Q: PODIM is the most inFluential startup and tech event in the Alps-Adriatic & Western Balkans region. How did you come up with the idea for it?
Podim is a conference with a long tradition. It began to foster innovation as early as 1980, when the conference marked its beginnings. In 2001, the then head of the Podim conference, prof. Dr. Matjaž Mulej, offered to us, the Tovarna podjemov (Venture Factory) which was established that same year, the opportunity to take over the organization of the conference. I gladly accepted the idea. With my team we started creating a new chapter of the conference. We saw the organization of the conference as an excellent opportunity to build a network of national, regional and global connections, which are crucial for the development of an excellent support environment for start-ups what was also the core mission set up by the Tovarna podjemov at the time of its establishment.
Q: This year’s edition was already the 39th. How has its path unrolled? From the beginning it probably wasn’t focused on start-ups as this is such a new term of the 21st Century?
Since 2001, the Podim Conference has slowly been transformed from a national, largely academic-oriented conference on entrepreneurship and innovation, to an international entrepreneurial conference, which places in its focus the entrepreneurs and their needs for learning and making business deals with investors and established companies. Initially, we had the great challenge of identifying the target group as we wanted to address innovative start-ups, i.e. startups that at the time were not yet known by the name. That is why, in 2004, we were among the first in Europe to launch a programme for the popularization of start-ups under the name Start: up Slovenia, with assistance from Podim’s key partners, namely Slovene Enterprise Fund, public agency SPIRIT Slovenia, and the Ministry of Economic Development and Technology. Over the years, we have increasingly opened the conference to the world. We made a real breakthrough after 2010, when the conference was supported by the Slovenian startup community led by Andraž Tori from Zemanta, who became the real global ambassador of the conference. Through international participants, our hard work, and the development of the startup ecosystem in general, the role of the conference at home and in the world has begun to strengthen and it has, thus, become what it is today.
Q: And it seems to be growing every year. For example, this year the One2One meetings between the regional startups and investors grew from 500 to a record of more than 900. How far can you go? How far do you want to go?
The Podim conference will continue to grow only in quality. We have made a conscious decision to limit ourselves to a maximum of 1000 participants to ensure the best experience for the participants. Of course, with good organization we can even exceed the number of business meetings, which we have in the past year almost doubled with the use of the specialized Finnish app Deal Room. Likewise, the quality of participating startup and scaleup companies has improved dramatically, driven by growing interest in Podim. We have already received more than 700 applications this year, which we want to increase significantly. Most startup and scaleup companies still come from Slovenia (around a third), followed by companies from Austria with 14.8%, while from Croatia and Serbia around 5%, and from the Czech Republic and Italy just over 4%, followed by others countries from the region.
Q: For the 12th year in a row, PODIM was also the stage for the final award ceremony for the Slovenian Startup of the Year. How much is this part connected to the Start:up Slvoenia?
In 2008, under the Start: up Slovenia program, we launched the Slovenian Start: Up of the Year selection. Since then nearly 1000 startups have participated in it. From the beginning, we have been rewarding the best startp up with the Slovenian Start-Up of the Year title, symbolized by the crystal statue that the team receives at a high-profile event at the Podim Conference. In 2011, at the initiative of the Ministry of Economic Development and Technology, the Start: up Slovenia competition and the startup incentive of the P2 Slovenian Enterprise Fund were joined in one. This further strengthened the importance of selection as companies that participate in the pre-selection process of Start: up Slovenia, can get additional points for launching the P2 incentive. By designing such a public campaign, we have achieved greater transparency of the Slovenian startup ecosystem and its activities, as well as contributed to raising the profile of innovative entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial projects. Connecting all this with the Podim conference, we added to the competition a strong international component.
Q: PODIM conference traditionally takes place in the Habakuk Hotel in Maribor. How come?
PODIM has traditionally, already since its beginnings, been taking place in Maribor, the second largest city in Slovenia, and I hope it stays there. The Habakuk Hotel is actually one of the few, if not the only, suitable location for the Podim conference in Maribor. We are extremely grateful to the entire team of the hotel, which unsefishely helps us so that the entire hotel for three days, the pre-conference day and two days of the central event, exclusively shines in Podim colors. The Habakuk Hotel offers hospitality and a good level of service to thousand of participants, who occupy just about every corner of the hotel. At the same time, the venue is less than ten minutes away from the center of Maribor, where we organise more and more conference accompanying activities.
Q: The conference certainly contributes to the development and growth of the city of Maribor. Considering the high number of visitors, how much profit would you estimate the conference brings to Maribor?
In my estimation, the organizers and participants in Maribor spend a total of at least EUR 300,000. However, the financial impact of a non-financial nature is much greater, as Maribor became recognized in the global entrepreneurial community through the Podim Conference. I am very happy every time I meet a well-known investor from San Francisco and in conversation hearing that he or she has already heard positive words about the Podim conference in Maribor. This means that we are already being talked about in Silicon Valley. Additionally, for the second time in a row, we have been ranked among the top 30 startups and technology events in Europe.
Q: By your observations and feedbacks by the attendees, what do they like about Maribor the most?
In regards to the conference, the participants appreciate our quality of service. Above all, how well we communicate during, at and after the conference. They are also satisfied with the quality of investors and speakers who are all experienced serial entrepreneurs and come to Podim with a desire to network.
And in regards to Maribor, a feedback by Shira Abel from Silicon Valley’s Hunter & Bard says it all: »Maribor is an amazing little city, and there is amazing wine here in Slovenia. There’s a lot going on. And people are super, super nice, I made wonderful contacts last time I was here, and I feel like I’m making wonderful contacts again. So I feel very, very lucky to be able to come back.«
Q: What kind of numbers are you predicting for the 40th, jubilee edition in 2020?
In 2020 we want to again achieve at least a 20% improvement in the quality of the conference in all respects except the number of participants, which will remain at the level of 1000. In regards to the quality of the conference, we primarily mean raising the number of applications by startup companies, raising the budget of the conference, raising the share of international participants, increasing the number of business meetings etc.
Q: Are you planning anything special for the celebratory edition?
For 2020, we plan to strengthen networking between entrepreneurs themselves, as they can share their positive and negative business experiences. So far, we have focused primarily on networking with investors and directors of established companies. We are still thinking about the surprise at the conference.
Q: What would you advise to those who are just stepping into the start-up scene? What is that zazz that can make them special?
I would like to advise anyone entering the world of entrepreneurship to be curious and learning. Therefore, to get to know other positive-minded people as much as possible. To learn from the mistakes and successes of other entrepreneurs. To take advantage of the opportunities offered by the Podim Conference and the Slovenian supportive environment for entrepreneurship, which has consolidated well in recent years and strengthened its financial and non-financial services. All the information can be found on the central website of the Slovenian startup ecosystem Startup.si.