Startup Portugal is taking steps toward attracting more foreign entrepreneurs and facilitating the collaboration between international and local investors, says a senior official at the public-private think tank.
“We have to be able to attract entrepreneurs to Portugal faster and more easily,” João Mendes Borga, director at Startup Portugal, told Via News in a recent exclusive interview when asked about their objectives for the years ahead.
Established in 2016, Startup Portugal operates as a medium between the government, entrepreneurs, incubators, and accelerators.
It identifies the needs of the entrepreneurial ecosystem and helps design and implement public policies and private initiatives that serve the community and pave the way for bringing in the best foreign talent and investors.
João, who holds an MBA from the University of Manchester, joined Startup Portugal as a director in 2017. He has years of experience in business and strategy development, startup management, and supporting growth both in large companies and entrepreneurial environments.
He has previously held senior positions at various entities, including project manager at Startup Lisboa, special advisor at the Ministry of Economy, and managing director at the National Network of Incubators.
João says they are making efforts to further streamline the process that non-Portuguese founders should go through to establish a company in the country.
“Entrepreneurs should be able to build a company as easy as a Portuguese person within less than an hour, and they should be able to access all support initiatives in English… and understand them easily.”
A More Open Ecosystem
Startup Portugal is on a mission to help create a “more open ecosystem” that cannot only produce globally scalable projects but also can support founders who are coming from abroad to Portugal, he added.
Startup Portugal’s director believes that more communication and information in English is required to help foreign entrepreneurs get a better understanding of the latest developments in the Portuguese startup community.
According to João, another area of focus is investment. “Portugal is not as experienced as other European and American investment ecosystems… So we need more international investors to partner with our national investors to build bigger and more scalable ventures.”
Startup Portugal is on a mission to help create a “more open ecosystem”.João Mendes Borga, director at Startup Portugal
Creating “stronger bonds” within the entrepreneurship community is another objective pursued by Startup Portugal to create an environment more conducive to knowledge sharing.
Citing the example of a business that is growing exponentially and is on the verge of reaching 20 million users, João said, “There are not so many people in digital marketing in Portugal who know how to deal with a 20-million-people pipeline.”
He maintains that greater success in such areas requires more interaction and sharing of knowledge between entrepreneurs.
Startup Portugal’s director says they have 40 different initiatives aimed at adding value to the startup scene in the country.
“From an investor’s point of view, we have initiatives such as Startup Hub, which tries to map the whole ecosystem. So if you’re trying to find a startup for a specific technology in Portugal for instance, that could be a tool that didn’t exist in the past and is constantly evolving.”
He was referring to a digital database that includes information about startups, incubators, tech hubs, and support programs available in Portugal that has given visibility to around 2,500 startups and scaleups so far.
He said they also publish the list of active investors in the country, which is especially useful for those who do not want to invest directly in a startup and are looking for a partner.
Another successful program run by Startup Portugal is Startup Voucher that targets entrepreneurs in the idea stage.
Over a thousand entrepreneurs have been supported through the initiative in the last four years, João said.
Asked about the progress in efforts to make Portuguese companies scalable in the international market, Startup Portugal’s director said they have been doing so in different ways.
According to him, these include providing visibility to Portuguese entrepreneurs on the Startup Hub platform, developing initiatives that will lead to the participation of best-in-class startups in international events, and introducing the national startup ecosystem to the world in a more effective way.
“I think for many many years what was happening in our community and our local ecosystem was not communicated internally and externally in the right manner and that had an implication for everyone,” João said, adding that the pace of developments has increased and more investors are entering the Portuguese market due to improved communication.
The #MissionsAbroad program is Startup Portugal’s initiative to further promote Portuguese talent abroad.
According to the think tank’s website, the program has so far taken Portuguese startups to countries such as Brazil, Finland, Germany, India, the United States, Spain, Canada, and the UK to participate in tech events, meet investors and influential players, or visit incubators and other important local tech hubs. It also helps Portuguese companies with the recruitment process in foreign countries.
