10 Lessons Learned by a German Who Founded His Startup in Romania

Running a successful startup relies heavily on… happiness. At least that’s what Robert Knapp, Founder and CEO of CyberGhost VPN, has learnt as a serial entrepreneur who started his first venture at the age of 16, organizing punk rock concerts in the small German town he grew up in. He went on to grow the business to the point that he also organized festivals and one of the biggest open-air rock concerts in Germany. He was successful and he was passionate about his business. At the age of 19 or 20 years old, he already owned a large house and a Porsche. And yet, he found himself in a predicament: he wasn’t happy. He felt like something was missing.

So what did he do? Upgrade his Porsche to a Ferrari. ‘A sound choice’ you might say, but soon after, the initial excitement passed and he found himself back in the same predicament. So he realized that his happiness doesn’t lie in material possessions and that being happy and being a successful entrepreneur are strongly interconnected.

Unlike most entrepreneurs who believe that in order to run a successful business, you need to have an idea (a good product), funding (a lot of money), and a team (people that can make it happen), Robert believes that what you really need is a dream and leadership, because everything else is just management and accounting.

Since he founded CyberGhost VPN in Romania, Robert has moved to the country’s capital city Bucharest. And he often had to answer the question “Why? Why did you move from Germany to Romania?”

In this article, we’ll explore the reasons behind his decision and what he has learnt from this experience. We will also discuss what you need to run a thriving business from three very important perspectives: mental, professional and administrative, through ten short lessons extracted from Robert’s entrepreneurial experience spanning over three decades.

Romania – Overview

  • Population: 19.8 million
  • Consumer Prices Including Rent in Bucharest are 67.48% lower than in London. (numbeo.com)
  • Commercial property, energy and utilities are between three and five times cheaper than in Western Europe. (forbes.com)
  • Fifth best in the world for internet connection speed. (bloomberg.com)
  • ”The most appealing trait of Romanians is that they live on both sides of the brain. They have ingenuity and skill, a precious combination no matter where you find it.” (techcrunch.com)
  • Romania also has a wealth of intellectual capital. It has been providing the world with top-class programmers.” (virgin.com)
  • ”One of Romania’s biggest strengths is its wealth of technical talent. It is good at producing people who are used to making something out of nothing.” (forbes.com)
  • Adobe, Intel, Microsoft, Electronic Arts and Amazon all have development offices in Romania. (forbes.com)

Lesson #1 Keep operational costs low

Part of your mission as an entrepreneur is to base your business in an area that provides talent, an environment for growth, and a community of like-minded people within your industry. With this in mind, some entrepreneurs take their business to established startup hubs like London, for example, and disregard the high operational costs that come with it.

Robert attributes his early-stage success to finding a city with low living and operational costs and low taxes, like Bucharest, where anybody can bootstrap their own business.

Lesson #2 Build a product or service that becomes a brand that stands for your dream

Some of the most influential founders in tech referred to as “the heroes”, like Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, all started their business with a totally different purpose and vision than the one they have today. They started with a dream and the way that they executed their dream drove them step by step, away from it.

In Robert’s opinion, Apple wanted to change the status quo and build the most amazing computers, and ended up a corporation that doesn’t pay taxes and sells overpriced hardware built in China under controversial conditions. Google wanted to offer people easier access to all the information that the Internet has to offer and ended up creating a secret algorithm that decides what is important for people to see. Facebook wanted to connect people and ended up giving them a network of virtual “friends”, filled with custom-tailored advertising.

On the road to growth and success that takes many tech business from a small venture to a full-blown corporation, stay true to your vision and your mission.

MVP_DemoDay_2016_107Lesson #3 Create a team of hard working, self-motivated people

Funding and running a successful business is like driving a good car. In order for it to run well and fast when you need it to, in order for it to be reliable and durable, it needs a good engine. The engine of your business is your team, so be sure to build a strong one.

One of the things Robert appreciates about Romanian people (and we will elaborate this subject further below) is that they are self-taught. In his opinion, local schools and universities haven’t caught up with current market necessities and don’t provide them with all the skills that they need to perform at their job, so they are used to acquiring new skills on their own. Self-motivated, hard working people will strive to evolve and they will inferentially grow your business in the process, if you give them autonomy and a purpose.

