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"Be available, flexible, and open-minded"

Michael Boland from Chicago talks about his three months as EIR in Albania and Macedonia

By Nina Nikolic, Swiss EP Macedonia

A conversation with Michael Boland (Chicago, USA) - designer and civic technologist, passionate about the interconnections of social well-being and creative, who was a Swiss EP Entrepreneur-In-Residence working with startups and supporting organizations in Macedonia and Albania from October to December 2017.

How did you find out about the EIR opportunity and why did you apply?

I had a couple friends from the UK who were working directly with Jakob and the Swiss EP program to develop some new and innovative programs for cities and communities throughout Albania. They had mentioned the program to me before I had moved to Portugal for the summer. During my stay in Porto, I applied to the program, interviewed with Max and Jakob, and ultimately agreed to work in Albania and Macedonia with the start-up communities.

I applied because I wanted to do two things:
1) I wanted to deeply understand the UX/UI design and web development processes I had been learning over the past few years and
2) be able to share that knowledge as well as recent work experiences from the USA, UK, and Western Europe with entrepreneurs in other countries - to support them in various capacities.

What were your expectations before coming to Tirana and Skopje (about the cities, the ecosystem, the startups)

I didn’t have too many expectations coming to Tirana and Skopje. I didn’t have a long time from applying to program to landing in Tirana to research the areas I’d be staying in or reach out to previous EIRs. But I had noticed trends around the United States, the UK, and Portugal/Spain in which the start-up ecosystems were becoming their own industry altogether - there were a lot of events happening in the space and a lot of money to be made working in it - but it also incentivized start-ups and entrepreneurs to stay in the space and linger/socialize. Because of this, it was more enjoyable for start-ups to remain start-ups and never move beyond that phase and into a running business phase. So, I more or less expected the ecosystems in the Balkans to operate in a similar way.

How does a day as an EIR look like?

I think my days differed from the other EIRs in Tirana and Skopje. While my colleagues were mostly working directly with organizations and specific start-ups, I had the flexibility to work with multiple groups. Serving as a community EIR, I was available to meet with start-ups, entrepreneurs, incubators, and accelerators to support and facilitate in their development and success. On a daily basis, I was meeting up with different people and discussing different topics - sometimes at coffee shops, or co-working spaces, or offices. No day was the same as the last and there was no set, predictable structure for my stay in Skopje. However, my schedule in Tirana was a little more structured and predictable.

What surprised you the most?

I was really surprised by how caring, friendly, and hospitable the entire ecosystem was to me: hosts, colleagues, startups, entrepreneurs, students, etc. I came to Skopje knowing 0 people and left with an entire community I still keep in contact with. I consider the other EIRs I met friends and still keep in touch with them regularly. It was a great experience and a great way to end my stay in Europe before moving back to the states.

What was your biggest learning of your stay here?

The biggest learning experiences I’ve taken away from my time as an EIR are those moments when a fellow EIR was sharing their expertise in their field or industry. I learned so much more about advertising, marketing, finance, and community development than I would’ve ever expected coming into the program. Because we shared a lot of time and experiences together, it was great to learn from the others and support them during their various talks, workshops, and conference presentations.

What are the main challenges that you've noticed for this region and suggestions to overcome these challenges?

I think more structure is necessary within incubator and accelerator programs. By this I mean more mentorship, training seminars or workshops, and much more communication between entrepreneurs and startups within the programs. Also, new incentives need to be created to support and facilitate startups out of the startup phase and into the big world of business. Given the affordable cost of living, multiple opportunities to win grants and awards for start-up ideas, and the significant amount of activities happening all over the city for start-ups, it can be hard to ever want to leave that bubble.

Therefore, I think the infrastructure that currently exists needs to be rethought or redesigned with an intention and emphasis to develop sustainable businesses in Macedonia (or any other country) - not to create an endless stream of new startups or for startups to be acquired by bigger players or leave the country. The Macedonian ecosystem will see the fruits of its labor when its companies become healthy cornerstones in the community - supporting, employing, and providing for the local community.

Would you recommend the EIR program and why?

I would recommend the EIR program to anyone who has business or technical knowledge to share and will truly dedicate the time to support entrepreneurs with their startup ideas and products/services. This program is also great for anyone looking to hone their own skillsets. By having to teach them to others, it makes you learn your industries and skills in a deeper and more profound way.

Your recommendation might make the difference in the way a startup approaches marketing. Your advice might save a startup from investing in an unsound technology or position. Your patience and understanding might help an entrepreneur find the clarity or an “aha” moment that sparks their next great invention. Be available, flexible, and open-minded and there’s no doubt you can make a lasting impact on the community here.

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