From exhaust systems to Y Combinator: meet Slovenia’s startup scene

The Slovenian startup scene is alive and kicking, and the kicking is becoming stronger fast.

In the past few years, a new set of successful Slovenian companies managed to build exceptional products and enter the global markets, like Zemanta, Celtra, (ED. UPDATE: read about Tomaz Stolfa’s resignation as CEO), DoubleRecall and Toshl. These young startups are a big inspiration to a lot of people here in Slovenia, and they’ve had a significant impact on the startup culture that’s emerged around them.

Since the Slovenian government doesn’t provide as much help as most entrepreneurs would want (and I can imagine it’s very complex to stimulate this sector), various informal initiatives started appearing everywhere.

It probably has a bit to do with the culture of Slovenians, but the before mentioned success stories and the people behind them surely fueled the local startup scene the most. Hands-on startup experience became available, and the new generation of young managers isn’t afraid to share it.

And while startups and ‘ecosystems’ are popular now, I think it’s also good to remind the reader that Slovenia has always had its fair share of high tech companies. I’d even go as far as saying that this earlier generation of successful entrepreneurs paved the way. They managed to conquer the global markets with niche high-tech engineering products, such as

Of course, the new batch of Slovenian startups is mostly focusing on software and digital technologies: internet, mobile, telecommunications, social media, mashups, enterprise 2.0, software as a service and others.

Mostly early stage, but promising

You can’t call Slovenia a mature startup country yet by far – most of the startups here are still early stage or seed stage.

But for such a young scene, Slovenia is nevertheless showing some encouraging successes. A few young startups managed to get into accelerators and secure financing rounds over the past years. Some were financed by incubators such as Seedcamp, like blogging assistant Zemanta, VoIP service and geolocation game

Others made it to global accelerators like Y Combinator (online paywall provider DoubleRecall), 500 Startups (expense tracker app Toshl), Wayra (smartphone solution for the blind 2ndSight) and TechStars (cloud applications aggregator Zepppelin). Another batch of founders secured other ways of funding (mobile rich media ad platform Celtra, mobile app discovery App-o-day by Iddiction).

At this point, a few Slovenian startups have managed to find funding up to a few millions in dollars.

This exposure to global startup initiatives has given a real boost to the complete Adriatic startup scene. As networks grow, new ideas and ways of doing business emerge, more and more people get curious about starting a business. And that leads to business ideas and expectations of entrepreneurship.

For now, many Slovenian startups are bootstrapping, but this can only get you so far: 2 million inhabitants simply don’t generate a market big enough for budgets that would enable serious R&D.

It’s true distribution of online services is easier than ever, but the competition is also fierce (although Outfit7 with its ‘Talking friends’ made it on their own). Slovenian startups are learning that you need help (and cash) to succeed abroad, and you have to succeed abroad to make it count, to build a serious team. External funding gives startups the means to advertise, and that’s critical for success.

The startup ecosystem

The entrepreneurs generously give back to the community and understand others need help as well.

Some are actively organizing entrepreneurs – there are initiatives like the informal association of entrepreneurs Silicon Gardens, technology community and coworking space Hekovnik, the Maribor entrepreneurship incubator Tovarna Podjemov, the center for entrepreneurship CEED).

Others entrepreneurs pay it forward by giving lectures and sharing knowledge on different events: the weekly gatherings on Spletne urice - Web Hours, mobile industry oriented events Mobile Monday, speeches from successful entrepreneurs Veceri za inovativne in podjetne, all happening inKiberpipa, monthly presentations Do gleznjev v blatu and other lectures on Faculty of Computer and Information Science).

Not only that, a few are even trying to become angel investors and fund new ideas, but what’s important is that most of them help other startups in any way they can, if only by sharing their resources and contacts. It seems the traditional Slovenian envy thy neighbor doesn’t exist in these circles.

Like everywhere in Europe, there’s a growing number of startup conferences and events. There’s entrepreneurship events – like Slovenia’s largest and leading conference on enterprise Podim, but also a new set of events specifically aimed at startups:

  • startup competition Start:up
  • the independent gatherings Barcamp
  • the selection of the best startups Gazela

There have also been a few TEDx events, in LjubljanaMaribor and Bled and the first casual Likemind coffee meets.  We’re also seeing initiatives like Boundbreaker, which wants to help companies to conquer Silicon Valley and a local startup incubator TS Startup.

All in all, I think we’re seeing the start of a very ambitious startup ecosystem, that will definitely have an impact in the next years.

What’s next

I’d say the pawns are on the board, as well as a few bishops and knights. All that’s missing are the king or queen: a big exit, which would push things even more forward. In December, Dutch online retailer Netretail acquired Slovenia’s biggest e-commerce Mimovrste for an undisclosed amount – which is nice, but more exits will be needed to really fuel another wave of successful startups.

We have seen tiny nations such as Estonia making a global impact on technology markets, and Slovenia is probably a very good candidate to achieve something similar. The brains and the will definitely exist.

Come and see for yourself.

[Photo: Ljubljana by Tit Bonac, Flickr]

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About the author

Grega Stritar

Grega Stritar is an entrepreneur, software architect, blogger and geek based in Ljubljana, Slovenia. He shares his thoughts on You can follow him on Twitter or Google+.