Odysseas Ntotsikas, angel investor, managing director and founder of one of Greece’s most successful digital start-ups, Thinkdigital, participated in the first STARTup Live Athens event as one of 23 mentors for entrepreneurial young Greeks. He shares his impression of the experience, the value of mentorship, his advice for entrepreneurs in Greece, and what Greeks in the diaspora can do to support Greek entrepreneurs with Reinventing Greece.
The three-day event was an intensive hands-on crash course on the fundamentals of establishing a successful start-up. The experience gave eager entrepreneurial minds from across Greece an opportunity to link-up and learn from some of Greece’s most seasoned and notable entrepreneurs.
Reinventing Greece: What are your impressions of the three-day workshop/event?
Odysseas Ntotsikas: The whole event was a fantastic experience for both start-ups and mentors, full of positive energy, passion and hard work. You could feel the creative vibes by the time you were entering the building. Compared to other similar events, the positive thing was that it had an informal, non-patronized, grassroots feeling.
What was amazing to see during the event was the vast improvement all the pitches had within those three days. It wasn’t just the business and marketing models that got refined with the help of mentors; presentation skills and confidence reached a totally new level as well.
RG: Of the business pitches you heard, which stood out to you the most and why?
ON: The three business pitches that finally won the awards were the ones that deserved it in my opinion. If I had to choose one (and I am not objective here as I was their mentor) I would choose the Yello City project.
The team clearly grasped the opportunity being created by the rise of city break tourism and independent travelers. The project’s mission was to change the way cities tell their stories to travelers. They intended to do this initially via curated city-route guides available in four platforms: print, mobile, internet and social media. What I liked about the project was that it had huge opportunities for brand extension. The final business pitch marked down a series of new products and services that could lead Yello City to become one of the authoritative brands across the travel and tourism experience value chain.
RG: What do you think makes a business plan viable?
ON: There are several factors influencing the viability of a business plan. Some of them are there even before the business plan has been formulated. The market they are after, for example, is probably the most important. As an angel investor myself, I tend to focus mostly on the merits of the team plus their ability to learn and adapt to the changing face of reality.
RG: You wrote in your STARTup mentor profile that you wish you had mentoring and opportunities such as STARTup. Looking back, what advice do you think would have been helpful to you then?
ON: That’s true. I wish we had the opportunity to sit down with a mentor and refine our business plan back then in the late 90’s when we started our first Digital Marketing Agency in Greece. It would have saved us a lot of time and resources. I believe that the best piece of advice for anyone starting something today is that entrepreneurship is a challenging but fulfilling marathon. You need to exercise and learn continuously to keep running and improve.
The Thinkdigital Group… is actively supporting initiatives such as STARTup Live since its launch in 2006. We wish we had this kind of mentoring and opportunities to network during our start-up years.
RG: What types of mentors do you think young people in Greece need today?
ON: There is an ill-perceived anti-business notion in certain pockets of the Greek society that needs to change. What Greeks need more than ever is positive business stereotypes: Greek businessmen who have started something and through brains, hard work and commitment have successfully been able to expand their businesses outside of Greece in a healthy way.
RG: What opportunities for marketing, mentoring and networking are there in Greece?
ON: During the last two to three years, there have been a lot of initiatives on this front: Open Coffee, various TEDx events (TEDxAcademy, TEDxAthens, TEDxThessaloniki), Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, the e-nnovation Entrepreneurship and Innovation Competition award by the Athens University of Economics and Business (AUEB) and Eurobank, the Stelios Hadjioannou Entrepreneurship Award and so on. I believe that all of them are moving in the right direction in creating positive role models.
RG: What can Greeks in diaspora communities do to support entrepreneurship in Greece or get involved?
ON: Support to have any real effect should be focused on educating and giving opportunities to young motivated Greeks like the guys who participated at the Start Up Live Event. We would all be very pleased to see Greek diaspora entrepreneurs supporting such causes with real life mentoring, seed capital and networking with the global economy.
RG: Over the course of the year, there have been a notable number of events/conferences on entrepreneurship in Greece. Given that Greece is ranked 100 out of 183 nations by the IFC and World Bank for doing business, what are your thoughts on the successes aspiring Greek entrepreneurs might have? Will legislation and strict lending policies prevent start-ups from coming to fruition?
ON: There are definitely structural issues that affect entrepreneurship. Bureaucracy, market distortions of different kinds and limited access to capital are clearly there to blame. Having said that, I believe that the biggest issue is not that we are not creating enough start-ups. If you see the numbers, you will see that there a lot of new companies being created every year in Greece. Most of them are going bankrupt in less than two years.
The real issue is that we are not creating many value-creating, or better still, value-creating and globally competitive start-ups. Greeks are entrepreneurs by nature. We now need to work on directing this energy in the right direction. Creating cafeterias, restaurants and small retail stores is not a viable business model anymore.
RG: You’ve expanded Thinkdigital to Central & Southeast Europe. What challenges did you face moving Thinkdigital cross-border? What advice would you give to entrepreneurs ready to expand their businesses internationally? Given the current economic situation in Greece, where might entrepreneurs find alternative sources for funding?
ON: We launched Thinkdigital five years ago with an initial capital of 18,000 euros. We never got money from the bank and we didn’t have any kind of external financing so far. Obviously, being in the services business is not capital intensive, but still we had to be very careful with our cash-flow to go through this. This is major advice for anyone starting his own business in Greece.
The company is today the leading digital media network in S.E. Europe with a presence in Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and Hungary. In 2012, we are expanding to the MENA region. Going international and especially having a clear strategic direction to launch in the emerging markets has been a top priority from the very beginning. Before you launch internationally, you need to research thoroughly the dynamics and potential of the markets you want to enter. Picking your battles strategically is my piece of advice for this.
After starting off as a consultant with Accenture, Odysseas Ntotsikas went out on his own in 2000 to co-found a successful internet start-up, yellownetroad. Following its acquisition by OgilvyOne in 2005, Odysseas joined the agency as a Strategic Planning Director. During this time he led Sportingbet to become the number one online entertainment brand in Greece & Cyprus, and helped launch Bet365 in five European countries. In 2006, he heard the siren call of the entrepreneurial spirit again and launched Thinkdigital which is the official sales representative for Facebook, MSN, Mediamind and a number of local digital media in six European Markets (Greece, Hungary, Albania, Cyprus, Romania, and Bulgaria). Odysseas received his MS degree in New Media & Communications along with an MS degree in Management of Information Systems from the London School of Economics, and is a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business’ Executive Program for Growing Companies. Odysseas has also served as General Secretary for IAB Hellas. He is the proud father of two boy twins.