An increasing number of Europeans 25 and under are starting their own businesses—and inspiring others to do the same
Economic growth in Europe is faster than in the U.S. Reform-minded governments are chopping away the red tape that stifles small business. The Internet is knocking down barriers faster than a thousand ponderous directives from Brussels. And mobile young people, nursed on wireless phones and the Web, are fanning out across the continent in search of new business opportunities.
Add it all up, and entrepreneurialism is alive in the Old World. In our second annual BusinessWeek contest to identify and recognize Europe's most promising entrepreneurs, we've found ample evidence that young people—25 years old and under—are more eager than ever to try their hand at launching companies.
And the Nominees Are…
Consider Artemi Krymski, 23, who emigrated from Russia to the Netherlands and then to Britain. He has spent the last three years developing search technology that he says is better than Google's (GOOG) at digging up information buried inside real estate Web sites. His ambition: to create the ultimate online destination for property buyers and then extend his "vertical search" technology into other fields such as job-hunting and car shopping. But instead of pitching his idea to established online players, Krymski is building his own company, called BytePlay, and picking up backing from established financiers.
The dream of creating the next Google isn't unique to Krymski. "I want to start a creative revolution!" declares Jonas Hombert, a 20-year-old Swede with a startup that sells easy-to-use video-editing software. Ireland's Aodhan Cullen has been running businesses since he was 12 and started his current gig, a Net traffic monitoring service called StatCounter, when he was 16. At the age of 25, Scotland's James B. Watt has already started three companies.
What unites these and the rest of our 16 nominees is a mix of ambition, impatience, opportunism, and derring-do. Plus, gobs of youthful energy. Estonia's Karoli Hindriks may be only 23, but she's already an elected member of her town's city council, the Estonian country manager for MTV Networks (VIA), and an entrepreneur who designs and sells—get this—fashionable knitted hats and gloves made out of reflective material.
Homegrown Role Models
The candidates in this year's contest are surprisingly different from the 15 who made the cut last year (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/9/06, "Europe's Young Entrepreneurs"). For one thing, fewer are from Britain and, for the first time, three are from former Iron Curtain countries. There were no nominees this year from France or Germany, but instead we have candidates from Spain and Italy. And the businesses are much more tilted to software and the Internet—especially Web 2.0 services—although some are still in more traditional fields such as apparel, design, and beverages.
In the past, young entrepreneurs in Europe had to look mainly to the U.S. for role models. But now, a growing crop of young Europeans have hit the big time as well, from the Scandinavian founders of Skype (EBAY) to the trio of Brits who launched music recommendation and mashup site Last.fm two years ago as a university project and sold it on May 30 to CBS (CBS) for nearly $280 million (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/13/06, "Last.FM: Mashing to the Music").
Other role models include France's Tariq Krim, the creator of news aggregation and Web personalization site Netvibes, and Benjamin Bejbaum, founder of online video site Daily Motion, a rival to YouTube (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/14/06, "Can Daily Motion Challenge YouTube?"). Then there's Spanish serial entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky, who founded alternative telco Jazztel and Web portal Ya.com (DT). His latest venture, called FON Technology, aims to create a free worldwide phone network built on open Wi-Fi connections (see BusinessWeek.com, 2/7/06, "From Hot Spots to Fon Zones?").
Making Entrepreneurship Accessible
Such European success stories are inspiring an entire generation of young people to take the plunge into entrepreneurship. One startling bit of evidence: A recent study completed for the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, a program of Babson College and the London Business School, found that 64% of 18- to 24-year-olds in Britain were actively considering entrepreneurship as a career choice—the highest percentage ever measured.
"Entrepreneurship is becoming a credible career path," says Jonathan Kestenbaum, CEO of Britain's National Endowment for Science, Technology & the Arts, the country's largest provider of early-stage startup funding. "It's no longer seen solely as the realm of people with a particular flair."
It helps that there's also more money and help available than ever before, whether from business mentors and incubators or traditional venture capitalists. Final figures aren't yet available, but when the European Venture Capital & Private Equity Assn. releases numbers in June, they're expected to show an eye-popping tenfold increase in seed funding for startups in 2006 vs. the year before and a doubling in early-stage financing.
The Friends and Family Plan
Not many of the people on this list, who were nominated by BusinessWeek.com readers between Apr. 1 and May 14 and screened by our editors, have received venture funding. Instead, many came out of junior achievement programs or business schools around Europe and relied on friends or family for limited investments to bootstrap their operations.
A few, like Ireland's Cullen, have been running businesses since they were kids. But many others fell into entrepreneurialism almost by accident. Britain's Monshur Alam, for instance, first dreamed of becoming a filmmaker when he picked up a book about Quentin Tarantino and discovered that the famous director of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill had no formal training. Now, he and his brothers run their own film production company and offer workshops in digital filmmaking.
Whether pursuing a life dream or taking a new chance—one of the companies in the contest was founded just four months ago—all of the young Europeans in this year's contest have a refreshing sense of excitement and optimism. Spend a few minutes perusing the slide show of the nominees and cast your vote for the business that you think has the best chance of success. Europe's brave crop of young entrepreneurs deserves your encouragement.
With Jennifer L. Schenker in Paris.