No Money No Try? (Lithuania)
First up I want to announce that after a Tweet from us last night, we got a message from Christina Försgård of Netprofile who kindly offered to offer their support for our trip! Netprofile is a PR agency based in Helsinki. She wants to remind startups that marketing and communications are not things that come out as a result of the activities you do, but is actually tied up at every level with what you are doing. She would also be happy to come round to talk one-on-one about PR and how it works.
Worth considering when you begin to build up your startup. Christina has been very active in the startup community so definitely check them out if you need assistance with managing PR.
Going back to our trip, and the topic of this post, in Kaunas we met up with Anturas Mickus from the Technology Park and one of the discussions that came up was about government support programmes for entrepreneurship and how they had basically vanished, or changed substantially during the past few years. This was offered as one reason for why it is so hard to become an entrepreneur here. The ting is, I'm not yet overly convinced the governmental programmes are that beneficial.
So I'm left wondering if it might not be better to direct support at programmes like AaltoES, and it's very down to earth, grassroots mentality, or at tax breaks and investor support. Certainly Arctic Startup, Open Coffee and AaltoES have done more for the startup community than many government-backed initiatives.
Still I accept that, at the end of the day, it is very difficult to do anything without money. In Lithuania 98% of the country is covered with fibre optic connections, and it has one of the highest Internet coverage rates in the world. With that in mind it is pretty much set to bring out the Next Big Thing. Consider also that there are highly trained and skilled techies and that now there are many just itching to become entrepreneurs. I honestly believe that Vilnius, in particular, could become a regional hotbed.
What they lack, however, is the one thing Tallinn has had the good fortune of gaining: serious amounts of money being invested into technology. Skype has created a very respectable number of millionaires of which many are keen to expand their already considerable wealth and help new technology ventures. In Lithuania I was laughed at when I asked about VCs or seed investment. "There is absolutely nothing," I was told. There had been some governmental programmes, but they had mostly been called off or significantly altered. The only way Lithuanians have any chance at all at getting investment is to go abroad. Then again, that might not be a bad thing.
If you look at the types of ideas and companies that were pitching in Vilnius, you'll find that the enthusiasm and ambition is there to conquer the world. This time Mike and I offered feedback for the pitches, and this worked out well enough that I believe it should be repeated. Hopefully we managed to help and support all the pitchers to improve and develop.
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First up was 369.lt, which started with a relaxed and humorous tone, which nonetheless took away some focus from the actual pitch. Their service measures buzz on topics with their brand of opinion search. Interestingly the code itself is opensourced so anyone can run their own service, but naturally they see 369.lt as the definitive hosting location. Apologies for the dark videos — although the terrace venue was absolutely super, lighting conditions were not perfect for phone recording.
Continuing on the theme of having numbers as domain names, we had 505.lt, which was a search engine to be sold to e-commerce stores. I have witnessed this myself: the search engines on many, many online shops totally sucks. Either you get heaps of irrelevant crap, or you get no results at all. If 505.lt can solve this, I will be a happier person. This was a fairly effective pitch, and apparently the guy's first ever! A commendable feat.
SleepCamp.com was something else entirely. They are looking at the problem people have in booking places to sleep at big events. All the hotels and B&Bs are full, or are horribly, horribly expensive. SleepCamp will be pitching up large tents or renting big halls and offering them for campers to use. The pitch was not one of those sharp-edged killing weapons, but once I understood the idea, I began to like the uniqueness of it. I admit I haven't heard of anything similar. There are bound to be many logistical nightmares, but if they manage to solve those — and apparently they have their first event in the pipeline — then this could grow into something interesting.
FishlistApp.com was a new shopping wishlist application. You mark down, on any site, what you want to buy or get, and others will hopefully get it for you! I have seen a couple of these before, and it was not immediately clear to me how this differs. Then again it is still a young market, and the business model based on referrals and selling analytics data is obvious enough for it to work in many variations. The feeling on the floor seemed to be that it would probably be wisest to pick young women as the first target group. Social and shopping — that should surely appeal.
TouchMessenger was perhaps one of the most innovative applications of the day, and one of the best pitches. They are proposing a completely different messaging platform for smartphone users which is not based on text or pictures, but on quick finger drawings. This could have clear users in business, for quickly messaging rough sketches of ideas, but would also be very interesting for the developing market, where many people cannot read. The reason why the pitch was so powerful is that they showed a live demo with two smartphones — one with the pitcher and one in the audience. A true Steve Jobs kind of magic emanated in that moment of simplicity and power. We were, however, concerned with their strategy of bringing this to mobile operators and to try and standardise it. That has got to be the slowest possible way to get any innovation out there.
DesignBay was a crowdsourcing service for people wanting internal designers. The problem many have when working on the internal design of a new house is that getting a designer to do something is expensive, and you are easily left unhappy with the results. DesignBay allows you to collect multiple ideas, and pay for the one which you feel suits you best. This has been made possible now with HTML5 and WebGL. The founder stated it was an old idea of his, but that later web technologies made it possible. However I felt that it might currently be still only an idea, and what counts is what he does with it.
Stars Dating was not, as I had expected, a way to date Britney Spears, but a new dating application for Facebook. Apparently it works based on a form of numerology popular in India. It finds matches from your friends on Facebook, and later from other users as well. I reckon most of it is probably nonsense, but that doesn't really matter if you can pitch the fun aspect of it — something I feel did not necessarily come out from the pitch strongly enough. However with a quick poll of the singles in the audience, all of them were wiling to try it, so there you go.
In Lithuania we had two mishaps. During my 13500km trip around the Nordics I was never once flashed by a speed trap, and never stopped by police. Mike managed to do both within a day in Lithuania! The second was for driving down a bus lane. Apparently the fine is normally set at 150 euros! Ouch. Luckily the policeman was in a good mood and decided to pardon us stupid foreigners.
The next day meant a horrendously long drive to Valga, which is a split border town, between Estonia and Latvia. We made the strategic decision not to go along the same old coastal road we always end up driving, but to take a more northernly route to Tartu (our final destination on Sunday). I don't regret it! Along the way we got to experience long stretches of gravel road, with parts disintegrating completely into sand. Needless to say, this was loads of fun in a Landy… Mike even decided to visit a ditch on the way. Just because he could!
Oh, and in case you are wondering, we tanked some fuel in Vilnius and calculations showed us averaging at 8.6l/100km for a drive that included bits of city driving, the odd stop, and some motorways (including some stretches at 120–130km/h). I don't think that's half bad for a vehicle of this type. It is worth pointing out we have an overdrive installed.