She still remembers the time and place where she first got in touch with the startup world. The amazing feeling and motivation is still there and growing. Here she is today, with the plan to send the most talented students from our region to the US startups and let them gain the best experience possible. StarLift’s co-founder and CEO, Lenka Kucerova.
CzechInvest, StartupYard, Wayra, StarLift. You’ve managed to be a part of many renowned startup initiatives, Lenka. Can we go back to your beginnings? Where did the whole story start?
It all started with my first real job. After 18 months of providing assistance to international companies in the services and IT sector at CzechInvest in Prague, I was appointed the Director of US West Coast Operations. My main task was to attract US companies to the Czech Republic. There was a bullet point in my final presentation to the agency’s management alluding to vague plans of connecting Czech technology companies to US venture capital, but in 2009, I had rather a limited idea of what a startup actually was – I think most Czech and Slovak technology entrepreneurs would not have called their ventures startups back then. 2009 was also marked by a full-on economic crisis with very few companies showing interest in the Czech Republic and quite a few of them departing at the same time.
Coming to Silicon Valley and getting acquainted with entrepreneurship supporting initiatives of countries like Denmark or Ireland made me fully realize that our future lay not in the success of international companies back home but of Czechs succeeding abroad. I initiated CzechAccelerator which broadened my scope of work by assisting Czech entrepreneurs in their efforts to conquer the Wild West, and it all went from there.
Do you remember your first touch with the world of startups? When and where was that? Why did startups catch your attention?
It was during my first trip to the Bay Area, sometime in the third week of April 2009, during which I was to organize the most important bits and pieces for my upcoming life in the US. I was required to open our West Coast office in Silicon Valley (as opposed to San Francisco) and the Czech Honorary Consul Richard Pivnicka took me to Plug and Play Tech Center in Sunnyvale. One of their numerous events was going on; the building was like a beehive – so much energy, enthusiasm, passion. Everyone seemed to be on a mission. There was a talk on the latest trends in the “cloud” – the first time I heard the term (and many others). I remember thinking to myself “oh gosh, what have I got myself into?”, but I was hooked.
What were your first impressions when you compared Czech/Slovak or Central European and US startup environment?
They were incomparable. The only proper US startup experience I have is from Silicon Valley. It is by no means perfect, but it is rightfully the mecca of innovation and entrepreneurship whose mentality and philosophy can be traced back to the Golden Rush era. It is a place where all key actors – investors, corporations, lawyers, government, universities but also families and friends have been working for generations to enable the coolest kid on the block i.e. the entrepreneur to come up with the next big thing. I came from a place where entrepreneurship was illegal for 40 years with no startup ecosystem to speak of. It is kind of fascinating to see how much it has changed since.
What are the first thoughts that cross your mind when we talk about the Slovak and Czech startup environment?
Talent is by far our biggest strength. It is impressive not only by regional standards that despite the not-so-favorable conditions, we have seen companies such as Avast or ESET rise to the very top. One must not forget that our ecosystems are still pretty nascent, and I am hopeful that more global successes are in the making. At the same time, there is still relative absence of know-how and experience of how impactful businesses are built. Many seem to lack vision, execution and the appreciation that exactly because they find themselves in Prague, Brno or Bratislava they should be working (much) harder than their counterparts in Singapore, Tel Aviv, London or San Francisco. I cannot help but feel a fair degree of complacency, entitlement and wasted opportunities coupled with insufficient hunger, ambition and drive hindering our countries’ potential.
If you could change one thing right now in Slovakia or the Czech Republic in terms of startups, entrepreneurship, education, etc., what would it be?
I’d love to see a (much) greater pursuit of entrepreneurial spirit by the society as a whole. By entrepreneurial spirit, I mean that one necessarily needs to strive to become an entrepreneur as opposed to an architect, doctor or craftsman. I think of it as a state of mind in which one believes in himself, pursues his passion, sees opportunities rather than problems, is willing to live for and invest in the future, take the occasional risk, has a natural need to create value for others – be it economic, social or cultural. Just imagine if parents, teachers, employees, the unemployed, pensioners, policy-makers, politicians – well, everybody – applied a small portion of such modus operandi to their daily personal and professional lives.
After about a year and a half, you left Wayra, and together with Andrej Kiska, you launched the StarLift program with the mission to help grow the next generation of high caliber leaders by giving them early exposure to some of the best technology workplaces in the world. Why did you switch from the world of an accelerator to the world of a non-profit organization?
