The Startup Ecosystem in Iasi and in Romania in General

Palatul Culturii Iasi
Palatul Culturii Iasi

This will be an easy and short blogpost for today because I’m writing about the startup ecosystem in my hometown, Iasi. It’s easy and short because frankly speaking there are not many things to write about. Even the idea that an ecosystem exists is debatable, because in order to have an ecosystem you need to have various interacting parts that work together as a functional unit.

The most important element missing in this ecosystem is the financial one: the usual mentality in Romania is one of conservation, anti-risk, people are reticent in investing in risky endeavours (and also to take them). There is even a proverb: “Capul plecat sabia nu-l taie”, idiomatic expression that loosely be translated to: “The sword doesn’t cut the bowed head”. I guess that this traditional belief stems from an historical context and a long lasting feudal system that had long lasting consequences. The peasants which were usually poor depended on their master, the boyar, he was the one that actually owned the land, the boyars in exchange were granted land rights from their master, the Voievode, the leader of the “country”. The Voievode in exchange had to rule as a vassal to the strong neighboring empires like the Ottoman Empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Hungary and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire and so on.

Guess what happened to the peasant, boyar or voievode that had the “entrepreneurial gene” of risk taking, defying the status quo and wanting to be a “disruptive innovator”? He would get very hard times from his peers all the way to the top of the hierarchy.

Let’s take the Voievode Stefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great) for example. He didn’t want to bow his head to the neighboring empires. The result is that he fought all his neighbors, most of the time being outnumbered and outgunned:

“When talking with Muriano in 1502, Stephen mentioned that he had fought 36 battles, only losing two of them. When the enemy forces mostly outnumbered his army, Stephen had to adopt the tactics of “asymmetric warfare”.”

I highly recommend reading more on Stephen the Great, he was one of the greatest military commanders of all times. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only example, most of the rulers had to be on the defensive for most of Romania’s history, those who were disruptive didn’t last for long.

I’m looking into the past in order to try to understand the present and I think it’s a very good point to start. Looking into the past I can’t say that I see much innovation hubs, progress, Renaissance. We progressed, obviously, but a slower pace than the Western countries. Dimitri Cantemir (1673-1723) is considered to be a Renaissance man but he came a bit late, Renaissance was already happening for a few centuries. The starting point of Rennaisance is considered to be Florence circa 1300. We don’t associate Florence only with great art stored in the Ufizzi Gallery, Michalengelo’s David, Brunelleschi’s architecture, quaint bridges over the river Arno, we also associate Florence with the most powerful family that emerged from it: the Medici family.

The Medici House was well known for it’s wealth and power that were generated by banking. Capital. Capital is the source of innovation and great art. We enjoy a lot of great works of art today due to the patronage of people like Lorenzo de Medici. Even though the Italian cities and the powerful ruling families were engaged in countless wars between them during the period that coincided with the Renaissance,  there still was progress and innovation due to capital and patronage. Leonardo da Vinci.

Anyway, I’m getting carried away and digressing a bit, I’ve always been fascinated by history. The point I’m trying to make is that it takes capital to finance any worthwhile endeavor and to take it to the next level. There is a lack of capital, venture capital, investors, angel investors in Romania, smart money. What is also lacking is the entrepreneurial mentality.

Update: I’ve written a post about Capital-intensive economy vs. Labour-intensive economy as an addendum

Citing from The Start-Up of You by Reid Hoffman:

If the local culture, institutions, and population do not engender an entrepreneurial life, the Start-Up of You strategies yield only a small portion of their real potential. An entrepreneur who is trying to build a business in an unhealthy society is like a seed in a pot that never gets watered: no matter how talented that entrepreneur, his business cannot flourish. As Warren Buffett says, “If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru or someplace, you find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil.”

Alright. I covered the lack of capital in the local ecosystem. What about the other elements? As far as I can tell, we are only at the beginning of a more organized form of entrepreneurship. There are projects such as Startup Weekend Iasi, TBNR Accelerator – the first startup accelerator in Iasi.

What about the informational element? Information is considered power – and rightly so. Information comes from various sources like empirical experience,  mentors, people who dealt with similar situations before: books, podcasts, videos, potential untested information: theories, reasoning, logic.

My hierarchy of the informational pyramid, ordered by importance would be the following. Note: one’s informational pyramid might differ from another’s. For some, social connections are important and learning directly from the source has a bigger weight than reading books for example. For others, reasoning and formulating theories – and testing them using the Scientific Method – has a bigger weight.

Top of the pyramid:

Mentors – they have decades old worth of experience. They went through a lot of situations, life experiences, accumulated knowledge from other mentors and informational pyramids.

Semi-mentors – they don’t have that much general experience or that much life experience but they have condensed experience and success in a particular domain/area of expertise.  They can help you with only a specific problem.

Battle Tested Information: usually generated by the two categories above. Books, podcasts, videos, forum posts, blog posts and so on. You don’t have direct access to the people that created them, you can only shoot a message/phone and hope for the best. You go over the information source and hope that it covers your problem and offers a real solution to it.

