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Balkan Startup Story: How Internet Company Gjirafa is Preparing for IPO

Balkan Startup Story: How Internet Company Gjirafa is Preparing for IPO,
Image credit: Mergim Cahani on LinkedIn
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When thinking of a fast-growing company from the Western Balkans, Gjirafa might come to your mind. Founded by Mergim Cahani, Gjirafa is an internet company providing e-commerce, video streaming, online marketing, cloud computing, and entertainment production. 

Its services are now available in Kosovo, Albania and North Macedonia, with Montenegro, Serbia and very likely Bulgaria coming within the next two years.

Gjirafa has raised nearly $10M in Series A and B from the Czech Rockaway Capital, and prominent digital economy angel investors such as the Swiss-American investor Esther Dyson, a former managing director of JP Morgan, a former managing director of TechStars Boston, and Ondrej Bartos, General Partner at Credo Ventures.

Having studied and lived in America for 11 years, Mergim Cahani returned to Kosovo in 2012, motivated by the opportunities found in his home country and the desire to do something for the region. 

“I had a very good life in America. But what I thought would be fulfilling, it wasn’t. I wanted to change that and go back to my roots. Also, there were a lot of opportunities in Kosovo. Amazon doesn’t deliver here today, PayPal doesn’t work, Uber is not here,” Cahani explained. 

The Recursive interviewed Mergim two years ago and checked in now to learn about the latest developments. More about his entrepreneurial journey, he will share in his keynote speech at the Reflect Festival in Limassol, Cyprus on May 30-31. 


After 17 Years of Entrepreneurship


Cahani has been in the entrepreneur’s arena for almost two decades. As he recalls, he started his entrepreneurial journey at 19 years old and had his first real business in 2007 while studying in the US, together with 7 friends. 

“We tried to do an app within Facebook which we called The Matchbox. It was a dating app, where you could match your Facebook friends to meet each other. We failed overnight when Facebook launched its suggest a friend feature.” 

Looking back, Cahani can pinpoint many mistakes they made because they didn’t have the experience or the full business picture. He recalls spending so much time debating irrelevant things, which then affected their go to market time. 

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“We were 7 people and that’s too many voices. I think it’s easier to start alone or with three people at most,” he now believes. 


Profitability over Fundraising


In the previous interview from 2022 with Mergim, he told us the math: 9 years since starting the company, $10M in funding, +300 employees, looking into a new round. 

Today, 2 years after and 11 years in, Gjirafa has 240 employees and didn’t raise a new round. 

Cahani explains why. 

“We postponed the fundraising because the market was very expensive, the valuation was low, the rates were too high. We have some term sheets, but we didn’t agree on the terms. Instead we focused on becoming more profitable and now we are 3-4x more profitable than 2 years ago. We didn’t focus that much on market share or top line growth, but rather on the bottom line and cash flow. We are now financing from our own resources, but at the same time we have opened a new round. We’re preparing for an IPO and we need cash.”


Advice for Founder to Founders 


Throughout the years, Cahani has learned one thing or two, from his or others’ experience. Because his personal fulfillment comes from giving back, he participates as a guest speaker in different conferences, including Reflect Festival and is involved as mentor in accelerators. 

“The most important advice I give young entrepreneurs, without sounding cliche, is to make sure they really love the problem they are solving. If you are good at making shoelaces, make shoelaces. Forget about the trends, the total addressable market or other vanity metrics. If you don’t love what you do, you will hate it,” he says. 

Also, he has a strong point when it comes to bootstrapping. 

“I don’t think entrepreneurs should fundraise as soon as they have some of their own assets to liquidate. If you keep your assets and want others to invest in your business, I don’t think you’re doing it right.” 

And the all-in mentality. 

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“As a first time entrepreneur, you gotta risk it all. If you have no plan B that will drive you to actually succeed.” 


The Overlooked Market 


Reflecting on the Western Balkan’s startup scene, Cahani underlines its untapped potential. 

“It’s an emerging market,” he emphasizes, “often overlooked by big players in tech innovation.” In a world where major companies prioritize markets based on metrics like GDP and population size, the Balkans often find themselves relegated to the bottom of the list. 

Despite these challenges, Mergim remains hopeful, citing the hunger for success that drives Balkan entrepreneurs. “Hard times build good people,” he states while also acknowledging the hard truth: “We cannot expect others to come and build for us here. It’s me and you and him and her and everybody else who has to do the hard work.” 

If you want to meet Mergim Cahani face-to-face, he will be speaking at the Reflect Festival in Limassol, Cyprus on May 30-31.

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Elena is a Startup Community Editor at The Recursive. In other words, she keeps close to the startup ecosystem in CEE and makes their stories heard. She creates educational and informational content about innovation, funding and startup growth.