We have interviewed an expert for start-up ecosystems and founder of Pixapo and ThinKing: Alexander Mann talks about entrepreneurship and the opportunities available in the Alps-Adriatic economic area, the advantages of intercultural teams, collegiality and what he appreciates most about working together with Slovenian counterparts and colleagues.
QUESTION: Start-ups are often associated with the high-tech sector and Carinthia is a high-tech location. But is it true that many start-ups in Carinthia are from other sectors?
ALEXANDER MANN: Yes, in fact most of them are from fields such as medicine, tourism, food and hospitality, the timber industry, logistics and fibre technology. But of course, we also need high-tech companies and there are immense opportunities for them in Carinthia. However, focusing only on high-tech makes little sense.
Question: Would you say there are good opportunities to grow and expand into international markets from Carinthia?
ALEXANDER MANN: Absolutely! Thanks to its location in the Alps-Adriatic region, Carinthia is an extremely interesting entry point for companies wishing to expand into the DACH countries, i.e., Germany, Austria and Switzerland. However, this is a two-way process. Austrian companies, for example, see Carinthia as a testing ground for entering the markets of south-eastern Europe. In Carinthia entrepreneurs can launch a business venture with fewer financial resources. The region is also a superb base for building up a multilingual team with intercultural and entrepreneurial expertise from Slovenia, Italy and the Balkan countries. Heading north and south from the heart of the Alps-Adriatic region you have access to 80 percent of the European market.
Thanks to its location in the Alps-Adriatic region, Carinthia is an extremely interesting entry point for companies wishing to expand into the DACH countries, i.e., Germany, Austria and Switzerland. (ALEXANDER MANN)
Carinthia is like a gateway to the European market. For entrepreneurs, it is extremely important to start in an environment in which they can test their idea with a relatively small financial investment if they work with calculated risk. This lets them see if their business proposition works.
QUESTION: Thomas Edison famously said that “The value of an idea lies in the using of it”. What does an entrepreneur need to be able to turn his ideas into a successful business?
ALEXANDER MANN: Ideas are worth a lot. The art though, is to figure out which ideas are the good ones and will work in the market. It’s no good looking to grandma or grandpa for advice here; what you need is an experienced expert, someone who knows about entrepreneurship, who is familiar with the specifics of the local market and the opportunities, but above all, someone who is objective.
When amateurs test wine, some say it is good, others think it is poor. The only one who can objectively determine its quality is the sommelier. And you don’t become a sommelier overnight. Of course, it’s the market and the customers that have the final word. But if an idea is good and you surround yourself with the right team and you have the right network, then your chances of success are already high.
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Question: Many people say that if you’re not willing to give your all, the start-up won’t succeed. Is that true? Is that the first part of an equation for success, so to speak?
ALEXANDER MANN: It’s true, you have to have the fire and the passion in you? If you’re working with the aim of getting government subsidies and potentially high profits, you’re not going to achieve success. But if you are passionate about your idea, there are plenty of people out there who are ready to help.
When I give a talk I always advise listeners against going into business for themselves if their goal is “lots of money and a big car”. But I also say: if despite this advice, you can’t sleep at night because you’re so excited about your idea then you have the inner fire you need for success.
However, you have to give it your all and you have to be aware that success still might not come straight away. The path to self-employment is not so much an investment in an idea or in a business, but above all an investment in knowledge. Maybe you won’t be successful with your first attempt at starting a business, but at least you’ll learn what doesn’t work. And this knowledge is much more important than the knowledge which leads to success. This is why investors are always a little cautious about start-ups that have not yet suffered any setbacks. Failure really is an opportunity; it has a value of its own.
Good ideas are in good hands in Carinthia, regardless of the nationality of the entrepreneur who decides to go into business here. (ALEXANDER MANN)
Question: However financial support is still needed to get an idea off the ground. How do you rate the entrepreneurial environment that offers opportunities for a successful start in Carinthia?
ALEXANDER MANN: Financial incentives are of course important. In this sense, good ideas are in good hands in Carinthia, regardless of the nationality of the entrepreneur who decides to go into business here. If you have a good idea, money is not an issue. But it’s a mistake to think that money is all you need for your business to work. What you really need in the beginning is a good coach who knows how to give you the right advice. (Advice is offered as part of the programme to encourage start-ups in Carinthia).
Once you’ve found the right mentor and he or she thinks the idea will work, they will either invest in it themselves or put you in touch with people who will. It is therefore essential that as an entrepreneur you work intensively on the idea, on getting it out there, getting to know people, finding potential investors and multipliers.
