New Growth Stage, New Challenges
By Endeavor Greece Nov 21, 2021
An Ecosystem on Growth Trajectory
This interview is one of many seen in our Greek Tech Revolution report. Check out our report and stay tuned with our channels as we publish more interviews featured in the 2020 issue.
In recent years, the innovation ecosystem in our country has started to mature, according to the data we collected and the interviews we carried out on the occasion of the present report. The question that arises is what are the challenges it should successfully face for its further development.
Just as difficulties change for a company that rapidly grows, the ecosystem itself comes up with new needs, which should be anticipated and properly covered. Especially at the present juncture, that the newly-founded companies in our country grow and claim a bigger share of the global market, we are bound to compete with ecosystems that are more mature than ours.
According to the research carried out by Endeavor Greece at its network for the purpose of the present report, the Greek entrepreneurs of the ecosystem sum up the most important challenges they face as follows:
finding mid/senior management and skilled tech talent,
fundraising and finding strategic investors,
establishing a strong global brand and partnering with large international partners, and d) creating and retaining a company culture, as the company scales.
When Requirements Change
Let’s start with human resources. What skills are required as startups evolve into scaleups? Talking to an event organized by Endeavor Greece (“Redefining Innovation Outside Silicon Valley” – 27/1/21) Alex Lazarow, writer of the book “Out-Innovate” outlined the change that takes place as a market begins to mature. The biggest deficiencies that entrepreneurs face in emerging markets are people and capital. As businesses begin to scale, finding capital becomes easier, but the challenge of finding the right people who will assume the right roles and will build the teams becomes bigger and bigger. “Entrepreneurs start thinking differently as to how they recruit, they retain and incentivize their people.”
During the preparation of this report, a number of our speakers referred to the challenge of managing bigger teams and disclosed their concern with regard to the “middle management” of technical teams, as well as the business development, marketing, and sales departments. Apart from Greece’s high-tech potential, the shortage of skilled talent in the above-mentioned fields is worth noting.
Greece’s workforce has very good basic skills and, in order for them to further adapt to the changing requirements of the external environment, there have to be changes in the way of thinking, which seem to be time-consuming but are in any case feasible. “At the present juncture, especially on a junior and middle level, Greece has very good programmers. What we lack are the sales and the marketing part, especially in B2B,” Kostas Mallios points out. “There is a gap in business development and management, especially in the technical management,” Panos Papadopoulos says, while Nondas Viridakis emphasizes the fact that middle management in our country is in need of support. “In order to cover the gaps, renewing the executives of the companies should be carried out with special attention at the sales and marketing departments,” Apostolos Apostolakis maintains.
These findings are confirmed to a large extent by Endeavor Greece’s data, with regard to the jobs that the employers are trying to fill, as well as the skills they are looking for. A large part (64%) of the jobs refers to middle/ senior-level positions and just 36% of them are entry-level positions. The job with the highest demand is Software Engineer, which occupies 25% of the total number of job opportunities, and at the top of the most desired skills at the Greek startup ecosystem, there is Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, and Cloud Computing. Last but not least, it is worth mentioning that 20% of the job opportunities include remote working as an option.
The Importance of Leadership
At a special event organized by Endeavor Greece under the title “Scaling and Managing Engineering Teams” (10/12/20), Christos Tryfonas, cofounder and Chief Architect at Aisera with extensive experience in the management of technical teams, placed special emphasis on the middle management as a missing component. “The problem with Greece is that the middle management layer at computer engineering is non-existent at the moment. It is a fundamental precondition and it will be developed no sooner than five years. People who currently work at companies in the USA will be able to return to Greece having all the necessary knowledge, but for the time being our country lacks this middle management layer.”
When asked in the same event how he provides guidance and instills the corporate culture to a constantly growing team, the other equally experienced manager of technical teams, c Product & Engineering Leader at Amazon Web Services, mentions that there is the best team size, which is from 6 to 12 people. When a team grows bigger, it is extremely difficult for a manager to follow every aspect of the member’s work. “As a leader, when the company grows, you should always prepare someone to assume the leadership of the smaller groups that are going to emerge.”