Empiric Experience:  The toughest and lengthiest method to acquire knowledge. Can be quite costly in terms of time, energy and money, that’s why this type of information has a lower status in the pyramid. However, the byproduct of this category can be very rewarding and consist more than knowledge: materialized knowledge. You gain knowledge by rolling up your sleeves and taking action, you build, you test hypothesis, you experiment. You learn through trial and error. The experience and knowledge you gain here takes you to the path of becoming a mentor or semi-mentor.

Theories/Hypothesis:  Untested information, potentially generated from other untested information. Can vary considerably and be very subjective. If it’s deceitfully presented as Battle Tested Information by unscrupulous sources and fake mentors and semi-mentors it can lead to a downwards spiral when fed as a source to Empiric Experience – El Dorado.

As far as I can tell, the entrepreneurial ecosystem is lacking the top of the informational hierarchy: mentors with decades long of capitalist experience and even semi-mentors. It’s easy to argument this: Romania adopted the capitalist economic system for less than three decades, most of the “successful entrepreneurs” have “dumb money” and got rich by fraudulent ways and by exploiting the chaos that ensued from the revolution that changed the ruling regime and the economic system.

Also from The Start-up of You:

In healthy societies, people are more likely to share information, join groups, and collaborate on projects together—all activities that eventually magnify career opportunities, both for you and for the people who come after you.

I participated at the fist edition of Startup Weekend Iasi and guess what? Since then a few editions passed, I didn’t participated, but all of the weekend startups albeit judged as winners or not by a jury had the same fate: they materialized to nothing and were disbanded after a while. People drop their enthusiasm, attention and focus as soon as the week-end…ends. Because it’s safer to go the next day to work, isn’t it? Because it’s comfier to have the security of a nice paying job (most of the participants are working in IT and earning better than the average Romanian).

We do outsourcing for other entrepreneurs, the real ones, but we deceive ourselves and say that we too, are entrepreneurs. It’s safer and less risky to sell shovels to the gold miners. It’s true, not a lot of gold miners succeed, but the few ones who take risks and succeed against all odds are rewarded handsomely for their trouble. Can you call yourself a gold miner if what you are really doing is to sell shovels to actual gold miners?

This turned out to be a lengthier post than I was initially intending, wanted to write about the importance of concepts such as the National IQ and others. I will most probably do this in another post or I will update this one.

Update: Why your Nation’s IQ matters more than yours.

Days 2&3 – Building my new personal branding oriented start-up

What am I doing? Short recap: I am doing 3 days long sprints, 2 days allotted for picking up an idea and building a product/service around it and 1 day to promote the minimum viable product that results from the first 2 days. In the first day I settled on an idea based on online personal branding and to offer a service consisting on creating profiles on more than 50 social media sites.

What a beginning today: went to Namecheap in order to buy a new domain but their service was lagging and throwing 502 errors towards my way. As for the name of my new domain, playground for my experiments, I settled on 72startups, it’s pretty clear why 72, 72 hours duh. I did an internet search and got to From that page it seems that today 24 October there is an “NAMECHEAP.COM EMERGENCY MAINTENANCE”:
“Dear Customers,

Our site is currently undergoing an emergency maintenance to upgrade our systems in order to better serve you.
You may receive Cloudflare or 500 errors on the site.
We apologize for any inconvenience during this short outage and thank you in advance for your patience and understanding.
Our development team is working on addressing this issue.
Once we have any news we will update this status post.

Kind regards,
Namecheap Support Team”

Not a good start. The problem is finally solved and I start working towards the goals of the day with a detour first: I have to buy new domains and hosting ($30), to install WP and setup my main domain and to do my first blog post. This took me more than I thought and should be a lesson for me to learn to plan things better next time so I can fully concentrate on the days’ goals. The next step was for me to sign up and add my info on a bunch of social media in order to have a good estimate on how much time this process would take and thus to have a good estimate for the price that I will charge for the service, this step should also help me build the value proposition that I’m offering to my customers. I got a bit carried away in completing this step, I ended signing up on 60 social media sites and the process took me longer than I expected, part of the reason being that I didn’t had any previous experience with most of the sites so I had to go through a learning curbe and to learn each site’s intricacies and quirks. The fact that most of these sites are optimized to keep you hooked also contributed to my distraction, in some cases I had the tendency to check out more of what they had to offer rather than just creating my profile and running away. Once this step was completed I started towards the next one: setting up the site and the landing page. As a software developer I have the tendency to start from 0 and to throw a bunch of code at a problem but I decided that in this case it would be wiser to just go with existing solutions, there is not point in reinventing the wheel, what is needed is a only a landing page, nothing too fancy. So I just installed WP and searched for a nice theme and found it: Illdy.


