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September in the States: startups, Seattle and 7 lessons learned

Written by: Nina Nikolich, Skopje, North Macedonia

Placement city: Seattle, WA

Short Bio: Nina's mission is to develop and strengthen the startup and innovation ecosystem in MKD and the Balkan region. She has been doing that from 2014 through the #MKstartups community and as an executive advisory board member and co-founder of the association Startup Macedonia. Strategically fostering collaboration and synergies among startups, partner organizations, policy makers, local and regional/international eco-system actors.

Spring 2017 is when I received the news that I had been selected as 1 of 100 Young Transatlantic Innovative Leaders!

Young Transatlantic Innovation Leaders Initiative (YTILI) is a fellowship by the U.S. Department of State and now implemented by World Chicago in the United States. It focuses on developing entrepreneurial skills and enhancing economic opportunities for young professionals from throughout Europe.

YTILI empowers young entrepreneurs and innovators with the tools, networks, and resources they need to grow their professional activities and projects. YTILI is also a vehicle for building a transatlantic network of innovators who can contribute to an ongoing growth of the business ecosystem and policy dialogue that strengthens the transatlantic relationship.

Summer 2017 is when I received the info about my official placement — Seattle, WA. I couldn’t have been more excited about exploring the startup eco-system and the ‘home’ of Starbucks, Amazon, Microsoft, Startup Weekend… Especially since ‘my startup story’ started at the SWSkopje in September 2014 and one year and a half later through #SwissEP I had the opportunity to meet and work with Franck Nouyrigat, one of Startup Weekend’s co-founders, for two weeks in Macedonia, and now I would be ‘living’ in the home city of Startup Weekend! Surreal… yet super exciting.

Once I got all the dates sorted and the initial agenda for Washington, DC and Seattle, I started planing my September stay in the States, which included 11 flights, 5 cities (SanFran; Las Vegas and LA added), numerous business meetings, networking events and the biggest tech conference of the year: TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco!

Business discussion at lunch

September 2017: Starting my YTILI US journey in the capital, Washington DC

Seventy two hours in the capital, provided me with the opportunity to meet and connect with 50 inspiring young professionals from Europe and establish long-lasting friendships and potential collaborations. Visiting the Department of State where we all gained better understanding of the US government policies and programs in support of entrepreneurs and trade.

While at the German Marshall Fund we had organized workshops for various crucial topics: building relationships, understanding entrepreneurship in the US, developing and polishing pitch decks. Our tight agenda also included exploring the capital, cultural activity like experiencing a baseball game at the Nationals Stadium and participating in a panel discussion with US innovators at the WeWork White House premises, followed by a networking event with the diplomatic community and startup eco-system.

Seattle, MY startup ‘hidden gem’

Luckily for us, the two-week professional placement (as Entrepreneur in Residence) was at UW CoMotion Labs: the collaborative innovation hub dedicated to expanding the economic and societal impact of the UW community, placed at the #1 most innovative public university in the US & #7 in number of startups launched.

In these two weeks, for the seven of us in Seattle, the initial agenda prepared from YTILI, was already filled with business meetings, individual sessions with different key-actors from the eco-system and networking events, such as Women in Tech and The AT&T Innovation Summit. What none of us expected was that with our additional meetings that we have arranged pre-arrival we would get such great responsiveness. One of the most surprising things I experienced during my stay in Seattle was the openness, kindness and collaboration of the startup eco-system.

Something we all were blessed with there, is the most inspiring and super successful woman entrepreneur as a mentor. From the moment we met with Gillian Muessig, Fund Manager at Outlines Venture Group, the Columbia Tower Club on the 75th became our unofficial working space. Here we would meet with Gillian and her collaborators for business development, storytelling and pitching sessions, sales and marketing, as well as brainstorming and planning next steps for transatlantic cooperation…

The whole journey served as a learning experience that will support the growth and development of our ventures. If I go into details for each and every day I can definitely write a whole book, the key takeaway for the experience in Seattle is that everyone I met and everywhere I went in the city, made me feel like I belonged, like I am a true Seattleite.

Seven lessons learned that September in the States:

#1 People — No matter where you go it will always be about people

Since I can remember I have always been a traveler, never a tourist. Especially since my startup journey began three years ago, my travels to different cities across Europe and now in the States have increased. Seeing a city guided by a local, experiencing a startup community through the network of community leaders. Being open to meet new people for a coffee is key for me, to get the best out of traveling and building a professional and personal network. But most importantly establishing friendships throughout the world.

In Seattle, the time spent with my six co-fellows, highlighted my stay. Being the only women in the group was flattering, because I was spending my days with young professionals and gentlemen. However, It was also a challenge, since unofficially I had the role of the ‘group coordinator’. I am thankful to YTILI because I have found new friends and collaborators especially in Ivan Jelushich (Croatia); Ivan Veresies (Cyprus); Tomasz Waclawski (Poland); Janko Pavlovich (Serbia); Upon our return we managed to organize reunions in each of our home cities which was an incredible experience as by now we consider ourselves a family!

