Editor’s note: this is a guest post from Point Nine Capital investor Rodrigo Martinez, who also shared the following disclaimer: “There’s no easy path in entrepreneurship. I won’t claim to have the one and only answer. By highlighting some common issues, I hope that new generations will overcome them. Do you agree or disagree? Happy to connect at @DecodingVC to learn about your view!”
This experience has shown me some patterns that are hindering the potential of Spanish entrepreneurs.
Market size: The Spanish market is less attractive than it seems
In Europe we’ve seen three patterns of successful startups:
- International by default: Those that started in small markets and went abroad by need from day one (Spotify, Skype, etc.).
- Multi-local by scale: Those that started in large markets and used that initial traction to raise large amounts of capital to expand into other geographies (Zalando, Delivery Hero, BlaBlaCar, etc.).
- US-centric B2B: Those with an early focus in the US market (MySQL, Zendesk, etc.).
Spain is the 5th country in Europe with a GDP of 1 trillion euros and 46 million inhabitants. It’s a big market for a multi-local strategy. Unfortunately, Spain ranks way below in two other key aspects:
- Market attractiveness: Spain ranks 8th in Europe for e-commerce activity and has a negligible market for SaaS.
- Available capital: As others already pointed out, “VC doesn’t exist in Spain”.
Internationalization: Expansion into Latin America is not as obvious as it seems
It’s hard to build a global, or even a European, ‘startup unicorn’ when you’re focused on Spain. Ambitious entrepreneurs go abroad. Most of them decide to go South (Latin America) instead of going North (France, UK, Germany, US, Canada, etc.).
Language barriers might be the main reason behind that. Even so, they tend to face a more familiar business environment in Europe or North America than in Latin America.
Funding: There’s some capital, but it’s mostly local
In the last few years, we have seen a boom in new funds raised in Spain. Some historical investors even pointed to a bubble. More available capital means higher chances for great entrepreneurs to get funded. As most of the funds restrict their investment focus to Spain, some interesting patterns emerge:
- “Win Spain First”: Spanish investors tend to tell their companies to win the Spanish market first before going international. I don’t believe this strategy fits most cases.
- Connections to raise international capital: I rarely meet Spanish VCs at events abroad. The lack of networking hurts the international fundraising process.
- Harder to build expertise: As the number of opportunities to invest in Spain are limited, local investors become generalists. This makes it hard to build expertise in areas that need it (i.e. SaaS, security, marketplaces, hardware, mobile, Fintech, etc.).
Critical Mass: There’s no reference hub in Spain
By splitting the efforts between Barcelona and Madrid, we hamper the ecosystem in 2 ways:
- Due to the lack of volume, critical resources, like talent or capital are scarce. This is critical when building great companies.
- It’s hard to share previous knowledge, best practices or experience within the hub.
If Spain wants to be relevant, it needs critical mass to build a successful and sustainable ecosystem.
There are plenty of unprofessional professionals
There was a time in Berlin when a business angel could buy half of a company investing 50,000€. Lucky for everyone, that time has passed a while ago. Those angels had to look for new victims somewhere else or adapt to the new environment. That’s one of the benefits of transparency in an ecosystem.
In Spain, this is still quite common:
- Half the shares are gone when a company has raised €250,000.
- In most cases, +10% goes to one or two accelerators in the cap table; +10% to “advisors” +30% for angels who invested €200,000 in three rounds.
- Plenty of those “advisors” tend to be close to the accelerators and don’t invest any money.
- Draconian term sheets where investors try to control the company.
Some examples include the use of blocking rights on new funding rounds. Other times they try to maximize their returns with unfair terms like participation rights.
Both cases are examples of short-term thinking and/or greediness. As everyone knows but sometimes forgets, the company will need more funding. Follow-on investors want to see enough shares in the hands of the full-time founding team. This motivates founders to build larger businesses.
Seeing great founders with traction, screwed because of a fucked cap-table, is very sad.
Teams: Everybody is part-time and/or multitasking
Everywhere else, it’s rare to speak with a founder who is not working full-time at their company while fund-raising.
In Spain, you must speak with several people until you find the full-time founder who runs the show. I guess those part-time people are trying to justify their equity stakes.
Opportunities: The best minds are doing copycats in the local market
Berlin is well-known for Rocket Internet. Rocket is a copycat factory where top-achievers (MBAs, McKinseys, Goldman’s and alike) run the startups.
While it’s not my favorite type of startup, I have nothing against that model. I think it helped build the Berlin ecosystem in a record time. That said, Rocket Internet has a unique competitive advantage with its location and its access to capital. This allows them to overrun competitors.
It always amazes me when I see Spanish top-achievers running copycats with a focus on the local market. I’m even more surprised when their ambition is to be acquired by the large German player.
These copycats have a similar risk as starting another (innovative) business but with none of the upsides. It sounds like the balance between risk and reward is not the right one.
Exits: Small exits are a big distraction
In the startup world, as soon as you start doing things right, potential buyers might knock your door. They will start thinking about your market as an opportunity. Should they buy the startup or invest the time and effort to catch up with it? Those talks almost never end in acquisitions.
Three M&A scenarios are probable:
- The buyer wants to expand into the geography or the market segment you lead. They get the large customer base and revenues.
- The buyer wants the technology or the team behind the technology (acquihire).
- The buyer is afraid of disruption and buys the potential threat outright.
In Spain (1) is the rule, (2) or (2) are nonexistent.
But unfortunately, I’ve seen how distracting those “acquisition talks” are. At that early stage of a business, if the founders turn their attention to these talks, business suffers considerably. Sometimes, even to the point of bankruptcy.
That previous problem is common in almost all startup ecosystems. Spain struggles even more for one reason: the average salary in Spain is about €22,000. As a founder, when you get the first offers and you hear about a potential €500,000 exit, that sounds attractive (+20 years of salary). There are some caveats:
- A €500,000 exit means that the company is probably small.
- Loss of focus from the core business will cause strain if not startup death.
- The usual level of dilution, taxes and founder split won’t be enough to pay you for the risk taken on starting the business.
As a corollary, you will only make money with a sizable exit and/or bootstrapping. If you can.
Regulation and taxes are enemies of the entrepreneurs
Incorporating a company in Spain is a tedious and costly process. In the United Kingdom, it takes 24 hours and 15 pounds. Good luck trying to create a stock option plan to incentivize your employees.
On top of legal expenses, if you end up selling the business, you will have to pay up 50% tax on those shares.
If you are one of the lucky ones that open headquarters in the US, you might be taxed on the paper value of your shares thanks to the Exit Tax.
But there’s hope
After seeing that long and painful list, it might not be surprising to see how many great companies are founded by Spaniards abroad (Inaki @ Pixable & Contactive, Iker @ PeerTransfer, Maria @ Chartboost, Pau @ Olapic, Adeyemi @ Identified,…).
But there’s no doubt that Spain is a great place to live and there’s excellent technical talent. It’s also not surprising to see some international founders building their companies here (Philippe @ Kantox, Amuda @ Destinia, the team @ Active VP, David @ Typeform, Marek @ Atrapalo, Ben @ Packlink, …).
Think international and for the long run. Think about building a global business from day one. Start your business with international co-founders. Raise money from global investors. Hire international talent and do that, not to make a quick profit, but to have a lasting impact. As a side effect, you will also enjoy the ride.
The more global you DNA is, the higher the chances are that you will struggle less with those challenges. Except for the taxes, you can always move to Berlin, and then miss the food and the weather (trust me!)
Featured image credit: INCubed Spain / Flicker