Does Europe lack ambition? No, but some Europeans do

It’s no great secret that things are pretty gloomy across Europe right now. Everywhere startups and investors see problems, whether it’s in the precarious situation across the Eurozone, local concerns about political changes, or complaints that the environment is too “negative”.

We recently spoke to a couple of local entrepreneurs who voiced some of the same concerns you hear a lot when you travel around the continent: Europe is risk averse, Europe is short on capital, Europe doesn’t have enough big successes to build on.

Here, you can see what they said:


“I think that the visions in the U.S. are a lot bigger, right from the beginning,” said Stefan Jørgensen of ItemBase, a Danish startup that wants to help you keep track of what you own. “The culture in Europe is that you don’t dare to dream as big.”

Belgian Pieter Dubois, founder of online payment plaform Paycento, agreed that the scale of people’s ambition was too small. “What you see is that in Europe people want immediately to see cashflows, they want immediately to have these customers,” he said. “That’s important, but sometimes an idea needs some time to really come to fruition.”

They are not alone. These complaints, or variations of them, have been echoing round for years — and show no signs of going away.


Now, however, you can see a growing number of people who are starting to buck the trend and try to fix the problems they see around them.

Last week I reported the comments of Index Ventures partner Neil Rimer, who thinks that big European companies should stop being “defeatist” and consider going public.

“My sense is that if the right company were presented in the right context and at the right valuation to the right investors, there would be a meeting of minds and the company would be able to sell its shares to the public and complete an IPO in London.

I am also convinced that these companies exist, are ready to go public and are simply waiting for their management teams, boards and advisors to have the guts to do pull the trigger. My prediction is that a few days after some of these companies complete their offerings, boards and management teams will be advised that the London IPO market is now miraculously open again.”

He’s joined by a cohort of others who aren’t moaning, they’re just getting things done. There are dozens of startups we’ve reported on that are building global businesses from London, Berlin, Paris, and elsewhere

For example, Stefan Glaenzer, a prominent entrepreneur-turned-investor with Passion Capital, told me recently that Europe should stop constantly looking to California and recognize the successes that have happened at home.

“I’m not aware of a single European founder who made it big in the Valley,” he said. “We have created at least five to 10 billion dollar companies in the past 10 years here in Europe, so let’s build on that — let’s not lose out to America.”

And then, of course, there’s Germany’s Rocket Internet. Love them or hate them (and most people hate them) the Samwer brothers aren’t asking for anyone’s permission to make significant web-based businesses in Europe: they’re out raising money and launching dozens of companies across nearly 60 countries.

At the heart of this movement is the idea that European businesses can turn their weaknesses — facing a fragmented market with lots of linguistic and cultural boundaries — into their strengths: gathering the skills to go global early.

That’s something that ItemBase’s Jørgensen agreed with.

“The world is my market, because there’s no difference if I launch in Germany or France or Brazil,” he said. “There’s no difference because the challenges are more or less the same. If I want to launch in the US that would be the same as going to France.”

Between them, all of these people see that complaining that Europe isn’t Silicon Valley is beside the point. Focus on what you can, not what you can’t.

Still, I don’t know whether this will put to bed the entire discussion about Europe’s weaknesses — clearly it’s a subject people have a lot of affection for (perhaps affection isn’t the right word). But it’s certainly a sentiment that’s gaining momentum.

Is this the beginning of something?

Photograph of Neil Rimer used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Lift conference;