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Jes Bailey: Balkan entrepreneurs are unstoppable

Jes Bailey is an Entrepreneur in Residence who is still active in the Western Balkans. In this interview she is sharing her insights on entrepreneurship in the region.

Jes Bailey is an entrepreneur, crowdfunding expert, hiking lover, and passionate traveler. We first met Jes back in 2018 as an Entrepreneur in Residence in the Balkans. We have been working with her ever since.

We tried to sum up some of our joint adventures with Jes Bailey in this interview and learn what brings her back to the Balkans.

Dear Jes, can you tell us something about your background and how you got into crowdfunding?

Originally, I worked in the charity sector and worked in Holland, Egypt, and Bangladesh in international development and humanitarian legal aid. Back then, I wanted to become a human rights lawyer but realized I'm not sensible enough to be a lawyer. And I thought, making people aware and engaged about what their rights are is probably as good as doing the legal stuff. So, I decided to do a master's in political communications in Holland. I did my thesis on interactivity and charitable giving. I was exploring whether it's more engaging if the message is communicated in an app or video or magazine, and how does it affect people's likelihood to give money? And that's quite related to crowdfunding. When I finished my master's, I started working on a crowdfunding platform in the UK as a marketing specialist helping people craft their campaigns. I ran crowdfunding training online and workshops all around the UK. And I fell in love with the people-powered concept: if we all work together in this way, we can do good for the world. And I did that for a year because that company moved most of their operations back to America. Then I went to all the other crowdfunding platforms to ask for the same job that I had. And they all said, no—we don't hire people that help campaigns succeed; we only employ the techie backend people. And I thought that's so ridiculous because the success rates of campaigns are so low. In the UK, the success rate is only 18%. On this platform (where I was employed), I took it from 70% to 77%. So, while searching for a similar job, I ended up having a coffee with the head of EU and UK Indiegogo, and I asked for the job. And he said: "Why don't you set up your own business because we're never going to hire you, but we're going to need you and the clients need you. So why don't you just set up your own consultancy?" I had never considered setting up my own business at all. I was doing other interviews, but in the back of my mind was a thought: if I don't try this now, when will I ever be in such a position to try it again? If it all goes wrong after six months, I'll get a real job if I have to. And so that was four and a half years ago now. I don't think that I could've made a better decision than to start my own business at that time.

That's excellent. So you founded your company, started working with your clients, and how did you end up in the Balkans?

In 2017, I worked very hard to leave London, but people still talked about me knowing that Jes and crowdfunding are a thing. By this point, this was my second year in London, and I knew I didn't want to stay there. I wanted to go back abroad because I'd spent the last six years living abroad. So, I ended up going to LA for a month to visit one of my best friends. And I thought, this is a perfect test. If I can pull this off and the business can succeed, I can be anywhere because LA is in a ridiculous time zone; it's far away from Europe. It ended up working perfectly. Then I started searching around where to go next. I was looking for different kinds of startup ecosystems because I wanted a change. I think I just saw Swiss EP call to apply randomly. And at the beginning, I thought it was in Switzerland, but when I looked into it, I realized it was in the Balkans, and I was thrilled. I've not chosen the most traditional countries to go to, such as Turkey, Egypt, Bangladesh, so the Balkans fit ideally. I didn't know much about the Balkans, and I thought this was going to be a challenge. At that point, after two years in the UK, I craved different things, and I craved a challenge. So I just thought, let's do it.

Excellent story. You came to the Balkans in the beginning of 2018. You were in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and Albania. When you were around, what did you like about the Balkans?

I like the cities and the places, they're all small, so it's pretty easy to find your way around and have a good level of exploring without getting lost. Because of the way Swiss EP works with different networks and communities, I had a chance to explore a lot. I did many workshops and then visited other cities on the weekends. It was lovely.

Is there something you didn't like about entrepreneurs? What impression did you get about the people who are into crowdfunding or starting their businesses?

What I like about the Balkans and the entrepreneurs is the level of determination and motivation that they have when, in reality, there's a lot stacked up against them. Some of the challenges are that they are not native to the market they are aiming for, are not a part of the EU, and have higher tariffs and restrictions. But it doesn't stop them. In fact, when I came back to England, I just had so much less respect for English entrepreneurs who only came up with excuses. I was trying to explain to them that there are people in the Balkans doing all of this, that it's not their first language, they are not in the country in which they're trying to get customers, to show them how easy it is for them to run their business. In England, you could walk down the street and say: "Hey, I'm crowdfunding, would you like to jump in?". In the Balkans, if you walk down the street and tell someone you're crowdfunding, chances are, they're going to be like: "What? What are you doing?” So just seeing that level of motivation to get past those hurdles, I admire that. It's a great ethic and skill to have.

You're still working with some of the partners in the Balkans. Have you seen some changes between 2018 and today? Have we improved a bit in three years?

I definitely see improvement. There's much more understanding and awareness of crowdfunding as a process than there was a few years ago. Now when I do the webinars, everyone knows what I am talking about. And then, the questions are the next stage, the next step. I think we've seen quite a few good campaigns come out of the Balkans now, which helps provide examples and provide role models for people to look at and see that it can actually happen. In 2018, there were a couple of campaigns, but people didn't believe that they could do it. Whereas now I think there are a lot more positive examples.

That's great. Some of it is also to your credit because you were here when we didn't know anything about crowdfunding. You helped us learn. What would be some of your key takeaways from your EIR experience? What lessons did you learn and how did it help you improve your career?

In 2018, Serbia was the first country I came to, and I ended up in 12 countries that year. This experience gave me the understanding that I can work from anywhere. And it also gave me the confidence to go and find new opportunities. I don’t know how many workshops I ran that year! But at the same time, I would never have changed it. It gave me the confidence to go to other places. One of the great things about the way that Swiss EP works is that I feel like I got to experience many of the countries. Seeing the variety of cities, the differences that each city has, and the similarities, I don't think I'd ever get that kind of experience again: so well-tailored and managed.

Thank you, Jes. So, if someone asked you: "Hey Jes, I saw the Swiss EP has a call for entrepreneurs in residence. Should I apply?" What would you say?

I'd be like: "Why have you not applied already? Stop wasting your time talking to me, and go fill out the form." Building the networks that you have both in the Balkan countries, but with the other EIRs too, having that opportunity is exceptional. It is such an experience, living in another country, experiencing it, running all those workshops, and meeting other EIRs is priceless. I think you bond a lot more with the other people doing the same thing because no one at home can understand what it's like to do those things. And then obviously, the people that are in the Balkans that you're working very closely with are amazing. You’ll develop such good relationships with them, and they’ll eventually become your friends.

Thank you Jes! It was a real pleasure talking with you.