Startups are all over the place and it all starts with a big hype. In this, Portugal is not different. The initial excitement related to the startup trend of being cool fuels the ecosystem and gets poeple undeniably interested. However, startups are not just informal workspaces where you fool around and play with nerf guns. Sure, that is pretty cool, but startups are more than that. To explore a bit more of this topic, we spoke with a few key players within the Portuguese Startup scene to understand what a Portuguese startup is all about and what happens regardless of the hype.
The right mindset – grow, learn, adapt
The Portuguese ecosystem has been establishing itself over the last few years. Long before Lisbon became the trending tech hub, there already were many tech related companies in Porto and Coimbra, for example. As Diogo Teles, Product Lead at Faber Ventures (a Portuguese VC and Company builder) puts it: “Lisbon brought to the scene the inspiration from tech hubs such as the ones in London and Berlin. So the ecosystem, as we know it, really started with Startup Lisboa, but you already had many things going on in other cities, long before Lisbon started.” So, the media exposure regarding this new optimistic movement, that offers a contrast to the economic crisis, brought many entrepreneurs to the spotlight. Then the whole hype started and having your own business became cool, ignoring the regular working schedule was normal and forgetting about conservative hierarchies was acceptable. This is still the case, and yes it is interesting, but it’s all about having the right mindset too. Diogo Teles describes the Faber Venture’s culture admitting that, “we like to push our teams for a growth mindset, and if you don’t have a working schedule it’s because in a startup you give much more than in a normal 9 to 5 job”. Making entrepreneurs eager for growth is key to having a strong ecosystem as well as learning and working hard. All this sums up the startup mentality Faber is aiming to see regardless of the hype, “when you’re building your own business, your team is the key for success. With a good team you can adapt and evolve according to your surroundings and when you’re dealing with disruptive businesses you’ll end up having to do that quite often – that’s where your team matters the most.” With this culture in mind, Diogo points out to the power in the community, “it’s not just tech and developers – it’s about building a community. In Portugal you can build a strong startup community that shares insights and expertise, making the whole ecosystem much better”.
Having a productive chaos
Another common trend you see in a startups is the ‘get things done’ mentality and that’s no wonder. You’re supposed to grow fast and because you don’t have a fixed structure and hierarchy you can get the job done without the obstacles of paperwork and strict processes. Miguel Amaro, one of the co-founders of Uniplaces, insists pretty much on this particular point, “for me this is what a startup is all about: not having fixed boundaries to limit your work. You get things done, no matter what, and if you’re not too sure, you do it anyway”. In this sense, the startup culture has a lot to do with productivity and learning while testing what works best. So, you end up having a lot of impact in such an organization and you get to test unconventional tactics that otherwise wouldn’t be explored. Miguel’s idea is that “in a startup you find what I like to call a productive chaos – you work on a bit of everything and see what makes sense. You might be a marketing person, for example, but you’ll do a bit of sales and business development, if needed”. However, when you’re talking about a fast growing Portuguese startup like Uniplaces, Miguel Amaro admits that “you may see a struggle in terms of adaptation. Things may change quite drastically because we are tying the knots as we go and not everyone is willing to take this chance.”
Avoiding emotional debt – above everything else
One thing most entrepreneurs have in common is that they’re really passionate about what they do and they’re willing to pull the sacrifice and go the extra mile. Like Diogo Teles said before “the team is crucial, if the founders are not on the same page it won’t work”. But the thing here is: every team has arguments and discussions, so many startups try to set the contrast by having a bit of fun. Vasco Pedro, CEO of Unbabel, has his own theory on the matter: “in a startup having technical debt is something you actually want to have, so if you’re developing a product and adapting it, you’ll end up having to pay that technical debt, and that’s desirable. But there’s one debt you can’t have and it’s actually something you see very often in startups, and that is emotional debt.” And what is this emotional debt? Well, working for a startup can be quite stressful and there are disagreements that can really bring the mood down. Like Vasco Pedro points out, “working for a startup is a rollercoaster ride and it’s easy for you to not solve those small issues that happen during the workweek. You don’t say what you’d like to, words remain unspoken and after 6 months you grow tired of the people you’re working with and you reach a breaking point.” However, this can be avoided by having some team activities to just bring back the good vibes and this is where the nerf guns, table tennis and team retreats fit in. For Unbabel, Vasco admits that they “solve this emotional debt with surf. Every week the whole team goes surfing – we’re not even good at it – but it does help us get some things out of our system and makes us realize that we actually started this with people we like to be with.”
So, in fact, regardless of the hype, the Portuguese Startup scene is growing and not just in numbers. Perhaps it’s more a matter of mentality and culture that is spreading out across the country. People are going that extra mile for what they believe in and they are adopting the real startup mentality you see in the hottest hubs such as Silicon Valley, London and Berlin. Startups are changing perspectives and it’s pretty much like Vasco Pedro from Unababel puts it: “there are no silver bullets, it’s pure hard work”. So don’t sit back and relax, get out of the building and make it work.
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