“Lisbon, Berlin in the sun” somebody called it at dinner last night… And it did remind me of Berlin in ’09, not least because one of the people sitting at the table at dinner was Felix Petersen, one of the emblematic entrepreneurs in Berlin’s acceleration into a major tech hub, and now a Partner at Faber Ventures in Lisbon.
The tech scene in Lisbon has a charm that is hard to replicate. Startups are based in old buildings with beautiful tiled walls in the cobblestoned streets of downtown Lisboa. Surf beaches 25 minutes away, and what numerous people called out as a “more sustainable work-life balance.”
So if you go back to my building blocks for a tech ecosystem, what does Lisbon , and Portugal in general have going for it?
Supply of talent: The quality of engineers I have met is good, and the competition for talent is still limited (with 31% unemployment for under 25s, working for a startup sounds like a great option). A great government program called Inov Contacto sends a few hundred Portuguese graduates each year across the world to work inside companies abroad , thus broadening their international ambition and operational experience. I met two company CEOs this week who had been part of the program.
The other point two entrepreneurs made this week was about the draw that Portugal has for the intellectual diaspora that has been educated abroad. After their stint a Carnegie Mellon or McKinsey, there is a cultural bond that leads people to wan to come back to Lisbon, to family, to the quality of life. “Even when I was abroad” one entrepreneur said “I always dreamed of the sunset in Lisbon. It’s magical, it draws you back.”
A bit like LA/Santa Monica have managed to attract folks from the Valley who like the idea of a surf/hack/surf lifestyle, the idea of surfing outside of Lisbon in the morning, coming into work in the classic downtown and then not having to commute an hour on the tube or the 101, seems to attract people back to the Lisbon lifestyle.
Role models: An entrepreneur at dinner last night who is about my age (I won’t purposely date myself) told me of starting his first company when he was 19 with €5,000 from his father. He talked about how he had no idea how to start a business, what needed to be done as no one in his or his family’s broader circle had ever started a company from scratch.
I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting too many Moms to see if entrepreneurship passes the “Mom test” yet but I certainly saw enough activity in the early stage ecosystem, from Lisbon Challenge to Caixa Capital’s efforts around TechTour, to university programs around entrepreneurship.
Funding: Early stage funding seems to be there from Beta-i to Faber to Portugal Ventures as the most visible and active local funds with Caixa being an active player in direct investments at later stages.
More importantly non-Portuguese funds are leading significant rounds in Portuguese based companies. Lisbon/London based Seedrs recently raised $15M from Augmentum Capital in London. A well know local startup will be announcing a significant round with a “Tier 1” European VC. Unbabel went from Lisbon to Y Combinator and walked out with checks from Google Ventures and Codacy won the 2014 Web Summit competition.
And Portugal has two “unicorns” with a large local presence. Farfetch has a large operations centre (while Jose and the management team sit in London) and Rocket Internet has quietly built its own operations center with several hundred employees in Porto.
This model, an entrepreneur mentioned yesterday, is what might set Portugal apart: Tapping into well educated but lower cost talent inside the EU to build product, drive operations, and other executive functions in London, New York or SF. It was certainly more prevalent at an early stage than I have seen in other hubs.
And this takes me back to Berlin in ’09. There were rumblings of interesting things happening. StudiVZ and Plazes would soon be joined by Soundcloud and Wooga. The Rocket-Groupon partnership would accelerate the “founder school” that is the Rocket machine.
And as I was writing this post, the news hit that Web Summit, the European mega-conference has announced that it will relocate its 50,000 person event to Lisbon in 2016. Paddy and the Web Summit team helped make Dublin a destination from the Valley to the continent. If anything is a visible signal of which new hub has potential, this is certainly it!
I certainly count Lisbon as one of the more interesting places to be looking at for entrepreneurship in Europe. The next few years will tell whether these early champions can scale and exit and therefore create the next generation of angels and founders to close the loop.
Oh yeah, and doing emails from a terrace with a cold beer in late September (while it was pouring rain in London) watching that infamous sunset did not suck either…