Question: Doesn’t talking to others about your idea involve an element of risk?
ALEXANDER MANN: Definitely not! Don’t be afraid to tell people about your idea! It took a long time for you to get to the stage you are at - where you know exactly how to develop an idea and what to do with it. Before someone could steal this idea from you, they would have to put in a great deal of work, and invest a lot of time and money to achieve your level of knowledge. It’s not worth it. They would rather invest in an idea that has already been developed than to perfect it themselves. But you do have to be quick. Every time you present your idea, make sure you say something new. Investors keep their tabs on you, and if you always say the same thing, they’ll know you’re not developing that idea.
Every time you present your idea, make sure you say something new. Investors keep their tabs on you, and if you always say the same thing, they’ll know you’re not developing that idea. (ALEXANDER MANN)
Question: Should you network in the early stages, and if so, with whom? How do you find the right team?
ALEXANDER MANN: The team is extremely important. It’s a big mistake to think you can do everything alone. Physically you might be able to do it, but you can’t work on the idea that way. You need to look for people who are better than you, who know more. At the same time, you need a system that lets you get rid of people quickly. Not having such a system in place is one of the biggest mistakes that start-ups make. As soon as you see that working together is not producing the results it ought to or that someone does not have the appropriate knowledge, you have to let them go, and you have to do it quickly. A start-up is just a phase that should not really last too long, certainly not several years. The biggest goal is to get past this phase and develop a growing company.
Question: You like working with intercultural teams, and thus also with specialists from Slovenia and experts from various countries. What are the advantages of this?
ALEXANDER MANN: First of all, because it is important for the team to be interdisciplinary, to have different cultural backgrounds and different views on challenges. Slovenians have brilliant ideas, and are superb inventors with an ability to find excellent solutions. Currently, I have people from six countries working in my office.
It is important for the team to be interdisciplinary, to have different cultural backgrounds and different views on challenges. Slovenians have brilliant ideas, and are superb inventors with an ability to find excellent solutions. Currently, I have people from six countries working in my office. (ALEXANDER MANN)
QUESTION: Why is networking so important for entrepreneurs?
ALEXANDER MANN: Because it is training for the brain. When you are in contact with people who have good ideas, you have to be constantly on your toes thinking about new possibilities and new ways of doing things.
I also make space available to other entrepreneurs at my company headquarters. Yes, of course, it’s noisy, but we help each other, we constantly exchange ideas, altogether we speak 13 languages. I wanted to create a stimulating business environment. This is really extremely important. That’s why I organised Start-Up Weekends, for example, where entrepreneurs, school pupils, students and even pensioners come together. Once a month we meet for an informal get-together called “Change the Box”, and every time someone new joins us.
We recently founded a start-up community association for Carinthia called “Startup Carinthia”. This is how we broaden our network, our know-how and our impact. If you stay stuck in your bubble for too long, it won’t be long before it bursts. You have to be dynamic and constantly adapt.
Question: Let’s say I have an idea to make a sustainable new product out of plastic waste, but I don’t have the technical know-how myself, and nor do I have money, investors or collaborators. Where and how should I get started if I am thinking about founding my business in Carinthia?
ALEXANDER MANN: If you have a good business plan, you can apply to the very high-quality programme of the Kärntner Wirtschaftsförderungs Fonds (KWF). They will give you the financial means to develop your idea in peace.
You create a prototype and acquire new test customers. You will also receive advice from very experienced entrepreneurs. But the most important thing during this time is to make sure you are networking and filling up your phone with new contacts.
Connect with other local start-ups. You’ll get a lot of really useful information from them. Everyone is ready to help. I also provided some contact information to a Slovenian entrepreneur who wanted to start a business in the region. It was absolutely no trouble for me, but it meant such a lot to her.
This spirit of cooperation is very much alive in the start-up community because we know that we can all learn from one another. That’s why we will soon start an association for alumni start-ups, even the largest and most successful ones.
We will all invest our money and time in it because we are aware of the synergy effects of cooperation. This way, we will also be able to help start-up companies with our experience, our knowledge and our network. This kind of exchange is absolutely crucial to the success of a company.
Thank you very much for the interview! (Standortmarketing Kärnten)
The former student of international economics is now not only an internationally successful entrepreneur himself, he is also a respected expert on the start-up scene. The son of a German father and a Carinthian Slovene mother, he lives and works in Austria. This perhaps also explains why he prefers to call himself a citizen of the world or at least a citizen of Europe, rather than Austrian, German or Slovenian.