Cristiana Bogateanu, organizational leader and serial entrepreneur, strikes you right away as being incredibly passionate and dedicated to her mission. Cristiana had no less than eight startups before becoming a mother. These included Zamoteck, an IoT product development company, Academia inventeaza.ro, a STEM-focused educational program, and DeviceHub.net, an open source ecosystem management platform for IoT. Back then, she acutely felt the lack of legal advice and mentorship. So, now, she wants to offer the startup community in Romania what she didn’t have. Her new challenge is steering a freshly rebranded organization – the Romanian Tech Startups Association (ROTSA), a nonprofit and nongovernmental organization based in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
Cristiana points out that ROTSA works as an agile organization. Yet all projects have a common purpose: “to educate people who don’t yet have startups, to encourage them to take this step, and to offer them the education and the framework for becoming startups”. Working as a non-profit, they managed to operate using their own money so far. Going forward, they hope to sustain the organization’s activities through event sponsorships.
Today, The Recursive talked to Cristiana Bogateanu, Executive Director at ROTSA, to better understand the impact of their projects in the local tech startup community; her insights on what are the strengths and pressing challenges of local entrepreneurs, and what we need in terms of mindsets and attitudes to accelerate opportunities for startups to grow.
The Recursive: How was the organization born and what is your mission?
Cristiana Bogateanu: The Romanian Tech Startups Association is a nonprofit and non governmental umbrella organization that aims to promote and represent the interests of tech startups in Romania. It launched officially this year, in February, in a rebranded format. We wish to bring together the main actors of the national ecosystem of tech startups and to facilitate the communication between them. And by this I mean angel investors, VCs, tech startups, acceleration or incubation programs.
Our first objective is to find out who the tech startups in Romania are. For this, we started a project that consists of a map of startups in Romania. Then, we want to find out more about their needs. That’s why we launched The impact of COVID19 on Romanian Tech Start-ups report, where we learned how startups were impacted by COVID-19 and what they need going forward. Based on that we are now developing new projects. It’s a very agile organization.
And we develop every project with the help of the community. Every time we launch a new project, we literally thank everyone involved because we believe in the power of the ecosystem. If we work together as an ecosystem for a valuable outcome, which is visible and transparent for everyone to see, then we can help and promote startups together. If we come together and work together, we can have similar outcomes.
Tell us more about one project that is close to your heart.
The first project that was important for me as a person but also for the ecosystem was mapping the tech startups in Romania. The tech startups map is an ongoing project. We have about 170 startups now. The goal is to see year to year what is happening in the ecosystem. Do they scale? Do they die? Do they need anything else except from what the ecosystem is giving them back?
One of the most important outcomes of the project was the fact that tech startups started to know each other. There were many that did not know who was doing a similar or complementary business.
I am also proud of the ROTSA Digital Hub, which is basically a conglomerate of different projects. Here, we will be offering mentorship and incubation programs to the startups.
In your experience so far, what have you identified as the key strengths of the tech startup ecosystem in Romania?
The biggest strength we currently have in Romania are the smart people working in the tech field. I’ve been working in the tech field for lots of years. We have the tech skills and universities in the ecosystem who teach people tech skills.
We also have many events and opportunities for exposure, such as hackathons. These give entrepreneurs the chance to step back from the tech and get to understanding the business side.
You then have the mentors. I think Romania has lots of great people in the IT world willing to share knowledge, people like Bogdan Iordache, Mircea Vadan, Florin Pop, Growceanu, and so many others. If we look at these people, we will see that 50% of their activity is volunteering, giving back to the community, in order to support entrepreneurs to scale their businesses. I believe one of the key strengths of the ecosystem consists of the people behind the programs.
The other thing that I think is very important is the media. There are also lots of publications that are promoting good practices of successful tech startups, offering clear examples to young entrepreneurs of how they can do it.
What are the biggest challenges the ecosystem is facing?
I think the most important challenge is not knowing who the tech startups are. Without this information, you can’t facilitate legislation, or special regulation for startups. Second, we also need legislation around angel investment. And another thing that we lack is a streamlined legal registration process. With my startups, I used to incorporate in other countries because the legal process was much easier and faster.
The other challenge is not having an entrepreneurship mindset and formal entrepreneurship education in the schools. There are some public and private initiatives. But such programs should be pushed more in educational institutions in order to gradually create a culture of generating ideas.
How does ROTSA communicate with the public sector actors to generate impact in the communities?
The first challenge in working with public institutions to support startups is that most people in the sector were not trained for this. So, they need to have the openness to get trained in entrepreneurship. So, it’s first about educating the public institution to understand the major problem, before requiring anything from them.
We are based in Cluj and we are lucky that the Cluj-Napoca City Hall is already involved in startups programs at national and international levels. People there are open enough to come to our office and say “listen, I don’t understand this concept, can you explain it to me?”. So we sat down with them – me and other colleagues in the startup ecosystem – and guided them through key entrepreneurship concepts, from pre-seed to ideation.
It’s not about the institution, it’s about people wanting to learn. And having lived in both Constanta and Bucharest before Cluj, I understand why there are so many things happening for startups in Cluj. It’s because people from the City Hall are courageous enough to say “listen, I am not an expert on this field, teach me”.
What can we expect from ROTSA going forward?
Our main focus is to become a model for startups in terms of how to do things in Romania on the incubation part. But, we have started with little steps.
One of our first projects was a dictionary with startup jargon that entrepreneurs need to know before pitching to investors.
Another thing we will launch soon is a set of legal documents templates created according to Romanian legislation and in the local language. For this, we are collaborating with around five law companies. The benefit is the document itself but also knowing who works with startups because generally it’s the investors that have a lawyer present in meetings.
We will also organize hackathons with the purpose to generate lots of ideas and cultivate this habit with people, as well as an incubation program next year.
What would you advise entrepreneurs at the beginning of their journey?
When you are not trying anything, there’s a 100% chance you won’t achieve anything, but when you do try, there’s a 50% chance you’ll make it happen.
I would recommend getting an advisor, even from the beginning, to support you with input on how to organize the company, team expectation, culture, and so on.
I would also recommend entrepreneurs to embrace opportunities that connect with their values. There’s sometimes a tendency to go everywhere and do everything, but you should evaluate how much you get out of these activities.
>>>For more insights into how grassroots organizations are supporting the local startup ecosystem, we also recommend “Who’s who in the emerging Cluj ecosystem” and an interview with David Achim on the Oradea tech ecosystem.<<<