Last month, I attended TechChill Baltics, one of the largest technology conferences in the Baltic region.
I've wanted to go for more than two years, and I just finally got my wish. Based out of Riga, Latvia, TechChill Baltics was founded three years ago by the TechHub Riga crew.
Andris Berzins and Ernests Stals, the duo behind the conference, are two of Latvia's most ardent entrepreneurs. Both of them are one of the reasons why Latvia has a startup community at all. They scaled up the local startup meetups to a fully fledged hub with TechHub Riga. Their latest move was to catalyse the community around a big event that brought the actors from the region together. As someone that has been a witness to the transformation, I couldn't have been more impressed.
The investment growth in the region is a good example on how fast the area is maturing.
Source: TechChill Baltics Conference 2016
The conference itself was top-notch. I was impressed with how flawless it was. Kudos to Marija Rucevska and her team at TechHub Riga for a job well done.
The conference, which this year brought together around 400 people, was hosted at Club Godvil. The venue's particular design created an interesting dynamic, which I think made this year's event one of the best.
I asked several entrepreneurs who had attended previous editions, and they confirmed my feelings on that. For them, the best thing about this year's edition was how much networking space the venue provided for.
On the flip side, many lamented the overall lack of US and Western European presence at the conference. Many of them told me that, as Baltic startups, they needed to look outside of the region for business. For them, meeting people from abroad is a priority.
The conference started with a great introduction by Stals, which highlighted several of the recent winners of the region. There were obvious references to the local unicorn, TransferWise, but also other interesting Baltic projects like AirDog's $1 million Kickstarter campaign or Vinted's $23 million round in December 2015.
The set of talks and speakers at the conference was excellent and had a good mix of foreign and local startups.
From left to right: Monty Munford, Calum Cameron, Juha Ruohonen
"You need to bring big stars to the region, but we have to be careful to curate the people we bring in."
"If you want to target the youngsters you need to speak their language (Periscope, Snapchat, etc.). Many programs in Finland are being run by people older than myself."
Seems he isn't the only one who's having a hard time reaching the new generation.
"It’s hard to get students to do startups in Finland. Out of a 40 people class, probably no one will do a startup. They’ll tell you it’s cool, that they’ve heard about it, but that it's not for them."
Above: Nilan Peiris, VP of Growth at TransferWise
Despite this, the ones that do push startups in the region have very compelling arguments to do so. Two comments caught my attention. The first one came from Nilan Peiris, VP of Growth at TransferWise:
"The Baltic region is a great launchpad to tackle a European expansion. There is access to great talent and its regulations are very pro-startups."
"The Baltic region is a good place to start an idea. The social network here is so tightly coupled that it’s easy to get a friend of a friend to be excited about starting an idea with you."
While he might be overly optimistic on his appreciation, I do think, it has a ring of truth to it. Everyone knows each other, and while that might be a burden sometimes, it also has its upsides.
Regarding what's hot right now in the region, there seems to be a consensus. FinTech and cybersecurity are two of the fields that are getting good traction. With startups like TransferWise (€72 million, Estonia), BitFury (€53 million, Latvia), Fortumo (€5 million, Estonia), Creamfinance (€5 million, Latvia) TransferGo (€3 million, Lithuania) or Monea (€1 million), Latvia), it's clear there is something going on.
From left to right: Alex Barrera (me), Ernests Stals, Andris K. Berzins
I was asked on stage if I thought this was unique to the region. As we recently argued here, we see an increase of FinTech all across the European landscape. Financial services are something that's common to all economies and prime for disruption.
There is another pattern that became evident at the conference. Many of these companies aren't just in the Baltics. They're true pan-European ventures. More and more startups are cofounded in a distributed fashion. James Wise, one of Balderton Capital's partners in attendance, described it nicely:
"The geographical importance of startups has shifted. Distributed teams are the future. Where are you based is less important than the quality of the team. It’s not about the Riga-based startups, but about building big visions and taking on good challenges. We want to invest in companies that are challenging the regulatory status quo, those that are operating and thinking globally. We don't care where they are based."
This is a significant change in VC mentality. One that guys like Point Nine Capital in Berlin, have been exploiting for the past few years.
All in all, the conference was very insightful and fun. Top notch speakers, smooth and flawless show, plenty of startups and most of the local players in attendance.
As stated before, the conference would benefit from a more pan-European audience. As a nascent ecosystem, it's always hard to get noticed and bring people over. That said, the region is living a fantastic moment. Europe at large could learn a lot from many of the things being done in the area.
So my advice is, if you have a chance to visit the area, do it, you won't regret it. And remember, bring your skis and your sauna towel.
Image credits: TechChill Baltics Conference 2016