The Maffia Myth – part I.

Cultural patterns that CEE startups have to leave behind to succeed

When you have the good luck of living in different countries and frequently interact with people from widely different cultural backgrounds, you are prone to happen on interesting cultural differences – sometimes by embarrassing yourself ridiculously. Learning to navigate these cultural gaps and adapt models that work for other nations effectively is also a key factor for the development of CEE region startup communities.

As with all development, the first step is of course understanding ourselves, which does include assessing unique advantages as well as weaknesses. Being a die-hard realist, I thought about cultural and historical heritage that is hurting startups and entrepreneurs in Central and Eastern Europe, regardless of having global or local ambitions.

I’m Hungarian, born and bread and therefore my observations are based on the culture I know best. However, work and conversations with Polish, Bulgarian, Ukrainian and Slovakian entrepreneurs shows that we are struggling with very similar baggages.

CEE startup patterns

The Y generation is still painfully familiar with the twisted entrepreneurial image of the wardrobe sized mean bald guy, accessorized with thick gold chains and a black stolen Mercedes.[1] This picture  luckily is waning  slowly but surely with the strengthening startup scene and more and more public successes. It may still very well be a retaining power if family and friends – the circle who is supposed to give support to aspiring entrepreneurs – didn’t manage to step over it yet.

But a more interesting effect has been pointed out to me by Eze Vidra, Head of Google for Entrepreneurs Europe. During a talk he gave in Kiev he was encouraging young entrepreneurs to reach out to anyone they know, tap into the social circles of family and friends and use these ties to get customer interviews and market knowledge. The suggestion has been followed by awkward silence and then the remark: but we already have that, it’s called the maffia here.

When you come from cultures where for long decades your opportunity of emergence has been depending so heavily on who you know and how your family’s influence can help you, a natural reaction is trying to break free of these ties and achieve things all by yourself. I can actually recall feeling accomplished for getting my first real jobs without back-stair influence. Whereas in western cultures it is taken for granted that if you are just starting out, you need assistance. It is not a shameful act to ask for intros and borrow connections from family and friends.

For the sake of efficient customer development and advancing in sales, we have to cut ourselves some slack and find a comfortable middle ground. Being realistic about our options and exchanging in open and straightforward communication is key.

CEE startup communication patterns

A few years ago on an early morning I was walking over the urban railway bridge to our office with a colleague. The following few sentences for some reason has stuck to my mind:

me: Good morning, how are you today?

him: Sorry, I don’t do small talk.

me: …

I was flabbergasted back then but it only really got me thinking when I started to learn about the rules of small talk, the new etiquette of approaching people through the internet and actually leading interesting conversations with them. What I realized is that we are interestingly shy about small talk and conversation for the sake of entertainment. We tend to deem it a toy for the superficial socialites and salesmen from an intellectual high horse. It is probably partly a linguistic issue, rooted in how other languages adapted and exaggerated the expression small talk. At least in Hungarian, it definitely acquired a slight pejorative sense.

In reality purposeless conversation has important purposes: it helps to establish mutual goodwill, it acts as a bonding ritual and a conversation starter. Good conversation is based on interest and fair exchange. Consequently what we should be learning is not conserve phrases, even though they are very useful for first experiences or when you really don’t have the energy to be engaging just like that. What we need is an understanding why those expressions are used [2] as small talk base and find ways to construct new elements, more comfortable to use in our contexts and cultures.

Watching someone working the room with a somewhat cold efficiency is a weird experience, and can explain very well why we think so begrudgingly of small talk. But we can use available blueprints for guidelines and remember that the real context here is paying forward someone’s time and goodwill by caring about them. Then we can end up in functional conversations and find ways to advance together.

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Part II: I have nothing in my hands and rich people are evil.

Part III: What others think matter and I have nothing on my hands

[1] For the sake of not Eastern-European readers, this image is mainly due to the fact that socialism and communism wasn’t exactly glorifying entrepreneurial spirit. Entrepreneurship became the synonym to a wide array of negative attitudes, from being greedy, manipulative, maneuvering all the way to the downright criminal and the mob member.

[2] One of my favourite videos on the topic is from Ramit Sethi.

Trackbacks

  1. […] I’m a Hungarian entrepreneur/freelancer, who have lived in worked in the UK, Italy and Spain. I’m not interested in finding excuses or brood over the past. My goal is to observe, understand and ultimately find solutions that bring us forward. You can read the first part here. […]

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