Lisbon has the potential to become a “top-tier” business market but comparing it to Silicon Valley only “discredits” it, says Amir Bozorgzadeh, the CEO and co-founder of Virtuleap.

Virtuleap is a health and education VR startup based in Lisbon, which aims to elevate the cognitive assessment and training industry with the help of emerging technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI).

Amir Bozorgzadeh, co-founder and CEO of Virtuleap, presenting at Web Summit 2019 (Photo credit: Supplied by Virtuleap.)
Amir Bozorgzadeh, co-founder and CEO of Virtuleap, presenting at Web Summit 2019. Photo supplied by Virtuleap

In an exclusive interview with Via News, Amir said he decided to headquarter his company in Lisbon for various reasons, including its huge potential.

“The Portuguese are very remarkable and very unique in Europe and the world as being a foreign country where the youth, in particular, have very specialized training in science, neuroscience, engineering, and game development all across the board. There’s a high speaking fluency level of English. They’re very curious people. They’re very generous people. They’re lovely to live around and be among, which creates a really good work culture. It’s a very special country.”

The decision was also made for more practical reasons, he said, adding that some of the specialized talents in Portugal would be “very unaffordable” for startups like them in other markets.

No Need for Comparison

When asked about the strengths and weaknesses of the startup community in Portugal, Amir said, “I think the people who are the leaders might over-appreciate how important being a leader in a small market is.”

He believes that Lisbon is still a small market and needs to not compare itself to other markets. “It needs to grow at its own pace and become whatever it’s supposed to be. It’s not the next Berlin. It’s not the next Silicon Valley. It’s nothing of these things. Those kinds of comments only discredit it because people from those markets will not look lightly when they say that.”

He says Lisbon is very much tourist-oriented at present than it is commercially driven. “That’s a fact of reality. But there’s a trend happening. People are moving here. Investment is moving here. And the startup community is potent and small but fairly strong and diversified. I think it can explode potentially in 10 years. But that’s speculation. Right now as it is, it is a modest market. You can’t call it a top-tier market, but it has the potential to be.”

Web Summit's promotional item in Praça do Comércio, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo credit: Rick Morais.
Web Summit’s promotional item in Praça do Comércio, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo credit: Rick Morais

Amir said they are based in Lisbon because they believe that it is going to be one of the “hubs” of Europe for many international companies.

In his opinion, the Portuguese capital will become one of the highest-rated places in Europe for Silicon Valley companies because of all its distinctive features such as the weather, the culture, the educational space, and even the San Francisco vibe.

“London is a little bit too dense, and it’s a little bit too set in its ways. It has its kind of ecosystem, and it’s hard for it to see outside itself. It almost doesn’t care. Berlin is very similar. Lisbon is open-minded. It’s a reflection of its people.”

‘Expensive’ Mistake

One of the “expensive” mistakes that Virtuleap made and hurt them “a lot” was getting a UK parent company so Amir advises startup founders against going down the same path.

“The UK government is very alienating to companies that have a UK parent company but aren’t based in the UK. We couldn’t even open up a bank account for one and a half years. It means we couldn’t apply for grants. It means we couldn’t hire people.”

He says a Delaware parent company is much more preferred. “And I would say that investors in Europe, especially in Portugal, are very conservative. They are not open-minded. They want traction, and they want lots of traction. So they would beware of emerging technologies like VR.”

Be Careful With VCs!

Virtuleap’s co-founder says entrepreneurs should be very careful with Venture Capitalists (VCs) at the early stages because they can waste a lot of the owner’s time and may give a lot of false promises.

“Just be very very aware that your heart can be broken many many times by these people. And their heart is not broken at all. And this is their business. They see you as just a numbers game.”

According to his experience, startups should always try to create the product and launch it before they look for investment.

“Try to launch something and get traction, even small traction. But get it live… Always get customers first. And if you can’t do that then it already tells you something about your business,” he tells startup aspirants.

Amir says VCs may promise that they are going to support you but they will not do that when the time comes. “They’ll do that if you’re already a rich person or a very successful person.”

Besides, he recommends that entrepreneurs target the VC that is particular in the sector they want to work in.

“Don’t go for general VCs. If you’re a social impact startup, talk to a social impact-themed VC. That’s at least going to minimize the level of the heartbreak that you’re going to have because startups aren’t easy.”

Everyone looks at the exceptions and they try to make a rule based on the exceptions, he said. “It’s not the case. You have to be the kind of person and you have to tell yourself that you’re the kind of person that if you fail you’re going to get back up and try again with another idea. There are a lot of perks, but there’s a lot of pain. But if you’re prepared, you can succeed.”

Finding Co-Founders

As another piece of advice, Amir says those who want to establish their own business should be very careful about choosing their co-founders because having a wrong co-founder is a lot of paperwork and unnecessary pain as well.

“Work with them on some projects or tasks before you ever commit. Try to go on a little journey together. Go on hiking sessions. Go do some weird things. Play tennis against each other. See how you rub against each other in different ways,” he said, adding that at least two months of interactivity together is needed to get past the superficial to know each other.

Success Has No ‘Formula’

Virtuleap’s CEO says there is no “formula” to being successful or for a product to be a success. “Successful People previously are not heroes from a Greek myth that needs to be listened to… They’re just as in the dark as someone who appears right in the beginning in many ways. In other ways, they’ve learned. They know good habits. They know the right formulas for a lot of things.”

Amir noted that factors such as age and skills should be respected but entrepreneurs should avoid both putting someone on a pedestal and looking down on anyone.

“It’s a jumble. There are conceit and arrogance in people who are successful. And there’s a conceit in people who are naïve about unsuccessful people. They both have their own delusions. Anyone who is up there can go down there and the other way around.”