Serbian entrepreneurs face more than economic and administrative challenges when launching new businesses
Trying to make it on your own is nerve-wracking even in the most orderly of countries, but all the start-up Kool-Aid that Silicon Valley serves up nowadays is only slowly seeping into the Serbian water supply.
This, of course, is primarily a result of real economic constraints, where few have sufficient capital to start a business or the patience and courage to navigate Serbia’s sclerotic administrative and legal system.
Nevertheless, a good deal of this reluctance to go it alone comes from negative attitudes towards entrepreneurship, forged during socialist times.
Back then, private business ownership had unwanted bourgeois connotations and the country’s best and brightest were primed to get cushy jobs in large state-linked enterprises or state administration. Those who decided to go solo or switch fields, were mostly considered less capable dilettantes.
The catastrophic transition of the 1990s further tarnished the reputation of entrepreneurs as the word ‘businessman’ in Serbia still conjures images of gold-chain wearing (semi-)criminal transitional winners who use political connections for self-enrichment at the expense of the state.
It is no wonder then that despite years of high youth unemployment, oscillating between 35 per cent and 55 per cent in the last decade, according to the World Bank – hiring freezes and lay-offs, almost two-thirds of Serbs say their dream job would be working for a state or state-owned company, according to a 2012 study by CEVES, a Serbian economic policy think tank.
And last but not least, there is a now general pessimism in the country, not helped by the fact that tens of thousands of Serbs, often highly educated, leave each year to try their luck abroad. Unfortunately, a very large proportion of people still think that the best career move for a young bright person in Serbia is to get away.
This defeatism, stemming from the years of dashed expectations about a promised better future, is not confined to politics. It has pervaded daily life.
It is not rare for those with enthusiasm for projects, whether business or otherwise, to be hosed down by a torrent of negative questioning from even passing acquaintances, let alone overly-concerned family members.
Thankfully, in the past few years, striking out on your own has become slightly more acceptable with the fantastic growth of the local IT sector. There are now many great stories, from game-developers Nordeus to fishing holiday platform FishingBooker, demonstrating that world-leading products, and even money, can be made in Serbia.
The internet has also allowed many Serbs to engage in the global gig-economy and export their skills to wealthier markets, while enjoying relatively low prices back home.
Although many start-up hubs and advocacy organisations are doing a great job trying to boost the profile of entrepreneurship in the country, you are still likely to be met with bafflement from your friends if you say you are trying to start a new business, especially outside the prosperous IT bubble.
As I received so many strange looks after returning to Serbia from the UK to try my luck here, I decided to start Pokretaci (or Founders in English), a weekly podcast where I interview a determined bunch of entrepreneurs and other self-starters in Serbia to find out what makes them tick, and ask them for practical advice on how to make it in their respective fields.
Besides the valuable research, I also did it to stave off the negativity by surrounding myself with motivated people who managed to combine passion and work.
As expected, most of my guests faced a lot of negativity when they decided to launch their projects.
The founder of MOD, a budding furniture design company, was ridiculed for spending hours after his day job to develop his first product. After finishing at the top of her class in Belgrade’s Architecture Faculty, the co-founder of a successful firm, AKVS, is still subjected to constant questioning about why she did not work for one of Belgrade’s more established architects or continue at the faculty. All that after winning awards at high-profile architecture competitions, including taking second place for their proposal for a memorial to Zoran Djindjic.
“You need to carry on despite what society expects of you. That is the only way to make it,” she sighed during our recent interview.
Far from the stereotype of hyper-confident go-getters, most of my guests set out cautiously with their projects and were themselves surprised by their own success. Some are still doing several jobs to support their projects, which they launched more out of passion than to make money.
Despite the difficulties they face and low potential compared to entrepreneurs in wealthier markets, all of my guests are keen to stay in Serbia.
Indeed, many of them turned down opportunities abroad to do their own thing in Serbia. They were not only drawn by the safety of home during the treacherous early phases of a business, they also missed their way of life in Serbia and were determined to prove that you can have a decent life and be at home.
Nevertheless, most acknowledge their separateness from the typical Serbian experience and are cautiously moving forward.
As a co-founder of Zaokret, a very successful indie bar in Belgrade, put it: “If we are already living in a bubble, we may as well try to make it nicer… and that bubble will hopefully expand, at some point, and more people will have a better time in Serbia.”