ECONOMY

The people behind successful Greek startups

The people behind successful Greek startups

“The founding team.” This is the answer that many people involved with the startup ecosystem give when asked to pinpoint what the key ingredient is in a successful startup. They are probably right, as without this team, an innovative idea could not materialize as a product that would later attract market leaders. At a time when the country was wracked by the financial crisis, startup founders took a risk and forged their own path developing applications and platforms that within a few years would facilitate the lives of companies and consumers. While traditional businesses were collapsing during the crisis, this group of entrepreneurs, all graduates of Greek universities, were building the foundations of a new market that was almost nonexistent before.

Despite many difficulties and failed efforts, these entrepreneurs were true to their vision and, inspired by the technological changes all around them, were able to soar five or 10 years after launching their companies. “There were many setbacks in our way,” John Papadakis, co-founder and CEO of Pollfish, tells Kathimerini. The company was launched in 2013, right in the middle of the financial crisis. “I was working 14-hour days at my previous startup, while it was on the brink of failure,” says John Tsioris, co-founder of InstaShop, which was launched in Dubai in 2015. After an almost 10-year journey, Pollfish was acquired at the beginning of February by American company Prodege, while Accusonus has been bought by Facebook, Softomotive has been part of the Microsoft family for almost a year and a half, and InstaShop is now part of German firm Delivery Hero. “There are more and more success stories,” heralded Marios Stavropoulos, general manager of Robotic Process Automation at Microsoft and co-founder of Softomotive, in a recent interview with Kathimerini. His belief seems to be confirmed after JP Morgan acquired 49% of Viva Wallet, the Prodege move for Pollfish, and other upcoming deals that are on their final stretch.

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John Tsioris and Ioanna Angelidaki of Instashop. 

Ioanna Angelidaki, John Tsioris – InstaShop

A good idea and lots of hard work bring success

This 360-million-dollar “golden idea” was developed in 2015 by two Greeks who had moved to Dubai a few years after completing their studies in Greece. Ioanna Angelidaki and John Tsioris, both alumni of the Technical University of Crete’s School of Production Engineering and Management, managed to conquer the Middle East market in five years, creating a company with an annual turnover that exceeds 300 million dollars and was acquired by Delivery Hero in 2020. “The Middle East market is proving to be very profitable for businesses active in e-commerce, like InstaShop,” they said in an interview with Kathimerini in 2020, highlighting that “a lot of work is required to get InstaShop to the level where it provides its expected value.”

This was not an easy ride for the two founders as they were forced to make critically important choices to allow them to continue working on the idea that became InstaShop, especially in the early days. “I was working 14-hour days at my previous startup, while it was on the brink of failure,” says Tsioris. “During this time, and to save a little bit of time, I did not physically go to the supermarket but ordered groceries over the phone, a very common practice in the United Arab Emirates. However, the customer experience was usually very disappointing. Sometimes I had to call more than once, other times they would deliver the wrong products or with long delays. In general, the level of customer service was very low. So I thought: Why could there not be an app that, a few clicks later, would deliver the groceries straight to my door in 60 minutes? The idea to create a service like this was feasible and it spent a long time maturing in my mind. As a result, I made one of the hardest choices of my life and decided to change course and abandon the project I had dedicated 14 hours a day to for 17 months,” he states, adding that “today, I can tell you with certainty that this change of course has only worked out well for me and it seems that I ended up being vindicated, despite it being one of the most difficult and soul-wracking decisions I ever made.” This is the story of how InstaShop was born. “We set out in 2015 with a small team of five people. We did not even have the application ready when we signed our first contract with a small supermarket.”

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Marios Stavropoulos of Softomotive.

Marios Stavropoulos – Softomotive

From the beginning we aimed at large companies

“I launched the company in 2005 with the goal of building a program that would automate processes, as I often repeated the same tasks in the course of my job,” says Marios Stavropoulos, general manager of Robotic Process Automation at Microsoft and co-founder of startup Softomotive, which was acquired by the American giant in 2020, in an interview with Kathimerini.

“This is how WinAutomation was developed and became popular with certain users, later attracting the interest of companies who wanted to use the technology to automate certain tasks on a large scale. It was at this time, in 2012 and 2013, that robotic process automation [RPA] really started picking up. In 2014, my business partner Argyris Kaninis, who I met while at university, joined the team. Since then, the challenge was to transform the company from a B2C [business-to-consumer] model to a B2B [business-to-business] model and aim at large companies. That is when the ball started rolling.” This is how Stavropoulos himself tells the story of the company’s first steps, long before it attracted Microsoft’s interest. Stavropoulos and Kaninis both studied at the Department of Informatics and Telecommunications at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, pursuing a lifelong passion for computers.

