Welcome to Sofia, a city where wifi is free and accessible in many public places across town.
Aleksandra Nikolova is working on her own internet start-up company.
A few years ago, she decided to quit university because she wasn’t convinced she was learning any practical skills.
“There are lots of young people who are just finishing university, they can’t find a job because of lack of experience and they are disappointed with reality,” says Aleksandra.
But there are plenty of young people with excellent skills in programming, design or social marketing.
Aleksandra is convinced there is a chance to turn those e-skills into jobs.
The fact that Bulgaria has one of the fastest internet connections in the world and investment projects to support fresh ideas is a huge boost for the country’s young entrepreneurs.
“Young people are ready for this, they are a generation that grew up in front of computers,” says Aleksandra.
Generation Y met a handful of these digitally driven youngsters, not in some boring corporate office, but in Eleven – a brand new start-up accelerator.
This is where Aleksandra and her team got their initial funding, along with the inspiration and the know-how to develop their business.
Financed mainly by the European Investment Fund, Eleven plans to spend 12 million euros on helping start-ups over the next three years.
Each project receives 50,000 euros – in exchange, Eleven gets a 13 % equity stake in the company.
Open to everyone, Eleven has attracted young entrepreneurs from neighbouring Romania and Turkey.
“It’s very difficult to get financing for a start-up in this part of the region,” says Eleven co-founder Daniel Tomov.
“Banks don’t usually finance start-ups, because they don’t have any collateral (financial guarantee). These are start-ups that just have a great team, with a crazy idea, it’s difficult to be a collateral.”
In her free time, Aleksandra runs a website publicising business opportunities in the digital economy.
Her site won an award during e-skills week, a campaign supported by the European Comission whose aim is to promote IT careers for young people.
Aleksandra welcomes such initiatives:
“Young people use the internet mostly for pleasure,” she says. “They are searching for normal jobs, things that they find normal, they are not willing to take risks, and everything that is new for them is kind of a risk in their mind.”
There is, however, a growing number of young people in Sofia willing to take risks.
Alexandre Mihaylov & Alexandre Kitov are the founders of Betahaus – a concept that comes from Germany.
Much more than a traditional office, Betahaus is a co-working place that provides daily, weekly and monthly access to a fully equiped work environment, a creative atmosphere and people with ideas.
“The ecosystem is a mixture of personal life and work life, it’s not only an office, that’s why we are called the “house”. People don’t just pay for the desk itself, for the chair, for the wifi, people pay for the community because there are a lot of synergies and possibilities for cooperation and collaboration,” says Betahaus co-founder Alexander Mihaylov.
According to Martina Todorova, who works at Betahaus, pooling all these different skills is an asset for everyone:
“For example, I am not very familiar with Facebook ads, but at the desk in front of me or to my right there is a person who knows how to do it really well,” she says.
One of the start-ups which has set up home in Betahaus is “Start it Smart”, which describes itself as an entrepreneurship club that supports young people with good ideas but no skills.
“In Bulgaria, being an entrepreneur is not something that everybody is familiar with. People often see business as something hidden, underneath the table. We just want to share the knowledge we get from our own start-up with the community,” says “Start it Smart” member Radoslav Georgiev.
Young people like Aleksandra, Radoslav and Martina are proof that mentalities are changing in Bulgaria.
It’s now up to this dynamic new generation to show the way using their skills and creativity to turn ideas into reality.