Increasing Success Rate
On Startup Portugal’s role in making startups more sustainable, João said there are incentives such as Vale Incubação to help startups have lower costs at the beginning.
Vale Incubação, which is referred to as “Incubation Voucher” in English on Startup Portugal’s website, offers support to companies with less than one year of experience in the field of entrepreneurship through contracting services provided by certified incubators.
The services are related to areas such as management, marketing, legal advice, intellectual property protection, and participation in entrepreneurship and innovation competitions.
“We also have incentives for business angels and venture capital companies that can help increase the survivability of a good project,” João said.
However, he argues that failure should not be looked down upon because the whole point of entrepreneurship is testing new ideas and receiving feedback from the market.
Dealing With Failure
Startup Portugal’s director said they are doing their best to help failed founders keep their spirits high but it is a “very personal and emotional” journey.
“I think the best we can do is to have a booming startup ecosystem where the skills that you acquire while building your startup can be used by other startups. Other founders should recognize that what failed wasn’t that person, it was the idea,” he noted, adding that developing such a mindset can help entrepreneurs value and use each other’s experience and skills.
“It’s a learning process. So we do support people sharing their failure stories and do not want them to be condemned when ideas and projects fail… but I do believe it’s more of an emotional process within each founder to reinvent himself and come back.”
“Other founders should recognize that what failed wasn’t that person, it was the idea.”João Mendes Borga, director at Startup Portugal
On what makes Startup Portugal unique, João said it is the DNA that helps them stand out in the Portuguese startup world.
“It’s built by entrepreneurs, ex-entrepreneurs, and people who have been in the startup ecosystem for a while. So whenever we interact with our partners—whether it’s big corporations, state entities, politicians, incubators, accelerators, or other startups—we know that we have the DNA of someone who has gone through the hurdles and the roller coaster of a startup.”
It enables Startup Portugal to convey a more special message as it can speak on behalf of the people it supports and represents, he explained.
When asked about their major accomplishments so far, João said there are many things that they are proud of, including the fact that they have been helping startups in their journeys toward becoming scale-ups and unicorns.
Startup Portugal has also been instrumental in attracting a large number of tech people and founders, which has enriched the country’s pool of talent.
Despite all these achievements, João says they do not want to indulge in complacency and keep evaluating and revising their initiatives through organizing events, consulting with other parties concerned, and bringing together entrepreneurs and state officials under one roof to share their perspectives.
Startup Portugal has been instrumental in attracting a large number of tech people and founders to the country.João Mendes Borga, director at Startup Portugal
According to him, the outcome of one of such private meetings attended by the prime minister, the minister of economy, and the secretary of the industry was the modification of some regulations concerning the time frame for accepting applications from entrepreneurs—which in turn resulted in the possibility of attracting foreign talent throughout the year.
He said they will continue to listen to entrepreneurs to stay on the right path. “There are probably things they are facing that we haven’t heard about. So we need to do more to help them solve the things that we don’t know about yet.”
On what he has learned personally during his time as the director of Startup Portugal, which itself is a kind of startup in nature, João said he has realized that “problems do not stand still”.
“As soon as you start to work on and solve a problem for the community, it mutates and changes. It becomes a different animal,” he noted, adding that the difficulty of the task in hand should never be underestimated.
“So keep learning from the people on the ground even after launching. Keep validating your idea to make sure that you are solving the problem [in question] rather than changing it to something different.”
Additionally, João says it is truly important to surround oneself with great partners and assemble a great, trustworthy team that is ready to burn the midnight oil with you. “But give them time to relax because you’ll need them in the future. So don’t burn them out.”
“Lastly, I would say, ‘Aim for the Moon or Mars’. They’re out there. You can go after big, bold objectives. And if you believe in them, things will happen to you to help you achieve them.”