Entrepreneurship in Italy from a non-Italians’ perspective

Following the interesting and lively debate about the Italia startup environment kicked off by he founders of Mashape and followed up by Stefano Bernardi, I want to add my point of view of the startup environment in Milan as I have experienced it. Particularly, I like a lot of the ideas and comments to the two blogs about an Italian eco-system and how we can improve the conditions for startups and entrepreneurs in Italy.

My perspective is after finishing a graduate degree at Bocconi and working on a startup idea in the Italian ICT sector for the past year. After two years at Bocconi it is hard to come away with any other conclusion that it is every young Bocconi students’ wet dream to either work in fincance, consulting or for a huge multinational corporation. That can be fine as well but it means that you’re an outsider if you want to start a business and while the US celebrates failure, it is scorned upon in Italy.

It is true that a major problem in Italy is the culture, and most Italians never fail because they never try. I had no contacts in the industry we’re trying to start a company in and yet I have received advice and help from Italian top executives and successful Danish entrepreneurs as well as been introduced to Italian VCs and angels. My experience has been that people are extremely helpful when you approach them as well-prepared and with an open mind.

First of all, there is only one elective in English at Bocconi focused on entrepreneurship and having taken that elective it leaves a lot to be desired. The ideas people had for startups and business plans were mostly very poor and showed the classical mistake to focus much more on the idea than the execution (Italian restaurant in Dubai anyone? Also we have no competitors were often considered to be a good thing).

The problem as Stefano pointed out, is simply that the pool of potential entrepreneurs is extremely small. Therefore the ideal strategy is to bring as man of these people together as often as possible.
What really disappointed me in my experience with the University here is the complete lack of interaction between the different universities. Why aren’t there common classed for CS students from Politecnico, business students from Bocconi and the Design students from Marangoni for example? Interesting things happen when people who think differently meet and I think this is vastly misisng in Italy! In a similar vein, the startup scene in Italy has seemed very un-international to me. Although it is silly and a waste of energy to dream of a Silicon Valley like eco-system there are nice things about Italy: People are friendly and helpful, the weather and food is good and the living standard is high compared to many countries. Certainly, Italy could leverage this to do much more to attract e.g Eastern European and South American talent but for that to happen the culture has to become more international.

Finally, Bocconi like many European business schools suffer from the problem that they view entrepreneurship from a very academic perspective and except for the interesting guest speakers students would be better off reading the list of popular startup and VC blogs. Instead of these courses being taught by accomplished entrepreneurs they are often taught by dry academics and it is easy to lose your hope if you only listen to this type of people. Our professor hated our idea and since it was the only idea that would require VC he also considered it far to risky and big for us to undertake.
This in many ways sums up my experience with entrepreneurship at Bocconi: An Italian restaurant in Dubai is considered a better idea than a business model with several successful exits in other European markets.

p.s a great and much needed initiative to encourage more startups is also to reduce bureaucracy. I particularly like David Welton’s initiative to reduce the costs of creating an SRL. Read about it here and sign the petition here

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Posted: september 22nd, 2010
Categories: Bocconi, Italy, startups
Tags: , ,
Comments: 4 Comments.
  • http://twitter.com/fbnt Francesco Benetti

    Great article, the whole analysis is spot-on. In a country where risk-aversion is intrinsecally rooted in the business culture, it’s difficult to be serious about any business plan that dosen’t lie in a well established market, but not impossible. Unfortunately, the university system (engineering, for my experience) is focused on producing well-manned corporate consultants whose main goal is to get an open-end contract, climb the ladder and wait for a bigger paycheck. Entrepreneurship isn’t considered a prerogative for the 20-something ‘kid’, that’s why it isn’t taught or discussed in university classrooms.
    There is lots of room for improvement, David’s petition could be a first little step.

  • emas80

    Hi, that’s a great article, it is always interesting to read how foreigners see Italy, they usually are quite right :-)
    But there are many discussions in this period about the entrepreneurship, like the one you are participating right now on another blog. I have recently discovered these kind of blogs, and I’ve seen there’s a good number of people interested in business like I do.

  • Vittorio Silva

    I red this article and I was thinking that your experience could be compared with mine: I and four other students presented last year at the same elective an interesting project about a new private train company – actually in Italy exists only public incumbent, Trenitalia – which should operate in “regional business”, i.e. trains which transport people from their home to work.

    Law and figures said that it was (and it is) possible and I think that this idea is more intersting than the “italian restaurant in Dubai”, but professors didn’t understand, because they didn’t know anything about trains and their sector… :-(

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