you they’ll surprise you!
What are the pro’s and con’s of doing business in Hungary?
Peter Kovacs: For me, building a global business from Budapest is the most ideal thing I can imagine. First of all, I speak the language and know all the people I need to know. Plus, it’s very affordable to live here. Building a team with such a pool of amazing talents makes life so much easier, and this goes for the whole region. We don’t have any borders, which means we can travel anywhere in Europe without a passport, and don’t even need a visa to travel to the U.S. Building a business from here is quite easy, both regarding the costs and access to talents. Of course, we do face a set of challenges, especially regarding politics. But come on! It’s not any better if you go to the U.S., right?
It’s also very important to mention: we don’t have as many competitors as we would have working in the West. That means that if you smile and remain positive, you’re going to attract people. If you have the same level of enthusiasm and energy in San Francisco, it’s not going to make you special. Here, it does.
More broadly, what’s your take on the startup ecosystem in Central and Eastern Europe?
Peter Kovacs: Every country is very different from one another, and there isn’t really any clear front-runner in the region. In bigger countries, like Poland and Romania, even cities are very culturally different from each other. Some countries have a specific focus, for example Slovenia on block-chain technologies and the Czech Republic on security-related products. But most of these countries are still working on pretty much everything. What these countries need to learn, and that’s something we’re really trying to push, is to cooperate more with each other. Together, the huge region has a population of over 100 million people! To know more about it, you can also read our White Paper on Central and Eastern Europe, that was just published and very easy to read!
What triggered your latest expansion to the Eurasian region?
Attila Sándor: The Global Startup Awards is made of regions, which are founded by individual entrepreneurs. The EuroAsian Startup Awards was founded by MeOut, a Budapest-based organization which I head. We initially approached the founders of the Global Startup Awards with the idea for the EuroAsian Startup Awards, and the contract was signed after only a year of negotiations. This is a unique region, as unlike the other ones, the founder is not based in any of the eight countries, but in Budapest itself.
How will the competition unfold in the coming months?
Attila Sándor: MeOut has signed a contract with 7 partners and 2 strategic partners covering the whole region. The next steps will be to find the brand ambassadors as well as the jury members for the competition. We’ll then be able to kick-start the online nomination phase in April.
Would you say that the Eurasian Awards is your most ambitious move yet?
Attila Sándor: The EuroAsian Startup Awards region includes countries with motivated, hardworking and smart people. We talk business and our partners understand it. Of course, we’re totally aware of the current situation between some of the countries involved, but this makes the region even more valuable and needed. We put extra efforts to make everything as balanced as possible. The region is full of potential and truly deserves more attention. The EuroAsian Startup Awards is one of the few examples of a bottom-up regional cooperation empowered by the goal to boost the local, regional and global economy.
Do you have any other plans of expansion in the near future?
Peter Kovacs: At the moment, we cover exactly 32% of the world, so there’s still a lot of room for expansion. This year, we’ll also be coming to Southern European countries and start covering South Asia, including countries like India and Pakistan. But we still have a long way to go to cover the entire world, for example in Africa, where we ‘only’ cover one specific region of the continent. But we’re working very hard to continue expanding, and look forward to seeing how these new regions will come alive!