The time has come to start introducing the infrastructure that makes Slovakia a better place for startups. We are going to cover coworking spaces, incubators, venture funds, angel investors, and important initiatives and players. As the first one, we would like to introduce to you Bratislava’s Impact Hub through the words of its co-founder, Branislav Smidt.
Brano, could we begin with your own personal story? What is your background?
My background comes mainly from big international companies, T-Mobile and IBM, where I’ve held various local and international expert and managerial positions. My expertise is mostly in strategy, management, business development, sales operations, project management and consulting. Looking back on my corporate life, it was great and invaluable experience in many aspects, however, there are certain limitations and rules you need to accept, and that can become an obstacle when you want to follow your own dreams and your own way of work. I have always wanted to find deeper meaning and satisfaction in what I do – not only for me individually and not only financially. I have always stayed in touch with friends who created successful and innovative companies, therefore, I was aware of how difficult this can be and how much dedication and sacrifices it typically takes. That´s probably the reason it took me a bit longer to follow my own way.
Prior to launching Impact Hub and before my corporate times, I, together with my brother, launched one of the first skate/snow shops in Bratislava – in those days, quite a successful project. In fact, that was the first time I realized how strong a community with common passion and interests can be.
I have experienced a few failures, too. To mention at least one – we tried to set up a local business consulting practice from the scratch, and it didn´t fly as expected, so we rather closed the shop after a few months to do something else.
Do you remember when you first heard about the startup world? Why did it attract your attention?
I am not sure exactly when it was, but I had been indirectly observing the startup world for quite some time, especially when leading the T-Mobile strategy. It was the era when the first instant messaging and VoIP apps were launched, and big players had to react. It opened completely new, disruptive business models within the mobile industry back then – the rest is a well-known story.
I think it was 2011 when I had some interesting talks with Michal Stencl from Sygic about their challenges at that time, mostly related to the mobile industry. To me, the startup world is interesting mainly due to innovation, scaling potential, dynamism and the energy. However, I would sometimes welcome more humbleness, common sense and discipline. After all, I am not a typical startup guy 🙂
Impact Hub is an international network of innovation labs, community centers, and coworking spaces. How and when did the first idea to launch one in Slovakia come up? Why did you decide to go for it?
First ideas to bring Impact Hub brand to Bratislava occurred in the course of 2013, and I got involved in the middle of 2014. The process towards launching it and the first months were quite bumpy, and it required certain crisis management skills. As me and another co-founder Juraj Palovič had some experience with that, we had to step in actively to revert and stabilize the situation. Several Impact Hubs are well established and thriving, especially in the bigger markets. However, the situation in the CEE region is more challenging due to a number of reasons and generally rather small market volumes. Eventually, I decided to go for it as it really reflects my passion to leverage business as power for social good. We´ve intentionally chosen to focus on two main priorities: 1) social innovation and 2) technology for good – even though it’s rather a long term run. Both are very important to me as these areas have become urgent, sort of survival topics when we look around at all the societal, economic and environmental challenges we are already facing and will be facing even more in the future.
You have been part of the Slovak startup ecosystem for quite a while. What did the beginnings of the Slovak Impact Hub look like? What do you think about the progress you have made, comparing your first year with this one?
We have been around for almost 2 years. As already mentioned, the beginning was quite tough, as in any other competitive business. Looking back, I think we have been quite active and have successfully established ourselves in the market in a relatively short time. None of that would have been possible without my fellow co-founders Baška Klimek and Juraj Palovič and our Impact Hub team. As in any other startup business, the first year is typically about fine-tuning the services, setting up the basic operations, and most importantly, creating a dedicated and strong team.
On top of that, you try to do the best you can while constantly checking what works and what does not. It´s basically a roller coaster, and you need to be very agile and flexible and stay calm and focused in difficult situations. But above all, it’s hard work. So from this perspective, I am very happy about the progress we have achieved so far, even though, from my point of view, we are still at the beginning of our effort.
What were the greatest challenges you have faced?
Well, where to start? 🙂 Overall, not that many people had believed we would be able to really do it – and that somehow weirdly motivated me. I don´t need to mention that, financially, it has been a real challenge. Fortunately, we met progressive business partners who share similar values and goals. That´s very important to me. Building a strong and committed team is not easy, either. Creating and nurturing the community is another huge challenge. Meeting our obligations to our global network can be demanding as well. And I could continue…
What services do you offer, both as a co-working space and as an incubator?
