We’ve talked to Alex Stepanov, the founder of ex-Houmly. Houmly was a promising startup developing a platform for convenient planning & management of the construction process which was closed last year. What was the story behind the project? What are the key challenges for a Belarusian to launch a project in Poland? What does the future of our Ecosystem look like?
The story of Houmly started after I left Belarus. While staying in Ukraine I met the co-founder and CTO, together we moved to Georgia and then to Poland in January 2022. So our project was officially launched in Poland as well as the team was mostly built there. Some guys were hired on demand, I’ve searched through my Linkedin network and general contacts for professionals in specific fields. At the same time, we received many messages from those willing to join the team because they liked the project’s concept and people behind it.
Main challenges we faced:
- Language. It was difficult to find clients since there were not so many English-speaking colleagues even in large companies within our domain (construction). Businesses in Poland are most likely to partner with locals, and the best way was to find native sales managers. However the volume of investment could not cover these costs, so we had to do a very “express Polish course”.
- After the events following February 24, we got rejected from the Poland Prize accelerator because of the “Belarussian passport” and failed to contest this decision. Later, in May 2022, we managed to defend the right to take part in the program by another accelerator, Unicorn Hub. In general, we had to make every effort to gain any support for the project and it didn’t always work. Potential clients were frustrated and doubted if we were trustworthy. Luckily, the situation is slowly returning to normal.
- Business in Poland is heavily based on the personal network. It works the same way not only for construction, but for energy and logistics sectors as well. Which means, it’s almost a must to meet in person with a potential partner for a coffee before starting any meaningful dialogue.
Belarus vs Poland: key differences in running a business
- As mentioned before, personal contacts are critical ingredients for success in Poland: it’s both more difficult to build initial connections and maintain them in comparison to Belarus. I’ll give an example: we’ve taken part in a major Polish construction exhibition. It lasted 4 days, and each day started with whiskey tasting at each stand, which reduced the overall chances for a constructive dialogue.
- In Poland entrepreneurship is strongly linked to the state bureaucracy. Here you have to deal with more responsibilities and more communication with local authorities. The level of digitalization is higher as well, many issues can be solved online.
- The market in Belarus is more competitive and has a higher entry barrier. While in Poland it can be relatively easy for a young project to find first clients and start selling.
For me it was rather smooth. It doesn’t take much time and effort to learn Polish if you are on good terms with Belarusian. Half a year after moving I was able to communicate with natives on professional subject areas, not to mention everyday communication. After the time spent in Georgia I was especially happy with Polish level of infrastructure development, public transport, digital services, etc. I’d also mention that local communities of relocated Belarusians are very helpful. We’ve found numerous business contacts and several team members through UHub. Business associations are a bit detached from the real problems entrepreneurs face, but this is rather a usual situation.
Future of the Belarusian Startup Ecosystem
I hardly see any reasons for the relocation pace to slow down. Our ecosystem is more likely to be growing outside the country, where startups have access to large and highly competitive markets (EU, USA, UAE), grant programs and developed infrastructure. Unfortunately, the only reason for a project to stay on Belarussian or Russian markets seems to be the lack of confidence or maturity to go globally. We should remember that when our country becomes investment-attractive again, the “reanimation” process will take much longer than we would like it to be. This means, Belarus will be living on the margins of world business for a long time yet.
Now Alex is working on a new project within the same domain: http://lepszydom.com
Best way to contact our wonderful speaker if you have any suggestions for cooperation: https://instagram.com/alex_steepanov