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“Why Sofia?” with Timo Railo, CTO at Appzio

 

 

Photo by Tsvetelina Belutova

 

Appzio is a Finnish-Bulgarian tech startup that is working on a revolutionary technology for building mobile applications. The company is incorporated in Sofia since 2015 and to this day has gained 600 000 EUR of investment. Currently, Appzio has an established technology and a steady revenue flow. The company is actively looking to scale their business and further expand globally.

 

Timo Railo, co-founder of Appzio, tells us what makes Sofia a place to launch and develop a successful business.

 

 

 

Please tell us briefly about your investments in Sofia? What does your company do in Bulgaria and outside?

In Bulgaria and outside of Bulgaria Appzio helps other businesses solve problems with custom mobile solutions. Our platform allows us to create native apps easier by cutting significantly the time to build them. ‘Native’ means that they are specifically created for the device’s operating system and have access to all of its functionalities. The apps built with our technology are also tailored to meet the specific needs of each company, regardless of its size.

What motivated you to invest in Sofia?

Sofia is quickly catching up on the more mature ecosystems. The general spirit and forward-looking attitude of people and startup companies is a great motivator. Sofia has some of the best tech talents in Europe at the moment and in general is a great place to live. An additional bonus is the funding that comes from the European Union for local accelerators, funds and startups that further helps to cultivate the ecosystem.

Are there other local and foreign companies here doing business in your sector?

Yes, there are some companies in our sector working with mobile apps. Since there’s a lot of development talent in Sofia, there are multiple development studios. Yet we’re different because our main focus is our unique technology which we aim to prove is the best tool for mobile app development not just locally, but on a global scale.

What are the advantages of investing in Sofia?

As said there’s plenty of development talent here. There are a lot of investment opportunities as well. And the general economic environment has been stable and predictable over the years.

What sort of difficulties have you faced so far?

Difficulties like any startup — getting the product-market-fit right, finding good people and making sure that the revenue grows fast enough. In terms of operating in Bulgaria, I see there are things that could be made easier in terms of bureaucracy, but overall nothing insurmountable.

How do you estimate the overall business climate in Sofia today?

The investment climate has been changing a lot in the past five years I´ve been here. I would say it’s been blooming and a lot of new interesting businesses are emerging. I’m little sorry to see the financial support for very early phase startups being less at the moment, due European Investment Fund putting more focus on later stage companies. I don’t think the market is quite ready for this yet.

I think once we start seeing some significant exists coming from Bulgaria, it will boost the general belief, that it’s possible to build and grow a world-class company from here. I think the few exits that we’ve seen have helped a great deal on that, but we need to add some more zeros.

Judging from your business experience, do you think that local and foreign investors see our capital as a more or less homogeneous business area, or are there still a lot of hurdles?

Even though Bulgaria is part of EU and LEV is tied to Euro, most foreign investors are still hesitant to consider Bulgarian companies for their investment portfolio. Part of this is what I mentioned previously; we haven’t seen too many exits yet and the general reputation could definitely be improved. Corruption, organized crime which is part of many facets of the society and EU’s sanctions towards Bulgaria are things that are scaring foreign investors.

What would you point out specifically in terms of business climate improvement for investors who are already operating in Sofia?

As the investment landscape is still fairly young, you still see investors that feel that they are the jack-of-all-trades and try to be experts in both finance and on running a business. Also; the general investments tend to be more on the conservative side, preferring often locally targeted businesses that are maybe less disruptive and have a more limited upside potential. This is understandable of course, but I believe, that the best chance Bulgaria has, is on tech startups that are out to change some big fundamentals.

I’m hoping, that once we start seeing bigger exists, also the funding tickets will become bigger. This is an absolute must because if you compete against other companies with five, ten or even fifty times bigger funding, you might lose simply due to underfunding. Of course, this doesn’t apply in all cases — sometimes having less forces you to innovate harder.

What needs to be improved in order to increase the number of new investors both from Bulgaria and abroad?

We would need a very strong support from EIF for early stage startups — you can’t expect to reap where you don’t sow. EIF support is also instrumental as a funding instrument when attracting foreign investors. On a bigger picture, there are many things that can be done to improve the general image of Bulgaria as an investment destination. As the most important things are structural changes, this will take time naturally, but I’d like to see stronger political initiative on pushing those changes.  

How much does the investment climate in Bulgaria stand out in comparison with progress made in other countries in the region?

Bulgaria has a strong startup ecosystem, but it’s not relevant yet for the overall economy. But with right support and success, it might change quite fast. To give an example, the biggest corporate tax payer last year in Finland, was still a startup in 2012 with zero revenues. Today this company, Supercell, creator of top netting mobile games has revenues of over 2B€.

Bulgaria has advantage over many of the neighbouring countries, thanks to EU membership. However compared to Romania and Poland, important tech hubs both, we are lagging very far behind in terms of foreign investments per capita.

When you look at Sofia and the country as a whole, as a Bulgarian investor, what attracts or surprises you most?

There are a lot of young and talented people out here. They have a lot of new ideas and motivation to work hard to achieve them. It’s impressive how much the ecosystem has been developing and growing and I’m convinced it will continue to do so.

How do you feel about Sofia and Bulgaria as a place to live – transportation, food, travel, prices, education, medical services?

I have lived in many countries – Finland, France, Italy and now Bulgaria. From all these countries I prefer Bulgaria as a place to live. One of my greatest passions is food and cooking. In Sofia, I can find high quality food and products and the climate suits me extremely well. The traveling opportunities are good either by train or a plane. A straight flight from Sofia to Helsinki would be great though.

The emphasis on mathematics and IT education shows, but Bulgaria, like all countries in the world must work very hard to make sure the education keeps up with the modern world. There is a good push to modernize the Bulgarian basic education, but there are also a lot of old structures making this change slower. My impression is, that in general education is seen as a very important issue by parents and this is probably the reason why there is so much private offerings on the education, starting from kindergarten and going all the way to university education. I’m little in two minds about this — on one hand, I feel it is vital to raise capable individuals and improve the general standard of living, on the other hand, this creates inequality within the society. This is, of course, a trend that is not just in Bulgaria, but all around the world, but maybe here at times, it feels more pronounced than in many other European countries.

With medical services, my general experience has been that there are very competent doctors and health care professionals that have an emphatic approach to their patients.

Name your top 5 favourite things in Sofia?

People, food, climate, nature and the fact that even though Sofia is not a huge city, it still has a vibe of a city that doesn’t really sleep. Needless to say, Sofia climate compared to my home country Finland is a huge upgrade. In Bulgaria, we have all the four seasons, but they are better balanced than in Finland — long warm summer, distinct autumn and spring that are not too long and winter with some snow, but not the darkness that comes with the Finnish winter.

 

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