Due to the nature of my work and our dedication to covering all of Europe's tech innovation, not just the movers and shakers in the major hubs, I travel quite a lot in order to meet with interesting founders and investors from across the continent.
When people ask me where I'm from and where I reside (the answer to both of which is 'Belgium, very close to Brussels'), a good chunk of them follow up to inquire 'what the local startup ecosystem is like'.
My response is always something to the tune of 'obviously small, but growing, communities are starting to form and mature, and there are some interesting startups - like X and Y - doing some amazing things in their fields'. Nothing to boast about, nothing to be ashamed about.
And I really make an effort not to use the word 'ecosystem' when it comes to Belgium during those conversations - because there really isn't one to speak of, at least not yet (and that's alright).
Coincidentally, that's also exactly how I feel about many of Europe's smaller regional tech startup scenes, from Copenhagen to Amsterdam to Prague to Bucharest to Athens.
Europe's emerging startup hotspots are, well, still emerging
They're compact, but growing. Compelling to follow, but still in the very early stages of truly developing an ecosystem. Some activity and startups that jump out, but mostly a fledgling community that's - crucially - starting to take shape around them. And a handful of key people in the driver's seat - there are always a few - who are often the unsung heroes of the country or region.
That's all very good and noteworthy. Of course things could always be better, and the maturation swifter, but overall you can almost sense that there's a relatively slow but steady evolution taking place pretty much across the board (or map, in this case). It's genuinely fascinating to watch.
And it's always nice when there are people feeling the urge to give their local startup stars and tech clout more visibility. We're enormous fans of the likes of ArcticStartup, Inventures, Rude Baguette, Venture Village, Goal Europe and plenty of other regionals blogs and news sites, each of which have a mission to shine a light on what's happening on the ground, whether that means the Nordics, France, Germany, Central and Eastern Europe, Turkey or wherever. It makes a lot of difference, especially when it's done in English so a broader audience can take note.
But there's a certain kind of coverage coming from those and other sites that really puts me off. The kind where people publish absurd claims such as "X is the new Silicon Valley" or "Y will be the new center of activity, cfr. Tech City UK" or "Z might just become Europe's next major startup hub".
No, it isn't. No, it likely won't ever be, either. And that's fine.
A misplaced sense of local pride
I understand where it comes from. You don't even have to be that much of a nationalist to look at your local startup scene - particularly if you're knee deep in it - and feel the need to tell the world how awesome it is. Why can't everyone else see it? Why aren't we placed on the same pedestal as Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv, London or Berlin? Just look at what X has accomplished, and what Y is doing!
But it's not because you're a fan and make valid (if slightly exaggerated) points that people will suddenly start consistently paying closer attention. It's by building and supporting more examples to point at, by professionalizing the environment, by assembling and organising a community, by advocating the verifiable assets - not just by shouting loudly in a futile effort to 'rise above the noise'.
It all stems from a sense of pride, but a misplaced one, in my opinion. Every time someone feels the need to shout from the rooftops how their local ecosystem are able to compete with the best of them, I ask myself: why does this perception of competition exist in the first place? What does it matter?
This opinion piece (well, rant) was prompted by a post on Bitspiration, a recently started site that aims to highlight tech startup news and more from Poland. Entitled "5 Reasons Krakow Will Top Global Startup Map" (sic), it was basically a list of things that are great about the second-largest city of Poland. It had some interesting information in it, yet all of it was published in vain, as far as I'm concerned, largely because of the ridiculously hyperbolic headline.
Again, I get it. I've been to Poland, and I've roamed around Krakow's startup community and met a few of its key actors. No doubt that the way it's developing is interesting, because there are lots of similarities to other places in Europe (which, in turn, makes it something of a burgeoning trend).
But does anyone really believe Krakow will ever top the global startup map, whatever that means?
Why not just point out the strengths without proving yourself oblivious to the weaknesses, so your audience can take informed decisions and judge the worth based on facts mixed with observations?
Why not try to identify the good along with the bad? What does one gain by this senseless boasting?
More helicopters, fewer navel-gazers please
Since Tech.eu was launched, I've received quite a lot of offers from people suggesting they guest-write about their local startup ecosystems. Up until now, I've categorically refused to commission contributions of that kind, even if they'd be completely free of charge, because I know how incapable of taking a helicopter's view of things people can be when they're passionate about something.
I can. That doesn't necessarily mean you need to agree with or even listen to me, but at least you'll always know I make an effort to look at the bigger picture. I champion, but I'm not a cheerleader.
I know that I could write a post about what a wasteland for tech startup activity e.g. Italy is or at the very least appears to be, and immediately get retorts from people who 'are actually there' who will happily tell me why I'm delusional. Some of that would probably result in a very worthwhile discussion, but I know a lot of reactions would get lost in an ocean of comments about how I'm just not seeing the light or understanding the subtleties or misrepresenting the facts.
And again, I won't fully understand the need for that particular type of rhetoric. It doesn't help anyone.
Perhaps people simply desire a sense of belonging and being able to 'play in the big league' - understandable human feelings and thoughts to have - and therefore feel the urge to write about their local tech startup scene with added hyperbole. Perhaps it's because it will likely garner more attention than articles with more intellectually honest headlines. Perhaps because it can definitely be frustrating not to be recognised by the media as much as others - for whatever reason.
I don't know, but until the hyperbole stops, it will actually stand in the way of the progress we all seek.
As much as I dislike the phrase "Europe needs to focus on building bridges, not valleys", there's a grain of truth in it that is difficult to ignore. So the next time you feel the urge to talk about the European tech industry or your local startup scene, take a step back and absorb all the information, data and facts available to you, make up your mind and write from a position of 'offence' rather than 'defence'.
I promise I'll read it attentively and tell you why you've got it all backwards.
Just kidding - just try to leave out the hyperbole and we'll get along just fine.
Featured image credit: Denis Vrublevski / Shutterstock