Applications for the best emerging marketing start-up are open until September 12 on www.martechchallenge.com
Zoja Kukić, Programme Director — Start-up Ecosystem Digital Serbia Initiative
What is your take on the quality of the Serbian start-up ecosystem compared with the region? What is the actual number of start-ups in MarTech and AdTech?
Among the former Yugoslavian countries, Slovenia is surely the most successful in the start-up world, even having a unicorn in its ranks (companies worth more than one billion dollars). According to the CEE start-up mapping by EIT Digital and ABC Accelerator Group in 2017, the Serbian ecosystem is at the top of the list, just behind Slovenia. Further confirmation of this came in 2018 when the two biggest regional start-up acquisitions took place in Serbia — 3Lateral from Novi Sad was acquired by Epic Games, one of the world’s largest video game developers, and Frame from Belgrade and Novi Sad was purchased for USD 160 million by Nutanix, a listed cloud provider from the US.
Considering that most of these ecosystems are still in their early stages, this demonstrates potential and right direction, but the climate can still change and depends on the next steps to be taken. Of course, the state apparatus and support systems they will develop bear great responsibility, as do organizations supporting the start-up ecosystem and big companies that can significantly improve the start-up ecosystem with their activities.
In Serbia, according to data from Startup Genome, there are about 300 start-ups, and they’re still not too prevalent in MarTech and AdTech — around 5% can be said to cover those segments. However, I would like to note that marketing is key to nearly every start-up’s success, so everyone is developing expertise in this area and looking for new mechanisms and tactics which will make them stand out from the competition.
What should the government improve when it comes to growing the start-up community in Serbia and how should young people be encouraged to grow their own business?
When it comes to government involvement, I think that it is best when it covers large infrastructure areas, which in the start-up arena includes formal education and start-up funding. In order to create a Serbian product that tops its own category in the world, it needs to have quality engineers and designers behind it, as well as businesspeople who know how to promote and sell it in the global market. Also, it’s important for the government to support the development of this talent. One example of how this can be achieved is the recent successful collaboration between the Digital Serbia Initiative and the Ministry of Education on creating the Master 4.0 program, which was aimed at connecting local colleges, foreign educational institutions, and businesses within a single comprehensive program that will soon be launched simultaneously in three cities in the country.
Start-up funding is another important aspect where the government could significantly improve the start-up environment through smart moves. Less than half of Serbia’s start-ups have received financial support for development, which is crucial in the initial stages, because it allows start-ups to experiment longer until they find their formula for success. The government can help start-up investments in many different ways — through tax incentives for domestic investors or through different co-funding models, which would secure more capital for start-ups that already received investments. Surely one good step in this direction are tax incentives introduced this year for companies investing in start-ups, and we hope to see their positive effects soon. The first investment we saw in this area was from Novi Sad’s IT company Vega IT Sourcing, made in Publitio.
To what extent can innovations serve as good PR for a country on the global scale?
If they exist, innovation is a great way to represent a country on the global market. A lot of public attention was recently raised with a report on start-up ecosystems, Startup Genome, which for the first time included an ecosystem from this part of the world — from our country — Belgrade and Novi Sad were recognized because of their proximity and represented as one.
However, it is important that we objectively look at our capacity for innovation, because I believe that this is the only way we can improve them. According to the European Commission’s measuring of innovation by region, we see that Serbia is the most innovative in the region and ranked among Eastern Europe’s leaders, but still lagging behind Western countries. It is interesting that Belgrade and Vojvodina are above the EU average in the field of tertiary education, while we are below the average in many areas — from business research and development through the number of patents and the level of lifelong learning programs.
Globally, this year’s Global Innovation Index places Serbia 57th, two spots lower than last year, and the region’s countries ahead of us including Slovenia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, and Montenegro. Our worst index score pertains to the sophistication of the local market, while the best ones concerned two areas — institutional development and knowledge and technology.
Why should start-ups sign up for the MarTech Challenge?
I think that collaboration adds value in every segment of personal and professional lives, also when it comes to start-ups and big companies. I believe that a partnership between the two worlds can bring the best out of both sides — start-ups bring innovation, agility, and fresh perspectives, while companies bring stability, structure, experience, and resources.
I’ve had the opportunity to work with the DIRECT MEDIA United Solutions team on numerous occasions, most intensively through the Digital Serbia Initiative, of which they’ve been a member for a year and I can really attest that they are open to hearing new ideas, reconsidering their beliefs, and getting down to work when needed. So, I would suggest any start-up in this field to take advantage of the MarTech Challenge, because this event can be the first step toward something big. Finally, even if the magic doesn’t happen, it will be a worthwhile experience for the next steps.