How Europe is rocking the startup worldAugust 14, 2012: 11:59 AM ET
Young Euros used to happily settle for life-long government or corporate jobs. European tech entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky explains how the crisis has changed all that.
Interview by Jack D. Hidary, contributor
FORTUNE -- Martin Varsavsky is one of Europe's leading technology entrepreneurs. He recently spoke to Fortune about startup trends in the UK and Europe, his take on Facebook (FB), David Cameron's startup initiative, US venture capital and other tech business. Varsavsky started Jazztel, Spain's second-largest telecom firm and Ya.com, now a division of France Telecom. He is currently the CEO of FON, a company which he founded. Investors include Google (GOOG), BT, Index Ventures, Atomico, and Sequioa.
Martin, how vibrant is the startup tech scene in Europe? Where are the bright spots and what are the challenges? Quite a number of European tech startups are expanding globally including Spotify, Rovio, Hailo, Fon, Oanda and others, following in the footsteps of Skype.
Young people in Europe have traditionally opted for lifetime government or corporate jobs. The European crisis, however, is changing all that. Governments are maxed out in debt and corporate payrolls are shrinking. The three hottest startup cities in Europe right now are London, Berlin and Stockholm but there is startup activity all over the map.
The challenge is that there is no Sand Hill Road in Europe. We need to have a critical mass of venture firms to build a more robust startup ecosystem. Some American venture firms are coming to London, firms such as Accel but we need more homegrown funds such as Index and Atomico in Europe to finance startups.
In fact, it seems that more top US venture firms have a presence in Israel than in the UK and Europe.
Yes, we need to attract more of them to the opportunities here. Israel has a very vibrant startup scene, but things are also heating up in Europe and can use capital and startup expertise.
The second challenge in growing the startup ecosystem in Europe is cultural. Europeans must accept that success in the tech startup world comes through trial and error. Europeans prefer great plans that don't fail. But that is not how Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple were born.
What kinds of startups do you see in Europe?
There is a lot more to tech than social media apps and especially in Europe. Europe is a continent of engineers more than marketeers. Look at Germany now, a pretty successful economy with relatively low unemployment, mostly sustained on high quality engineering in fields that go way beyond cars. Germany has many more engineers per capita than USA, and it shows.
Many of startups in Europe are deep-technology based and require an extremely knowledgeable investor base. If you look at the technology clusters around Oxford and Cambridge universities you will see startups that are working on issues that take hours before a well-educated person can understand the technology plan. Examples include: innovative delivery systems for medications, new display technologies, chip design, companies that consumers do not see but that enable many products that are essential for modern life.
Are there many superangels who help get these companies going? In silicon valley we have dozens of people who fund 50+ startups.
This week I was at the Superangel summit organized by 10 Downing Street at the initiative of David Cameron. It was impressive to see that there are quite a few European superangels and I was happy to be part of the group. There are European success stories, such as Skype or the companies that I built, Jazztel and Ya.com in Spain in which wealth is distributed among employees and once they sell their stock options employees become angel investors.
On the negative side there are several challenges to starting a company in the UK and Europe:
1. The first issue how taxes are collected. In Europe a lot of taxes are collected via employment. This is fine for large corporate but social charges for large corporates and angel backed ventures are the same. As a result it is better to fund a startup in USA because most of the money goes into the venture at its most risky time. Instead an angel investment in Europe may lose about a third of its funds in social charges for jobs that are part of this trial and error effort. USA angel backed ventures have more runway.
2. Furthermore, Europe has a forced severance pay system that fails to recognize the high risk environment in which startups operate. It is hard to provision for forced severance payments but if you don't you can end up indebted to the government for the rest of your life. What Europe needs is a special regime for angel backed companies. I propose that all companies with less than 10 employees, that are not profitable and that are younger than 3 years, do not pay employment taxes nor forced severance pay.
3. Finally, there should truly be no personal liability for the entrepreneurs of these companies and an ability to declare personal bankruptcy as there is in USA.
Facebook just opened its first non-US engineering office and they did so in London. Google just opened a startup incubator in East London hosting four different incubators including TechHub who in turn will host dozens of startups. Is London rising to the startup challenge more than other cities?
The Cameron administration so far has not cracked the growth and employment situation at the macro level and UK is hurting as an economy. But 10 Downing is doing an amazing job at attracting top tech companies to set up shop in the UK. I have been invited to quite a few events in which George Osborne the Chancellor, David Cameron the PM and even Prince Andrew personally entertained and addressed global entrepreneurs to convince them to invest in the UK.
