Malta is hot for startups

[As seen on Times of Malta]

On the weekend 17th to 19 July, Startup Weekend (a non-for-profit event), the Malta Communications Authority (MCA) and the University of Malta TAKEOFF Business Incubator put their heads together to organise the biggest startup event to date. The event brought in reputational mentors and speakers which firmly puts Malta on the map as a startup destination.

The event began on Friday morning with a conference entitled ‘DISRUPT. STARTUP. MALTA’. The aim of the conference was three fold: to highlight to the local corporate and public world that a vibrant startup community exists; to discuss the local and international startup investing world; and lastly to bring to light a few Malta based startups that are leading the front.

“The Friday morning conference was thrilling. Not only was it well thought through in terms of content and set up, but the vibe and energy in the room was felt on all four corners. Having speakers with backgrounds working at global brands such as Amazon AWS, Citrix, Soundcloud and Seedcamp helps of course, but we managed to balance the international names with local success stories” says Simon Azzopardi, organiser of Startup Weekend.

“The event began with a clear message. What we wanted to do is explain that the startup world is not about tech or software developers. What the startup industry looks to do is disrupt business models by thinking differently, and hacking industries that have always been a certain way. We look around us and see 3D printing, sharing communities and internet of things and businesses around the world should be thinking about what effect such could have on their own businesses,” continues Azzopardi.

Bernard Agius, Business and Innovation Development Manager at the MCA argued that “it is very important that we realise that disruption brings more to our economy than mere threats. This conference has given a taste of the opportunities that may lie ahead for a small economy if it can locate its niche in a disrupted environment. Being small and nimble can give us an edge in making our economy attractive to disruptive start-ups. This is the right time to talk about disruptive startups especially when one considers the push for a European Digital Single Market amid other global technology driven trends.”

“Malta’s startup scene is still relatively new in comparison to the larger centres, but what we are seeing is that with the little effort done by the local community, we have already seen early successes. Companies like HotJar, Reaqta, DiscountIF and Oulala have already achieved impressive traction and we believe that they deserve Malta’s support and attention,” says Andy Linnas, TAKEOFF Business Incubator Manager.

The event came to a close with Reinhold Karner giving a talk on what Malta should do over the next few months to realise its potential. He spoke about attracting startups, creating a platform that nurtures businesses, retention of intellectual property on the island, as well as building a foundation of trust and reliability within the ecosystem.

The Friday morning’s event came to a close in the afternoon, only to be followed by a second startup event.

“At 6:00 pm that Friday, the internationally renowned Startup Weekend began. From the Friday to the Sunday, we provided 10 ideas with coaching and support to create business models and live the startup experience,” says Azzopardi.

The event invited mentors from global brands such as AOL, Seedcamp, Amazon AWS, Citrix and Microsoft, to support the teams during this intense competition. Moreover, the event also included mentors from the Malta-based eco-system with several reputable entrepreneurs showing up to give back to the community.

“It was great to see early ideas with little substance become viable business models in a short period of time. Not only that, we saw personalities and characters being formed, with leaders emerging from the event,” commented Azzopardi.

On the Sunday, after the final pitches, four ideas emerged as having stood out from the crowd. The wining startups included HealthHero, a crowdfunding platform supporting individuals that cannot afford or are covered by insurance for key surgeries or operations; AirMeeting was a flight search engine that looks to solve the problem of multiple dispersed people looking for a destination that makes financial sense for all; Sure Guides, a startup looking to bring the AirBnB model to tour guides; and the winner SiteProject, a startup looking to translate customer requirements of a website into a functional specification.

“The winner was selected on a single criterion that is, if the judges had EUR 100,000 to invest, which would be the ‘investable’ company. HealthHero was awarded as the startup with the greatest social impact, therefore the judges agreed that they would invest though not for the sake of return,” concluded Azzopardi.

Startup Weekend was sponsored by Altaro, V&A Investments, TakeOff and the MCA.

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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.

Lessons learnt from a startup weekend in Malta

Malta, the little island in the Mediterranean, shed some light over the weekend on its potential through the StartUp weekend held at SmartCity.

Being the first ever start-up event ever held in Malta, I was not sure what to expect, in terms of both turnout and ideas.

I was pleasantly surprised in the end as the weekend offered the coming together of several individuals that showed a huge amount of both passion and technical ability.

Startup weekend Malta

Being a mentor for the weekend, I honestly feel that I have learnt a huge amount from the teams that were present. Some of which being:

Ideas are seeds to value

Everybody has heard of the saying ‘ideas are cheap’. In truth, ideas are what they are, an expression of interest on a particular subject or problem with underlying suggestive motive to influence change or improvement. Though ideas may deliver little value, they are however seeds in our minds that allows us to develop concentrated thoughts on a particular subject. During the initial idea pitches, most of the ideas were cheap in that it offered little value to anything other than highlighting a ‘could-be’ problem and a makeshift solution. That said, once a team was thrown together focused on problem and solution for an entire weekend, both the problem and the solution was defined and structured and therefore become of value. True, an idea is cheap, but so are seeds. Give it enough time and energy and that seed can become something great, even if the seed isn’t perfect in any way.

Energy is contagious

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” True. Put those five people in a room full of energy and doing great things, and that average will improve multiple times over. Energy and passion is contagious and comparing the difference between the shuffling of feet when entering the startup weekend, to the energy of the room at the end, it was clear that the little community over the weekend worked on developing each others momentum to be better. Truth be told, some of the energy was excitement for the after beers, but then still, you can guess what conversation revolved around at the watering hole.

Malta has huge potential

Last but definitely not least, was the eureka moment by seeing Malta’s potential in a tangible manner. Malta boasts a thriving financial sector, global leaders in the igaming scene, a popular tourist destination, and yet tech is not considered to be a pillar of its economy. The start up weekend taught me that we have the essential pillars to become an ICT hub delivering innovation through start-ups. I knew we had excellent technical people. I knew we had some of the best designers on the island. I knew that we had specialists in key verticals that are essential to solving industry problems. I however did not know we had a community willing to come together and share ideas, take risks, and look at the world as being full of endless possibilities.

Malta certainly has the potential to be great within the tech industry, for both locals wishing to start up a company and take over the world, as well as for foreigners looking to relocate to an up and coming jurisdiction that has a lot of potential in terms of ideas, talent and infrastructure. What about tax reasons? Well, that is just the cherry on the cake.