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.

La Joie de Vivre with Zorba the Greek

What is Joie de vivre?

Joie de vivre is a French phrase often used in English to express a cheerful enjoyment of life; an exultation of spirit.

Almost three years ago I was finishing reading Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. I started reading quite a lot during that period, reading non-fiction especially and trying to better understand the world around me.  Three years later it’s still an influential book for me because it’s important to read, learn each day and expand your horizon but it’s also important to get out there and explore, discover, see with your own eyes and apply what you have learned in the real world.

“How could I, who loved life so intensely, have let myself be entangled for so long in that balderdash of books and paper blackened with ink!”

Is empiricism better than being an arm chair intellectual? The philosophical debate between empiricism and rationalism has been going for a while now, some believe that knowledge comes from universal, innate ideas and reason, others believe that knowledge comes from your senses, that that idea formulated by the rationalists it’s not true/nonexistent until they can test it/see it with their own eyes.

“That’s what liberty is, I thought. To have a passion, to amass pieces of gold and suddenly to conquer one’s passion and throw the treasure to the four winds. Free yourself from one passion to be dominated by another and nobler one. But is not that, too, a form of slavery? To sacrifice oneself to an idea, to a race, to God?”

I won’t take a side in this philosophical debate because I think that you can discover and better understand the world through both ways. Reading a business book written by someone with a lot of experience and who went through a lot of challenges in order to prepare myself and know how to solve similar problems is a very wise thing to do. You can assimilate someone’s decades long experience by reading/listening a few hundred pages or you can decide that the only way to find out is to do it and go through a trial and error process.

Obviously, the best solution here is the middle ground, you can read and rationalize as much as you want but if you don’t take action you won’t make things happen or you can go roll up your sleeves and go through a lengthy trial and error process that most probably someone else has already gone through it.

“I was a long time getting to sleep. My life is wasted, I thought. If only I could take a cloth and wipe out all I have learnt, all I have seen and heard, and go to Zorba’s school and start the great, the real alphabet! What a different road I would choose. I should keep my five senses perfectly trained, and my whole body, too, so that it would enjoy and understand. I should learn to run, to wrestle, to swim, to ride horses, to row, to drive a car, to fire a rifle. I should fill my soul with flesh. I should fill my flesh with soul. In fact, I should reconcile at last within me the two eternal antagonists.”

Reading the quotes you have probably guessed by now that the main character is an intellectual with a suitcase full of books that meets a very worldly and interesting man named Zorba. Zorba is a hard worker by day and an entertainer and a joie de vivre student by night.

“For in his mind our profits underwent marvellous transformations: they became travels, women and new adventures. He was waiting impatiently for the day when he would earn a fortune, when his wings would be sufficiently big – ‘wings’ was the name he gave to money – for him to fly away.”

In Zorba the Greek, the balance is obviously skewed towards empiricism because the main character is mesmerized by Zorba’s life story and by his lifestyle and character.

“I read slowly and at random. I closed the book, opened it again, and finally threw it down. For the first time in my life it all seemed bloodless, odourless, void of any human substance. Pale-blue, hollow words in a vacuum. Perfectly clear distilled water without any bacteria, but also without any nutritive substances.”

“I didn’t answer. I was envious of the man. He had lived with his flesh and blood – fighting, killing, kissing – all that I had tried to learn through pen and ink alone. All the problems I was trying to solve point by point in my solitude and glued to my chair, this man had solved up in the pure air of the mountains with his sword.”

The author realizes that when you have nothing more to lose is when freedom starts, that everything is an illusion, that we don’t have control over the exterior and nothing to lose, that everything is a challenge, that it’s the road that counts and not the destination.

“This time I had lost everything – my money, my men, the line, the trucks; we had constructed a small port and now we had nothing to export. It was all lost. Well, it was precisely at that moment that I felt an unexpected sense of deliverance. As if in the hard, sombre labyrinth of necessity I had discovered liberty herself playing happily in a corner. And I played with her. When everything goes wrong, what a joy to test your soul and see if it has endurance and courage! An invisible and all-powerful enemy – some call him God, others the Devil, seems to rush upon us to destroy us; but we are not destroyed. Each time that within ourselves we are the conquerors, although externally utterly defeated, we human beings feel an indescribable pride and joy. Outward calamity is transformed into a supreme and unshakable felicity.”

How to Get Unstuck from Your Routine

Ever felt stuck in a routine? I know I do, sometimes I feel that I’m stuck and I have no options left to do anything else and thus I end up being “bored”. The Germans have a word for this: Einstellung.

