“It is time for reinvention”: Interview with Startup Macedonia’s co-founder and Balkans super-connector, Nina Nikolikj

Being a hidden gem in the startup and tech world for a while now, it’s about time that the Balkan region gets greater recognition for the evermore prominent role it’s playing in the European startup ecosystem. To make this happen, there are a plethora of devoted actors who dedicate their time to strengthening the local startup scenes and their mutual collaboration across the Balkan countries, as well as shining a light on success stories.

One of them is a Skopje-based startup storyteller and super-connector Nina Nikolikj, whose mission is to develop and strengthen the startup and innovation ecosystem in North Macedonia. She has been doing that since 2014 through the #MKstartups community (the 1st entrepreneurial community centre in Skopje) and as an executive advisory board member and co-founder of the association Startup Macedonia. Her dedication to bring together ecosystem actors has led her to become a super-connector of people across the country and beyond. Also a member of the SwissEP team, she has an impactful job to do and for her, it means so much more than earning an income.

To dive deeper into the N. Macedonian and Balkan ecosystems, we grabbed some time to talk to Nina, who also gave us insights on how the startups in her community are handling the situation imposed by the coronavirus and if they have any collaboration initiatives set up. 

Thank you for joining us Nina! We’re excited to learn from your experience as a startup storyteller, super-connector, SwissEP Program Officer and co-founder of Startup Macedonia. 

To start off, could you give us a brief insight into the Macedonian startup ecosystem, from your viewpoint of being in contact with lots of different actors?

We have been actively developing the Macedonian startup ecosystem for six years now. As leaders we’ve worked on strengthening capacities, boosting the entrepreneurial mindset, sharing opportunities and overcoming challenges. Something that has been years in the making, facilitating a collaborative ecosystem is now the new norm for the #MKstartups community. I’m happy to say that unlike six years ago, now we do have a more compact ecosystem, with accelerators, coworking spaces, lots of startup events, investment bodies, and a very big competitive advantage: low living costs and low costs for running a business…

It has been a long and challenging process, with many trial and error situations. But one thing is constant: the super welcoming and supportive community. Every person you meet will have a story to share to inspire you, motivate you, or give you advice. We support each other and everyone that I know wants to do something to give back to the community. Here you can meet people from different backgrounds, developers, bloggers, entrepreneurs, event organizers, people that actually left corporate jobs to pursue their ‘startup dream’, investors… 

What does it mean to be a startup storyteller, super-connector, and womenpreneur? How does your role contribute to the growth of the Macedonian startup ecosystem? 

Storytelling has always been my passion. This is how I entered ‘the startup world’ in 2014, as the 1st and only startup scout writing stories for a Vienna-based media outlet and the StartupSelfie initiative. After a couple of years, I’ve decided to do more hands-on work and support startups with their storyline and pitch deck. So far, I’ve mentored and worked with more than 300 startup founders, teams and social entrepreneurs on numerous occasions through Social Impact Award, From Idea to Business Program, European Social Innovation Challenge, even with startups in Lima (Peru), helping them to raise investments, get new clients/partners, go to market and get media coverage. 

The super-connector ‘label’ I got during my YTILI fellowship in the USA. This is how my co-fellows identified me and with the number of experts I know and work with and do connections daily, it just sticks : ) It is something very natural to me, especially when I see a gap in the ecosystem, I always try to gather the right people and get the support to fill in that gap, for further development of the ecosystem. One of many is the opening of the 1st entrepreneurial community center in Skopje – #MKstartups Space. Another one is the Womenpreneurs Stories initiative, upgraded with the 5-day bootcamp for 1st time female founders.

And the latest one is due to the current crisis – at Startup Macedonia we decided to gather all the support from the MKstartups and ICT community to launch techpack.mk to help traditional SMEs that are affected to stay in business and digitalize their operations.

Where do the Balkans stand in terms of technological advancement? To what extent do startup communities across the Balkans pursue a mutual collaboration?

We are the hidden gem in the startup and tech world. And it is about time we get recognized. Working directly with many different actors in the Balkan countries I do see a lot of potential in terms of solutions that are making a positive impact in local, but also international context. I’m meeting extremely talented tech teams and passionate founders. To me, it is ‘like music to my ears’ when international experts that come to our region through SwissEP nowadays say that they’re impressed by the level of development and maturity of startups. 

In terms of collaboration within the Balkans, this usually happens around the big conferences; this is when the deals are started/closed : )

However, there are many ‘case to case basis’ regional collaborations, for example, Startup Macedonia supports and collaborates with the accelerator in Thessaloniki-OKThess. Also, there is a group of individuals in Banja Luka who want to establish an association like Startup Macedonia, so we are supporting them through the process. Since we all operate online and from home now, there are many webinars hosted by organizations supported by SwissEP aimed for the Balkan startup-ecosystem actors. Something that we’ll also do this spring is the Womenpreneurs 5-day bootcamp for 1st time female founders – this time online and open to all Balkan countries. It’s a slow but ongoing process of more regional collaboration.

With the current coronavirus situation, how have startups been affected in N.Macedonia? How are they handling the crisis? 

Most of the startups that have a ‘working product’ are fully operational regardless of the crisis. They work from home, have to cut down unnecessary costs and find new revenue streams. A small number of startups had to close down operations. Usually, startups function in crisis mode, pivoting and trying out new business models. However, most of them do hope for financial support to get through a bottleneck period and to be in a position to keep all their employees.

Are there any initiatives set up by local startup players, including Startup Macedonia, to help local startups and the country in general during the pandemic?

Most definitely. Throughout this period I’ve seen so much solidarity coming from our #MKstartups community. Some examples I’ve seen are creating applications for coronavirus tracking, offering website creation for free, to our techpack.mk initiative which gathers together all MKstartups and ICT community support to help traditional SMEs that are affected stay in business and digitalize their operations.

How do you see Europe’s startup ecosystems changing in the post-crisis period?

Mostly I see change happening in remote work. Now that companies see that work can be done from home, skills will overcome geography. There’s also a lot of room for improvement in the digitalisation of sectors, top priorities being the education and health sectors. And very important is rethinking cities – governments should focus on building smart cities that are designed for people and nature, not for cars, i.e. emphasizing the mobility of people, making cities more pedestrian and bike/e-scooter friendly. We’re already seeing that this works better for physical distancing and also air pollution.     

Do you have any advice for startups on how to stay afloat during these uncertain times? 

Seek support. There are many new opportunities open to startups at this moment. Take the time to do research and find the one that suits you best. Keep innovating, within your business model, team structure, even clients. It is a great moment to test out new solutions, because if something creates value, now it has more chance to be approved by local governments/citizens. 

People are adapting very quickly, because of this situation. From the crisis in 2008-2010 we got Instagram, Whatsapp, Uber, Slack, AirBnB… It is time for reinvention and I do hope some of the success stories from this crisis will come from the #MKstartups and the Balkan ecosystem.