Sun, Sea And Success
In emerging startup destinations such as Barcelona, the biggest innovation of all is quality of life.
A decade ago, if you were young and ambitious, you might have hankered after a job at an investment bank or a hedge fund. That was before the financial crisis of 2008 and the rise to global prominence of internet giants such as Facebook, Google and Amazon. Today, things are a little different. Between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of MBA graduates leaving top business schools to work in financial services fell by about 15 per cent. The brightest and best are no longer interested in the greasy pole or the corner office. They want to start their own tech companies.
Tech entrepreneurship is fast eclipsing finance as the default career path for the highly ambitious, and it’s having a knock-on effect on all our lives. As governments begin to realise the economic benefits of attracting top talent, Silicon Valley startup culture is going global. We’re becoming a generation of co-workers, hot-deskers and digital nomads. From Tel Aviv to Toronto, São Paolo to Seattle, it seems as if every city in the world is scrambling to announce itself as the next big tech hub.
So, how do you ensure that the next Mr Mark Zuckerberg, Mr Evan Spiegel or Mr Elon Musk sets up shop in your town? Is it a question of accelerators, incubators and ready seed capital? Or lightning-fast internet, cheap rent and low corporate tax rates? There are all manner of ingredients required for a startup ecosystem to flourish, but let’s take a step back for a moment and address a more general concern. Before deciding to start a business somewhere, should you not decide whether you want to live there first?
This is an argument you’ll hear frequently in Barcelona, a city that purports to offer the perfect blend of business and pleasure. Hit hard by the financial crisis, Spain’s second city has staged a remarkable recovery and is now emerging not only as one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations, but also one of its hottest tech hubs. According to data collected in 2017 by the UK technology investment firm Atomico, Barcelona ranks as the third most attractive destination in Europe for founders, ahead of capital cities such as Paris, Stockholm and Amsterdam and outdone only by the insurmountable duo of London and Berlin.
This is a city that punches above its weight, in other words, and it’s easy to see why. A cultural and gastronomic destination with a gorgeous climate and the Mediterranean on its doorstep, it boasts a quality of life that larger cities simply can’t compete with. It’s not all Michelin-starred tapas and sundowners at Soho House, though. To find out more, we met five guys who are betting big on the Catalan city.
Mr Ben Nachoom
Two years ago, Mr Ben Nachoom was a bond investor toiling away in the City of London. Now, at 25, he’s the CEO of OneCoWork, an award-winning co-working space in Barcelona’s Marina Port Vell. The company is expanding rapidly. A second location in Plaça de Catalunya is due to open this summer, and there are plans afoot for 50 – yes, 50 – new locations in the next five years. A bullish advocate of the co-working revolution, Mr Nachoom firmly believes that the days of the traditional office are numbered. “In two or three decades, they won’t exist,” he says. A utopian vision indeed.
While travelling recently, we met someone who openly and proudly identified as a digital nomad. It came as quite a shock. You must be accustomed to that sort of thing by now.
Before I moved into the co-working world, I didn’t understand it at all. I was still very much of the London finance mindset. These sort of things seemed vaguely bohemian, but it makes perfect sense. More and more freelancers working in rainy, cold England are realising they don’t need to be in rainy, cold England. They can be wherever their laptop is.
Which is anywhere. Do digital nomads live up to their globe-trotting name?
They do, and this is another benefit of being able to work remotely. Assuming there’s nothing tying you down, you can see the whole world while working. You can travel and pay for it at the same time.
And this must be particularly attractive if you’re still able to earn in pounds sterling.
Of course. It’s a big bonus if you can earn London money, for instance, without having to endure the high cost of living that comes with it. But what I think Barcelona offers is something that money can’t buy. It doesn’t matter how much money you’re earning in London, you can’t buy a beach on your doorstep. You can’t buy year-round sunshine.
Was OneCoWork an immediate success?
We opened our first building in November 2016 with a capacity of 250 members. We were fully sold out by mid-February 2017. We’re now turning down around 10 people a day as we don’t have the capacity – which is why it’s important to get our next space up and running as soon as possible.
