When an old, respected fool stumbles the wise woman publicly mourns and privately prepares. There is no better time, then for the CEE to take over, evidently, in a world in which the major financial and tech centers of Europe no longer wish to play a part. Brexit is Central Europe’s way onto the world stage and it couldn’t come at a better time.
The key to winning the next decade is to think about how Brexit hobbles the UK and what services the CEE can begin offering to the world. First, Britain was the go-to spot for fintech and finance because of EU passporting and a fairly forgiving regulatory environment. It wasn’t perfect by any means but it was a comfortable place to do business. Further, English language skills are obviously a huge bonus as was an innovation-forward mentality.
This doesn’t mean England has lost any of that. It just means it will be harder to convince the world at large that setting up in London is any better than setting up in Prague. To do this the CEE has a few things to do.
Grow marketers and product, not codebases. Central Europe is full of excellent coders but none of them can build product. Decades of outsourcing has trained everyone form Gdansk to Pula to fill in all of the boxes and cross all the Ts but none of these houses can sell product. Sure, I can be proven wrong in a few rare cases but I cannot name one major commercial product that is identified purely as a product of the CEE. Estonia has Skype and Sweden has Spotify. What does Montenegro have? Slovenia? There have been a few breakout hits but nothing on a massively global scale. This must change. Investment into products not technologies is key and an education focused on creating and selling ideas must be core to every curriculum. Engineers must understand that their internal monologue is never enough to talk to the world.
Build for the world. No matter what you think your market isn’t big enough to support a company. What does the world need right now. Travel and find out. And don’t go to San Francisco. What do Syrian refugees need? Japanese retirees? Displaced farmers in China? Build for them. Use your expertise and skill to tap at just the right place to release innovation the world has never seen. It will thank you for it.
Work together. Every CEE country wants to go it alone. Stop. Create a conference for every CEE startup to meet (I know a few good (Disrupt London and ImpactCEE and can get you tables). Join forces. Small companies in different companies doing similar things should partner. Invest outside of your major cities and look to the countryside. Create a true community. This is starting but it’s still hard.
Become tougher. We are entering an era of insurgent democracy. When you read the polls and the news its easy to become disheartened. Ignorance abounds and there is just enough nastiness in the world to give the truly nasty power. Don’t let it get you down. Build a world in which you want to live. Build a world full of technology, growth, and good things to eat and drink. Fix things locally and show the rest of the world how it’s done. The CEE’s problem? It doesn’t tell its story enough. That story has long been defined by penury, wars, and dumb jokes. Redefine it.
Focus on modern government, not fintech, clean tech or some other “tech.” If you are trying to build a fintech startup in the CEE, stop. Focus on helping your country create a fertile ground for financial development and cryptocurrency. You will never be able to supplant the current systems in place at the global banks but if you, like Estonia, can create a digital e-identity for easy and legal business creation, bank account ownership, and money transfer you can become a testbed for the future of government and finance. The backward laws keeping foreigners from building in your country, restrictions on currency, and being the little dog to London’s big dog when it comes to fintech is over. Figure out a better way and force your government to go along.
The same goes for every other major improvement to the status quo. Cities must get behind everything from progressive taxation systems to clean energy. Without a legislative effort all of this is moot.
Britain’s loss is your gain. Take advantage of it. And when London comes back to its senses it will be ready to work hand-in-hand to build a stronger Europe. But while they’re fighting over pennies the CEE should be thinking about pounds.