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Economy

Apostolos Apostolakis of VentureFriends is Bullish on Greek Startups

ATHENS – A post-pandemic world hit by war and inflation may have stymied expected growth in the global and Greek startup ecosystems in 2022, but the outlook for this year remains positive, said tech entrepreneur and investor Apostolos Apostolakis in an interview with The National Herald.

Having co-founded or supported a number of startups with a focus on consumer software and marketplaces since 2004, Apostolakis sits at the helm of VentureFriends – Greece’s first privately backed venture capital fund. His entrepreneurial and investing journey includes, among others, the co-founding of popular e-shop.gr, e-food and Doctoranytime, as well as an early investment in TaxiBeat.

2022 in Review

In 2022, tech company valuations hit all time highs only to come crashing down as the macroeconomic environment responded to challenges, while the growth stage venture market has increasingly tightened as more later-stage investors have paused or withdrawn from the market.

In Greece, the last year saw a decrease of 35 to 40 percent of companies announcing new rounds of financing, including fewer new-born companies, according to a 2022-2023 Venture Financing Report released by Athens-based management consulting firm Found.ation.

“2022 was a difficult year and made people postpone launching something. Investment sentiment turned abruptly last February, and this shrunk appetite and the creation of new startups, and Greece of course followed,” Apostolakis said. “But this is just a data point in the overall course… we are clearly on a positive trend. We have more success stories and examples of companies who have made it, have become international, and are inspiring the new generation of founders to keep on going.”

As things slowed down for new ventures, last year indeed saw a record-breaking number of exits for the Greek startup scene, as a total of 19 businesses were acquired by respective companies – the JP Morgan acquisition of VivaWallet, the Prodege acquisition of Pollfish, and the Accusonus acquisition by Meta – to name a few.

 

Co-founders of Venture Friends Apostolos Apostolakis and George Dimopoulos. Photo: Courtesy of Venture Friends

Sectors to Watch in 2023

Apostolakis said VentureFriends plans to invest a remaining 30 million euros from a previous 100 million euro funding round on startups in 2023. As for sectors with great opportunity for growth, among them are fintech, consumer healthcare, vertical B2B marketplaces, and energy – with artificial intelligence (AI) playing a role in everything moving forward, Apostolakis said.

“Health is a big one for sure. This is a sector that has not been really affected by technology as much. I would say shipping is another sector that has not seen the digitization that other sectors have seen so far and that is why we also invested in Harborlab. Fintech will continue to be a sector with opportunities for improvement and digitization, especially in the B2B space” he said.

On Funding & Success

A practice that started in Silicon Valley and was adopted globally, VCs allocate funds to startups they deem promising. Among the most important factors in determining an idea’s long-term viability and the decision to invest, is the team of people behind the business, Apostolakis said.

“The team is the most important thing when you invest in a company because a smart and well-rounded team can identify, articulate, and execute on a big enough opportunity. They will succinctly answer our questions about the business model, the size of the market, and the long term competitive advantage we are looking for in order to have a sustainable company,” he said.

And while the right people can make or break a startup effort, adequate financing and dedication are two more important ingredients in a recipe for success. A January 2023 report by U.S.-based Skynova polling 500 startup founders indicated that 47% of startup failures in 2022 were due to a lack of financing, nearly double the percentage that failed for the same reason the year prior.

“If you have a good idea and team and don’t get the funding, you will go slow and someone else will catch up, so funding is important, but the most important thing is the persistence, the tenacity of the team to go through the valleys, the ups and downs,” Apostolakis said.

“Dedication is not putting in the hard work for one year… typically, it’s a seven or eight year journey, and especially the first five years are very important as you try to build your ‘moat’ and defensibility – and this is where some people give up. You need to push… stick behind your idea and keep on grinding until you build your idea and build your first boat,” he said.

Investing in Greece & Beyond

Joined by his partner George Dimopoulos, Apostolakis began an effort to raise private funds in 2015 right after the exit of e-food to Berlin-based Delivery Hero, realizing that Greece had the right teams but lacked access to enough capital. Considering the country’s then-current reputation, the challenge was not small.

“At the time, Greece was not a positive story globally. We were European black sheep. We were a source of anger and anxiety for Europe, making it difficult for us to raise money because people were risk averse. Also we had to educate the market because not many people in Greece invested in startups back then,” Apostolakis said.

At the end of the day, Apostolakis and Dimopoulos convinced 40 family offices to invest 20 million euros in VentureFriends’ first fund. “We had a very compelling proposition. Even though it was challenging, I was certain we would succeed. We had the track record of e-food with a very successful exit, and Taxibeat that was already on its international course,” Apostolakis said.

“The other thing was that we were heavily investing in this fund. We were not viewing this fund as a way to benefit in the short term, but rather, to create long term value for us and our investors, and we even had lower management fees compared to market standards.”

VentureFriends launched in 2016 and dedicated its first fund mostly to Greece-based startups, gradually extending to Europe in 2018, and has since gone global, Apostolakis said, with 65% of funding now going to startups in Europe, and the rest opportunistically in other regions with the UK being a core market.

“At the end of the day, all entrepreneurs are fighting against the odds and face similar challenges. These challenges and lack of funding were certainly not just a Greek phenomenon,” Apostilakis said of the expansion to include out-of-Greece-based startups in the VentureFriends portfolio. “We always felt the need to interact and work with founders on a wider geographical basis.”

VentureFriends now boasts a track record backing some strong players in the Greek startup sector, including Blueground, Instashop, Flexcar, Plum, Spotawheel, and Douleutaras.

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