Lesson #4 Be disciplined

Another thing that Robert appreciates about Romanians is that they are very disciplined when it comes to their professional lives – unlike other European countries where he has lived and travelled, where people sometimes prioritize personal time over work.

A funny example that supports this statement is an occurrence when during a national crisis, people organized to get out in the streets and protest in the evening, between 5 and 11. This way, they could stay at the office until the end of the schedule and be at home in time to get their rest for the next day.

Lesson #5 Make your own rules

During his presentation at the 2016 MVP Academy Demo Day, Robert mentions a football club from Hamburg, Germany called F.C. St. Pauli several times. He does this because he lost a bet with the owner of the club, but most importantly because the team stands out by not following the football industry’s existing rules. They blaze their own trail through a highly corrupt and competitive market – an environment that tech entrepreneurs also face on a daily basis.

Similarly to how St. Pauli listens to their fans, not only their investors, Robert believes that tech businesses should listen closely to their customers. Also, the way that the beloved German football team stands together and focuses on more than just their success should be an example for businesses and teams all over the world.

Lesson #6 Stand for your core values

Just like St. Pauli views and treats football as more than just a game, be the breath of fresh air that people who have become disillusioned with the greed and the hype of the tech world need. Be the authentic alternative for the “big, rich and successful, too easy, too slick club like the Bayern Munchen” of the tech world, and people will follow you.

MVP_DemoDay_2016_106Lesson #7 Think globally

By this point, it is already pretty obvious that Robert likes St. Pauli and Romanians a lot, and is shamelessly open about it. One thing that he noticed about Romanian entrepreneurs right away is that they think globally. You might be asking yourself “What does that mean?”.

Well, compared to the German entrepreneurs he has spoken with, Romanians mostly plan and strive to launch products and services internationally. They don’t limit themselves to Bucharest, Cluj-Napoca, Timisoara or other large Romanian cities. To achieve your true growth potential, think without borders for your business.

Lesson #8 Embrace change

Since he moved to Bucharest, Robert has talked to locals about the environment they grew up in and their vision for the future. He was surprised to hear most of them having a strong desire for change: from politics, the educational and health systems, the organizations they work for and, last but not least, from themselves. They are not afraid of what change may bring, they create it.

There’s a saying that says “Your ability to grow is directly related to the amount of insecurity you can take in your life”. Take the insecurity that comes with the everyday life of being a tech startup and build on it.

Lesson #9 Help your community grow

This lesson is somehow connected to lesson #1: location. And Robert gives yet another example of how businesses can extrapolate St. Pauli’s behaviour in their own industry. One of the reasons why this football club is so appreciated is that they are deep seated in their neighbourhood and give their district a face.

A Romanian proverb comes to mind, that says “Man sanctifies the place.” Meaning wherever you go, you are the one that brings value, growth and recognition. Pretty much like Robert is doing for Bucharest now.

MVP_DemoDay_2016_109Lesson #10 Learn how to be happy

In his speech at the 2016 MVP Academy Demo Day, Robert talks briefly about how, if you want to be happy and productive, you should know what science says about happiness and productivity. To spare you the time it would take to look this up now (and to keep you reading this article, duh), I’ll sum it up for you. Science tells us that we’re happy when we enjoy the moment, when we spend money on others and when we have autonomy and a purpose. Incorporate that in your life and it will set the basis for your entrepreneurial success.

Conclusion

Be the ‘Orville and Wilbur Wright’ of your industry, not the ‘Samuel Pierpoint Langley’s. Fly your aero plane with passion and believe in what you do, even if you don’t yet have the funds, followers and fame. That is what will bring the innovators and early adopters to you, and everyone else will follow.

To fully understand that Wright brothers reference and why Robert supports the dream of Romania becoming (in his words) the Silicon Valley of Europe, check out his speech at the 2016 MVP Academy Demo Day.

Lots of inspiring startups’ founders are going to take the stage on November 1 & 2 at How to Web Conference 2016! Don’t miss the chance to connect with them, get in touch with the tech community, or simply get inspired and feel the vibe of the tech startups ecosystem at its best! Very early bird tickets are now on sale so hurry up and book yours now!

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