Einstellung means installation and the Einstellung Effect refers to a person’s predisposition to act or to solve a problem using the same way even though there are other options. This  effect seems to be common among all segments people without any regard to IQ, age, sex.

People adopt routines for different reasons.  Autistic persons have an innate ability to develop routines and rituals which gives them a sense of structure and order and makes it easier for them to cope with the difficulty of making sense of their surroundings, other people develop routines (addictions) which gives them a kick of dopamines  and makes them feel good, others develop routines to have a better sense of control over their lives.

In the self-improvement literature the ability to develop routines is strongly encouraged. You need 20-30 days of daily repetitions in order to develop a habit. The brain has a propriety called neuroplasticity and every time you repeat a routine the neural network that the brain creates for that routine gets stronger and stronger – the myelin sheath that covers the neuron synapses gets stronger – so that after day 30 it gets easier than before day 1 to get up, put your running equipment on, get out the door and start running. My feeling of einstellung comes from having various self-improvement daily routines, at the beginning is all great and novel but after months or years of doing the same thing it gets…boring.

autovehicle stuck

So, how can we get out from our routines? The simple answer is just to do something different, to solve a problem using another kind of solution, to see things from a different angle.

“Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call ‘life’ was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.” Steve Jobs

For example, James Altucher has a routine called ‘The Daily Ten’. Yes, I’m giving one man’s routines as an example of getting out from your own routines. So, when you feel stuck, these are some ways you can use to get unstuck. Quoting:

10 old ideas I can make new
10 ridiculous things I would invent (e.g., the smart toilet)
10 books I can write (The Choose Yourself Guide to an Alternative Education, etc).
10 business ideas for Google/Amazon/Twitter/etc.
10 people I can send ideas to
10 podcast ideas or videos I can shoot (e.g., Lunch with James, a video podcast where I just have lunch with people over Skype and we chat)
10 industries where I can remove the middleman
10 things I disagree with that everyone else assumes is religion (college, home ownership, voting, doctors, etc.)
10 ways to take old posts of mine and make books out of them
10 people I want to be friends with (then figure out the first step to contact them)
10 things I learned yesterday
10 things I can do differently today
10 ways I can save time
10 things I learned from X, where X is someone I’ve recently spoken with or read a book by or about. I’ve written posts on this about the Beatles, Mick Jagger, Steve Jobs, Charles Bukowski, the Dalai Lama, Superman, Freakonomics, etc.
10 things I’m interested in getting better at (and then 10 ways I can get better at each one)
10 things I was interested in as a kid that might be fun to explore now (Like, maybe I can write that “Son of Dr. Strange” comic I’ve always been planning. And now I need 10 plot ideas.)
10 ways I might try to solve a problem I have This has saved me with the IRS countless times. Unfortunately, the Department of Motor Vehicles is impervious to my superpowers.

Also, you can always try and learn new things which will definetly change your daily routine and  give you the cognitive tools to see things from other angles.

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Robert A. Heinlein – Time Enough to Love

Putting Yourself in Winning Situations

Not long ago I’ve read How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams, a book inspired from the author’s life. It was in this book that I first came upon the concept of systems versus goals. The author’s first encounter with this concept was while he has travelling by plane:

“I was seated next to a businessman who was probably in his early sixties. I suppose I looked like an odd duck with my serious demeanor, bad haircut, and cheap suit, clearly out of my element. He asked what my story was and I filled him in. I asked what he did for a living and he told me he was CEO of a company that made screws. Then he offered me some career advice. He said that every time he got a new job, he immediately started looking for a better one. For him, job seeking was not something one did when necessary. It was an ongoing process. This makes perfect sense if you do the math. Chances are the best job for you won’t become available at precisely the time you declare yourself ready. Your best bet, he explained, was to always be looking for the better deal. The better deal has its own schedule. I believe the way he explained it is that your job is not your job; your job is to find a better job.