#2 Storytelling is KEY

Something I have been focusing on in the past years and still learning and developing are my storytelling skills. There is always something new to learn and there is a difference in the way we in CEE share our stories and the way storytelling is mastered in the US. When it comes down to your business, how you format and share your story; and what you want to get out of it (new customers, partners, investors) is something that MUST be mastered. Even if you have the best product/service in the world, if you are not able to do storytelling right and provoke emotions and actions, you will most likely lose the momentum.

#3 Strange times we live in, require BUILDING BRIDGES

Summer 2016 is when I was connected with a Stanford Alumni that was on a fellowship exploring the entrepreneurial eco-system in the Balkans. We grabbed a coffee and few days later we met again at a conference where we promised to stay in touch. Few days later we met again to try and organize a community event called BalkanChangeMakers WKND in Struga, Macedonia. We managed to do that in less than three weeks, to gather startup community leaders from 7 Balkan countries for a working weekend. Before her departure back home, I asked Marilyn Harris what’s next for her. She answered: “I’m going back home to pack and I’m moving to Seattle, starting my new job there at Microsoft. You should definitely come and visit”

“Sure thing” — I said, not even in my wildest dreams would I think that a year later this would be a reality!

Since the moment I found out that my host city is Seattle, up to the point of my full stay there, the girl I randomly met over for a coffee in Skopje, was my super host. She organized a welcome to Seattle party for me, inviting all her friends,co-workers and my co-fellows. She connected me with every single person she knows in the eco-system, not only in Seattle, but also in San Francisco (where thanks her (and now our) friend Pablowe learned more about Google and Android as OS and had a tour at Googleplex) and LA, to being the greatest friend, taking this whole experience to another level, making sure I had the best time and made me feel at home, while I’m 10 000 km away from home.

#4 Dicovering my USP (unique selling point)

At one of our trainings in Washington, DC, Videesha Böckle shared with us the importance of being or knowing a superconnector and that everyone of us has to find their own USP.

Through my stay in Seattle in a discussion with my co-fellows it was established that in our group I am the superconnector. Something that I was already aware of, with all the friendships I’ve built through my active involvement in the startup eco-systems in the Balkans and throughout Europe.

Something I’ve learned during the sessions with my mentor and she highlighted as a direct feedback, that I am always ready (well prepared) when an opportunity arises. Hard work and being always open for opportunities, have taught me how to be well prepared and ready for many situations. This is when I’ve learned what my UPS is. Do you know yours?

#5 Be alert and open to new opportunities

Just before our flight from Washington to Seattle, within our group was a discussion of how we could meet Jeff Bezos (the most successful entrepreneur of our time) while we’re there :)))

However, it was of a very high importance for most of us to be able to meet people in the innovation department and get a tour at Amazon HQ. And we were strategizing and delegating responsibilities of who does what, so we can make it happen.

Sitting next to me on the plane was a friendly girl and we randomly started a conversation. It turned out that the girl sitting next to me is Carolyn Spencer, a product manager at Amazon and promised to book a time slot in her schedule and give us a tour. We all clicked so well with her that she pulled all the strings to connect us with the right people so some of us can pitch the business opportunities. Lesson learned: Share a drink, talk to stranger that could turn into a friend, be open for new opportunities! Year later, I was able to host Carolyn in my hometown as she joined our SwissEP EiR program for a month to work with startups and organizations in our startup ecosystem.

#6 Doing business in the US is easy(easier) with the right partners

Whatever your business might be, if your target market is the US market (and you and your team are based in Europe), finding the right partner is key. The biggest challenge is to do the research, to establish a relationship with a partner that will share your vision and is willing to work as hard as you for the successful placement of your product/service. Lesson learned: With the right amount of support and (people) partners achieving your goals is inevitable, no matter the size of the market!

#7 Stay you & always be representin’ (the new ‘stay hungry, stay foolish’)

Your unique self is of utmost importance! Make sure to learn something new every single day, meet new people, develop personally as you develop professionally. Soft skills are something that can’t and won’t ever be replaced, even when robots, AI and VR take over!

I’ve learned that no matter who I meet on my journey, I will always present my true self. Personal branding is another very important thing I witnessed in the States. Another key thing I learned there is self respect and knowing your worth in the workplace. Something that can not be taught, but we just learn it on our journey.

And when you’ll know how to best present yourself, then you can advocate for others, like I did on this journey in the States.

My life motto could probably be the key takeaway here: Always be open for meeting new people, take the time for grabbing a coffee with a stranger, share an experience, share an opportunity. The journey can take you to magnificent places and milestones!

I’ve managed to meet new people, establish friendships, partnerships, connect people, then advocate for Letz in every city I went, with every new individual/potential user/customer, to investors, and VC funds at TC Disrupt. Promoting the Launch in Macedonia booklet developed by Startup Macedonia and our #SwissEP Entrepreneurs-in-Residence program which will allow us to strengthen the transatlantic bridge we have built.