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It Takes a Village

As the Serbian startup ecosystem expanded and got stronger, we have seen different types of support for startups depending on their development stage. We follow EasyPass, one of the rising Serbian startups, to describe the current landscape.

The proverb says “It takes a village to raise a child”. The same can be applied to startups—it takes a lot of effort to support a business on its way to success. Following the strengthening and increasing openness of the local startup ecosystem in Serbia, we have seen this process happening. To paint the picture, we will follow the journey of EasyPass, one of the rising Serbian startups.

EasyPass is an educational platform that enables students to find suitable tutors from a wide variety of subjects and to book online private lessons. As a two-sided marketplace, EasyPass is catering to the needs of both students and tutors, enabling them to collaborate and benefit.

EasyPass story started in 2021 when two Economics students, Marijana Jovanovic and Jana Antic, attended a student competition for the best business idea in Split, Croatia. Marijana and Jana first presented their idea here. Marijana recalls:

Our presentation may not have been our finest moment, but it marked our first time taking the stage in a public setting.

Even if they didn’t win the first prize, they still made it to the finals receiving valuable rewards and mentorship.

With modest experience yet great determination to make their idea a reality, the dynamic duo quickly becomes a trio with the addition of Mladen Terzić as CTO of the future company. They all knew that building a platform wasn't enough, that they must learn how to build a business, and needed support for their endeavour.

Luckily, they could find suitable aid around them—a few startup-supporting programs offered help to emerging teams just at the right time for EasyPass. Marijana testified how critical such programs were for them:

Startup support programs played big roles in our business journey, providing financial assistance, mentoring, networking opportunities, and tailored guidance to overcome challenges.

The first stop for EasyPass was the Univerzum startup program, organized by the University of Belgrade, the Serbian Ministry of Education, and the Mozzart company. As one of the seven finalists in this early-stage startup support program, the team received $2500, six months of free usage of a coworking space, and dedicated mentoring sessions. Marijana shared:

The program's standout feature was the autonomy to choose mentors and work with them according to our specific needs, allowing us to seek expert guidance when required.

In spring 2022, EasyPass was accepted in another significant program—the Katapult accelerator organized by the Serbian Fund of Innovation. With over 200 registered professors (tutors) at that moment and 10,000 website visits monthly, the team needed further support to meet growing market demands, and Katapult was the right place. With the secured grant, mentoring assistance, and peer support, the team upgraded its platform, strengthened its internal capabilities, and was on its way to becoming investment-ready.

While Marijana and Jana value the learning part of the program quite highly, they found the informal aspect equally significant:

Katapult emphasized the importance of networking, exchanging ideas, and sharing experiences with fellow startup founders. As the first cohort of Katapult, we were an excellent crew and made special bonds and friendships with our peers.

Later in 2022, EasyPass joined another intensive program. It was the NINJA accelerator program organized by Digital Serbia Initiative (DSI). With the expanding platform on the market and steady monthly growth, the team needed help to prepare for the fundraising. They gained exposure to different investors and valuable opportunities to meet them more closely during the NINJA accelerator pitching event.

While using all the opportunities they can to gain knowledge, the EasyPass team also uses support programs and informal communities to expand their network. They highly value networks of peers, so they joined the founder's community Garaza by Tenderly. Marijana also participated in the Swiss EP Women Entrepreneurs Week in Zurich in March 2023. She explained:

I want to highlight why we love peer communities and events—they provide us with many invaluable benefits, such as networking and connections, education and learning, and promotion and visibility. These benefits are especially emphasized in Garaza by Tenderly, where we gained a unique platform to connect to like-minded entrepreneurs and industry professionals.

Finally, in 2023, EasyPass closed its first early-stage investment which made it qualify for the matching grant provided by Katapult accelerator. With 3000 active tutors, secured funding, and solid expansion plans, the team has a vast scaling potential. To go that extra mile, they need additional support. In our conversation, Marijana revealed that she is not sure if she can get such help in the Serbian ecosystem at the moment:

To be honest, few programs can support our growth, at least not that we know of. Being part of such programs could help us expand our business across borders.

Expansion to other regional markets and growth brings a new set of challenges for this aspiring team. They have much potential and a solid drive to success but limited support and experience they can rely on. Since we noticed similar challenges across countries where Swiss EP is active, we try introducing new instruments in our work, such as the internationalization of startups, to help teams overcome such issues. The new type of support will be explained in more detail in the future, but the aim we're trying to accomplish is clear: we want to enable startups to have seamless landing on new markets.

Only a few years ago, a story such as this one wouldn't be possible in Serbia. Before 2020, most of the startup programs and support instruments addressed only the needs of startups at the beginning of their journey. Luckily, today Serbia has a few initiatives that go beyond the early stages and help startups move forward. It still takes a long way to go before the ecosystem can support startups' scaling and later-stage development. However, with more and more initiatives started by private companies (such as Univerzum and Garaza by Tenderly), and tailor-made programs from Serbia Innovation Fund and DSI (like Katapult and NINJA accelerators), where Swiss EP provides on-demand support, we see a positive development.

It takes a village to support an idea into becoming a profitable company that can contribute to the country's general economic development. Luckily, that village is becoming more and more populated in Serbia.