This appeared on the Bitspiration web site here
Richard Lucas is a British entrepreneur who has lived and done business in Poland for more than 20 years.
You may also know him as an angel investor, who has helped develop many of the hottest startups in Krakow. Or as a community activist, spending a lot of his time building the local entrepreneurial scene and making it grow. Or as a founder of the “Wojtek the Soldier Bear” historical initiative. Recently, I had a chance to talk to him for a while, about how our country has changed in the last 20 years from the perspective of a businessman, about the role of the European Union in entrepreneurship, and about his ideological and political views. The interview took place just after the Krakspot organizational meeting, which Richard, of course, decided to help revive and bring back to its former glory as the best-known BarCamp in Krakow.
When did you come to Poland and what did think of your perspective for doing business here back then?
I came here in 1991, just after the end of communism, and at that time I really thought the perspective for business here was extremely different. Actually, no one knew what was going to happen in Poland. It was really crazy, especially the fact that nothing really worked. You couldn’t get a phone line or make a phone call, you couldn’t make a money transfer, you couldn’t pay customs, it felt like everything was impossible. When I say impossible, I’m exaggerating. It took two years to get three extra phone lines for our office on Stradom, four hours to get money out of the only bank with foreign currency bank accounts on Armii Krajowej, 18 hours in a queue to clear customs… if everything went right.
So what has changed the most in the last 20 years? The law, the mentality or the people?
It’s a really hard question. It’s difficult to say what has changed the most. Several fundamental things have changed. One of them is that Poland has stopped being a strange country and started to be a kind of normal country. Back then, Poland and all the other ex-communist countries seemed like you had arrived from a different planet, a completely different world. Now, even though for sure there are still some big problems in Poland, these are similar problems to the ones business people face everywhere. It’s a problem of how to find a customer, how to hire the right people, how to gain a competitive advantage. These are the challenges for businessmen and businesswomen everywhere in the world. So let’s say that Poland has become more normal as a country, but I think the mentality change is a real revolution. Polish people used to feel special due to Poland’s very difficult history and the feeling it was remarkable to survive that kind of history.
Now Polish people are feeling special because they are beginning to realize they are capable of being internationally competitive, of doing well in Poland and in foreign countries.
The third thing, which might not be so fashionable, is the European Union, which had an unbelievably positive impact on Polish people, successful Polish institutions, and successful Polish companies. Of course being part of an integrated European market is a challenge for the stupid, the lazy, the untalented, and the uncompetitive, but for those with a good future, it has been a tremendous opportunity.
I am glad you mentioned European Union, because it is one of the subjects I wanted to touch on. A huge open market is one thing, but for example in the U.S. they would probably find it extremely strange to see a governmental institution investing billions of euro into the private sector. Do you think that, in the long run, it is healthy for entrepreneurship in Poland and in Europe?
Firstly, I would challenge the idea of the European Union investing billions into enterprises. Sure, there have been some programs to help startups, but still they are not investing billions. Anyway, I think the startup support programs of the European Union are rather damaging, because they create a completely wrong idea of what it is to be an entrepreneur. And although I am trying to emphasize the good side of the European Union, there are many things to criticize. The EU has a talent for wasting money on stupid programs, but what is really important is they are investing in infrastructure and in the transfer of resources. There are hundreds of programs to improve water quality, to improve the roads, to improve the drainage, to improve the environment. These things are undoubtedly good. And America also has transfers of federal resources to regions, to improve infrastructure. The fact that the EU spends taxpayers’ money on stupid programs… well, most Americans will agree with you that’s also the case in the U.S. But the EU also gives Europeans a chance to compete with America, because the European market is bigger than the American one. So if you are a competitive Greek, Portuguese, British, Irish, or Polish company, you have the largest market in the world on your doorstep. No customs barriers, so you can sell to guys in Spain, France, Czech Republic, and so on. That gives us a chance to compete with America, but I don’t think we can’t cooperate with America. America can be a market for our products, or a supplier of products. I do business with Americans, with Japanese, Germans, British, and I would do business with anyone who is ethical and has a quality product or service, I am not a nationalist. I am an internationalist.
Internationalist? There are groups in Poland who would consider that left wing.
Anyone who does know me a bit better would discover that I am anything but left wing. To say that if you are an internationalist or anti-nationalist, then it makes you left wing… I think it is a perverse, disgusting representation of what it means to be a free marketer and a liberal. I am British and am living a good life in Poland, so this right wing idea that Poland should be a nationalistic country seems abhorrent and disgusting to me. But that doesn’t make me a left winger. I believe in individual responsibility, I believe in hard work, free enterprise, and free trade. And I dislike nationalists.
Well then, don’t you think it’s funny that we have a couple of groups in Poland that would consider themselves right wing, but economically, all of the parties in the Polish Parliament are socially-oriented?
That is not exactly true; there are people like Janusz Korwin-Mikke…
But he is not in the Parliament.
Right, but when you are talking about politics, you are talking about ideas. And I am responsible for my ideas: I am strongly in favor of free individual rights, free market, and I feel absolutely fine in Poland.
The great thing about Poland, unlike Putin’s Russia or Assad’s Syria, is that you can say what you like in this country.
And is it difficult to be a businessman here?
No. I think the challenges a businessman faces here are the same as everywhere. Of course we suffer a little bit from the bureaucratic state. For sure, I would love it if the government would try to benchmark its public administration against international best standards so it takes less time to register a car in Poland than in Singapore or Estonia, or it is easier to hire an employee than in Ireland, or America, or Australia. But still we are not dealing with Belarus or Ukraine, and we are lucky to be in Poland. There are many, many countries in the world, where they would swap passports with the Polish people if only just for the chance to be in the EU.
In that case, do you think that in the foreseeable future we can expect a Polish startup to reach success on the scale of Rovio, Skype, or Spotify, or is it still too early for us?
We can absolutely expect that. But I am a British businessmen doing business in Poland, employing people from the Balkans to do business with Brazilian people, so I actually find it very hard to define what it means to be a Polish business. This business is legally Polish, and yet most of the people in that project are not Polish. Having said that I see absolutely no reason why a company from Poland couldn’t be globally successful, but it is quite possible that the rapid growth will take place in America or Western Europe. Still, Europe as a whole is not good at founding global startups. Skype and a few others are only exceptions.
Okay, to wrap it up: where would you like Poland to be, in terms of entrepreneurship, ten years from now, and what can we do to achieve that?
I think that the entrepreneurial spirit is strong in Poland, but it is not distributed throughout society. What I would like is that every Polish mother, father, or young adult to think about their children and consider it as one of the options that their child might be an entrepreneur. Poland is not in a bad situation now, but we are far from achieving the goal that every Polish person would be proud of his or her child becoming an entrepreneur. I would like Poland to be one of the most pro-entrepreneurship countries in Europe. But for that we still have a long journey to go. There are countries like Finland that are still way ahead of us today. Myself, I am 47 years old and I have been promoting entrepreneurship for 24 years in Poland and I will keep at it till the day I die. This journey will never end, and I regard that as an individual responsibility. And everyone has this individual responsibility. Don’t rely on other people to educate your children to be entrepreneurs. It’s your responsibility.
Richard Lucas has been living in Krakow for more than 20 years now. He is an entrepreneur, angel investor, and activist. Currently he is involved with some of the fastest-growing local startups. He is also a supporter of the TEDxKrakow, Open Coffee KRK, and Hive53 initiatives, among others, and founder of the “Wojtek the Solider Bear” historical awareness project.