We offer standard co-working services and packages. One of the special things is that we have a cool place to work from as we are right in the heart of Bratislava. Since we also belong to a global network, we constantly bring some perks to our members (e.g. the opportunity to work from other Impact Hubs during shorter business trips). On top of that, we bring a spectrum of additional services, special programs and events to our members, target groups and public.
As an incubator, we are just launching Impact Incubator vol. II (powered by Nadačný fond Telekom) – 3-month complex incubation program targeting mainly startups and projects in the area of social innovation and technology for good. We also provide targeted mentoring and consulting to promising projects and startups in the same domains. Besides that, we also organize hackathons and meetups and co-organize a few specialized incubation or competition formats (e.g. Social Impact Award – an incubation program for students), and few others.
Can you tell us what teams and startups you currently have in the ImpactHub and what projects are a part of your incubator program?
Impact Hub is unique in the way it matches together people from different fields and areas. One of our goals is to enable deeper collaboration, and that´s something we see working. In one place, you can meet IT developers with their own projects and teams but also NGO projects led by guys who also have a great business background. Around 50% of our members are teams like PixelCut with clients such as Lego and Pixar, BoatAround or Min60 who created the Minute by minute app for Dennik N daily, helped to create Staffino and launched their own project Vernissage. We also have international teams such as Solved – The Clean Tech Company, Adaptiva and Jetquote, to name just a few. Roughly 30% are freelancers, namely developers, graphic designers, architects, marketers and content creators. They often help other teams and individuals based in the HUB during lunch breaks, networking or informal events. And the rest are non-profit and community-based projects. So it’s pretty diverse, and we are happy about that.
You tend to organize quite a lot of different events. Can we name and elaborate on some of the most important ones? Or all of them, if you wish.
Thanks to Baška Klimek´s creativity and drive, there are plenty of events and interesting activities held in our HUB. Most of them are a part of our complex formats. We try to create and develop formats that bring long-term change in the market. Of all of them, I can pick the Impact Incubator – the largest business incubator which has recently opened a new category, Technology for Good. I would also mention the Business Clinic – a series of free consulting sessions for selected startups in marketing, sales, business and legal fields.
We have organized the InnovationHack and a series of thematic Mashups – inspirational informal evenings during which we welcome interesting speakers, for example founders of Ecocapsule or young drones designer and many others. A lot of the formats and events we bring to the market are offered either for free or for a minimal fee, and that is possible only thanks to our main partners Telekom, ZSE, VÚB Banka and their foundations.
…and personally your most favorite one? Why?
The InnovationHack and the Impact Incubator, definitely. The winners of the InnovationHack clearly showed how modern technology can help society as well. The Impact Incubator is our flagship program, and I really like the purpose behind it. Our goal is to turn the attention of young entrepreneurs to more valuable and beneficial solutions and help them set up sustainable business models for their ideas and projects.
What does your daily job as the co-founder look like?
It varies a lot. My “typical“ day would be one third internal meetings covering the business topics and operational issues, one third would be business development and relationship management. The rest I typically allocate among our new programs and ideas we plan to elaborate on or launch, our global network, participation in our Impact Hub or external events and business administration, too. On top of that, I always try to find and dedicate some time to mentor the projects I like or believe in. And as we have two beautiful kids, my “typical” day can turn around completely, but that´s a different story 🙂
Can you reveal some of the future plans of the Impact Hub Bratislava?
Soon, we are launching the Impact Incubator vol. II for startups and projects in social business and technology for good areas. We plan to extend the opportunities for our members to use more Impact Hubs in Europe as our global network is present also in many startup cities, e.g. Berlin, Amsterdam or London. We plan to bring a few interesting formats that we like or which have worked well in our network or elsewhere. A more forward-looking intention is to bring the impact investment topic and impact investors to Slovakia; investors, who support promising and scalable social innovation startups and projects with innovative financing options. We would like to motivate the local investor community and important players (from the private sector, corporations, funds, banks, foundations) to participate in this effort as well. Besides that, we are constantly looking for meaningful and trustworthy partnerships with companies, organizations and individuals who share similar values and goals.
What is the best way to approach you?
In our Impact Hub Bratislava or via mail – email@example.com.
Photos: Branislav Smidt / ImpactHub