Lessons from Greece

David Alston speaking in Greece. Image: @OrangeGroveAth, Twitter

Huddle publishes commentaries from groups and individuals on important business issues facing the Maritimes. These commentaries do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Huddle.

By David Alston 

A few weeks ago I had a chance to speak to and spend one-on-one time with dozens of entrepreneurs in Greece. I was invited to do this by a startup accelerator in Athens called Orange Grove, which is sponsored by the Dutch embassy and literally located in the basement of their building there.

I thoroughly enjoy spending time with entrepreneurs whenever I get a chance to because not only do I have an opportunity to help through sharing but I always come away from every experience with new lessons learned myself. The energy and enthusiasm from entrepreneurs are always contagious and it serves as a reminder that indeed it’s this kind of passion that can turn around and/or build economies.

The ideas that I heard about with each meeting in Greece were of similar depth and ingenuity that I’ve seen here at home and elsewhere on my travels. Each had found a niche, had a potential solution and were willing to work night and day to see if a business could flourish in the intersection.

What was different, relatively speaking, was the number of obstacles these startup founders had to face. Last Spring I had had a chance to do two similar visits to accelerators in Spain and to Portugal, two other economies that have taken a real beating in recent years. However, nothing compares to what I saw in Greece.

I found it difficult to withhold my concern with each new roadblock revealed to me during the course of my visit. Indeed, these startup founders were some of the bravest entrepreneurs I had ever met, what they had to face in order to grow an idea was remarkable. As I said to many of them, if you can make your startup grow in this environment then you can make it grow anywhere.

As many of us know, the Greek economy has been in a tailspin in the past number of years and one that has tested the strength of the EU partnership. They have been spending beyond their means for years and now are way past the point, it would seem to many, of no return. But they still persevere. Do they really have a choice? Every day their climb is as steep as the stairs up from the Old Port on donkeys on the isle of Santorini or up to the monasteries built on tops of cliffs in Meteora in northern Greece – both amazing Greek assets by the way and which we were fortunate to be able to take in prior to returning home.

If this terrain is so steep then why don’t they leave for less torturous climbs elsewhere? It’s a good question and one I’m sure all of the entrepreneurs I spoke with ask themselves on a daily basis. In many ways, they are now trapped. You see they love their country, the people, the food and the natural wonders around them. It’s hard not to blame them for that because Greece is tremendously blessed in all of these respects and punches well beyond its weight when compared to many other countries.

But to stay means a number of challenges. Challenges like citizens only being able to withdraw up to 840 euros every two weeks from your bank account regardless of how hard you work and how much to make in return. It means paying two years of business taxes in advance the day you start your new business. It means paying big tolls to use the highways every 20 minutes or so of driving. It means seeing infrastructure projects in limbo around the country and tourism and airport infrastructure decaying in front of your eyes because there are no funds to invest to improve them. It means delays regularly, perhaps even when trying to attend free talks like mine because of massive transportation strikes happening in the city and chaos that ensues (this actually happened with a business class from the local university that was hoping to attend).

It’s working in a culture that has told its youth that they should look to get a safe government job when they grow up and to avoid taking risks (even though the current lack of money has meant massive pay cuts for civil servants, teachers and healthcare workers and it’s business that actually creates the revenue for the government to pay these salaries.) And it means worrying about the stability of the country you plan to build a business in because successive coalition governments are constantly being thrown out due to the lack of support from voters (which leads to an all-time low in trust where politicians are caught between having mandates to pull rabbits out of the hat but with little money to make the magic happen.)

For me, just as my trip to Estonia years ago showed me what New Brunswick could become, Greece is the flip side of that coin.

How did Greece literally walk straight into this situation? Weren’t there warning signs flashing bright all along the way? I suspect the signs were all there but like with most jurisdictions around the world facing similar situations the delta between the pain of today versus yesterday never seem large enough to set off a panic.

I say all this in a collective sense because, frankly, everyone would be to blame. Like the strikes in Athens two weeks ago prove, even after all what’s happened there people still believe they deserve what’s owed them even with the cupboards being bare. No doubt, it is human nature to generally agree that when we are collectively spending too much that we must slow down and balance the books but at the same time viciously defend against any changes that might affect oneself or their family personally. What’s generally heard is let someone else pay to fix the problem.

And, let’s not forget, that the way the political systems work around the world also play right into this predictable outcome as well. In order to govern and make bold changes that have serious lasting effects parties need to stay in power for more than a few years. However, to do this they must walk a very precarious path between convincing voters that tough changes are needed while there is a better future with these measures in place.  This would not an easy task if you were leading a company to better shores let alone trying to lead a civil service and citizenry in a naturally volatile environment that a democracy brings.

So, with all this in mind how do we avoid sleepwalking down the same dimly lit path that Greece finds itself on right now?

For one thing, we continue to focus on our current strengths and find ways to double, or even better, triple down on them. When it comes to a startup culture and support systems for that culture New Brunswick is fortunate to punch well beyond its weight.

We sit next door to and one-time zone away from the world’s largest economy, representing around 20 per cent of the world’s GDP. One of our official languages is the world’s chosen language of business which is a tremendous advantage over all of the countries in the world that need to learn this as a second language before exporting beyond their borders. We have capital available to us, and even though it may be less than what would be found from within the U.S., we are far better off than many of the European countries I’ve been to. We have the support of our governments that innovation, whether within startups or our industrial sectors, is key to our economic growth. We have educational institutions that recognize the need to produce problem solvers and students with a spirit of entrepreneurship. We have engaged citizens and non-profits who are passionate about collaborating around new solutions to our social and economic challenges.

In short, we have a lot going for us and, despite what we often tell ourselves, we have fertile soil for growing a prosperous path and one that can help us avoid the situation Greece finds itself in.

However, there is one last element that we all must address and it can only be tackled collectively, and frankly, by taking a leap of faith together towards a better future.

We must support those who wish to be bold. We need to encourage our youth to pursue their dreams and step out of their comfort zones. We must continue to mentor and model a new culture that rewards innovation and agility. We need to give those willing to step up and take the lead the breathing room to make strategic decisions in context of a bold new vision.

For an ever growing number of us, we embrace the powerful keyword in our provinces name – “New.” In an accelerated, ever-changing world we all compete in, it’s only through re-inventing oneself continuously that we will find a pathway to survival, and indeed, highly achievable success.

David Alston is New Brunswick’s chief entrepreneur in residence.