At the TEDxVienna event OUT THERE in October at the beautiful Volkstheater, Marcello Schermer teared apart the usual image of Africa existing in the western society.
I had the unique opportunity to speak to Marcello, the entrepreneurial facilitator who turned his life upside-down in order to witness and participate in revolutionizing the African startup ecosystem.
TEA: Marcello, thanks again for this opportunity and your time! I am very excited to learn as much as possible about you. So lets get started! You are originally from Austria and you finished your university with a double degree in Economics and Psychology from the University of Innsbruck. What happened from there onwards?
MARCELLO: Tea, thanks a lot for having me!
After I finished university, I was offered to do an internship in San Francisco at an innovation consulting company which helps corporates work together with startups. But I got a little bit frustrated because it was a lot of talking but little action. At the same time, I took a vacation in 2013, and I did a bus trip from Zimbabwe to South Africa, where in 5 days we built startups on a bus (we called ourselves the “Startup Bus”).
This was my first interaction with the African continent and I learned about the great passion and imagination that people have over there.
So I realized I want to do something with Startups in Africa. I found a company called Seedstars, and decided to give them a call.
Some weeks later, I had quit my job in San Francisco, was selling my furniture, moving out of my flat and moving to Africa!
Since landing on the African continent, I have travelled to about 16 countries across the continent with a mission to find entrepreneurs, connect them and help them get funding from investors all over the world. And that’s what I have been doing from early 2015.
TEA: Would you say you have always had this entrepreneurial spirit in you? Or you just knew you didn’t want to follow a conventional career path and thus wanted to try something new out?
MARCELLO: I never really wanted to start my own company, so I wouldn’t say I am a classic entrepreneur in that sense. I am an impact-driven person.
I have always wanted to build platforms to help and connect people, being a matchmaker, helping people connect and succeed. So back in university I organized a startup weekend in Innsbruck, I was involved in organizing the first Pioneers conference, and many more.
In the end, I often caught myself thinking, why am I doing something that I am not enjoying for the whole day, just to be too tired to do something I really enjoy at night?
So I decided to make my hobbies my full time job and not just a side project.
TEA: Wow, congratulations on your strength and determination! Not many people are brave enough to jump in cold water like that.
What would you say were your biggest obstacles and challenges?
MARCELLO: Well, I would say that the biggest obstacle is always yourself.
At business universities they teach us that there are basically 3 top companies to work for after university, and if you manage to get in, this means you have made it. Everything else is a failure. I of course don’t believe that. (laughing)
And on the other hand there is society that values you mainly based on your possessions: what you wear, which car you drive, how much money you have…
So when you join e.g. a consultancy or investment banking, you get all these things in a package.
Once leaving, you are leaving certainty for uncertainty. You get off of the beaten path and nobody is paying for your fancy suits anymore!
TEA: Haha, you have really nailed the point there. And it is not only dealing with society and external pressures, but also with the internal ones – you had to leave all of your friends, family, which must have also been very hard. How did you cope with that?
MARCELLO: You are very right about this. This is something I was not thinking about at the beginning of my journey, but it is something I am realizing more and more now. You are constantly meeting new people, going for drinks & dinners, but you are actually never at one place long enough to build real relationships and find people that you can call real friends.
I am definitely giving things up in order to pursue the things I am doing down there. Up until recently I was living out of my backpack, feeling lonely at times and having very little comfort – but I know why I am doing it.
TEA: What does the African startup ecosystem look like? How is it different from e.g. the Austrian startup ecosystem?
MARCELLO: You have very different challenges to what you have here in Europe. For example, the electricity and the Internet are not very reliable, the governments can be very tricky, there is corruption, other issues…
But I would say that problems are also often opportunities themselves. There is a lot of opportunity to make governments and households work better. There is a completely different set of problems that you don’t have in Europe, but you have in Africa and they are being solved sometimes in the most incredible ways!
TEA: So give me an example of a solution you have come across there.
MARCELLO: There are so many amazing things, for example, e-Government. The government of Rwanda launched an e-Government Portal that works on phones. So you don’t need to go to any office, you can just renew your documents in a few clicks which is very, very advanced, even for Europe! Have you ever tried renewing your documents here in Vienna?
Hello Tractor is another great example. It is like UBER for tractors, but it doesn’t need a credit card, smartphone or anything of that kind. People coordinate via SMS and pay with mobile money.
So in fact it is the technology which is changing lives of the people who need it the most!
And such things you would probably never even think of in Europe, because here people are concerned about the latest Pokemons they need to catch, or they ordered a pizza online and it came cold and the world sucks…
So the problems are being completed different. And these problems are creating completely different solutions! Which are in fact global solutions. When you think about it, the majority of the world actually lives in emerging markets. So someone seeing a problem in Africa and building a solution can actually help out a lot of other people with the same problem in a different country/ continent.
And someone in Europe running after his Pokemon doesn’t really see that.
The sharable tractor probably wouldn’t be interesting in e.g. Austria, but it solves the problem for billions of other people. And honestly, Europe is not that big!
TEA: So would you be able to connect the solutions across other emerging markets?
MARCELLO: Yes, this is the long-term plan. To be able to help companies to grow. But our job in the first plan is to help other people find these things. If you sit in Vienna, you have no idea what innovation is coming out of Ghana. So we want to share this, connect people, bring investors and help people in Africa bring their ideas to life.
TEA: And what do you think about the Viennese startup system?
MARCELLO: I think that for the short time it has been around, they did an incredible job in professionalizing it. It has grown in a very structured way and is much better organized than many other startup systems. It has actual proper institutions and for its age, it is very well developed.
TEA: Last but not least; what is the very best thing for you about being “OUT THERE”?
MARCELLO: You never know what happens to you. You are a constant explorer. Every day is new and every day you live, see and experience different things. And it consistently blows you away, suprises you and you never ever stop learning. And for me this is definitely the best part about being “OUT THERE”.
You can watch Marcello’s speech at TEDxVienna here: