In 2012, Ahmad Piraiee decided to pack up his life in Tehran and move to Poland. He had a one-way ticket and two degrees: an MBA with a focus on Strategic Administration and a Bachelor of Computer Engineering. He had also put in three years as a Systems Analyst for Xerox and was looking to shake things up.
When he landed, Ahmad dove right into the international tech scene — consulting, coaching, and advising companies based not only in Poland, but also Hungary, Spain, the UK, and the US on business development, fundraising, and organizational structure.
Since then, Ahmad’s work has won him various accolades and recognition from governments and universities alike. He’s spoken on over 50 tech panels, presented keynotes, and has become a recognizable face in the Polish tech ecosystem.
For nearly five years, Ahmad also led ITKeyMedia as its CEO, solidifying partnerships with PwC, GlobeNewswire, MIT, and others, to promote Poland’s IT sector globally.
Today, Ahmad is the Director of Startup Grind Warsaw, a community of 2,500 members that meets regularly to support and learn from each other. Prior to COVID-19, Ahmad hosted their in-person events and led interviews with, most recently, Karol Żbikowski, CEO of Platige Image; Grzegorz Wójcik, CEO of Autenti; and Piotr Piasek, co-founder of the Wolves Summit.
We caught up with Ahmad to discuss how startups should think about scaling West, the impact of the Polish Development Fund on the market, and the future of the Polish ecosystem (spoiler: it’s bright). Our conversation has been edited for length.
What are some challenges local startups face when they look to scale to the West?
First of all, Polish culture is a very high-context culture. In Anglo-Saxon culture, what you see is what you get. A lot of startups in the region think that translating into English will make them ready to enter Western markets, but that’s not the case.
To scale in the West, you need to understand a different culture, clients, investors, and to know the markets. Another thing is that investors often invest only in their surroundings, so startups have to be prepared to ask themselves, ‘Am I ready to have an office in the West?’ Look at Codility — they raised a total of $22.1M in funding over two rounds because they have an office in the US.
How about challenges scaling locally?
Most Polish startups are service-oriented. We don’t have many product-oriented companies because the population of the country defines the startup strategy. For example, if you’re an Indian startup, your products can be addressed to millions of people. If you’re a Latvian or Swiss startup, you definitely have a bigger chance with the B2B corporate approach.
Poland is kind of in the middle, but I see the change coming. It used to be more like a ‘back office’ for other markets. Now it’s cheaper to look for labor even more East and, with all the talent we have, I already see companies developing products for the locals.
Let’s dive into that. How have you noticed Poland becoming less of a ‘back office?’
The Polish ecosystem is rich in many different ways. There are a lot of aviation startups that are really good, as well as AI and nanotechnologies. Big Data is a big, big thing in Poland right now. Even edtech, like Brainly, are doing a great job.
We have to also remember about the universities. There are many, let’s say, ‘intellectual graduates’ that are great. The Polish talent pool provides a lot of different solutions for multiple industries. If you add that together, you see that Poland is much more than just a ‘back office,’ and the people that think that haven’t updated their calendars since the late 1990s!
Do you think that some of the Western startups are having issues entering Eastern European markets for the same reasons you mentioned?
Yes, the same thing happens exactly the opposite way. Some Western companies and Western VC’s come to Poland without doing any market research. They come with stereotypes — but on the other hand, you can’t blame them. The branding for countries like Poland is usually very weak. It’s opposite to NYC where you are. The city isn’t perfect, but the branding is so good that everyone wants to come and see it.
So Poland’s kind of like a hidden gem?
Let’s put it this way: Imagine you’re in the corner of a store and you find something cheap. You probably won’t start shouting to everyone to come and see it. In fact, you’re going to try to take as much as you can and leave without anyone noticing. Right now, for example, developing and beta testing of global solutions are cheaper here. That’s why we have the community and the ecosystem at Startup Grind. We have to accelerate and shout about our talents, not keep them low key.
Yes, I would say one thing I don’t understand is that Polish startups often come to me and say, ‘I have this great idea but I’m not sure I can tell you about it.’ They have to realize it’s all about execution. Founders sometimes keep the idea to themselves and develop a product that nobody really needs. Then it’s not even about failing fast — you shouldn’t have even started in the first place.
Another thing is that most of the Polish startups are too perfectionist. Most of the Polish products I see right now are ready to leave the market because they’re genuine. American startups always say, ‘Oh, I have a perfect product and it’s the best in the world’ — but they’re not even at the MVP stage. They are just so big on promoting themselves that everything is, let’s say, ‘too loud.’
And then I see a Polish startup and ask, ‘Oh guys, great, so how many did you sell?” And what I’ll hear is, ‘Nothing, we’re still working on our UX and A/B testing things that we think we can still do better.’ I think that it was a founder of LinkedIn who said that if you’re proud of your product you just shipped it too late. Polish startups ship their product so late.
How has the Polish Development Fund impacted the market?
Yes, I call it the ‘double edged sword of the Polish startup ecosystem.’ Right now the ecosystem is becoming very centralized in decision-making and money. The Polish Development Fund has about 2 billion PLN ($500M) under their management, and this enables them to do massive innovation projects and affect the Polish startup ecosystem. That’s very impressive and amazing, but also it makes them many times bigger than the private sector.
I always feel like there should be more space for the private sector, especially now. In the long run, it’s a better opportunity for the whole ecosystem. The Polish Development Fund allows private co-investors, and I hope when they grow big enough the Fund will leave the market. But if the Fund will carry on too long then the ecosystem won’t be strong enough to be on its own once they potentially exit.
What do you see happening with the Polish startup ecosystem in the near future?
The startup ‘movement’ really started in Poland in 2008–2010. Many different organizations and accelerators opened in various places. Google opening up their campus in Warsaw also brought a lot of attention. All of these small moves had a massive effect on the ecosystem. Back then, Polish startups could raise a seed round of about 10–50K PLN [$2.5–12.5K], and right now some Polish startups, like Codility can go for much, much more.
The ecosystem has become so mature that some companies can get Silicon Valley-kind-of-money, and that’s amazing. Now we literally have a VC from every part of the world being represented in our ecosystem. It’s still in its infancy, but it’s growing really fast.
1. Book on your nightstand: Chasing Black Unicorns
2. Your local cafe: eMeSeN on Pańska Street
3. Last app downloaded: Too Good To Go
4. Fave Twitter account: @TheTweetOfGod
5. Best part of your job: Inspiring & being inspired
Ahmad Piraiee interviewing Grzegorz Wójcik, CEO of Autenti, for Startup Grind Warsaw’s March 2020 event: