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The Homo-entrepreneur, Polish style

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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. 

Translated from Homo entrepreneur po polsku