This past November, I spent a month as Entrepreneur-in-residence in Tirana, Albania. I supported the local startup community and its entrepreneurs as best as possible because I believe in the principle of „paying it forward“ and giving back. It was a fantastic experience with a lot of interesting and motivational insights! Here is what I learned during those four weeks:
Albania’s recent history is key in understanding this little country and its nevertheless very hospitable people. From 1945 until 1989, Albania went through one of the most oppressive communist regimes in Europe. It was isolated from the outside world for most of that period, the national spy agency had their people in every possible corner of the country, the attempt of fleeing the country was seen as treason and met with capital punishment. The economy was on the brink of bankruptcy for decades, like in many other communist countries. Nevertheless, the Albanian people managed to slowly pick up the shattered pieces and build up the country again, only to get into a civil war in 1997 when the banking system crushed because of a major Ponzi scheme and more than 70% of the people lost all their savings. During that time, war broke out in Kosovo as well. An overall challenging and horrifiying period for the people in the Balkans, to say the least. Since then, Albanians have step by step rebuild the country while also trying to maintain their traditions and culture. Unfortunately, many Albanians left the country in the 1990s to live abroad so that in fact, nowadays more Albanians live abroad than in Albania itself.
Albania’s startup community
As with the economy in general, the startup community also has its struggles to get off the ground. It is still very early stage. There are a few companies which have reached international recognition and success like Softmogul and Dentem but at the moment, traditional business approaches are still much more prominent in Albania. In addition, the country is lacking a significant number of IT talent to be able to catch up with the rest of Europe. Universities are only slowly picking up the current development to not only provide employees for traditional industries but also train students to found their own companies. In addition, lots of young people still leave to work in other countries as the unemployement rate is high, even with a good degree, and the average salary is low (rougly 350 € per month). So people are happy enough when they have a job above the average salary, let alone taking the risk to create their own company.
Over the course of the four weeks of my stay, I met with quite a few aspiring entrepreneurs and startups, also at Oficina, currently the only accelerator program in Tirana at the moment. Slowly, trends like food blogging and tourism startups are picking up some momentum and get some well-deserved recognition from the public as there is a growing interest in healthy eating and living as well as returning to the Albanian traditions and what the country has to offer. I see a lot of potential in that area to create the first wave of successful startups to be then able to create more general momentum. Check out e.g. Kikiliciouss, Luga e Argjendtë and EcoArt.
Nevertheless, there is a lot of competition over the few startups which are currently active in Albania and unfortunately not enough focus on collaboration to build a well-working community.In addition, the country lacks a significant number of business angels and early-stage investors interested in funding (tech) startups, not only traditional businesses. Investors from other countries and the region usually come and check out what is happening in Tirana but the dealflow is not big yet. In general, public role models are still missing for Albanians to understand that founding your own company is a valid career path. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs left the country with their companies to pursue success elsewhere and it’s difficult to get them interested and involved in Albania.
Nevertheless, I am hopeful that the motivated entrepreneurs on the ground will manage to build a functioning startup community as well as attracting interest from foreign investors and entrepreneurs to explore opportunities in Albania. There are some important events happening already, e.g. the Women Founders Meetup Tirana and Startup Grind, and there are some concrete ideas in the making for 2018 already. Stay tuned!
Albania as a holiday destination
In other news, Albania is a fantastic holiday destination. It is highly diverse country with stunning mountains in the North and East as well as wonderful beaches in the South. I had the opportunity to go hiking twice with one of the many hiking clubs from Tirana, the super welcoming group of Albania Alpine Adventure. The first weekend, we went to hike the breath-taking trail from Valbone to Teth. It was a true Balkan experience, with 15 singing Albanians in a bus, a night in a mountain guesthouse, good Albanian food, a fantastic hike in a stunning scenery with sunshine throughout the day, more good Albanian food and a broken van on our way back to Tirana. While waiting for the backup van, we made an open fire at the side of the road and time went quickly. Albanians know how to enjoy the little things in life and are very friendly. They just want to show the best side of their country.
On the other free weekend I had, I went to Pogradec for a day to explore Lake Ohrid which Albania shares with Macedonia on its Eastern border. Unfortunately, it was raining so I only stayed for a couple of hours. Still impressive, the place must be packed in summer. The following day, I went on another small hike with the hiking club in the Dajti mountains near Tirana. We hiked the old mountain path people took for hundreds of years to get out of Tirana over the mountains. The weather was cloudy but it was a great hike with good food again waiting for us at the end of it, and some rakija of course.
Unfortunately, I didn’t see any of the beaches in the South or the historic towns all over the country. Which can only mean one thing – I need to come back very soon to explore the rest of the country! 2018 is not far away!
Last but not least, I want to thank a few wonderful people who made this trip and experience so memorable and inspiring: Jakob and Nina from the truly amazing Swiss Entrepreneurship Program team who, together with Max, created this impactful Entrepreneur-in-residence program. Fation, Jusi, Kristi and Dhurata who told me so many wonderful stories about their home country, let me discover the Albanian cuisine and made me feel so welcome. Arlind and Erkens who are so passionate about creating a startup community in and for Albania. And last but not least, a big shout out to my hiking buddies of Albania Alpine Adventure who showed me the best side of their wonderful country. Truly thank you all, I feel very grateful for this fantastic time in Albania!