In the last month or so I have spent a fair amount of time in Europe, first in London and Cambridge, England with Silicon Valley Comes to the UK, and then in Paris, at the Le Web conference. I have judged two startup competitions, participated in a SeedCamp demo day, and met with dozens of founders and entrepreneurs. It has been an incredible survey of what is to come in Europe. There's lots of great stuff cooking. But European entrepreneurs face some real challenges when it comes to building their businesses and those challenges threaten to deeply retard the success rate of startups overseas.
The biggest challenge European entrepreneurs face is a crisis of capital. There simply isn't a robust network of angel investors who are actively investing in Europe. There are some exceptions (one of the Le Web startup competition judges reported that he was investing in about 2 startups a week -- a number that puts all but Ron Conway to shame) but the scale of early stage capital is insufficient to sustain the breadth of startup ideas being born. I believe that this lack of early stage capital is the biggest single challenge Europe faces when promoting the emergence and growth of a meaningful startup culture.
Angel investment isn't just about the capital. It is also about the advice. First time entrepreneurs face a mountain of challenges that they lack the experience to overcome. Good entrepreneurs overcome those challenges through strong intuition and sheer force of will. But great entrepreneurs overcome those challenges through strong intuition, sheer force of will, and the ability to draw upon the experience and advice of others who have navigated the challenges before them. Experienced early stage investors (be they angel investors or VCs) can help founders: avoid significant pitfalls; save time; use capital more efficiently; partner with others; think more strategically; raise future capital; etc. Without sufficient mentoring, European entrepreneurs will be left to navigate these perilous waters alone, severely inhibiting the number of survivors, let alone those who will prosper.
The early stage capital challenges European entrepreneurs face are compounded by the relative conservatism of the European Venture Capital market. Not only is it more difficult for companies abroad to raise startup capital, but they often need to make more progress than their American counterparts before qualifying for venture investment from non-US investors. Not surprisingly, many of the most promising European startups thus make fundraising trips to the United States, bypassing their local venture communities altogether. While this may good for the likes of August Capital, it will not help to grow a strong startup ecosystem overseas.
There is no question that it is important for Europe to nurture the entire startup ecosystem -- technologists, lawyers, accountants, bankers, debt providers, recruiters, etc. -- but until European entrepreneurs have a robust local source of startup capital, they will continue to fail disproportionately. Any European government hoping to incubate the next Silicon Valley should start there. The country that solves the capital conundrum will be the country on a path to meaningful startup growth and prosperity.