Interview for MONEY Magazine

Startup, Malta, Simon Azzopardi

[As seen on Money Magazine]

  1. How would you compare the local start-up scene with that in the rest of Europe and in the US?

Over the past 24 months, we have organised several events and involved several international investors and entrepreneurs within the local community. I believe that their feedback is a good measure as to where we stand. Maltese start ups, and by this I mean start ups founded by both the Maltese and expats that live in Malta, are certainly promising. In fact, an early investor in LinkedIn, who was judging a recent start up event, described a Maltese start up project as visionary.

That said, we need to be realistic. Malta is a tiny community in comparison to any of the EU and US states and comparing such would be futile. However, what we need to do is look at Malta and understand what we can offer to the start up scene. Where can Malta add value?

This is where Malta could certainly stand out. Malta has several highly skilled technology and marketing individuals, English is the business language of choice, it offers a superior quality of life, and is all wrapped up in a tax and expense efficient package. Breaking it down, a start up that is tight on cash would be able to do a lot more with a lot less in Malta, reaching their milestones on an island offering good weather, food and social elements.

So when discussing such areas, one needs to look at where Malta’s potential markets or attractiveness lies. To whom does Malta add value? What countries could we look towards to promote Malta as a start up jurisdiction? This needs to be the conversation that government and local stakeholders need to look at.

  1. What are currently the trending start-ups?

There are a few start ups making a positive sound in the market, as well as start ups that have moved on and cannot be considered start ups anymore. Due to the size of the start up scene, it is hard to see trends.

The two emerging trends though are that we are seeing several foreigners looking at Malta as a potential start up platform, as well as a few companies in Malta where employees move on to develop their own start up. Both are encouraging trends for the local scene and culture.

  1. Are the majority of start-ups ICT-related? If yes, why?

IT start ups are certainly the most accessible. With a laptop and an internet connection, anyone can start up a business. Other industries would typically require greater capital investments and therefore greater risks.

  1. Should start-ups think big or first focus on the local market and then expand slowly in other markets?

Think global, act local. A bit cliché though this is paramount. Start ups cannot conquer the world in the first battle. Rather, they need to win the local battles before world domination. Therefore, start ups need to look at who their initial customers are going to be, and focus on wining those over, but always thinking scalable.At start up stage, being too local means that you solve a handful of customer’s problems and cannot scale. On the other hand, being too global means that what you offer will be lost in the noise of everyone offering something similar.

  1. What kind of resources do start-ups need?

Firstly, the will or hunger to want it. Bill Gates or Steve Jobs have the exact same 24 hours in a day that you have. They did something special. If you want to do something special than you have the time. Secondly, commitment. You will have hurdles such as finding a partner, looking for that first customer, or bringing in an investor. Unless you are committed and conscious of the fact that this is going to be tough, than you will give up after a few hurdles. Lastly, fun is vital. You need to enjoy what you do, and how it gets done. Starting up a business is a bit like creating a tribe or a following. You need to get people behind you and if it lacks any joy whatsoever, than why would anyone follow you.

  1. How critical is the funding element in a start-up scenario?

The question here is, what does the investment you need buy. Do you need time? Infrastructure? A team? Could you get things done without an investor? Could you part with equity instead of investment? Bootstrapping, i.e. the process of developing your product and business with no investments is too often overlooked, yet is very often the better way to go.

Another aspect often overlooked is corporate financing or collaboration. Corporates need to innovate and build new products, yet often by design they struggle to do so. Start ups are designed to be innovative and react quickly to market changes as their livelihood depends on it. This creates the possibility for an ideal partnership between a start up requiring a corporate’s credibility, experience, infrastructure, people or channels. As always, a win-win situation needs to be created and more importantly managed.

  1. What should fuel the relationship between start-ups and entrepreneurs willing to invest?

Start ups and investors, particularly in the early stages, need to get along. Entrepreneurs have vast knowledge, and not just capital, that needs to be exploited. Therefore, besides having a common understanding of commercial expectations, ensuring that the two characters are compatible is crucial.

In Malta, we certainly have a small community or pockets of entrepreneurs willing to invest. In terms of high growth start ups however, I do believe that investors often need guidance in terms how to manage their investments and expectations.

  1. Personally, what gets you excited about start-ups?

I live on both sides of the fence in that I coach and mentor start ups or corporate companies that need to think like a start up, as well as having two start up businesses myself.

This gives me deep insight into the way of thinking, allowing me to really understand the various phases and facets of starting up a business. Start ups are excited about their projects and tend to see opportunities everywhere. I find that successful start up entrepreneurs do not complain about politics and the economy but rather take control of the situation by using what is happening around them to their advantage. This energy is addictive. I get to meet interesting entrepreneurs with a ‘take over the world’ mentality.

  1. What value do start-ups give to a national economy?

Start ups deliver tangible as well as intangible economic value. Its tangible value is that, by definition, they create innovative products with a global potential, delivering employment, investments, tax expenditure, etc. Start ups also deliver a culture of openness and creativity that has a longer term value that is transferable from industry to industry. A government that invests in start ups by putting the right support behind them is investing in both short and long term. Like with anything however, investing in a start up community is only a minor element, execution is key.

  1. What, in your opinion, are the prospects for local start-ups in 2015?

The local community have built quite a bit of momentum in Malta. We have branded Malta’s local community as Startup Island and we continue to organise events to bring people together. I am confident that 2015 will see a greater interest from entrepreneurs willing to get involved, an increased number of corporates willing to support and integrate as well as government showing solidarity.

However, Malta needs to look overseas and needs to invest in overseas communities for better integration. We need to have a roadmap that reaches out to high growth start ups and integrate them into the local community. We need to develop our entrepreneurial and risk taking appetites. We need to learn that failing at a start up is not looked down upon, but rather a sign that you have tried, learnt and a step closer to success. Malta needs to act local but think global in its endeavours to build a stronger and truly innovative society.

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