It happened by default – Telefonica decided to close down Wayra Academies in countries where it had ceased to operate. In the end, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise – having gone through 4 batches at 2 accelerators, I was ready for a change. I worked on a concept of a co-creation space for a while, started exploring ways to encourage entrepreneurial spirit in children, even briefly toyed with the idea of returning to the civil service and almost ended up working at an awesome startup, initially believing that StarLift could be launched by giving it one day a week. By the end of the first month, I knew that if we wanted to get it off the ground, it deserved my full attention. Also, after having been helping startups for 6 years, I found the notion of working on my own “thing” quite appealing.
Can you recall the first idea of StarLift? Where did it come from?
Andrej approached me with an idea that stemmed out of his presentations on university grounds. He would argue that if students were seriously thinking about becoming entrepreneurs, they should do an internship at a startup and ideally in a place where they can learn and experience the most – Silicon Valley. Over some time, he registered an increasing number of inquiries about such an opportunity and thought there could be an organized way of getting the young and ambitious out there. By the time we spoke in May 2015, he had the general framework worked out. Only later, I found out that countries such as Finland or Singapore have had very similar programs for years, validating Andrej’s idea. I have not heard his presentation, but I’d imagine that the message has remained. However, he can now also provide a solution to some of the students.
How does your initiative work? Who can participate, how do you look for partners and startups, what costs are covered, etc.?
I need to stress that StarLift is going through some iterations and nothing is currently set in stone. The principle has remained the same – we are looking for the most promising talent and matching it with high quality startups. During my recent stay in the Bay Area, it became apparent that it’d be rather difficult to place candidates from the business and, to some extent, also design space. Consequently, we are likely going to focus predominantly on computer science candidates though we will surely keep our eyes open for interesting opportunities in other fields as well. Startups are interested in interns who can give them the promise of staying indefinitely and, thus, the program is better suited for fresh graduates as opposed to current students.
Successful startup scouting requires regular trips to the US at a minimum, ideally some kind of semi-permanent presence, to build trust and credibility – in the end, we provide the most precious resource companies have. Most of our leads have come from activating and building upon our existing network. We take care of all visa related expenses; the company pays a “stipend”. On the basis of feedback from startups, accelerators and VCs, we are going to charge a fixed rate per engineer regardless of his skills and experience, which will provide livable income to the intern while covering our costs.
The first batch of interns is planned to leave during the late summer this year. What did the selection process look like and where will the interns go?
We are still in the process of placing candidates both in Silicon Valley and NYC to smaller companies funded by quality capital. The “placement cycle” takes longer than originally expected, and also the technology labor market has noticeably cooled down and will continue doing so in the upcoming months – a few startups we have been speaking with have already been affected by the downturn. What is more than apparent is that companies are interested only in truly high caliber engineers who are proficient in trending technologies such as Ruby, Rails, Angular, React, Elasticsearch or MongoDB in case of full-stack developers and Scala, Spark, Hadoop or GraphX in case of data scientists.
Candidates also need to show sufficient hacking experience (starting projects from the scratch), a strong ability to learn quickly and be super productive and truly excited about the given company and its product. It goes without saying that they need to be comfortable with communicating and presenting in English and need to be able to sell themselves, clearly demonstrate what benefits they can bring to the table and work well within a team of people from different backgrounds and cultures. For future batches, we will definitely need to introduce a more thorough screening process focusing both on technical skills and experience as well as personal predispositions and motivations and possibly provide coaching and mentoring. We are positive there is some exceptional talent here, but some of those diamonds may be too rough and need some polishing before they can shine across the Atlantic.
StarLift was founded as a non-profit organization, therefore, it needs funding. Who are your supporters?
There is some misunderstanding in our part of the world of what non-profit means. As mentioned already, we are set on building a sustainable organization that can cover its cost by revenue it generates from placing the candidates, and any profit that we generate will be reinvested into the program with the goal of providing unique internship opportunities to as many applicants as we can.
For the validation and launch of the program, we approached companies that believe in our mission – Credo Ventures, Avast, YSoft, South Moravian Innovation Center, Reticulum, Etnetera and KPMG CZ. Given that more than a third of our applicants are Slovak, we are thinking about finding a partner in Slovakia, too.
What are the plans for StarLift and Lenka Kucerova in the future?
We are very much an early stage startup. We took our MVP to a tough market and gained useful insight and knowledge to make it more attractive. So far, I have been the only one working full-time, and although I have received amazing assistance from our part-timers (most of whom are Slovak), I am currently looking for a full-time buddy to help source the best Czech and Slovak talent, work closely with our applicants to ensure they are ready for work in the US, develop a tighter network of first-class startups and generally turn StarLift into a professionally run organization for the spring 2017 batch. As for me, I shall continue working on what I believe in, being surrounded by inspiring and fun people striving to make a difference, for that has always served me rather well.
Photos: Lenka Kucerova