Greece is the poster child of the European crisis, exemplifying the worst of southern Europe: An economy built on the basis of a gigantic, inefficient and corrupt public sector running up record levels of debt with a private sector largely dependent on the state.
Beyond the usual analyses and criticisms related to Greece's public sector, a less known fact is that for the past 20 years Greece has been importing, en masse, products that have been conceived and produced abroad. We have taken 'the road most travelled by' and in the process become a nation of unimaginative re-sellers. We must create new economic foundations built on creativity, discipline and extroversion.
A growing number of young Greeks are doing just that -- reacting to the crisis by creating export-oriented businesses largely driven by technology. Start-ups framed on innovative products are springing up on a daily basis.
For example, there are more than 100 young companies active in the mobile applications space with total sales of close to a $1 billion, over 80 percent of which comes from outside of Greece. Greek start-ups are also for the first time attracting interest from top international investors and buyers: Workable, an HR software company based in Athens just received funding from Greylock, Bugsense was sold to Splunk, and Blind Type was sold to Google. Its founders subsequently set up Fleksy, which received funding from Kleiner Perkins. This week 16 Greek startups will jointly present at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, TX, the first time so many Greek entrepreneurs have presented on a global stage. I wish them luck as they network and meet potential partners, customers and investors.
Events in which young entrepreneurs meet to exchange ideas are becoming a cool thing to do on a Saturday evening. Tedx Athens was the second largest Tedx event in the world last year, with some speeches getting more than two million views. Open Coffee Athens events fill out 500 people auditoriums on a regular basis and offer very high quality speeches and guidance from an experienced team that set up one of the first tech VC's in Greece, Open Fund. Four Greek VC's are now investing over $100 million in early-stage Greek tech companies.
An embryonic entrepreneurial ecosystem is emerging, with an increasing number of awareness events, competitions, incubators and mentorship and training programs. Several strong nonprofits are working to fill specific gaps in the support system. For example, Endeavor Global launched a Greece chapter in 2012 that has scaled faster than any other chapter globally. The Hellenic Initiative launched the Hellenic Entrepreneurship Award, which provides both startup capital and mentorship to early stage entrepreneurs. And it is supporting VentureGarden, an Athens and Thessaloniki-based program that will provide intensive training and mentorship to would-be entrepreneurs in the early stages of business formation.
These are still early days, and there is more hype than substance. But hype creates excitement, and excitement encourages experimentation. And good ideas will emerge as strong companies.
To turn the tides and build a sustained trade surplus, Greece must create more goods and technologies that are competitive in a global marketplace. The entrepreneurs who will lead this change will also provide strong role models to a new generation of young people, mending our injured national psyche and offering pathways to success in the private sector.
Greece's reconstruction after the war was driven by the ethos and determination of small producers: manufacturers, builders and artisans. These were people who worked hard and in their own way innovated. That's exactly what a growing number of young Greeks are doing today -- building novel businesses and products and not opting for the 'easy road' of becoming re-sellers. Most of them have the stamina and guts to either change the rotten domestic landscape or travel to the ends of the earth to export their products. They are taking 'the road less traveled by,' and that will make all the difference.