Your customers aren’t all digital nomads, though, are they?
No. We’re seeing entire businesses move to this model. One of the first customers in our new space in Plaça de Catalunya is a hotel that recently moved its entire pre-opening team into our co-working space. It’s more flexible, more productive and more fun, and they don’t have the hassle of having to run their own office.
Mr Georg Stockinger
Mr Georg Stockinger, 32, was born in Austria and began his career as a management consultant at McKinsey. He was one of the founding members of Casacanda, a German flash sales website, which was acquired in 2012 by Fab.com, and later built up the Latin American business for Rocket Internet. He has since “switched sides”, as he puts it, from entrepreneur to investor and now works as a partner at Paua Ventures, an early-stage venture capital fund based in Berlin. Unlike the other men we spoke to for this piece, Mr Stockinger’s business is not headquartered in Barcelona. He’s mainly here for personal reasons and the lifestyle.
How long have you lived in Barcelona?
I relocated in 2013. I first came here in 2010, though, when I was doing a masters degree at ESADE . I knew then that I wanted to come back some day.
Presumably, the city was still recovering from the financial crisis when you arrived.
That’s right. It was a risky decision from a business perspective – but crisis always holds opportunity. Everyone at first was telling me not to go. I was following my heart.
And the lifestyle convinced you to stay?
The quality of life here is amazing. It’s vibrant, it’s international, well-connected and you’re close to the sea and to the mountains. It really feels like a perfect place to call home.
There must be business benefits to being here now, though.
We’re based in Berlin, but we do have a small office here, which opens us up to new geographies. Anything we do in southern Europe tends to fall under my remit. We’re looking at other cities, such as Madrid, and we did our first deal in Barcelona last year. So, yes, it makes sense business-wise. But personally being here is a lifestyle decision.
Is Barcelona reaching maturity as a startup destination?
It depends what you mean by mature. It’s had a few success stories in recent years and tech entrepreneurship is picking up quickly, but it’s no London or Paris. What I’ve seen is that it’s a place where people come when they’ve had their early successes. They move here because they like the lifestyle, and then they start maybe their second or third business here. So, in the long run, I’m sure it will be among Europe’s prime startup ecosystems. But it’s still early days, I’d say.
Mr Lavin Luis
Mr Lavin Luis, 24, was born to Indian parents in the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the coast of Morocco. A serial entrepreneur who started his first company at the age of 14, he is now the co-founder of Boardfy, an automated pricing tool for e-commerce platforms. He briefly attended university on his home island of Gran Canaria, but dropped out, he says, after a fateful event convinced him to follow his dreams as an entrepreneur. “I’d just won second prize at Startup Weekend in Gran Canaria,” he says. “My business partner and I were hyped up. We were congratulating each other. He kept telling me, ‘You’re the king of this place, Lavin.’ Half an hour later, I was walking across campus and replaying what he’d just told me in my head when I realised that I’d just I stepped on something. I looked down to see what it was. It was a playing card: the king of hearts.”
So, it’s fair to say you believe in fate.
Let’s say that I believe in forces of the universe. I believe that there’s an energy that brings creative minds and creative people together.
It sounds like you felt like a big fish in a small pond at home. How did you get out?
A month later and I was attending another Startup Weekend in Tenerife, this time as a mentor, when I met Carlos Blanco, a well-known venture capitalist. I told him I wanted to come and work for him for free and learn about the startup world. A week later, I came to Barcelona to meet two of his partners, who agreed to take me on. The week after that, I started work.
How old were you at this point?
I was 20.
So, like all good entrepreneurs, you decided to drop out.
You can imagine what my parents thought. I had to do it, though. When I first arrived at college, I was being taught things like how to design a website, things that I’d figured out for myself five years ago. I remember asking my brother how to do it when I was building my first company. He just said, “Google it.” You don’t need a college degree for everything.
How important is it for you to be in a city like Barcelona?
I couldn’t have built a company like Boardfy back at home. There’s plenty of talent in the Canary Islands, but not enough investment.
What brings investment?