“Nobody can set up a company on their own,” Andreas Stavropoulos reminds us in the course of the interview. “Leadership is very important. If you are not a leader, you cannot convince people to follow you at the end of the day. The best entrepreneurs are those who gained experience in the companies they worked, and in the end, they launched their own business.” Leadership is not just about the entrepreneurs or the top executives of a company; it is about the smaller teams that shape the company.
A part of this gap can be fulfilled by the ecosystem itself, as it keeps growing. For example, the scale-ups contribute greatly both to creating new job opportunities and to the training of their employees, many of whom end up working in other companies of the ecosystem, “imparting” their knowledge to them. As a result, at the point where there used to be a deficit in the Greek innovation ecosystem, let’s say in skilled programmers or salesmen, a scale-up company “builds” the talent offered in such a way that benefits the company itself and the wider economy. As Nikos Moraitakis explains, this happens gradually. “Somebody who today works as a customer supporter at a startup, will later work at a larger company as a customer service director. Moreover, if you want to build a good ecosystem, you have to keep in mind that there are people who have deep knowledge of software in very specialized sectors,’ he concludes.
What is also required is more effective interconnection with the international ecosystem, and possibly “New Blood,” either from the Greek Diaspora or non-Greeks who would like to live and work in our country. “Talent is always rare to find, and a limiting factor to growth, especially when talking about product managers, data scientists and digital marketers. However, another thing that could be an advantage to cities such as Athens, Lisbon and Marbella, is that they could invite companies, and their employees, to a great environment with high standards of living and good logistics,” Javier Villamizar, Operating Partner at Softbank Vision Fund, said sharing his experience from the dynamic growth of the technology ecosystem in Miami.
The need to retain the company culture appears to be very strong as the team grows, “a fact that becomes more and more difficult as the company grows,” Constantine Polychronopoulos says, VP 5G & Telco Cloud at Jupiter Networks. “Communication and transparency are extremely important components so that everybody trusts the leaders of the teams and feels part of them.” A leader has to know what is going on, to guide, reinforce and help their people evolve. “Place the right person at the right position, give them space and let them do their job,” he concludes.
Culture is everything
The momentum of growth in the field of technology, even under such adverse conditions as the ones of last year, has proved beyond doubt to be able to transform entire economies worldwide. The innovation ecosystem in Greece is expected, among other things, to face the challenge of changing mentalities. It is no coincidence that all our speakers talked about “culture.”
“As a country,” Panos Papadopoulos says, “we are permeated by the culture of survival and the evasion of responsibility. This problem is a matter of culture. Every small country, such as Greece -but also Poland, Austria and Slovenia- has an introverted culture. One has to be more ambitious.” Panos Papadopoulos maintains that the use of the internet is not effective enough, and this means that the enormous potential that offers to the Greek companies remains untapped. “Many companies do not use the internet in an effective way. The thing with the internet is that the country has no importance. One has to be present on the internet. One has to be able to get hold of the information, to recompose it and distribute their product. One might have a small company, but they might look like a giant. It is not necessary to be physically present in a market.”
“Take Israel, for example,” Apostolos Apostolakis says completing with this example the puzzle of the corporate world mindset, “where there is this need, even if it is just a facade, that everyone has to work and be productive. In America, it is the same. It is clear that entrepreneurship does not suit all people, but everyone in Greece should be willing to make advancements in their work field. One has to be ambitious enough to achieve something on a global level.”
From his point of view, Kostas Mallios believes that Greece, although it is a country with a lot of migrants and successful entrepreneurs in every part of the world, continues to be short-sighted. “Greek people are everywhere, but they need to have more “guts”. In the course of time, we have lost our impetus, it is a matter of culture. We believe we are not good enough. We need to take risks and bear it in mind that we are no worse than the others. In the past, we used to take more risks and we need to start again.”
