Startups speak a common language
“This is the world where today’s things happen” – Interview with Péter Kovács, co-founder of Global Startup Awards.
You graduated in agro-engineering and now you are engaged in making friendships and building relationships. It seems like you have come a long way from the beginning.
It was not really my option, I just went with the flow. After high school, there were two key factors for me: there is no need for entrance exam and the university is located somewhere outside Budapest. The latter was important because in the case of my older friends I experienced that student life is organized much better in a town outside Budapest. In Budapest university students can get lost easily. But I also didn’t want to go too far, and this is how I ended up at Szent István University. It was a great freedom to be there and 70% of the students of the year were girls, which was indeed a major benefit.
My university studies had a big advantage: I had a kind of ”coverage” towards the society: I study. And in the meantime I could do just what I wanted to: travelling, working, doing business. I learned how to be present at more places at a time, to process a lot of teaching material in a very short period of time, and also my problem solving skills developed a lot. I studied a lot in Gödöllő, just in a bit different way.
When did you start to do business?
At the age of 14 I spent a few weeks in Holland, hosted by a local family, where children went to work after school, they earned their own money, which they could spend on their own things. This was so inspiring and I was longing for making money so much. But we lived in a small village in Nógrád county, where there were not too many opportunities. However, when we moved to Budapest at the age of 16, I immediately started a job. My first actual job was in McDonald’s, any my first real business was an internet cafe that I started in 2004 with my Iranian co-founder, who also brought in the investment.
Then you started a job at a recruitment agency…
When I arrived there I had no idea about what it was all about, I hadn’t even heard about this profession before. Nevertheless, I was always open to new opportunities and went where I was invited to. At the end of the interview I was asked whether I would work as a recruiter, because they believed it suited me much better than the position I had applied for. I did this job from 2006 until 2015 and I really liked it.
In cc. 30% of my time I was interviewing people who didn’t really suit any of the open positions, but they seemed interesting. I had a good reason to sit down with anyone and ask anything.
I never really strived for results in a traditional sense, I rather focused on having good talks with people. When we started IseeQ recruiter agency, we were really happy to follow our own path finally. As IseeQ was becoming more and more mature I saw there was no such a big need for me really, however I kept supporting them, bringing business opportunities and candidates.
For me, the most important thing has always been to be able to be my own master. Of course life is getting more complicated, now my decisions are rather about my family. However, in the meantime my business attitude has also improved. I can’t stand very formal meetings any more, I wouldn’t like to limit myself within frames. It is important to be able to flow, with the only difference that by now I already know where I would like to arrive at the end.
And where would you like to arrive?
With Global Startup Awards we are building one of the biggest startup-ecosystem network of the world, and we strive to include every single people and companies, who have an intention to make the world better via technology and those supporting these companies and thus are also part of this ecosystem. We’re creating a platform where these companies and people can build quality relationships with each other. This is how we would like to contribute to technological development, which we believe will address the greatest challenges humanity faces.
How did you get to the startup-ecosystem from the top of an IT recruitment agency?
Back in 2009, when I was still working as a recruiter I interviewed a very smart programmer, through whom I joined the Open Coffee Club community. This was the time when I began getting familiar with startups and this environment was very inspiring and I soon had my first startup client.
How did the competition enter the picture?
It was just the opening party of IseeQ, where also Kim Balle, co-founder of Nordic Startup Awards showed up. Later we learnt that he was looking for a co-founder and we started to work on it and in 2014 we launched Central European Startup Awards and Nordic Startup Awards.
The basic idea was that since we are not familiar with the startup-ecosystems of the surrounding countries even though there are no borders anymore and we speak a common language, competition can be the way to find and select these companies who we make meet, first on a regional and then on a global level. It is our definite goal to maximize the number of participants in 150-200 persons, which is a manageable size to ensure that there are relationships evolving. It creates many opportunities for all participants.
What are the regional differences you experience?
Typically there are cultural differences but the basics are so similar that these only make the discussions more exciting rather than hampering business relationships. Those being involved in the startup world can usually get on well with other startup-persons and differences only give an extra flavour to communication, which is already smooth.
Everyone loves Budapest and the judgement of Hungarian startups has also improved a lot. It has been 50 years since Puskás and finally there are Hungarian examples again, who don’t need to be introduced abroad either.
When I first went to San Fransisco in 2012 with Prezi, on the first day after my arrival I headed to a meetup, where 70% of the participants had already known and used Prezi, which was far above my expectations. This was the point where I felt that this is the world where today’s things happen and I got into the startup-world.
Investors hunt for new ideas. What kind of feedbacks do you receive, what kind of relationships are evolving?
