We live in a digital age and use online services to order deliveries, book a restaurant, find a taxi, a plumber or an electrician, a hairdresser or a nanny, rent an apartment, or even fix a doctor’s appointment! Take for instance e-food.gr, which currently has thousands of orders per day; thebeat.co.gr with tens of thousands taxi calls, Blueground.com with hundreds of rentals in Athens, Dubai, Istanbul & New York and doctoranytime.gr (that has also expanded in Belgium), with half a million visits per month… All these are services that have familiarised us with the internet, a tool mostly used in the past to google and connect through Facebook. What they all have in common is the man who first saw the opportunity in these ideas and contributed to their success… Apostolos Apostolakis, Co-founder of e-shop.gr, e-food.gr and doctoranytime.gr, Investor and board member of Taxibeat.com, has supported more than 50 startups and is currently Co-founder and Partner of Venture Friends, a European VC fund investing in startups.
I constantly seek greek success stories and inspirational people to write about. Apostolos Apostolakis had been on the top of my list for quite some time; I desperately wanted to pick the brain of this conspicuous entrepreneur, who turned VC and who has had such a successful course and career in e-commerce, marketplace and SaaS startups. My wish was granted a few weeks ago, when I finally interviewed him! I expected to encounter and listen to a rigidly corporate, technocratic businessman; instead, I met and had coffee with a very “relaxed-mannered”, polite and kind man, who is a firm believer of meritocracy and fairness and so surprisingly humble about all his great successful projects! Apostolos has a truly brilliant mind and it’s incredibly rewarding and interesting to talk with him. He is the kind of man that will reach out, dedicate time and help young entrepreneurs, because he once was in their shoes and knows the feeling and the drill. I know this for a fact, as he took the time to advise me, blog wise, quite a few times amid the interview! His aspiring and influential path beams optimism to all of us “starting up” our own career dreams…
In this interview, he talks about his beliefs, starting and funding startups in Greece, as well as his future projects.
Q & A
You studied in Columbia and lived in NYC. What were the greatest assets from that period of your life?
Those were crucial years for me… After studying Civil Engineering at the National Technical University of Athens, I felt the need to get further inspired and continue to work hard. I studied Business at Columbia University and lived in New York for 2 years. This is actually where I found my calling: in business, and in the New York City culture and attitude. It is all about action, not procrastination, speaking your mind, being direct and judged by the final result. It is a very meritocratic environment and this is what really attracted me: the concept that if you really work hard, it will pay off!
Are there any specific rules and ideas you try to live by?
I really believe in meritocracy and fairness. I also believe in working hard, taking risks and sticking to your goals! It is important to respect other people and treat them the way you want to be treated. I create my business (and personal) relationships in an environment of openness and trust, which helps me a lot, as people who collaborate with me, either as potential startup founders or investors in Venture Friends, know they can trust me. Relationships should be considered on a long-term basis and we shouldn’t speculate or take advantage of situations; on the contrary, we should really treat others as we would like them to treat us, if in a difficult or weak position. Even though I’m a civil engineer by profession, hence could have been considered a technocrat, I believe in empathizing and I always try to put myself in other people’s shoes, in order to understand their train of thought and where they come from.
What are the advantages of a startup company in Greece?
Greece definitely has its challenges, but its great advantage is that if you really make the effort and work, you get great results, both technology and business wise. By and large, business is a very competitive and difficult field to be in; drive & commitment are the key ingredients of success! It is easier though, to achieve success on a local level, in Greece, rather than on an international one, where competition is much higher. On an international scale, you have to compete with the skillful American, British, French or so on, who possess other assets and have easier access to capital, know-how, resources, as well as networking. In Greece, you can create a startup at low cost, because there are people who have talent, have received great education, lived abroad and have been exposed to strong images and stimuli; yet, the cost to collaborate with them is much lower! In London, for example, if you wanted to hire people with a great technical background they would command 2-3 times the salaries in Greece partly due to the also much higher cost of living. That is a great competitive advantage for any kind of startup launching first in Greece.
The greek market might be relatively small, but at the same time, its size allows for a great deal of opportunities. In several economic domains, the target audience is much smaller and this is actually a drawback. Here, in order to succeed, you have to target a bigger need and thus a higher number of customers. On the contrary, in London and other markets, this does not apply – and that’s really the international advantage. Take the “vegetarian” subject, for instance; it is a need that targets millions of people in the UK, in comparison to Greece, where the numbers are much lower. On the other hand, in Greece, the percentage of people that feel restless business-wise and look for innovative solutions & startup ideas, is much smaller; hence, competition is smaller, as well. In the US, the moment an idea breaks new ground, there is someone else already copying it and trying to make it even better! When we created e-food.gr, competition was limited. However, had there been more people with similar business ideas, we wouldn’t have had such an early start and competitive advantage.
