Marco Palombi is a special Italian entrepreneur and blogger. After starting a very successful company (Tipic, Inc.), he wants to share his experience helping Italy and Italians to be more competitive and to develop a stronger entrepreneurial attitude. To me this sounds like a perfect match with the BAIA mission. Even if the Silicon Valley business model can't be implemented in Italy, as Marco made clear, he still looks at California as a reference and inspirational model. It's time to get Marco's first hand opinion on these topics. Here is the interview.
Marco, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your company?
I consider myself a serial entrepreneur. I sold the latest company I founded 6 months ago and now I am helping with its integration; meanwhile I am trying to figure out what the next big thing is.
When I sold it, Tipic Inc. had developed Splinder.com into the largest community and blogging site in Italy with 5.5 Million unique users per month. I sold it to Dada SpA, which is part of the Rizzoli Corriere della Sera Media Group.
Tipic Inc. is a very advanced technology company too; we developed the first Jabber Instant Messaging Server for Windows in 2002, the first mobile Jabber client for J2ME, etc. I was a Member of the Board of Directors of the Jabber Software Foundation in 2002/2003. I have a blog, and you can find more info about me there.
There is a lot talk in Italy about importing the Silicon Valley business model to foster the growth of new companies. What is missing in Italy that could prevent the successful replication of this model there?
Importing the Silicon Valley business model as a whole is not possible because there are too many things that are missing, not only in Italy, but in Europe in general. The most important missing piece of the puzzle is a market for products and services offered by start-up companies.
Let me explain this in detail because I have been through this for the past 10 years and have developed a good understanding of the situation. When you start a technology company -- once you assemble the team, create the product, and finance the company -- you must start selling the product or offering the service. That's where Italy and Europe have a lot of catch-up to do with Silicon Valley; large and medium Italian companies do not invest in products or services created by start-ups, because they are not in a competitive market and are not forced to experiment with new technology. An Italian start-up with the best product would probably start selling it in its home market 3 to 5 years after a US start-up with an equivalent product.
Finding money and bright people is possible in Italy; finding a market for a technology company is very hard on the other hand. Our hope is to do what Swedish or Israeli companies do: develop the product at home and sell it in the US first. That's what we did with the Instant Messaging products we developed in Naples, Italy. Our first customers were NASA, the US Army, and many other medium and large US companies. The first Italian company to buy our wares was Tiscali, 3 years after we had sold the first server to a US company.
Business social networking, both online and in person, seems to be one of the key components of Silicon Valley success. Regarding the building and maintaining of business relationships, what is better to handle online and what in person?
Nowadays I do not see any difference between online and offline any more. I have a blog, and use it instead of a business card, or together with it. You meet someone in person, chat a bit and then refer him to your blog. On the Internet you can search for people, starting from what they do, something which was impossible before. Some of the people that worked for Tipic Inc. had never met in person, although they actually worked online together everyday.
That being said, you still need to meet in person for casual conversations. That's when unexpected opportunities arise!
Can you describe a little about your First Generation Network initiative you’re setting up with Michele Appendino? What are the current and long term goals for this program?
Italy's economy has not grown much in the past 20 years. We think that that is due, among other things, to the lack of innovative first generation entrepreneurs.
The current goal of the First Generation Network is to show that Italy has some valid first generation entrepreneurs; these entrepreneurs can be role models for a new wave of young entrepreneurs. We started by interviewing some first generation entrepreneurs, and posting the video online.
The most common misconception in Italy is that for you to be an entrepreneur your dad must be one. This feeling is so ingrained that *real* entrepreneurs seem to be only the second generation ones.
The long term goal is to create a Network of Entrepreneurs and Friends of the Network that can spark an ecosystem where it is easier than it is now to start and grow your own company.
Young entrepreneurs can be concerned about sharing their ideas and experiences with others. How can we motivate them to share their experiences and benefit from others’ experiences?
We must create a win-win situation where young entrepreneurs participate because that gives them access to knowledge, resources, visibility and people (Friends of the Network); we ask them to contribute to the Network by sharing some of their knowledge.
You are a popular blogger and Splinder, your previous company, is about blogs. In a world where almost everybody connected to the Internet seems to have a blog, having great content is not enough to be noticed anymore. How can an individual or a business attract readers to their blog in such a crowded environment?
I would say that the rules have not changed. Having great content is still very important. What has changed is the fact that we hear many more voices today, now that anyone can have a blog.
Thanks to the Internet, we do not live into a broadcast world anymore; now you can interact and communicate directly with your friends and partners; and you must nurture and build your own networks everyday.
A few years ago, when I moved to California, I noticed and learned to appreciate one great feature of the local business environment: professional roles are well-defined and each person is responsible for his part. For example, an investor is responsible for choosing the manager but after that should not interfere with the management of the company. My Italian experience was quite different. Do you see this situation changing in Italy with the appearance of a new generation of entrepreneurs?
Yes, I see a change mostly when you interact with people that have studied or had a significant work experience in the UK or the US. Changing the culture is the most difficult thing to do. We think that a good way to start is showing positive role models.
The problem and opportunity in Italy (and Europe) is that ideologies are waning and there are no clear role models anymore. We think that ethical, responsible, innovative, first generation entrepreneurs can be a model for the new generations in a fast evolving society.
What can a business association like BAIA do to help young Italian entrepreneurs succeed?
Well it can do very much. When I founded my latest company, I had no idea how to start a company in the US, how to contact possible buyers of the technology; had to work hard to find partners who could help me with communicating what I was doing (from Italy) in Silicon Valley.
An association like BAIA can provide all the above and much more. It is important for Italian entrepreneurs to know that they can talk to someone who understands them, yet someone who is fully integrated in the Valley.
Thanks to the Internet, there are a lot of new opportunities for entrepreneurs (and a lot of competition too). BAIA can provide competitive advantages to Italian companies wanting to expand into the Valley.
I would like to thank Marco Palombi for taking the time to speak with me today. If you have any questions for Marco or for BAIA, please leave a comment below and we will be glad to answer.
The picture is a Photoshop elaboration based on an original by Shel Israel.