By Max Gurvits
On a hot September Sunday we sat down with Lane Becker in Austin, Texas, where he lives, to talk about his month in Sarajevo and Mostar this summer as Entrepreneur-in-Residence. As a Silicon Valley veteran of companies like Adaptive Path and Get Satisfaction, and more recently, a director at Code for America and senior tech advisor to the US Government, Lane has a rare and profound understanding of the way startups evolve from idea to company, and onwards to defining the communities where they got started.
How was your experience in Bosnia & Herzegovina?
We had an absolutely wonderful time. It was a huge privilege to spend a month in Mostar and Sarajevo, places with so much beauty and history. It’s one thing to visit the city as a tourist, and it’s a whole other thing when you’re dropped right into the local entrepreneurship community. This is particularly strong when you’re becoming part of the local technology scene; the language of technology is universal, as are the problems and opportunities.
What did you make of the entrepreneurship scene in Sarajevo and Mostar?
It reminded me a lot of the US in many ways. Like in many US cities, Sarajevo and Mostar are still in the early days of their communities. The thing you always want to know when you look at upcoming places is “what’s happening here that’s different from everywhere else and how can it be used to advantage”. One thing that struck me in Sarajevo is that the general tech skill level is quite high, while the cost of doing business is very low. And it was interesting to see how the local entrepreneurship centers are trying to figure out how to make use of that. Given that many other skills, like business development, are below average, I think these centers are doing the right thing by trying to make it easier for foreign startups to move their operations to a place like Bosnia.
What are the biggest challenges for Sarajevo and Mostar?
The country has a pretty intense government bureaucracy. As inexpensive as it can be to hire people there, it’s challenging to obtain permits, visas, and to figure out taxes. Governments should absolutely be taxing technology entrepreneurship, but they don’t need to collect all of the taxes all of the time. It’s called creating incentives, and that awareness isn’t yet present in Bosnia. Also, in truth, entrepreneurship cultures are hard to create. Individual people catch the bug quickly, but organizing it on city level isn’t easy. That’s why you should help individuals and try to create one success story that then inspires others.
What are the next steps for a community like Sarajevo or Mostar?
It’s all about thinking creatively on how to build structures and mechanisms that would allow people to experiment in being entrepreneurial. Part of being an entrepreneur is taking huge risks, but to be able to take huge risks, you need a degree of comfort and a safety net. It’s as much about creating a culture of “trying and not succeeding is ok” as it is about creating such structures. One thing that is very noticeable in a place like Bosnia is how much involvement there is from foreign aid organizations. These organizations are very powerful, but by spraying money around they can also do long-term harm. So it’s all about working with them to make sure that money is used well to create the right kind of opportunities and incentives for a culture of fearless experimentation. Another topic is incentivizing non-entrepreneurs. Much like in Silicon Valley, everyone always only talks about entrepreneurs. But in reality, they are just one group of people in the community. Investors are also just one other. There are so many other crucial players whose participation is essential for a community to thrive, and it’s important to also build facilities for them, involving them in the community-building process. These are the service providers, real estate businesses, and many others that also need to feel welcome and involved.
Any final thoughts for our friends in Bosnia & Herzegovina and the wider Balkans?
You know, I often get the feeling that when we talk about building a culture of entrepreneurship, many people get overwhelmed by the thought that the entire country needs to be changed. In reality, you don’t need to change everything. Most things in a place like B&H work just fine and are beautiful, and should stay the way they are. You just need to create a venue for a pretty small group of people. Uniting key folks so that one success story can happen. And then more will follow. Because success always breeds success.
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