First and foremost: What is Yunus Social Business Balkans?
As the Country Director of Yunus Social Business Balkans (once YSB Albania) Shkelzen Marku defines it, “Yunus Social Business – Global Initiatives is a social accelerator that incubates and finances local entrepreneurs to build solutions from ground-up. It is co-founded by the Nobel Laureate, Professor Muhammad Yunus, with local teams of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, bankers and consultants. Its headquarters are in Germany, has local offices in 7 other countries (including Albania) and activities in many more countries. Since 2011, this global initiative has deployed over USD 7 million to social businesses in different countries, supporting over 400 entrepreneurs and positively impacting lives of more than 200,000 persons.”
Experiencing the success of no more than three years of organization’s activity in Albania (YSBA started operations in mid-2012 in Tirana capital), the Yunus Social Business Albania decided to transform into a Balkan platform for funding social businesses. Thus, young entrepreneurs who seek and aim to have a social impact in the societies they live in, have an excellent upcoming opportunity where they can pitch their social business ideas: YSBB Accelerator Program 2015.
Seeing this from the perspective of an enthusiastic Albanian, the turn-round of YSBA is just another step which contributes in transforming Albania into a hub of entrepreneurship for the Balkan region. In a very short time, the platform gained an important weight in the Albanian community of young entrepreneurs by providing funding opportunities and a successful accelerator program.
In order to know more about the program and the platform itself, we have prepared an interview with Shkelzen Marku, Country Director of Yunus Social Business Balkans.
- When YSB did start its operations in Albania and the Balkans and when did you join this organization?
YSB started its operations in Albania in mid-2012, initially registered as a branch of YSB-Global Initiative, and started supporting local social entrepreneurs to develop their social business initiatives. Soon it became obvious that, besides entrepreneurial services, the lack of financing was one of the major issues for implementation of such social business, thus in early-2013 was established the YSB Fund Albania, being the first social business fund in the Balkans. I joint YSB from its beginnings in Albania, first as Country Director, and then I was lucky to be one of the co-founders of YSB Fund Albania, together with Prof. Yunus, Saskia Bruysten and Alexis Rawlinson, all of them strongly committed to social business cause and with huge experience in venture capital and business development services.
Since July 2015, following the request from various partners, YSB Albania has become YSB Balkans, expanding its activities and opening the Accelerator Program and investment opportunities also to the other Western Balkan countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia). All these countries face significant and almost similar social challenges and, despite improvements in the recent years, have yet an underdeveloped ecosystem for startups and even more so for social business startups. We think that YSB’s experience both in Albania and around the work will be very valuable in fostering entrepreneurship and social business initiatives in these countries.
- What types of support does YSB Balkans provides to entrepreneurs?
YSB Balkans offers entrepreneur services and financing. The entrepreneur services include a 4-month Accelerator Program with training, coaching, and mentorship, access to markets and experts as well as testing opportunities. The most promising social businesses have the opportunity to pitch their businesses to our Investment Committee, and potentially receive seed or growth financing amounting usually from EUR 50,000 to 350,000. They will also be able to pitch to other potential funders and investors on Demo Day.
- When the Accelerator Program does start and what do young entrepreneurs gain from attending it?
The applications for third edition of the Accelerator Program are already open until 30 September and the Program will be held during November 2015 – February 2016. The program is a excellent opportunity for new entrepreneurs to develop their personal and professional skills, test and develop their business models, receive mentoring from national and international experts, receive a range of services from our partners and gain direct access to YSB global network and a global community of like-minded and inspiring entrepreneurs as well as prepare their startup’s for investment readiness. The best performing entrepreneurs during the program have the opportunity to receive a matching grant of up to EUR 1,000 to be used for testing/piloting of their business ideas. In addition, for the high-potential social business entrepreneurs, we do provide a continued support even after the Program.
In few years we have supported more than 200 entrepreneurs with various entrepreneurial services and have deployed about USD 700,000 to social businesses in Albania. Also, 11 startups out 26 that have fully completed our Accelerator Program have gone to market, newly established or sustained their businesses.
- What type of entrepreneurs are you looking for or which are the requirements for a startup to become part of your Accelerator Program?
We are on the lookout for strong teams that have had initial traction in the market. More specifically, we are looking for: social business entrepreneurs in the making; startups with potential to create significant and quantifiable impact (social or ecological), and; social businesses looking for seed or growth capital. To be eligible, applicants should: have a startup/business initiative that creates impact in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro or Serbia; have a startup initiative at early planning, prototype or growth stage, and; be aged 20 and above at the start of the program.
- How do your mentors proceed during the mentorship you give to new startups?
Mentoring is an important part of our Accelerator Program. We have a network of more than 100 mentors from various countries that have subscribed to our mentoring program. Each startup in the Program has the opportunity to be matched with one or more mentors. Mentoring is done in several one-to-one sessions arranged between the mentor and the entrepreneurs, with facilitation and support as required from YSB team. Mentors role is to guide the entrepreneur through asking questions, and when questions cannot be answered help the entrepreneurs find those answers through effective testing and process. Mentors’ questions and suggestions, along with encouragement and personal support for entrepreneurs’ efforts, help them further enhance and validate the business case. Mentors provide the entrepreneur with insights from their practical and personal experiences that otherwise may not be accessible to the entrepreneur by the local community. It gives entrepreneurs an opportunity to look at his or her business from a different angle, which will be beneficial for the entrepreneur to improve the business model and the business plan and/or solve any key issues or challenges the entrepreneur is currently facing.
- Can an angel investor join and support startups in your Accelerator Program?
