Startup Guide Warsaw: How Poland’s capital is also a launchpad for entrepreneurs with regional and global ambition
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The Startup Guide series of books, launched in 2014 by Copenhagen-based publisher Sissel Hansen, covers over 40 cities around the world. See our reviews of the guidebooks for New York, Berlin, Zurich, Paris, Barcelona, Stockholm, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Tokyo, Bangkok, and Singapore.
With extensive support from local partners, the material in Startup Guide Warsaw is spread across 230 pages and makes for an informative and inspiring read. There are in-depth profiles of founders, co-working spaces, incubators, and other ecosystem players (see highlights in the table below). The material is insightful, superbly illustrated, and well-designed.
“Well known for its rich history and being a leading economic hub, Warsaw is on a fast track to becoming the most startup-friendly city in Eastern Europe,” Sissel Hansen begins. Poland attracted an estimated half a billion dollars of investment in startups in 2020 and has over 270 fintech startups.
Warsaw is Poland’s largest academic centre and is a major business and culture hub. With a metropolitan population of around three million, the city has good transport connections.
Entrepreneurship incubators were launched in Warsaw universities from 2004 onwards. The Startup Poland Foundation, founded in 2012, conducts annual surveys of the startup industry and helps local players scale globally.
The Polish Development Fund (PFR) was established in 2016. Akademickie Inkubatory Przedsiębiorczości (AIP) helps launch startups and its investment fund AIP Seed has one of the largest portfolios in CEE (Central and Eastern Europe).
The 2030 Warsaw Strategy roadmap also features the startup ecosystem. There is a wide range of creative talent and STEAM skills. Pub crawls are a customary way to get to know the city and meet people, the authors describe.
One in three startups in Poland sets up shop in Warsaw, according to Rafał Trzaskowski, Mayor of Warsaw.
Notable startups profiled in the book include Apollo (manufacturing plant-based chicken made of white beans), EcoBean (turning coffee waste into green products), and Authologic (ID verification for KYC).
Jutro Medical combines telemedicine and a proprietary technology platform with physical public clinics. LogicAI creates tailored artificial intelligence (AI) solutions for companies like Rolls Royce and LVMH.
Packhelp is an online marketplace for custom-branded packaging. Vue Storefront develops web interfaces to target mobile shoppers.
Planet Heroes is an eco-crowdfunding platform, and the official host of World Cleanup Day in Poland. ProperGate is a smart delivery management system for materials at construction sites. Skriware provides educational lab components such as robotics and 3D printers.
The founders describe their journeys, many of whom benefited from investors and organisations like KIC InnoEnergy, Inovo Venture Partners, Recsys Challenge, Movens Ventures, Kogito Ventures, Speedinvest x, PROFounders, Market One Capital, White Star Capital, SMOK Ventures, Realty Corporation, and Y Combinator.
A range of incubator and accelerator programmes help strengthen the startup ecosystem in Warsaw. For example, Startup Hub Poland runs Warsaw Booster, an annual municipal acceleration programme.
AIP’s portfolio includes CallPage (callback automation), Plenti (on-demand electronic rentals), and Rendart (graphic-design specialist).
The accelerator programme foodtech.ac has an agrifood portfolio with startups such as Apollo (plant-based chicken alternative), It’s Bean (plant-based yoghurt alternative), and Listny Cud (in-store vertical farms in supermarkets).
The Foundation for Technology Entrepreneurship runs a startup-acceleration programme affiliated with MIT. It also enables large firms to work closely with startups. The programme is based on the Disciplined Entrepreneurship methodology by Prof. Bill Aulet (see my book review here).
Startups that were supported by the PFR School of Pioneers include VividQ (platform for holographic 3D display), Unicorn VR World (autism therapy platform using VR), and HearMe (platform for employee mental health).
Leaders of these programmes offer a wide range of tips for founders on purpose, mindset, and ethics. Entrepreneurs should build a supportive team, and not be afraid to ask questions while building domain expertise.
They should learn how to stay focused during conditions of resource restrictions. Ideas should be brought to life quickly, and verified in the market. Scale and global ambition help attract funding as well. Founders should be ambitious yet humble, and have unique differentiation.
Warsaw has a wide range of attractive co-working spaces. One section of the book describes the facilities and offerings, along with manager profiles. They include Ewa Janus-Khouri (CEO, Targowa Creativity Centre), who is also the coordinator of the Innovative Economy Congress and Young Innovative Congress.
Impacts from the work and ideas of Tim Rowe are also visible—he is the founder of US co-working space Cambridge Innovation Center, and founder of Venture Café.
District Hall, one of its projects, runs the Thursday Gathering Weekly Meetup.
Five domain experts offer a range of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs on products, pricing, and perseverance.
“You can only have an impact when the price or value proposition is attractive and customers are willing to buy,” says Jakub Miler, CEO, EIT InnoEnergy Central Europe. Founders should not just be competing but collaborating with the ecosystem as well.
“Think big from the beginning. Work the benefits of the CEE ecosystem,” says Michał Kramarz, Head of Google for Startups, Central Europe. “The more diverse your teams are, the better your products will be and the more people they’ll appeal to.”