As they told “Outliers,” a podcast presented by Endeavor Greece, both Stavropoulos (who was born and raised in Kavala, northern Greece) and Kaninis (Athens) were introduced to computers while in middle school and quickly became very interested in programming. Their first career steps, after graduating from university, were in private sector businesses. Stavropoulos quickly displayed his entrepreneurial instinct by founding software company Likno in early 2000. What followed was Softomotive, the global boom of the RPA market, the 25-million-dollar investment by Grafton Capital in 2018, and the acquisition of the company by Microsoft in 2020.

What was the feature that made Softomotive so appealing to the American company? The fact that its software was targeted at clients who were not developers. This vision is what led to the creation of a Microsoft development center in Athens, where the Power Automate program is being developed with RPA technology. The program is installed in the latest edition of Microsoft’s Windows operating system, Windows 11.

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John Papadakis, CEO and co-founder of Pollfish.

John Papadakis – Pollfish

We succeeded because we found what the market was looking for

“We were forced{BLA_WRD_TXT} to adjust our product several times to meet the demands of the market. Our goal from the very start was to make Pollfish a big company. It would either be a zero or it would soar,” John Papadakis, CEO and co-founder of Pollfish, tells Kathimerini.

Papadakis, along with Andreas Vourkos, Giannis Zaoudis and Zissis Bellas, founded the company in 2013, before it took its final form in 2016. It began expanding its client list and increasing its monthly revenue, to reach its current approximate annual turnover of almost 20 million dollars. The company helps businesses by providing a platform to conduct market research, without the need for specialist staff. Papadakis discovered at a young age that he was very interested in programming.

“I was born in Greece, I lived in Germany until I was 5, and then went to school in Aliartos in Viotia. I proceeded to study at the Department of Computer Engineering and Informatics at the University of Patra. I chose that department because I was interested in programming from a young age,” he states, adding that he met many members of Pollfish’s founding team at university. “After finishing my degree, I had my first entrepreneurial venture that despite being interesting was unsuccessful,” he said, adding that this first effort included the creation of mobile apps.

That is when Pollfish became a part of his life. The company evolved into a complete online platform that provides companies and individuals with the ability to conduct online mobile surveys through an easy-to-use, interactive questionnaire. The company can distribute these questionnaires to the phones of over half a billion consumers worldwide, receiving accurate responses in real time. “Before we reached the point where are we are now, with over 3,500 customers, there were many setbacks. In the early days, while we could list many application developers who collaborated with Pollfish, our client list was not growing at the same pace.”

He points out that the “enthusiasm of clients in our first days was subdued, something that could have been the result of our product not having reached maturity yet, but also because the market was not ready to accept it. Thankfully, our investors, Odyssey Venture Partners and PJ Tech Catalyst, shared our vision and funded us for the years 2013-15.” In 2018, the company’s funding round reached 6.3 million dollars. “After this fundraising we proved that our company could expand rapidly,” he states, revealing that following its acquisition, with information placing the value of the transaction somewhere in the region of 70 to 85 million dollars, Pollfish’s team in Athens is going to grow significantly.

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Accusonus was founded in 2013 by Elias Kokkinis (l) and Alex Tsilfidis (r).

Elias Kokkinis, Alex Tsilfidis – Accusonus

We understood the problems we had to solve

Their scientific background and their experience in the music industry proved to be the perfect combination when founding startup Accusonus, a company that develops technological tools that help process sound and video files. “The fact that Elias and I both had a research background while also having market experience was important in helping us fundamentally understand the everyday problems of the music industry,” says Alex Tsilfidis at every available opportunity.

Accusonus was founded in 2013 by Tsilfidis and Elias Kokkinis, with the addition of Michael Tzannes to the founding team being a landmark moment in the company’s development. Tzannes is both a co-founder and an angel investor, while in the past he served as the CEO of Aware, which was publicly traded on the Nasdaq and was a pioneer of digital subscriber line (DSL) technology.

Both Tsilfidis and Kokkinis studied electrical engineering and completed their PhDs at the same time at the University of Patra.

“We both worked in the music industry while we were studying for our undergraduate degrees,” Tsilfidis points outs.

Apart from their background, the two co-founders also highlight the important role of the team working on Accusonus and share their vision. Even in its early stages, Accusonus generated revenues, and by 2018 its products had been sold in more than 100 countries. The technology it creates is used by Grammy Award-winning producers who have collaborated with artists including Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Shakira and many more.

A further milestone for the company, and potentially an important factor in attracting large companies like Facebook, was the announcement of its collaboration with Adobe, the market leader in developing software for producing audiovisual content.