Yes, they can. At the end of the program we do organize e Demo Day where graduated startups pitch their businesses not only to our Investment Committee but also to other potential funders and investors. Several potential funders attended our previous Accelerator Program edition’s Demo Day in February 2015. However, as I mentioned before, the overall startup ecosystem in the Balkans is yet “under construction” and angel investor networks are either missing or at a very early stage. Albania doesn’t have such a network yet, but the good news is that a group of Albanian entrepreneurs has now started initiating it.
- Do you offer funding opportunities for startups that do not attend the Accelerator Program?
Yes, we do. The Accelerator Program and the financing are two stand alone instruments. A strong entrepreneur or team with a good social business initiative that has ensured initial traction in the market and has promising social impact can approach us directly for seed or growth financing without obligatory passing through the Accelerator Program. Both those having finished the Accelerator Program and those approaching us directly for financing are equally judged against the same set of financing criteria being linked to the potential for social/environmental impact; strength of the entrepreneur and the team; business model strength and risk profile; replicability and scalability; and maturity and confidence in execution.
- Do you think YSB support and the Accelerator Program have resulted successful so far in Albania and why?
You know, this kind of startup support business is very much like baseball, if you hit two out ten you’re a good hitter, you hit three you’re a great one. I think we have had very good results so far, considering the overall situation of the startup ecosystem in Albania and the fact that this type of services is relatively new to Albania. In few years we have supported more than 200 entrepreneurs with various entrepreneurial services and have deployed about USD 700,000 to social businesses in Albania. Also, 11 startups out 26 that have fully completed our Accelerator Program have gone to market, newly established or sustained their businesses. Out of them, four social businesses have received financing from YSB while other startups, after having developed their skills and business models during the program, have bootstrapped or managed to secure funding from other investors. So, overall, this makes for an encouraging rate of success of the program.
- Which have been the most successful projects funded by YSB in Albania?
All of them are all yet at their early startup stages, thus difficult to speak for success. However, I will mention two of them which have already started demonstrating promising results. The first one is the Seniors’ House social business, which is providing high standard residential care services to elderly people in Tirana and has generated so far 12 employments. The second one is the Saint George Valley Organic Farm, which produces certified organic medical herbs as a means to generate employment and increase poor household incomes in rural areas of Petrele and Shengjergj. In less than eight months of operations, it has generated 45 employment and promises to reach more than 200 employments in its third year.
- How do you measure the social impact of a business funded by you in the Albanian society?
For all social businesses improving social impacts is a primary goal, along with ensuring and maintaining their own financial sustainability. Accordingly, during the planning stage, all social business funded by YSB develop their social impact plan which includes defining as clearly as possible what their social impact would look like, carefully articulating the path of how such impact will be achieved, and a specification of the indicators that will be used to measure whether success has been achieved. Such a plan is discussed and agreed with YSB team and then continuously monitored and evaluated to see the progress made in achieving the agreed social impact.
- How can you describe the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Albania in the latest years? Do you think Albanians are born entrepreneurs?
I’ll quote here Professor Yunus who says ‘All human beings are born entrepreneurs. Some get a chance to unleash that capacity. Some never got the chance; some never knew that they have that capacity.’ So yes, Albanians have been born and raised with some sort of entrepreneurship spirit as much as others. However, I think that such a born entrepreneurship spirit has not been developed enough for many of us, probably also because of the history. Sure, we all try hard to cope with various life challenges we face, but I think we still rely to much on short term tactics and not enough in long term thinking and finding sustainable solutions to such challenges. Our history has played its part here, where during almost 50 years of communist regime, for the majority of Albanians, options were limited and long term thinking was not only under-promoted but also often risky. Also, after the break of the regime followed a period of love with easy money, while the theoretical capitalism and business management taught in universities did not really help much the young generation in building their practical entrepreneurship skills.
Things have started to change more rapidly in the recent years and I’m glad to see now a growing young generation of potential entrepreneurs in Albania. Although the overall ecosystem for startups is still far from being developed, significant improvements have happened especially in the last five years. Various universities are making increased efforts in improving their entrepreneurship and business management curricula and making them more practical. Good progress is being made in easing the procedures to start a business and an increasing number of actors (mostly non-public ones) have been established and are providing various types of support to startups. Also, the easy access to technologies is another advantage for today’s entrepreneurs – it’s easier than ever to test an idea, fail fast, fail cheaply, and move on from your failures to the next test. So, although there is still a lot to be done, all these make me optimistic about the young generation of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship ecosystem in Albania.
- From your point of view, which are the main characteristics of a successful young entrepreneur?
There are many traits that a successful young entrepreneur should have, such as the ability to identify big trends and opportunities, the capacity to dream big and courage to start small, marketing and management skills, etc. But what I find very critical are some personality traits, which are not just important for entrepreneurship but also for living agile now in this crazy, baffling, and brilliant new century. So, from my point of view, the five key traits of successful young entrepreneurs are:
- Be unconventional and disruptive. They ask why we do things certain way; challenge what we do; change how we do things, thus challenging the status quo because that’s where the opportunities are.
- Be passionate. They are passionate about what they do and transform their hobbies and passions into entrepreneurial ideas, which today is easier than ever by using tools and technologies that already exist.
- Be resilient. Starting a business and being an entrepreneur has lots of ups and downs along the way. Successful entrepreneurs look at failures as learning opportunities, are able to emotionally handle the downs and bounce back after adversity.
- Be confident to ask and keeps building skills. They are confident enough to recognize when they don’t know something and then go ask an expert, they continuously keep building their skill set and applying it to their startup.
- Be hard worker and hustling. Entrepreneurship is not a 40 hours-week game and requires moving ahead with different things at a time, and often at a very short time. Successful young entrepreneurs have energy and stamina, work long hours and at flexible times, they hustle to get things done.