Investors are cautious. They need a proof of concept. It’s the big exits they look for, the success stories. In the past decade and a half, Barcelona has had Vueling, eDreams, Glovo, Social Point, now valued in excess $100m. These companies lay the foundations for a good startup scene. And once the money comes, everything else follows. But you need something to tie it all together, too: a great city.
Mr Stewart Masters
Mr Stewart Masters, 36, is the founder of ClubKviar, an invitation-only dining club that was acquired in April for an undisclosed sum by Resy, a New York-based reservations app. He also co-founded Barcinno, an English-language news platform that serves Barcelona’s startup community. Born in King’s Lynn, a market town in eastern England, he relocated to Spain in 2004 and has lived something of a peripatetic existence ever since. During a stint at a communications agency based in Barcelona, he was posted to Dubai, Madrid, Mexico, Brazil, Syria, Slovakia and the Seychelles. He travels extensively for pleasure, too. “I’ve been to 60 countries,” he says. “My aim is to make it to 100 before I die.” His wandering days might be over, though. After spending the past few years commuting between Madrid, Paris and Barcelona, he recently got married and decided to move to the Catalan capital permanently.
Congratulations on the acquisition. This is the moment that all startup founders are working towards. Are the cava corks popping?
Thanks. It’s super exciting news for us. We’re over the moon, of course, but we haven’t really had time to celebrate yet. It only happened two weeks ago. We’ve been working non-stop ever since we signed the deal to ensure the transition goes smoothly.
That’s understandable. Entrepreneurs aren’t known for resting on their laurels.
It’s tough, but we try to maintain a healthy work-life balance. I’ve been training with a boxing coach and using meditation apps such as Calm and Headspace. When you’re working long hours, you need to find time to disconnect.
You started ClubKviar in 2012. How has the startup eco-system evolved in that time?
Things are completely different. There’s increased interest from international investors as well as local venture capitalists, who are willing to take more risks than before. You only have to look at some of the recent funding rounds, with startups such as Glovo and Typeform, to see that. This creates more opportunities, which leads to greater demand for workers, which in turn creates a market for co-working spaces, et cetera, et cetera. It grows and grows.
When people talk about a city’s appeal as a hub for new business, quality of life is often overlooked. How important a factor is this to you?
Hugely important, especially the weather. When it’s warm outside and the skies are blue, it gives you the sensation of being on holiday even when you’re working. I find everyone to be more positive, happier and also more productive.
Mr Carlos Pierre
Mr Carlos Pierre, 28, grew up in Sant Cugat del Vallès, a municipality just north of Barcelona. He’s the CEO and founder of Badi, a flat-sharing app that he describes as “Tinder for flatmates”. It recently closed an impressive $10m Series A funding round led by Spark Capital, a Boston, Massachusetts-based investment firm whose successful past ventures include Medium, Slack and Trello. Oh, and Twitter. Mr Pierre is from an entrepreneurial family. His cousin, Mr Oscar Pierre, is the founder and CEO of the delivery app Glovo, which closed a €30m Series B funding round last September. We hope they’re not too competitive.
Tell us more about this Tinder-for-flatmates concept.
I was working as an auditor and commuting into Barcelona, so I was personally interested in the idea of flat-sharing as a means of being closer to work. I read a blog post about a girl in the US who was looking for a flatmate. She couldn’t deal with the number of applications she was getting over Craigslist, so she put her room on Tinder instead.
That’s a real why-didn’t-I-think-of-that idea.
She could search by age and gender, all of the profiles were verified through social media, she could accept or reject them straightaway and chat to them directly through the app. She got a flatmate in less than three days. That was the starting point for Badi.
The company’s growing fast. How many people do you employ now?
We’re 45 people now. We just moved to a larger office in Plaça de les Glòries.
You must be busy. What do you do to unwind?
Exercise helps me to clear my mind and to release stress. I like to run before work and in the summer, I’ll go swimming at lunchtime. I can grab my wetsuit, head down to the sea and be back at the office for the afternoon.
OK, but what if you really want to switch off?
I’ll spend a couple of weeks in Cuba, or somewhere else without Wi-Fi.