Imaguru is a pan-European startup hub founded in Belarus. As the political crisis broke out, the hub was forced to relocate and continued to develop a community online, as well as open new hubs in European capitals.
Two of them are already operating in Vilnius and Madrid, and a new location will open in Warsaw in spring 2023. Now, as we approach one year of war in Ukraine and heightened political tensions and conflict continue to dominate this region of Europe, we chatted with the CEO of Imaguru, Tania Marinich, about solidarity, resilience, and the realistic outlook for startups from Ukraine
Can you tell us the story of Imaguru?
We launched Imaguru in November 2013 in Minsk and for more than 7,5 years it has helped create a startup ecosystem in Belarus, developing a community of business angels and mentoring a huge number of companies, leaders and entrepreneurs in innovation.
Imaguru has never been a political actor, however, it has played an essential part in fostering connections and inspiration. We advocated for international collaboration, and more entrepreneurial freedom. During the protests in 2020, Imaguru fellows weren’t silent.
Imaguru is known and respected by liberally-oriented Belarusians. A whole generation of active, freedom-liking people who run international businesses needed Imaguru to go on connecting people in a new, safer place. That helped us to carry on and start looking for alternative locations.
The Lithuanian Ministry of Finance was the first to invite Imaguru to work in Lithuania. We’ve also managed to safeguard ourselves a position in Madrid. So with two offices in the European Union, we could relaunch and keep bringing talent and expertise together. Our new location will open in Warsaw sometime in spring 2023.
What we see now is that tech companies are becoming important players in a political game across the world. Accordingly, it’s essential for startup hubs to foster talent that fosters democracy, openness and transparency, not subvert it.
What are Imaguru’s core aims/vision?
Imaguru is a community, not necessarily a physical space. We’re here to bring together the talents, the opportunities, the expertise, and the funds which ultimately leads to a synergistic effect. Let’s take the example of Masquerade, a face-swapping app. It was born at one of our hackathons: the founders met there for the first time. In about four months, the company was acquired by Facebook. PandaDoc, the first Belarusian unicorn in exile, was also accelerated thanks to several Imaguru programs.
Right now, working in the context of the European Union, we want to bridge the gap between startups and venture capital, expertise and marketing, and all other things necessary for running a successful company.
How does solidarity and social impact become a driving force for the Belarusian and Ukrainian community abroad?
After thousands of people were forced to leave Belarus after the protests in 2020, we launched the Solidarity hub to facilitate the democratization of our country. When the Russian war in Ukraine started, the hub moved on, quite naturally, to inviting Ukrainian people to join in. First, our employees were providing things as simple as shelter volunteer help to people fleeing the war zone. Now we provide all services to Ukrainian people free of charge. For instance, any freelancer can find a place to work from at our headquarters; we provide mentoring and consults, plus all kinds of support to Ukrainian startups, too.
Civic activism isn’t our core activity—and yet democratic activities quite naturally flow from our vision. Solidarity and the will to live in a better world drive our mission further, away from nation-state borders.
What we see now is that the mindset of solidarity brings two communities—that of Belarusians in political exile and of people fleeing the Russian war in Ukraine—closer together. What is born is a unique community of enterprising people ready to make the world better, bit by bit.
Any startups you are particularly excited about?
Here are just a couple of Eastern European startups we are excited about:
80days.me is building a platform to facilitate travelling across European cities – an exciting solution for people looking for unique trips, and visiting many places at the same time.
Another one is Skinive, — an application that works with AI and allows you to scan moles and other skin areas to detect the risks of cancer with high probability.
Filmustage builds a digital solution for filmmakers, a tool that can digitize many processes in the industry, allowing humans to focus on what we do best: being creative.
The reality of growing a startup in a crisis region
Of course, it’s hard. But looking at the situation through the prism of possibilities, I think adversity isn’t always a bad thing for entrepreneurs. It makes people resilient, first of all. Whatever happens, they need to be there, thinking of how to implement the change in a situation that isn’t always ideal or how to create a solution to a new problem.
Many of our Ukrainian resident startups show incredible courage and dedication, proceeding to function in the war area. Other companies (ones that had to flee Belarus, for instance) develop new market fits, adapt to a changeable situation, and become more ‘antifragile’.
To grow a startup in a crisis region, you need to always be ready for change. Not only during challenging times: a startup should be ready to face any unpredictable situation. Relocation and a need to operate in a different country, adapting your business model to a new location and audience—these are just a few examples of things that happen often.
You can’t plan a lot in a crisis region simply because the situation isn’t dependent on your decisions. So agility and flexibility are a must. You also need to make decisions quickly. Normally, strategizing is very important. However, the data at hand is often insufficient, so you have to rely on your intuitive vision. That comes from practice, but you can also learn it from others.
The true outlook for Ukrainian startups right now
The war will stop one day. The realistic outlook is that many companies will be building up and reviving the region after it is over. We need strong entrepreneurs to do that. All they should do now is meet new people, find large investors, and learn exciting things. This vision is equally relevant for all the startups in exile, and all businesses that needed to relocate and start working globally.
While some investors are reluctant to invest in Ukrainian businesses because of the perceived high risks, there are still those who are actually willing to invest. In terms of Ukrainian startups finding their global market fit: customers don’t care where the startup founders are coming from. As long as you take care of the community and are solving real people’s problems, you’ll be loved by your clients.
How the Eastern European startup community can support each other – and why it should?
A startup community should be open to new ideas and knowledge sharing, like an ideal version of Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurs, newbies, investors, tech talent, and experts—we all need to be approachable, striving for that spirit of transparency and openness.
As our region is going through hard times, it’s especially important to act on humanity, knowledge, solidarity, and innovation. Being able to admire—besides trying to compete—you can learn exciting things. We’ve seen it during the pandemic in Belarus: when the regime in power was denying COVID-19, the people managed to support each other and the healthcare workers.
What are the benefits of pan-European (business) ecosystems?
Open ecosystems mean open access to talent, first of all. Talent is the key driving force of innovation which can solve many societal problems. The borders should be open, at least to some degree, to give people the possibility to be where they’re needed most. Say, in Spain, it’s not typical for a startup to have engineers as founders. Here, ‘business people’ think up an idea and try to implement it—and then find the matching technological solution. We work another way around giving tech people the business expertise they lack. Now we can do a kind of talent-matching, connecting the two types of entrepreneurs.
As long as entrepreneurial talent operates in an open environment and governments don’t stand in the way of entrepreneurial spirit, it’d be extremely helpful. Pan-European ecosystems still know quite some administrative barriers. Resolving those would get more access to knowledge and to facilitate multicultural exchange, as these things are essential to ensure a positive impact of business on society. We don’t need to unify. We need to work together.