This was my first exposure to the idea that one should have a system instead of a goal. The system was to continually look for better options. And it worked for this businessman, as he had job-hopped from company to company, gaining experience along the way, until he became a CEO. Had he approached his career with a specific goal in mind, or perhaps specific job objectives (e.g., his boss’s job), it would have severely limited his options. But for him, the entire world was his next potential job. The new job simply had to be better than the last one and allow him to learn something useful for the next hop.”

chess king winning

So what this systematic method does is that it iterates and eliminates hypothesis and solutions that don’t work, hence it’s normal to experience a lot of failures until the optimum solution is found. In order to find that optimum solution is important to not give up, stay focused and not to succumb to the fear of failure:

“It helps a great deal to have at least a general strategy and some degree of focus. The world offers so many alternatives that you need a quick filter to eliminate some options and pay attention to others. Whatever your plan, focus is always important.
My system of creating something the public wants and reproducing it in large quantities nearly guaranteed a string of failures. By design, all of my efforts were long shots. Had I been goal oriented instead of system oriented, I imagine I would have given up after the first several failures. It would have felt like banging my head against a brick wall. But being systems oriented, I felt myself growing more capable every day, no matter the fate of the project I happened to be working on. And every day during those years I woke up with the same thought, literally, as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and slapped the alarm clock off.”

In my case, I have a systematic approach to the process of building startups and putting ideas into practice. I don’t spend too much time overthinking if this or that idea will work or not, what I do instead is to implement the idea as fast as possible in a 3 day sprint and then market it in other 3 days sprints. If the idea doesn’t work out I will at least have learned something from the experience and move on to the next one. It’s a win situation no matter the outcome. I’m also documenting and writing about my experiences and the things that I learn during this systematic approach, adding to my credibility, making my expertise and my personal brand known so this is yet another win.

The difference between goals and systems: if you want to run a marathon, which is your goal, your system is your running schedule, let’s say that you plan to run each day, increasing the distance on a weekly basis until you manage to run a marathon. If you want to write a book, which is your goal, your system is your writing schedule, for example, you can plan to write daily 1000 words until you finish writing the book.
You can have achievements using a system without a goal but you cannot have achievements using a goal without a system.

Also, about goals and happiness: achieving your goals won’t necessarily make you happy.

Success isn’t magic; it’s generally the product of picking a good system and following it until luck finds you.

The Success Formula: Every Skill You Acquire Doubles Your Odds of Success 

“I find it helpful to see the world as a slot machine that doesn’t ask you to put money in. All it asks is your time, focus, and energy to pull the handle over and over. A normal slot machine that requires money will bankrupt any player in the long run. But the machine that has rare yet certain payoffs, and asks for no money up front, is a guaranteed winner if you have what it takes to keep yanking until you get lucky. In that environment, you can fail 99 percent of the time, while knowing success is guaranteed. All you need to do is stay in the game long enough.”

The Daily Concept app one month later

It’s been more than a month now since I launched one of my recent projects that I’ve been working on: The Daily Concept app. The idea behind it is simple as well as the app itself:  it shows a different concept from various domains like Biology, Math, Psychology, Sociology, Religion, Physics, Economics and so on so the idea is to learn something new and interesting day by day.

Sounds like a great idea for an app isn’t it? Everyone wants to learn, to grow and to become the best possible versions of themselves! Well, that’s what I thought. I got very excited with this idea when I came up with it, inspired by the Word of the Day from Merriam-Webster, and mistakenly thought that there are a lot of people out there that are thinking like me. I’ve done some research and realized that there is nothing similar on the Internet.

I’m an INTP according to the Myers-Briggs personality test. The INTP personality type is fairly rare, making up about 3 percent of the population, and is characterized by creativity, curiosity,  the strive to discover and learn more about the world around them. The INTP type is also characterized by rational and logical thinking rather than emotional thinking.  It seems that the INTP and INTJ types are the most inclined to want to learn something new each day but I failed in finding and coaxing them so far. The truth is that there are a lot more people, the majority of the population that are not thinking types and would rather spend their time and attention on something fun and entertaining, there is no surprise here, Kim Kardashian or some other celebrity of the day will always have much more followers than the concept of the day.

So, the promotion that I did for the past 30+ days was to post on 14 social media sites a screenshot from my phone with the concept of the day, along with the title, short description, download link for the app and tags. The screenshot doesn’t shows the whole description of the concept, only the first few lines, I thought that this would translate into more downloads.

quinarian system

I tried to automate this process as much as I could so it doesn’t take me much time to do the posting. I’m getting followers, some interactions in the form of likes and retweets/reblogs but that’s about it.

Judging by the first month’s metrics, it seems that this app will turn to be yet another failed idea. I’m not giving up on the app, I will do some minor tweaks to the app and continue to promote it on social media for at least one more month. Because of the high probability of failure is not worth investing too much time and energy into this project.

For the few active users of the app: you don’t have to worry about this, the app will continue to automatically show something new each day until the end of the year!  There are a lot of new concepts to be learned so keep an open mind and enjoy!