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How Agile is the Serbian Entrepreneurial Ecosystem?

We are exploring whether or not an entrepreneurial ecosystem can be agile by using the example of the Serbian entrepreneurial ecosystem in the time of the global COVID-19 crisis.

The success or failure of entrepreneurs is closely related to their ability to adjust to new circumstances, or as we say it nowadays, to be agile. Suppose we apply the same rule to an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

If we do that (apply the agility rule to the ecosystem), we can conclude that the ability to adapt to the circumstances displays how agile that ecosystem is. Now, let us test that hypothesis on Serbia and the events that happened in this ecosystem in the spring of 2020.

Our story begins in March 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has just started in the country, and the government is taking strict measures to keep it under control. Closed borders, canceled travels, closed schools, empty offices, remote work, abandoned stores, curfew, and vacant streets became a new reality.

In such conditions, organizations providing support for emerging startups in Serbia found themselves in a challenging position. Main startup support methods that they had been using successfully for years were rocked to the core. Advisory meetings, mentoring sessions, workshops, meetups, and networking events were all canceled.

Luckily, most of the organizations were flexible enough to react immediately and move all activities online. In just a couple of days, Serbian entrepreneurial ecosystem went virtual, transforming empty spaces to a crowded and busy arena.

In the early spring, everyone went online. Following global trends, organizations hosted their own events and workshops online. And people seemed to like that. Over a hundred attendees would join a single webinar, looking for advice and a practical solution.

Unfortunately, after the initial peak in the number of participants, there was a sudden drop of interest. The spike of engagement decreased quickly. Now there were webinars with only a few people watching. After a short analysis, organizations realized that their audience was going elsewhere. At the beginning of April, major international actors (universities, accelerators, and incubators) decided to enable free access to their premium content. Suddenly, people were able to find webinars on the same topics hosted by Stanford, MIT, or Techstars.

For the first time in their lifetime, Serbian organizations were forced to compete with global contenders. Since the content they served was failing to attract the audiences, they had to pivot. Organizations had to do what they preach and start acting like startups. They had to offer a different type of content to their communities.

A logical move was to choose specific topics that would attract a particular kind of audience. This approach made them stick out from the international actors, catering to their community with tailor-made content.

The tailored approach attracted a smaller number of attendants (up to thirty) but very devoted ones. Such webinars addressed the pains of startups quite directly. On top of that, the quality of content brought much more interactivity. Late spring brought a chain of exciting workshops in the Serbian online ecosystem. Excellent examples are a 3-day workshop by Fil Guijarro on sales (organized by Science Technology Park Belgrade), and a workshop by Rita Katona on marketing (organized by Innovation Fund of the Republic of Serbia). The workshops led further to 1-to-1 mentoring sessions between experts and some of the participating startups that needed additional support.

As Miloš Lazović, SwissEP Serbia ecosystem facilitator said: “We are working with different stakeholders of the Serbian ecosystem for five years now. We are watching how the entire system is developing and growing. This was the first time we saw that the ecosystem was consolidating and searching for different actors to work together. We hope that this trend will continue..”

The Serbian entrepreneurial ecosystem found a way to survive, adapt to new circumstances, and grow—the ecosystem showed its agility. Startup supporting organizations, both state-owned and privately funded, demonstrated that they are listening and adjusting to their communities. And startups expressed interest in customized content tailored to their needs.

According to the described example, we can conclude that the Serbian entrepreneurial ecosystem exposed a tremendous agility level. The Swiss EP Serbia team will continue to encourage such behavior and assist organizations in providing their communities with high quality content. We are looking forward to new events and endeavors in the second half of the year because we expect them to be even more agile and to surprise us even more.