Note: This article is constantly adjusted to be in par with the latest developments. A new more relevant Prishtina startup city guide has been published here and more in-depth details can be red there.Â
Kosovo Startup Scene is not so much developed and relatively new to aÂ small country located in the center of the Balkans, mainly featured on media because ofÂ political issues, is not often a place to be taken into consideration when you talk about theÂ startup scene of Eastern Europe, but when you look closer, things are seen past their appearance.
A GDP per capita of around $ 3,600 (World Bank, 2011), Kosovo, with a population of 1.85 million inhabitants,Â is still considered to beÂ one of the poorest countries in Europe, where signs of anÂ unemployment rate of above 40%, show theÂ tough conditions of the labor market.
TheÂ educational system is still fragile and creates professionals with a strong theoretical knowledge, there are professional and certified training institutions in different fields (weâ€™re talking about the ICT market here) that tend to fill in the gaps between academia and company needs, and support the development of existing companies, new ones and foreign investments.
On the other hand, aÂ strong average of English and German skills, similar work culture to Western Europe and US and tech-savvy people with an average age of 25 years old, have created anÂ outsourcing cultureÂ that is currently developing towards the field ofÂ inbound and outbound call-centers, handling services likeÂ support and customer servicesÂ that include telemarketing, surveys, direct mail follow-up, fundraising, etc.
Kosovo Startup Scene Entrepreneur
Reading aboutÂ successful startups from US and EuropeÂ is something that we do every day, but weâ€™ve barely heard of any success story from a country like Kosovo. ThatÂ doesnâ€™t necessarily mean that there arenâ€™t any. Iâ€™ve been in tech industry for many years in the region, while constantly following the development of the scene that onlyÂ since 2011Â started to come alive and put some dents into the map.
Two years ago, I remember when people were building â€œinnovative fountainsâ€ for â€œstartup competitionsâ€ (not for Kickstarter!) and winningÂ over 10,000 eurosÂ worth of grants from international donors. There were even famous TV folks who now call themselves entrepreneurs, and used to callÂ â€œStartup Weekendâ€ a trade-fair.
But anyway, looking back on that, nowadays being in the middle of things with some very active friends who like to make their hands dirty and giving the people the place where they are now, you seeÂ startups aiming global markets, true business angels and self-proclaimed ones, and also someÂ self-declared experts in different fields, entrepreneur gurus, etc. which is not a bad sign at all. It shows thatÂ people are reading and that the market is jumping on the wagon.
For the first time the word entrepreneur started to become a common one, not only because it became a trend around the world, but because there were events happening al the time likeStartup Weekend,Â AppCamp Kosovo,Â WikiAcademy Kosovo,Â BarCamps, Community Boost_r, Digital Days, Social Innovations Camps, etc., and everything in less than 2 years. It was not a goal anymore to earn degree after degree to find a job, but the time of being your own boss came to the horizon.
Aiming it big
We haveÂ Solaborate.com, a nicheÂ social network for IT ProfessionalsÂ based in Los Angeles, founded by Kosovar diasporaÂ Labinot BytyqiÂ and supported with a strong local team based in Prishtina. Solaborate.com has alreadyÂ 1 million dollars of investment, from unnamed investors.
XIIIK and PuntoriaÂ are two other startups from the virgin market ofÂ Game DevelopmentÂ in Kosovo, where the first one is almost launch ready with their gameÂ Highland Lute, which is a RPG based on traditional stories aroundÂ Albanian Mythology, while the other one has reincarnated a traditional Balkan card game calledÂ Pishpirik, which is now aÂ killer game on FacebookÂ with more than 180,000 players on the biggest social network of the world.
Something worth mentioning and highlighting is the success rate ofÂ startups coming out of Startup Weekends. The latest one to mention isÂ Math 4 Kids, a startup aiming to serve educational based applications, and which was one of the top three teams at Startup Weekend Prishtina in May 2012. The founders of the company have taken things to the next level with two other companiesÂ AppsixÂ andÂ Netsix, one focusing on application development for different platforms with some of the products (includingÂ SkendermenÂ â€“ Game for iOS & Android,Â Kosova BanksÂ â€“ iOS & Android,Â Folkan ShqipÂ â€“ iOS,Â Math 4 KidsÂ â€“ iOS,Â Duplex ClubÂ â€“ iOS, etc), while the other is a startup with a strong base in engineering and already working on some outsourcing projects.
Interestingly app development companies or even app developers are not a rare breed any more. A Kosovar-Dutch company, calledÂ Sprigs, which is still operating in the market and has clients across Europe, was one of the first one to mention, and is continually growing, thus giving the signals that the market getting more crowded every day. A big player not to be mentioned as a startup but rather than a role-model, is alsoÂ 3CIS, which was set-up in 2008 and now has over 170 employees, serving major telecommunication carriers (Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent, Motorola, etc.) across the globe with highly specialized services, including architecture design, planning, consulting, implementation, etc.
Key actors in rising the spirit
Some key actors into brining the scene where it is nowadays are organizations likeÂ The Association for information and technology and communication in Kosovo â€“ STIKK,Â Innovation Centre Kosovo, IPKO Foundation, CEED Kosovo, EYEÂ etc.Â With the opening of theÂ first business incubator in the country, an incubator supported by theÂ Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which now has more than 17 companies with more than 60 employees and over 300 trained professionals in unique course through its training department (which I managed for more than one year), a new era embraced in the market, bringing in to life other â€œsleepingâ€ actors and brining in even Albanian diaspora like Vllaznim Xhiha to open up the first Business Angel Fond (EYE) in the country.
Some people, who have been proceeding the Kosovo Startup Scene, will leave behind them aÂ great legacy, an impact so big that is beyond a startup/entrepreneurial culture, affecting even government organizations to keep up with theÂ energy level of a startup community.
What is left with the tools and infrastructure set, is for theÂ people to innovate and challenge the traditional mindsetÂ of grant hunting and remittances, and starting to takeÂ things into the next level.Â