The Start Up Summit in Prague on Friday was a fascinating experience. While sometimes I despair at the lack of ground made by Czech business and political communities (Twenty-five years after the fall of Communism and the Czech Airline CSA still has Communist-era customer (dis)service, banks still fail to understand basic finance and the combined might of three telcos can’t deliver broadband that’s faster than a dial-up. And nobody seems to care!) Friday demonstrated that there are a few folks out there with the determination to find a way around the obstacles and achieve some real growth.

It wasn’t all roses, of course. A sell-out event produced an, at best, half-full auditorium. A typically Czech response that was explained to me as being because after subscribing people probably realised the event was on a Friday and the best you can hope from anyone in this country is a half-day of work on a Friday! There was also a marked tendency for attendees to favour the buffet over the main-event. Despite the very interesting and entertaining speakers, attempts to get delegates back into the auditorium following breaks proved futile in some cases, but having taken part in many similar events in Prague in the past I’ve come to recognise that many delegates think the refreshments are the point!

The venue was quirky and again typically Czech. An old cinema with a coffee bar in the entrance hall, most of the seats in the auditorium removed and replaced by seaside deck-chairs, beer-crates and a Communist-era Skoda convertible that you could choose to park yourself in to watch the event. The up-side of this conversion was a great stage, a full-wall screen onto which everyone’s slides were projected and a brilliant sound-system.

The line-up of speakers was impressive and included the unbiquitous Julie Meyer of First Friday fame, Experts from Denmark, the UK, Poland and Estonian Elise Sass from Microsoft’s CEE Start-up initiative supplemented by some very able Czechs from organistions like Ctreative Dock, the global accelerator Wayra and the Jihomoravske Inovacni Centrum, all skilfully and entertainingly woven together by MC and organiser, Tinternety.cz’s Vojta Bednar.

Between them the speakers covered a lot of ground, much of which I suspect was news to some of the audience and therefore very valuable, but for me the three main points delegates should take home with them were:

  1. In future all businesses will be tech businesses
  2. There’s a big difference between an idea and bringing it to life
  3. The greatest weakness of innovators, start-ups and small businesses is an absence of marketing skills.

In the past size mattered. The big concerns had the customers, the products and the resources, but their size meant they were reliant on processes and bureaucracy, both of which inhibit innovation. Today’s new products and services are pretty well exclusively made possible by technology and because the tech companies’ have the data management, analysis, media routes and sales channels they own the playing field. No longer are the techies on the sidelines waiting to be called on when needed. These days the roles are reversed and recent acquisitions of traditional businesses by new tech businesses make that clear.

Meanwhile, some big firms are opting for the full-body transplant, trying to inject new thinking and develop new structures and practices that they hope will enable them to stay with the game. They still, on balance have the money and they are using it to employ intrapreneurs to tell them what to do next, starting incubators and launching innovation units so that they can feed off the creativity of early start-ups. It’s a symbiosis that makes sense, but I can’t help thinking that there will be at least a few corporate executives secretly thinking they’ll use the vision of benefaction to exploit innocent young minds. However, history has proven that its tougher and takes far longer to adapt an existing model than to build a new one from scratch and by the time the old guard have got their act together the new kids on the block will inevitably be down the road and out of sight.

With the enthusiasm of youth comes an inevitable dose of naivety. Ideas may be (as I have repeatedly quoted over a number of years) the currency of business these days, but they are not the end of the story and the biggest challenge is always going to be bringing them to life. There are a number of stages to the evolution of an idea including financing and marketing, but innovators tend to be product-focussed to the exclusion of all else, which is why so many neat ideas fail to get off the drawing board. It was also pointed out that a high percentage of start-ups fail because they think when they receive financing, that’s “job done”, sit back and wait for the good life to start. The Entrepreneurs we heard from made it clear that the point at which you get the money is where the hard work starts.

A local business that’s helping bring an increasing number of Czech innovations to market is Creative Dock, whose co-founder Martin Pejsa was one of the speakers at Friday’s event. Crerative Dock take on ideas, researches them, even test-launches them, then either finds funding and mentors the owners through the process of building a business around them or helps them sell their concept to one of the increasingly hungry dinosaurs. They already have an impressive collection of case studies in the Czech market and are now turning to other markets for both ideas and funding. This is the new marketing services model that I have spoken about previously and I hope a few more agencies take the hint and start thinking of themselves more in this vein.

In the coming days and weeks I’ll be exploring further some of the thoughts and ideas that emerged on Friday, but for now I’m happy to report that Prague’s Start-Up Summit, was definitely a step forward, albeit maybe a small one, for a country that might otherwise be stuck in the mire created by its politicians, bankers and traditional business leaders

Phil Darby
July 1, 2014

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