Wilfried Durand is a multi-hat web entrepreneur and startup advisor with a strong interest in building and growing global services. He discovered Sofia as a business destination five years ago while developing Mailjet, a French company he co-founded in 2010. Within the next two years Wilfried had hired a team of 25 people on 4 continents, including 10 in Sofia. The next company he founded – Onvey, is entirely based in Sofia.
Please tell us briefly about your investments in Sofia? What does your company do in Bulgaria and outside?
My main activities in Sofia are to participate in the local IT ecosystem as an entrepreneur, startup advisor, and business angel. Less than a year ago I registered in Sofia my latest company Onvey with the purpose of launching innovative SaaS products. We plan to release 2 products in 2017, dedicated to product owners who want to monitor and improve the user experience of their services. Beside that, I intend to bring my entrepreneurial experience to local startups and start investing in them. My first participation went into iGreet, whose founder Vicho and his amazing team developed an impressive AR technology.
What motivated you to start your business here, in Sofia?
I had the opportunity to discover Sofia when we opened an outsourced office for Mailjet, the previous company I co-founded, in partnership with Proxiad. Within two years the Proxiad team in Sofia grew up to 30+ people which I got to know better during my frequent visits from Paris, ten of them were in the team that I managed directly. Not only I got to work closely with nice minds, but also discovered a culture where individuals commit themselves to improving and learning new skills to progress. I enjoy this positive mindset, compared to my native western culture where the personal branding can sometimes overstep real achievements. Ultimately, that is what motivated me to invest in the people of Sofia.
When you look at the Bulgarian capital and the country as a whole, as a foreign investor, what attracts or surprises you most? What are the advantages of setting up your business in Sofia?
First of all, Sofia ranked as one of the best European city where to live. The city is dynamic, affordable, green & friendly. Then the young population is in my opinion bright, greatly educated and fully aware of leaving in a global environment: they are fluent in English, often study and speak a third language additionally to a specialization. A fair amount of these young people would already have a professional experience in an international company. You get all the benefits of a large capital but on a human scale. It offers propitious conditions to launch and grow a business, without the risk of harming your personal and/or family life. Certainly, the 10% flat taxation in Bulgaria makes it attractive. Sofia also in at a strategic location with connections to Russia and Turkey while being part of the EU and just 3 hours from any Western European large airport.
What sort of disadvantage have you faced so far?
We haven’t faced any major disadvantage yet, but some limitations do exist. On top of my mind comes the legal obligations and procedures that can be tricky: you must find and trust local experts (lawyer, accountant …) that must have your best interest in mind. Then, depending on your commercial development strategy and if your primary market is -or not- in Bulgaria, you have to anticipate that part of your team will work remotely and build the relevant organisation for it.
How do you estimate the overall business climate in Sofia today?
In Sofia, it seems to me that the business climate is positive and moving in the right direction. If you look 10 years backward, you can better appreciate how much was done and is to come. Public infrastructures and transports are constantly improved, new restaurants & bars open frequently, cultural events take place on a daily basis, etc. The IT area is booming, which I believe is a major indicator of a growing economy. New startups are popping, jobs are created, money is invested. As a resident and supporter of the Puzl Coworking-space initiative, I can raise them as an example to estimate how fast things are going in the area.
This kind of space did not exist in Sofia 5 years ago, and there are a dozen now. Created in late 2015, Puzl is now offering 2800 sq.m of shared space for more than 40 tech startups, 250 IT professionals, and is successful in organizing IT events every week that attract a strong specialized audience. Puzl will open a second space with the same capacity by the end of the year in order to keep up with the growing demand. Something is definitely happening, and the potential for more in the ecosystem truly exists.
What would you point out specifically in terms of business climate improvement for investors who are already operating in Sofia? What needs to be improved in order to increase the number of new investors?
The biggest challenge for Bulgaria today is to face foreign countries’ attractivity: keeping the talents in the country, and build the price conditions for the generation to come, both in term of attractivity (salaries, work conditions..), education in the promising sectors and spirit of entrepreneurship to attract investors. In a competitive market, less available skills mean a higher risk for investors. Sofia should not be seen from the outside only as a preferred outsourcing destination for low cost or a low-value workforce. I am convinced that foreign enterprises having a workforce in Bulgaria could and should consider investing here more in the people, engineering or R&D, as well as to delegate a larger part of their activity and management. Positively, several things make me think that we are at a turning point today, among which the fact that many Bulgarian engineers in IT are today relocating back to Sofia after several years abroad.
How much does the investment climate in Bulgaria stand out in comparison with the progress made in other countries in the region?
Investment is rising in the East and in the Balkans. From what I hear and see, I would say that Sofia and Bulgaria participates to the traction but suffers from a lack of appreciation compared to its neighbors. In the last years Greece, Ukraine or Turkey attracted the World’s attention, regrettably for negative reasons. Yesterday’s situation in the Balkans which is still present in Europeans’ minds and today’s resurgence of tension is not helping either. On the other side Romania, which can be considered as offering a better economic context, is in the light and participate in putting Bulgaria in the shadow. In this situation,being one of the smallest countries, at the far East of Europe (and using Cyrillic alphabet) limits the apparent attractivity.
The truth is, there is lack of awareness about the region on a global level, especially from the other countries in EU. Besides the success of the IT company Telerik, who could bet on anything big coming from Bulgaria? Yet when you look at it, in 2014 the Bulgarian accelerator Eleven was one of the top investing funds in Europe, pushing Bulgaria to the 4th position in investments made in startups in Europe, and the investment pace has even augmented since. The challenge is real but Bulgarians can be proud of where they stand and envision a bright future.
What is typical for the French investors that invest in Bulgaria?
Most of the french investors around me are individuals that were already connected with Bulgaria thanks to a previous working experience. They are often deeply linked to the country and even reside here permanently. What is particular here is the direct personal implications that go along with the investment decision.
How do you feel about Sofia and Bulgaria as a place to live – transportation, food, travel, prices, education, medical services?
Sofia is an amazing city to work, live and get out. Bulgaria offers beautiful landscapes allowing many and diverse adventures thanks to a pleasant continental climate. I especially enjoy the close distance to the mountains, but also the ease to reach the black sea for a weekend, or simply visiting the countryside for a charming excursion are my personal favorites. The food is excellent, and I have to admit I have been impressed by the Bulgarian wine! I moved to Sofia 2 years ago and the only thing I can complain about is the “special” rate some taxi drivers sometimes apply to us, foreigners. You have to be careful. But probably not
more than a Bulgarian in a Parisian taxi, after all? The overall cost of life and quality of living is nothing else but great!
Name your top 5 favourite things in Sofia?
- The view of Vitosha mountain!
- The numerous parks and green spaces
- The Sense bar rooftop
- The Elephant Bookstore on Tsar Shishman
- The malls and their cinema for rainy days