The Homo-entrepreneur, Polish style

Article published on May 19, 2014
Article published on May 19, 2014

Initially held back by the lingering chains of socialism and later sold out to the coffers of capitalism, the Polish entrepreneur has never really made his/her mark on the landscape of the country. However, it is today's younger generation of entrepreneurs which could make Poland great again.  Cafébabel takes a look at one of the most promising Eastern European economies.

Al­though the cri­sis has rat­tled the foun­da­tions of the Old Con­ti­nent, nearly two mil­lion small busi­nesses were reg­is­tered in Poland at the end of last year.  In con­trast, ac­cord­ing to GUS (Pol­ish equiv­a­lent of the Na­tional Of­fice of Sta­tis­tics, Ed.), nearly three-quar­ters of these busi­nesses will not last more than five years.  Are these start-ups a way of boost­ing the Pol­ish econ­omy or is it a bub­ble that will in­evitably end up burst­ing, leav­ing be­hind empty pock­ets and shat­tered dreams?

So the Pol­ish en­tre­pre­neur - who ex­actly are YOU?

Ac­cord­ing to Michal Juda of Show­room, the largest Pol­ish on­line plat­form which brings to­gether in­de­pen­dent fash­ion de­sign­ers and fash­ion lovers, the Pol­ish land­scape is ready for a real rev­o­lu­tion led by start-ups.    "Poland is the place of choice to set up shop and that's very much in fash­ion.   This is pri­mar­ily be­cause the young gen­er­a­tion with en­tre­pre­neur­ial flair are able to take the first step and are open to in­no­va­tion. The Pol­ish mar­ket is sig­nif­i­cant and has po­ten­tial; that’s why some busi­nesses can flour­ish here with­out need­ing to in­vest over­seas."

Michal says that Show­room, jointly man­aged with his friend and fel­low di­rec­tor Jasiek Stasz, was born out of chance, when they agreed to help fash­ion de­sign­ers sell their work on­line.  The two friends took their first steps in busi­ness at high-school, or­gan­is­ing pre-par­ties on the War­saw trams.  At the be­gin­ning of Jan­u­ary 2014, their faces ap­peared on the front cover of Pier­wszy Mil­lion (First Mil­lion), pub­lished by Forbes.  But can we be­lieve the gov­ern­ment when it pre­sents en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit as some sort of panacea?  Not nec­es­sar­ily.  Ac­cord­ing to Michal, the sit­u­a­tion has im­proved in the past few years, but the bu­reau­cracy re­mains con­vo­luted and the tax sys­tem sti­fles busi­ness.  Ob­tain­ing fi­nance for pro­jects is also prob­lem­atic.

In the eyes of the founders of Zor­traz - in­ven­tors of the 3D printer - in spite of the com­mer­cial suc­cess of the past year, the re­al­ity of doing busi­ness in Poland is not straight­for­ward. “When it comes to set­ting up your own busi­ness, the "Pol­ish­ness" doesn't ex­actly make the task easy.  Amer­i­cans grow up in an en­vi­ron­ment where con­di­tions for cre­at­ing busi­nesses are favourable:  crowd­fund­ing and other types of fi­nance for new pro­jects are de­vel­op­ing at quickly.  In con­trast, Pol­ish busi­ness hasn't yet adapted to the global com­mer­cial zeit­geist. How­ever, it's only a ques­tion of time:  the sit­u­a­tion is get­ting bet­ter year on year," they ex­plain.

Piotr Wieleżyński, who cre­ated a busi­ness a few months ago with Michał Gaszyński, has not had the same ex­pe­ri­ence.  Their busi­ness, Skrzynka z Pola (crates from the fields, Ed.) sup­plies sea­sonal fruit and veg­eta­bles di­rectly from farms sit­u­ated close to the cap­i­tal, War­saw. "I know a lot of peo­ple com­plain about the bu­reau­cracy, but for us, set­ting up our com­pany was not at all dif­fi­cult:  we did every­thing on the in­ter­net.  We only saw the au­thor­i­ties three times and the longest we had to wait was fif­teen min­utes."  One civil ser­vant at the ZUS (De­part­ment for So­cial Se­cu­rity, Ed.) ex­plains this with a smile.  "I was pleas­antly sur­prised", says Pi­otrek, while  ac­knowl­edg­ing that this is just the be­gin­ning of their busi­ness ven­ture.

The life of the start-up en­tre­pre­neur

But what is every­day life re­ally like for Poles who have their own start-ups and are their own bosses?  The an­swer to this varies a lot ac­cord­ing to the type of busi­ness.  Pi­otrek, owner of Skrzynka z Pola, also works for an NGO.  How­ever, he ac­cepts that these two jobs could clash if his busi­ness con­tin­ues to flour­ish.  "There's a like­li­hood that some­thing re­ally good could come of this, be­cause feed­back from clients has been re­ally pos­i­tive.  How­ever, the low mar­gins on fruit and veg­etable pro­duc­tion means that we have to gen­er­ate economies of scale, and then the money takes time to fil­ter through," he ac­knowl­edges.

This at­ti­tude is also ex­plained by the fact that Skrzynka z Pola is both an eco­nomic and an ide­o­log­i­cal pro­ject. I have al­ways loved good food," says Pi­otrek. “Dur­ing my stud­ies, I started to pay close at­ten­tion to food waste, es­pe­cially in large-scale food re­tail­ers.  I learned that su­per­mar­kets had spe­cial agree­ments with food pro­duc­ers in which food is thrown away in the pro­duc­tion process.  I thought it would be nice to start a sys­tem which guar­an­teed fair pay to farm­ers for what they pro­duce. 

End­ing in burn-out

At Zor­trax, they see things dif­fer­ently.  Karolina Bołądź, Prod­uct Man­ager, sums up her day in the fol­low­ing way: "We grow­ing rapidly, which means per­ma­nent changes and en­tire days in the of­fice."  Michal ad­mits he is also hav­ing trou­ble sep­a­rat­ing his pri­vate life from his work­life.  "When you have your own busi­ness, you think about it all the time. It's not pos­si­ble to close the of­fice door and to just for­get about it," he adds.  Michal says he is bat­tling against his work ad­dic­tion, which is good for nei­ther him nor his busi­ness.  He has stopped tak­ing his com­puter on hol­i­day with him. In spite of some tough mo­ments, Michal would not trade in his busi­ness for any other job: he has tried to be an em­ployee, but his en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit has proved too pow­er­ful.  For Karolina, too, the pos­si­bil­ity of start­ing some­thing from scratch, ac­cord­ing to her own vi­sion, is worth all kinds of sac­ri­fices.   What counts as well, is that the pro­ject has funded it­self from the very first months of trad­ing.

So, what is the suc­cess for­mula for a Pol­ish start-up?  It would seem that de­ter­mi­na­tion, tire­less work and the abil­ity to over­come the bu­reau­cratic bar­ri­ers all play a cru­cial role. “In essence, a busi­ness plan is not re­ally worth much.  It is the im­ple­men­ta­tion and lis­ten­ing to clients' sug­ges­tions that mat­ter the most," in­sists Michal.  Time will tell whether young en­tre­pre­neurs are able to un­der­stand this and whether they will be­come the en­gines of to­mor­row's econ­omy, in spite of the ad­min­is­tra­tive hur­dles that they have to face.