We provide the winners with great visibility and loads of opportunities for networking. We usually only ask them to tell us if something happens to them. But we receive a lot of feedbacks from our investors, as well, proving that it really matters if an emerging business wins our competition. However, we approach this not from a business but rather from a community perspective, if we can create a value in this respect, it may serve anyone’s interest to join.
We wouldn’t like to give the winners money. We believe it is not the focal point of our projects. We wouldn’t like this to be the motivation.
Is competition virtually the tool to select the businesses to join?
If we see it from a networking, community and event perspective, competition is actually the selection process, which is based on the community. Gathering audience responses is part of the decision-making, which also has an influence on who can meet in our events.
It’s important to note that what we organize is not a startup competition, but it is a startup-ecosystem competition. We have categories for large enterprise programs, investors, community offices and we make all of them meet, not only startups.
We try new categories every year and we believe in that we can build bridges between industries to assist with building new relationships, by doing so.
How does it look like in practice?
Anyone can be nominated and anyone can apply for our competitions. In the first round we ask the candidates whether they would like to participate in the competition. The participation questionnaire is a significant filter and also a very good feedback to show us already in the beginning who are the ones who are willing to devote time to this procedure. Following this, the national result is based on the responses from the jury and the audience and the regional and global competitions come after. It is all like a funnel.
Which is your favourite category?
The new categories, with which we keep experimenting from year to year. It is always very exciting to try new things and to see who we’re going to get to know by way of the new category. In the meantime, we are also developing the software for the competition, which in 2020 will serve the competition in a very efficient way. It is very important that we are committed to three values which we insist on under any circumstances:
1. participants and winners of the competition will never have to pay anything for participating in the competition, there are no hidden costs, 2. we never reveal disclose the database to any third parties under any circumstances, not evan any details of it, it cannot be purchased from us; 3. we consider our independence to be one of our greatest virtues; we are not the dealflow-manufacturing machinery or PR agency of any investor groups or large corporations.
Startups have had more and more opportunities recently, it is getting easier and easier to find mentors and investors. What kind of change do you think this tendency may bring with itself?
It’s obvious that the ratio of smart money has increased a lot but it’s still not enough. Thanks to our competitions, regions can get to know each other, which also inevitably brings the opportunity to attract foreign investors. This is something we would specifically like to highlight, since Hungarian startups don’t necessarily need to find Hungarian investors. Why should it be like that?
You only need to fly one hour and a half and you can reach to places, where you can use even more smart money.
I don’t believe it is healthy when a startup is given only money and nothing else. It is true for the whole region that we are still in lack of the kind of smart money, which can be produced by businessmen, who had a big exit and bring their own money to the market. In Hungary, such businessmen are e.g. Balázs Vinnai, Gyula Fehér, Szabolcs Valner, Petya Balogh and luckily the list is much longer. There are fields really in need of capital but if we talk about a startup developing software, I think it is all the more important that startups are assisted with networking, good ideas and guidance. Of course if a business is to be scaled up globally or it is a very capital-intensive, e.g. production and/or hardware is included, capital can be the key point.
In my view, there is a big problem in respect of mentors. Of course there are skilled professionals with proper experience. However, I believe if there is someone who hasn’t built up something worthy of my appreciation, they will be not authentic for me, however fancy method they apply. I dare say that those building the biggest success stories select the most precisely whom to rely on and why.
In 2020 the competition will be present in South-America, as well. Why is this the direction of your expansion?
We are already present in 7 regions, 3 continents (Europe, Asia and Africa) and 6 countries. For the moment, we deliberately avoid the most advanced ecosystems, however on the long term, we would like to reach out to them as well.
For the moment it is worth focusing rather on the emerging markets from a business perspective as well: I wonder if there is anyone knowing good fintech startups in a combination of Azerbaijanian, Zimbabwean and Cambodian.
We are concluding negotiations with further 4-5 regions, and there is also a Saudi-Arabian innovation competition being prepared, where we assist as advisors. In addition to it we became part of a very exciting initiation, in the frameworks of Arctic project we assist with building a community. All areas covered by ice are included in the program, i.e. Canada, Iceland, Russia, Greenland, Faroe Islands, the United States and Northern Finland.
Are you looking for the opportunity to building communities and relationships in everything?
This kind of operation has become an integral part of my life. Wherever I go in the world, I don’t need to think much about who to meet. I have my relationships everywhere. I usually say I don’t have a work-life balance, I have a life. Whenever I can, I like travelling together with my family, so that I don’t need to compromise because we don’t meet for weeks. We are together, just not at home. By doing so, I believe I can give my children a huge value.