So there I was last year, having dinner at the Grande Bretagne, the most prestigious hotel in Athens. Alexandra Vovolini, publisher of my book, Welcome to Entrepreneur Country, and wife of the hotel’s owner, was helping me to celebrate the Greek edition of my book being released in Athens.
I found myself sitting across from a Greek entrepreneur who was talking about his business and how it was enabling brands to create new revenue streams with mobile applications. Finally, I asked him how big his business was. I nearly fell off my chair when he said: ‘Oh, about £150 million of revenue this year.’ This was a digital business in austerity-racked Athens of today? In a country hardly nourishing to entrepreneurs at the best of times?
Then I asked him how many digital businesses there were based in Athens that had £150 million of revenue, and he said: ‘Probably about two or three dozen.’
Really? Don’t the media just always get it wrong? I hazard a guess that not too many of us realised that there were around 30 firms in Athens with £150 million of revenue each.
With a name like Ariadne Capital, taken from King Minos’s daughter, I don’t really need an excuse to go to Athens. (I chose Ariadne as we help our entrepreneurs with a golden thread to get through their maze.) Yes, having a Greek edition of my book — and a Greek shareholder — was a motivation, but also I was frankly intrigued, having read Michael Lewis’s Boomerang: could it really be that bad in one of the PIGS?
What I have discovered through seven recent trips to Athens has made me want to embrace the country. I was introduced to Harris Konstantinou, the founder of Printec Group, which delivers electronic point-of-sale systems and cash management solutions in fifteen countries, working through petrol stations. By all measures the firm has been very successful, and the management team are world-class. Like many businesses today, they are keen to engage with the digital world, and they are starting to make investments and partnerships to do so.
Meeting Michael G Logothetis of the Libra Group, a very successful shipping firm which has diversified, helped me see to what extent the best businesspeople in Greece are investing in the future of the country. The Libra Group founded, and is funding and managing, the Hellenic Entrepreneurship Award on behalf of The Hellenic Initiative, a non-profit organisation that is undertaking a number of economic development programmes designed to encourage entrepreneurship and investment in Greece.
Petros Kokkalis, meanwhile, has founded The Cube, a start-up village/co-working space, as well as leading innovation for his family’s firm, Intracom Holdings, which is one of south-east Europe’s biggest groups in telecoms products, networks, IT, defence electronics and intelligent homes. Intracom is a listed group which exports to 80 countries and draws a third of its revenue from abroad, with consolidated revenues of €513.7 million and more than 4,400 employees.
Kokkalis is also the president of the Athens Information Technology Institute, which has established its own university to produce the people it needs. This is an education and research centre at graduate and even PhD level, co-operating with, among others, Johns Hopkins University in the US.
One of the most impressive entrepreneurs I’ve ever met, and one who captured the imagination of investors at the last Follow the Entrepreneur forum, is Andreas Raptopoulos, the Greek founder of Matternet. Matternet is an unmanned aerial vehicle (ie drone) business which is revolutionising the transportation industry. Whereas Andreas went to Menlo Park in California to build Matternet, we at Ariadne have built a European investment firm and a franchise so that investors and entrepreneurs don’t feel that they have to go to the Valley any longer. They can now systematically create a global firm based in Athens — or any European city.
Today, Greece is being redefined by its entrepreneurs — industrious, creative and ambitious. They are helping their country to sort through the problems caused by its government and its unwieldy public sector. This crisis will enable Greece to become Greek again, on the backs of its entrepreneurs, provided it learns the real lesson: government can’t take care of you. (By the way, that’s a lesson for all of us.)
On my last trip back, I picked up a book of photos of some of the most exquisite islands and places to stay in Greece. There’s a place on Santorini with a view of the Caldera with my name on it. Thank goodness I now have plenty of entreprising excuses for going back to Greece.
Julie Meyer is the managing partner of the Ariadne Capital Entrepreneurs Fund and the founder of EntrepreneurCountry