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EIR interview with Damian Damjanovski

Interview with Entrepreneur in Residence Damian Damjanovski who was brought to Western Balkans by Swiss Entrepreneurship Program to work with local organizations and startups.

»Don't overthink it, just do it« says Damian Damjanovski, looking back at his decision to join EIR Europe in Macedonia this Fall for two months. With the magnificent, snow-capped Shar mountains on the outskirts of Skopje as backdrop, Damian and I talked about all kinds of things a community needs to become a haven of successful entrepreneurship: from creative spaces to learning to embrace failure, and much more.

What are your impressions after three weeks as EIR in Macedonia?

Macedonia has an impressive community at first glance; there are a lot of people doing a lot of things for such a small country. So far I’ve spent my time working alongside the startups at Seavus Incubator, and I was pretty surprised to see a number of non-tech products alongside tech ones.

Also good to see that most startups are pretty solid from a pure tech perspective; they have that one covered. And that’s unfortunately very often where the good news ends.

What do you mean?

From a business perspective, all of the teams are way behind where they should be. In terms of strategy, they simply have no idea where to even start looking. That’s disappointing, I would’ve expected entrepreneurs to at least figure out some basics about the possibilities with their business; how they’re going to scale, exit, and such, but there is still absolutely no understanding of those things here. You would expect people at least read blogs or watch YouTube videos on such subjects, but unfortunately, that realization hasn’t yet permeated here in Skopje. Same for marketing, communications, and UX.

So why do people do startups here then? What’s their motivation?

The founders here can be roughly split in three groups. When I first meet founders, I always start with: “Are you doing it for fun, fame, or fortune?”. Here in Macedonia about a third is going after a passionate cause, which is higher than I would’ve expected. Then another third would do it for the upside incentive, because they see and understand a potential exit or other liquidity situation. And then there are those who do it for what I would call a “downside” reason: basically they lost their job, they’re doing it out of necessity. Which means, interestingly enough, no one is doing for recognition or fame.

How about working with the founders?

So, first, another surprise for me was the gender balance. Having some Macedonian background myself, and having been to this country often enough, I was expecting to meet mostly male entrepreneurs. So it was a good surprise that a number of founders I’m working with at Seavus are female, which is great. And unfortunately for the guys, the usual stereotypes are proving true here in Skopje as well: the girl founders are way more motivated, organized, disciplined, and pro-active.
When working with founders, one thing that you immediately notice is planning. Or the lack of it. After I arrived and was introduced to my teams, I circulated an e-mail with a calendar, asking everyone to sign up for a kick-off session one-on-one. No one did. Igor, the manager at Seavus Incubator, had to go in and force people to sign up for meetings with me. I don’t know if it’s a lack of communication skills or just general awkwardness, but it’s a clear local trait. This is of course very different from Australia or US, where people would compete against each other for a free business consultation.

Given your experience in Australia, what is the local ecosystem missing?

One of the key things is the inability to adequately identify the target audience of a product. You should really know who your client is, and whether you do that via personas or market research, it doesn’t matter, as long as you do it. This led me to find out that in this country and region, there aren’t many resources to understand the market. Apart from Facebook analytics, there are almost no tools in a country like Macedonia to understand how big the market is, what people buy, what their preferences are, etc. And the worst thing is that you might not want to serve this local market at all, but if you’re not used to doing market research at home, there is no way you’ll suddenly understand how to do it abroad. So then that whole idea of using little Macedonia as a lean place to build global products also vanishes. Look at it another way: if you don’t understand how a market works, you also don’t know when to pivot a product if there's no fit. So basically, most decisions related to strategy and operations in a startup cannot be taken without having a good understanding of the market.

What else do you have a problem with here in Skopje?

I think the most difficult aspect of the founder culture here is how self-congratulatory it is. If you participate in an accelerator, it’s immediately seen as some kind of huge success. In reality, all you have done is; you showed up at a building. And that’s a very toxic attitude, because it gives people the idea that being part of startups is a success, while in reality the only thing that matters is building a profitable business.

What can be done about it?

I think, simply, people should fail more and feel ok about failing. There’s a huge resistance to anything related to failure here now. People should experience it more and understand there’s life afterwards too, a much more interesting life actually.
The thing of course with Macedonia is that it’s kind of an improbable Garden of Eden. No one is homeless, food grows fresh everywhere, you can always get from one place to another. And so people here aren’t used to changing things, because everything generally sort of works for everyone. And because of that, people don’t implement change. They do like hearing advice, but they’re very bad at implementing it. And that really can only change once people understand that failing is not only an option, it’s a necessity.

Ok, but still, where do we start with changing that culture?

Man, that’s a really hard, big question. I don’t know. What Macedonia really needs is less of that engineering focus, and more focus on liberal arts. Without liberal arts, technology is meaningless. Here people have this fascination with technology without really understanding the human side to it; the why people need tech, instead of how they’re going to use it.

Here’s an idea: I noticed how in most Macedonian towns and cities, the old downtown bazaar areas, the carsija’s, are desolate. Now they could be a great place to bring together founders, engineers, and the creative people. The problem with creating tech communities here in the Balkans is that everyone only thinks about office space. You know, IT-style office space… standing desks, beanbags, ping pong tables, all that. That’s really only cool for big outsourcing companies. You actually need the kind of space where non-tech people feel comfortable too, and I think the carsija’s are the best spots for that.

So that, and then learning to embrace failure, are the two most important things. People should understand that success is never linear; the whole notion that it takes a ton of zigzags to achieve success is absolutely foreign here for now.

Is there something the government can or should do?

I talked to the people from the local government fund (FITR) the other day, and I told them that I think you shouldn’t invest directly in startups as a government. It’s just not a great use of money. Unless you do something like CSIRO in Australia, where you invest in fundamental research and then license the knowledge to private companies for implementation and market testing. That’s different, but Macedonia isn’t ready for that. What they should do here is spend money on infrastructure. Put together a reliable set of census data, commission a bureau of statistics for that. Also, ease up the regulations for startups and businesses. One of the common grieves I hear from people is that the common global payment platforms aren’t working in Macedonia. The government could lobby the PayPal’s and Stripes to come here. They won’t make a lot of money for now, but they also won’t lose anything. And the additional upside is that you then can reap benefits from all those apps and e-commerce shops, of which there are thousands here in Macedonia, that do business online, but their shop is registered with a cousin in the UK or Germany, because there you actually can get paid in PayPal or Stripe. And so the taxes are paid there too, instead of here.

So finally, what could you advise anyone interested in joining EIR?

Don’t overthink it. In places like Macedonia, people just need help with the basics. Whatever you’re doing out there in London, US, or Australia, is probably so much more complicated and advanced than what the people are struggling with here. Just show up, be yourself, and you’ll be of tremendous help here as such.