What kind of impact have startups had on greek mentality?
The most significant impact is on meritocracy. People have come to realize that great results come from significant and sustained effort and that is the core idea behind any kind of startup. In order to survive, a startup needs funding and funds are only given when investors see results, which, in turn, demand sacrifices and hard work. There are no longer easy solutions or secure posts in the public sector. Greeks now can attain business success, not by fooling the system, but rather through working hard and smart. This notion is definitely the epitome of a startup, it is a ray of light that needs to increase its beam even more in the coming years. Because ultimately, this is the right way of thinking about and doing business.
What are you looking for when it comes to new investments and startups?
What we are looking for as Venture Friends is a combination of things. We are looking for people, who have the drive & commitment to do something big! Secondly, the problem seeking solution should be explicit and comprehensible. There should be a clearly articulated problem and solution to be provided by the startup. Thirdly, the market targeted should be fairly big. In order for a venture capital fund to invest money in a startup, the problem under discussion should have a market in excess of 1 billion euros so that the startup can aim to capture 5-10% and create a large company. In Venture Friends I, out of our twenty (20) investments, fifteen (15) started in Greece and the remaining five (5) in London, Dubai and Silicon Valley but all had the above characteristics in common. Venture Friends II our new fund to be launched in January will seek ambitious founders with the same characteristics.
You are Co-Founder and Partner in Venture Friends Fund. Could you tell us a little bit more about it?
Venture Friends is a Venture Capital Fund, which invests and supports tech startup. You enter as a partner and shareholder in startup companies quite early, and the aim is to help them grow and ultimately get sold, or enter the stock market, creating capital gains for both the fund and the founders / startup employees.
Venture Friends started in Feb 2016 and, in total, it has so far invested in twenty (20) tech startups from different fields. All startups aim to leave their own mark in their fields and many have already launched internationally and have affected consumer habits. There are certain startups that have grown more and stand out, because the size of the market they address is much larger, such as douleutaras.gr, Blueground.com , Instashop.ae or welcomepickups.com. However, there are also other startups standing out in Greece, in terms of their penetration and effect on consumer habits, such as funkmartini.gr, e-table.gr, spotawheel.gr, nannuka.com, companies that might still be small, but where there is significant room for further development, and they have already influenced consumer habits for the better. We are also happy to have supported promising startups in London like Gethomie, Convibo and Weengs.
How do you see the future of venturing business in Greece?
I’m optimistic about it, I believe people have come to realize there were many mistakes made in the past, politically speaking. There comes a time when everything is exposed to public, there is an increasing number of people that realizes lies and false promises and it is then that people become aware of the need for self-improvement. Substantially, expectations have been belied by our politicians, and now time has come when certain politicians should rise to the demands of the circumstances and help this country , by saying and doing difficult things.
I’m also optimistic about the economic future of Greece. Greeks are smart, resourceful people and will find solutions. It will take time, many years probably, but I also believe that through entrepreneurship and funding of innovation and international looking companies, the situation will eventually improve.
What are your personal future business plans and dreams?
Business wise, I really want to help more greek startups, especially in the domain of technology, to expand beyond greek borders and succeed. This gives me a great sense of fulfillment, particularly because I feel we have been marginalized as a country, in the sense that we lack “adaptability to the right way of thinking”. Neighboring countries, such as France or Portugal, have already adapted and it really saddens me to see a rich country, like Greece, fall behind with change and adaptation. We have to adapt and we have to change, if we want to remain globally competitive and in that way sustain our society’s standard of living. Consequently, change has to occur in greek enterprises, so that we can achieve improvement, not only for ourselves, but also for our society and country.
The current project I’m working on, and which will launch in January 2018, is Venture Friends II. We are talking about a fund of 40.000.000 euros, with the support of the European Investment Fund that will act as an anchor investor and will give money both to Greece and to us, as fund investors. This will be significant for the greek economy, as money will be allocated the right way!
What gives you joy?
Business success is a source of joy for me. I can’t really distinguish between this kind of joy and other pleasant aspects of my life, because to me, my work is my life! I also derive happiness in true friendships, sincere relationships and people I feel close to me.
Where have you had your favorite Martini?
I don’t drink that much alcohol anymore, but some of my best dry martinis were definitely in New York! In Athens, one of my favorite bars for cocktails is Tailor made!
Photo Credit: Anna Tagalou