At this point I would say that London is the best city in Europe to start a new company. On the negative there are the high costs with London being a very expensive city.
While the UK offers an entrepreneur visa in which non EU entrepreneurs can quickly move to the UK to start a business there is no easy visa system for the remainder of the employees. So a US-based entrepreneur can move to London easily but can't easily bring her top managers to the UK.
You interact with both Silicon Valley firms and Wall Street banks -- how do you see this dynamic unfolding right now? In particular, given the recent downturn in many of the recent IPOs?
Recently, at the Allen and Company conference in Sun Valley I had a chance to observe on a first hand basis the disconnect that exists between Silicon Valley and Wall Street and recent tech valuations demonstrate this. For people like Marc Andreessen, Reid Hoffman, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, Tim Cook and other top SV entrepreneurs present in Sun Valley there is a sense that people in Wall Street just "don't get tech."
Silicon valley leaders are frustrated that companies such as Apple and Google are trading at historical low P/E especially when you strip these companies of cash which they accumulate at astonishing rates. A case in point Apple with its $100 billion in cash. Why should companies that grow earnings at 20% a year be given P/E ratios of 11 when interest rates are close to 0? This makes no sense to the SV entrepreneurs. And they have a point.
At the same time, the heads of the largest investment firms in the world, mostly based in NYC, also present in Sun Valley seem to be from another planet. It's as if Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are from Mars and Wall Street investors are from Venus. Wall Street investors reaction is that "tech is a fad" and who knows for how long Apple and Google will sustain their earnings growth. They look at Facebook and they wonder who will MySpace them next. While SV entrepreneurs believe they are there to change the world for good, Wall Street looks at them and say, "today is you, tomorrow is the next star: we are not giving you a high P/E Apple, tomorrow somebody will turn you into the next Nokia, your margins will shrink, your innovation spirit will disappear." Wall Street may be right.
Many entrepreneurs focus on social media startups -- yet there are grand challenges that get less attention -- will this continue in this way?
The attraction of social media is that it is a huge growing business with very low barriers to entry. Think of the investment that took Yahoo (YHOO) to get started, that took Google to get started, that even took Youtube to get started and compare that to the tiny amount of money that took Instagram to get started. So the dream is that the next 12 guys with an app can build a company in a few years and sell for a billion. But the problem is, there are a million guys with the same dream and only 12 can win the prize.
Can many new billion dollar businesses build as apps for iPhone and Android? Probably not. I agree that a lot of talent is being wasted this way. The field of social media apps is overcrowded and there will be a lot of write-offs.
Do you see more startup activity in big data?
The world's technological per-capita capacity to store information has roughly doubled every 40 months since the 1980s; as of 2012, every day 2.5 quintillion (2.5×1018) bytes of data were created. This has led to a whole new field which deals with how do we store, process, mine, analyze, and make use of so much data. Personally I see big data as an area in which a lot of innovation is needed.
Interestingly one of the most significant contributions of Facebook to the world, other than learning that your friend's pet just died and other shocking social news, is the ability of Facebook as a company to process big data and the contributions that Facebook has made for the world by open sourcing all the big data technologies it uses. Companies like Fon, now the largest WiFi network in the world, can piggyback on these investments and be all open source.
Open source is a cooperative idea and mostly European invention that the whole world has tagged along and now most of the back offices of the largest social media companies in the world are run with open source software. And it makes sense, if your database is proprietary, if you are the only one with the key to your users and customers. Why not open source all the technology that makes it all work? But while open source is cooperative idea, the implementations of open source are very capitalist in nature. Investors like my partners at Index Ventures and many others have had significant exits on big data companies like MySQL.
Big data combined with an open source approach will lead to significant innovations and massive value creation.
Finally, Facebook now has deep coverage in Europe and is growing in Asia as well. What are your thoughts on it business model and its ability to scale? Growth seems to be slowing and some advertisers say that FB ads are not as effective as search ads.
FB is now where Google was in 2004, profitable but not yet hugely profitable. FB needs to tweak its advertising model which so far is pretty rudimentary, not bad, but an early stage. I don't think it's time yet to buy FB shares because of the tremendous amount of insider selling that has been taking place. But soon the time will come. I don't think Facebook is a passing fad. Mark Zuckerberg is one of the genius CEOs of this era and FB is here to stay. Zuckerberg will crack the next piece of the puzzle which is how to monetize mobile platforms.