Day 3
Time to customize the WordPress theme and whip it into a decent landing page. This too proved to have a learning curve with a higher time cost than I thought. The problem is that once you settle on a ready made solution you also have to face its issues as well, in this case the theme being no stranger to bugs. No matter what I would do, the theme would show the footer section and I considered it to be redundant, I didn’t need links again to the homepage, FAQ or to the blog, they are already shown in the top of the page. I get my hands dirty and edit the script files that were causing the problem. I get into the software developer thinking mode again when trying to install the Paypal button, the theme is not properly showing it, it shows it either too small or too big, so I try getting my hands dirty again by editing the script files responsible with showing the section in cause. The editing turns out to be problematic, I’m not getting the results that I want but fortunately I snap out of the developer thinking mode and realize that there must be some plugin out there that should do what I want to do. I find the plugin with ease and solve my problem. This concludes Day 3. The plan was to have some time left, at least one day in order to do some marketing but things turned out more time costly than I thought. It’s not all that bad, at the end of 3 days I have a new domain and a personal blog, managed to do some personal branding on 60 social media sites, and I also have transformed an idea into a domain with a landing page ready to take orders.

Lessons learned:
1. Better organization before an operation begins, I should have information and the tools I need to complete a task more readily available.
2. Planning fallacy: “is a phenomenon in which predictions about how much time will be needed to complete a future task display an optimism bias and underestimate the time needed.” I’m now aiming for a 3 day build sprint during which I will build a Minimum Viabil Product (MVP) followed by a 3 day promotion sprint. 2 days of building and 1 day of promotion seems unrealistic and limitative.
3. The KISS principle: Keep it simple, stupid! I tend to overthink and not see that are already-made solutions to my problem or to see the simpler solution, there is no point in reinventing the wheel each time.

Day 1 – Online Reputation, Personal Branding

I finally decided to take action so today is day one of my startup blitzkrieg.

I didn’t have any clue with which idea to start this morning so I just quickly went over my list of ideas (about 90+ ideas strong) and decided to go with something related to online reputation and personal branding. It should be noted that I already had an attempt at it a few years ago, the project was called . Once I settled on the idea I realized that I have no clue about what to do next and more importantly, what to build, so I started researching and documenting by reading articles and one particular long guide on personal branding. This took me about 3 hours. While reading, ideas started to pop up, I took notes, bookmarked some links, learned about some new tools and also added 5 more ideas for 5 potential startups to my ideas file. After reading I had 5 ideas about what the product/solution might be and after some thinking and elimination only two potential ones remained: an alert system for Q&A sites, forums, blogs, video sites and so on and an online availability checker and securer of usernames on social media. One of the rules of the game is to automate as much as possible so the second idea didn’t seemed viable enough, it would take me more than 3 days to automate the process of registering and editing of profiles for a bunch of sites, so the next best solution would be to do them manually.

So an alert tool it is then. Got on Quora, checked the source code, noticed some patterns and then fired up a Python script with Beautiful Soup. The script didn’t worked, it couldn’t read the DOM responsible for the question links and apparently Quora likes to do some obfuscation so then I tried with Mechanize and Beautiful Soup altogether. Mechanize emulates a browser. This too didn’t worked, got an 403 error message, something about the robots.txt file. Checked on the internet, got over the error but it still wouldn’t work. After some quick internet search I get to a question posted on Quora about how to scrape Quora. Well, it seems that Quora doesn’t like to be scraped and this is against the ToS. Quora was an important piece in my value proposition, the idea was to notice the customer when a relevant question comes in so he can hop in and answer it and prove his mastery and expertise. There is also the fact that offers this type of service for free. There is also Google Alerts. I don’t like to compete with free, it’s hard to compete with free. And there is also the fact that this kind of solution is not necessarily only for personal branding, it can be used in other ways too so this kind of chips away at the whole market segment intended for personal branding. Alright, I will ditch this idea.

Even though it would require some intense manual work at first, the idea of creating profiles by hand seems better now, I can at least compete against some expensive services out there and I also feel like I can provide some real value, this solution can save a lot of time for the customers. I’m thinking that I can “automate” the process by outsourcing the creation process to a cousin who doesn’t have a job right now, to Mechanical Turk or even Fiverr. If my service gets really popular by some weird twist of fate than I can take steps to automate the whole process. This solution also spares me of the need to create a custom website, I can simply slap a WP blog and then a membership plugin to it and save a lot of time. I always have to remind myself to keep things as simple as possible and to not try to reinvent the wheel.

I wish I could have done more but I felt a bit tired at the end of the day – those 3 hours of reading and brainstorming where quite intense, tried to focus 100% – and decided to pursue other activities. I’m at the beginning of my journey and I don’t want to get burned out, yesterday, while reading from Deep Work by Cal Newport, I found out about the Attention Restoration theory. Apparently we have a limited time, about 4 hours top in the case of “experts” and only one hour in the case of “newbies”, in which we can do intense cognitive work aka deep work; we are not machines so we need to restore our attention from time to time by taking a break and watching nature because this is what the theory recommends: “people can concentrate better after spending time in nature, or even looking at scenes of nature.”

The plan for tomorrow would be to create the website, do the copywriting, landing page, calls to action and all of that stuff and to manually create profiles for myself on a bunch of websites to see how much time it takes (and in order to estimate a proper price for the service).