When the University of Prishtina failed to introduce reforms like other European establishments of higher education, Kushtrim Xhakli opted out in disappointment and went to Hyper Island in Sweden to study instead. In the early dotcom years, he created websites as a freelancer and quickly became successful; the Kosovan government took over Trajnimi, an online education platform that he had developed, and made it an official national platform for digital learning. Xhakli took advantage of the publicity to establish his first company, Fast Europe Ventures, which offered mobile payment and bank consultancy services. He then acted as the co-founder of changers.com, based in Berlin, a company which produces solar-powered devices. Then he ended up where he is now at the Digital Banking Index. Using the Net Promoter Score system, it compares various financial institutions’ mobile and digital banking terms of service.
“As a strife-torn country, Kosovo deserves a chance to get involved in the European startup scene on an equal footing,” Xhakli opines. For that same reason, he wants to offer the next generation of entrepreneurs the support that he could never rely on.
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THE RED BULLETIN: Does Kosovo have advantages as a location?
KUSHTRIM XHAKLI: Kosovo has a very advantageous geographical position. It shares common values with all the large countries close by and if a product works in Kosovo, you can replicate it in bigger markets like Italy or Turkey. Another advantage is that the country is small; from day one, you have to think and act internationally. Take Estonia. It’s the same size as Kosovo, but very influential.
What are the main complications that startups in south-eastern Europe have to fight against?
We lack experience and finance in this part of Europe. But the main obstacles are the ways we think and work because we don’t meet international standards – and the fear of failure. You could be forgiven for thinking there’s a lack of infrastructure, but that’s no longer the case. There’s broadband internet everywhere now; Romania and Bulgaria actually have the cheapest and fastest broadband in the world. There’s also movement in the public sector. Montenegro, Macedonia and Romania all have ministries which deal exclusively with information technology and telecommunications. One of the world’s most advanced SAP Labs is in Sofia, Bulgaria. And if you look at the level of education, south-eastern Europe is producing 6,000 IT graduates a year and many of them are multilingual, speaking German and English too.
Are things more difficult for Kosovo because it isn’t recognised as a sovereign state?
Kosovo has the greatest number of problems. Itis the only country in the Balkans whose citizens aren’t allowed to travel around the Schengen Area without a visa. Entrepreneurs can’t just jump on a plane and take part in a conference in Berlin. Kosovo isn’t fully recognised on the internet either – a lot of internet sites don’t give Kosovo as an option in their drop-down menus. I set up the e-government platform Digital Kosovo in order to change that. Everyone can go on and lobby for the digital inclusion of Kosovo.
Give them a chance
Kushtrim Xhakli supports young Kosovan tech entrepreneurs. He now lives in Berlin and Vilnius, but with the IPKO Foundation (IF) he organises events in Prishtina, which bring together young startups and experts, financiers and businesses from the EU
How are things looking with financing and assistance?
Companies spend hours filling out application forms to get money. But most initiatives no evaluation of how effective a company has been in achieving its goals. So whether or not you get financing depends as much on how good you are at filling out forms as it does on the quality of your product. From the donor’s point of view, it’s often not about sustainable entrepreneurship or how many jobs are going to be created.
Is corruption also a problem?
To date there have been no headlines regarding corruption when it comes to funding applications. But as I said earlier, when it comes to startups, the administrative structures are very underdeveloped. You could also say there is no public funding, therefore there isn’t any corruption either.