“Many fintech startups need support with pricing models and valuation of their solution when negotiating with potential customers,” observes Dawid Galus, Manager of Santander Bank Polska’s Digital Innovation Office. Founders should have clarity on whether they compete with or need to partner with incumbents.
Ewa Geresz, Director, and Aureliusz Górski, Founding Executive Director, Venture Café Warsaw, advise founders to focus on making real relationships and not just network based on numbers alone.
Igor Zacharjasz is Head, Digital Products and Innovation, Visa CEE, and also heads the Visa Innovation Studio, Warsaw. He advises fintechs to have at least one C-level team member with financial sector experience.
“Be ready to play a long game. Selling to financial institutions takes much longer than in other industries,” he adds.
An outstanding section of the book features in-depth interviews with five founders, tracing their journeys, pivots, challenges, learnings, and tips.
“Funding was difficult because, in the last six years, I’ve become a wife and double mom,” explains Joanna Drabent, CEO and Co-founder of PR workflow SaaS product Prowly.
She advises founders to be willing to learn from their mistakes. The startup has over 50 percent of its customers based in the US. One of its premier customers is Spotify.
Founders who have prior corporate experience can leverage their networks when they switch to launching a startup, observes Jowita Michalska, founder of speaker and conference management NGO Digital University.
“Digital leadership requires very different skills,” she adds; this involves empathy as well as tech-savviness. Jowita aspires to be a mentor to women entrepreneurs. “I try to make young women understand that they are stronger, that they can do it.”
Entrepreneurship involves going beyond ideas to execution, and hiring diverse talent. “You won’t retain talent if your ego is too big,” she cautions.
“Make time for learning because in this world, your only advantage is to learn faster than the rest,” Jowita affirms.
“We were way ahead of the market. In the first years, there were no sales,” recalls Marcin Beme, Founder and CEO of audiobook and podcast platform Audioteka.
“Today, everything happens very quickly compared to before, so if you want to grab a chance, you have to act super quickly,” he advises.
“Health insurance companies are usually the first movers taking innovations to the market,” observes Paweł Sieczkiewicz, Founder and CEO of Telemedi, a B2B white-label digital health platform.
He met his co-founder at Startup Weekend, and the company is now expanding to other European markets. It successfully pivoted to B2B from B2C channels, and has participated in Wayra Accelerator.
Though the pandemic was a challenge, it opened up people’s attitudes to hiring people outside Warsaw as well.
“Founders cannot think in terms of cities anymore; we are a global village,” Pawel observes. Building an organisation is different to building a business, he adds.
Originally from Ukraine, Vadym Melnyk founded drone-in-a-box solutions provider Dronehub. It supplies drones, mobile ground infrastructure, and AI-powered software to customers like IBM, PKN Orlen, European Space Agency, and the European Defense Agency.
A key choice founders need to make early on is whether to focus on outsourcing services or building a new product, he advises.
Some of the founders add that more successful entrepreneurs are emerging in Warsaw, and they are contributing their money and experience to the ecosystem. Challenges include the fact that Poland has had a free-market economy for only 30 years, and there are not as many large established firms to support entrepreneurs.
Warsaw has a number of technology and management school programmes supporting entrepreneurship education. For example, SGH Warsaw School of Economics offers an MBA for Startups.
The school programme heads offer tips to aspiring entrepreneurs on risk-taking, open-mindedness, and personality development. Targeting overseas markets includes language proficiency, particularly in English.
A range of investors has tasted success with the startup ecosystem in Poland. For example, AIP Seed has invested in Plenti (electronics rental platform) and Glov (makeup remover).
Market One Capital’s portfolio includes TIER Mobility (shared micro-mobility) and JORK (instant-grocery-delivery), while Next Road Ventures has invested in SunRoof.se (solar roofs), Smabbler (deep text understanding engine), and Amberlo (law-practice management software).
PFR Ventures’ successes are Booksy (booking application for beauty businesses) and iTaxi (app for ordering cabs). SMOK Ventures, a Polish-American venture capital firm, has invested in ProperGate (delivery management at construction sites) and Rezuro (platform for tenants and landlords).
The investors offer valuable tips for founders as well. They should set clear goals and even have moonshot ambitions. Market research and differentiation are key, based on unique insights and competitive advantage.
Founders should display leadership traits, and the ability to learn from failure. They should be able to show traction, and have effective storytelling skills.
The book ends with a directory of resources for entrepreneurs. For example, local startup connections and events are offered by Aula Polska, Founder Institute Warsaw, Geek Girls Carrots, IT Events, Pixel Heaven, and Women in Tech Summit.
In sum, the book provides inspiring and practical insights into Warsaw’s startup ecosystem, as well as a useful framework for other cities to reflect on and improve their startup ecosystems.
YourStory has also published the pocketbook ‘Proverbs and Quotes for Entrepreneurs: A World of Inspiration for Startups’ as a creative and motivational guide for innovators (downloadable as apps here: Apple, Android).