Although the mentality of the Greeks towards entrepreneurship needs to be further cultivated, the mobility in the field of technology shapes the framework of the next day. “In Greece, culture has changed dramatically over the past years,” Marios Stavropoulos points out. “When Softomotive was founded in 20205, the scene, compared to the present one, was similar to a desert. Every day new initiatives are launched, some of them are successful, some others will run their course. We have taken a lot of steps ahead but we have to continue.”
Talking about business culture, Nicky Goulimis claimed that inclusiveness and gender equality in tech entrepreneurship is a precondition of success. “If a team does not represent 100% of the population, but only a 30%, it has very little potential on becoming successful. Great ideas are not enough. What is important is to find the proper people to implement them. If a company wants to succeed on a global level, it has to build a strong team. It is important that you recruit the best. You should have clear goals on how you recruit and you must protect your people.”
Interconnecting Universities and Large Companies
Culture is the first and the foremost thing. “As long as there are people who have international aspirations and are willing to work hard, everything else comes along the way,” Apostolos Apostolakis points out. However, how should one change the culture of an entire country in favor of entrepreneurship and innovation? “Through education,” he answers. “From a very early stage, ideally from school, we should instill entrepreneurship in the young people and make sure that we set it up as a positive model of development. This culture should then continue to the university.”
In the discussions with all our speakers, a deficit in the interconnection of universities with entrepreneurship emerged even in Greece, which in view of the shift to the “deep tech,” that takes place worldwide, is bound to become more intense. With biotech, Meditech, agrotech and fintech having a worldwide potential of growth, the question of interconnecting universities with the business world is more important than ever. However, “there is no interconnection with the Greek universities,” Apostolos Apostolakis points out and adds: “It is a pity that the knowledge that has been acquired through deep research and study remains commercially untapped.”
“Greek universities are in the same stage that they were in 1980s and they do not operate at the center of the technology ecosystem,” Stefanos Loukakos says. “This is one of the changes still to be made. To build universities that will cultivate talent. I believe that universities will be more productive and more competitive if the companies start hiring students and offering them high-quality jobs. For the time being, the best talents go abroad, while the rest of the people face a shortage of the companies that could employ them.”
“Bridges should be built between universities and companies,” Kostas Mallios agrees. “The Greek education should be designed from scratch. It should be decomposed and structured from the beginning. The education system plays a fundamental role in the whole process. One should build an academic environment that will embrace the students and teach them the last technological advancements,” he underlines. He also focuses on opportunities and interconnections with “bright minds” from abroad. “Another proposal would be to have every summer the best academics from every field give lectures in a Greek amphitheater. Pick up a field of knowledge and bring these people here. Who would object to coming to Greece in the summer? It is very useful to have even contact with such people.”
“The university should play an entirely different role from one of the private sectors,” Marios Stavropoulos underlines. “It is a widespread belief that the universities in Greece are cut off from reality, and to a certain extent, this is true. A number of changes need to be made in the field of education. On the other hand, we have to acknowledge the fundamental differences that permeate universities, as well as their contribution to the development of society. If we direct research only to the sectors that ensure profits, then we miss the long-term results that the academic community has to offer. I believe that the private sector and the business world should be responsible for approaching the academic community and provide it with the opportunity to offer whatever it can to the community, not the other way round.”
Another deficit that can be found in Greece is the connection with large-scale companies that are willing to “test” products and services produced by the local innovation ecosystem. The Greek startups and scale-ups could find solutions that are addressed to large companies. Unfortunately, “in Greece, we lack large companies that would be willing to put to test these solutions, so interconnection, with the help of Greeks living abroad, with large companies outside Greece would definitely contribute a lot,” Apostolos Apostolakis points out. “Greeks living abroad and working in foreign companies, would like to get involved.” Consequently, the Greek startups could interconnect with foreign companies. In this way, Greek companies would be more receptive to innovation and digitalization, “they would try new things, something that would help them move forward.”