Emerging Europe: A Tech Goldmine Waiting to Be Tapped

Emerging Europe: A Tech Goldmine Waiting to Be Tapped

A Candid Conversation on Gjirafa's Ascent, Balkan Potential, and the Reflect Festival's Upcoming Panel Discussion

Mergim Cahani is no stranger to the rapidly evolving tech landscape of Central Europe. As the Founder and CEO of Gjirafa Inc, a company that has climbed its way up to be one of the fastest-growing tech entities in the region, he boasts a rich portfolio of accomplishments. With its position as #11 on Deloitte's Fast 50 in 2021 and its broad ecosystem, Gjirafa is the embodiment of what emerging potential looks like in the Balkans. Now, Mergim is set to share his insights at the Reflect Festival in Limassol. Today, from 11:20 AM to 11:50 AM at the Old Port, he will participate in the much-anticipated panel discussion "Why betting on Emerging Europe will pay off?", aiming to shed light on the intriguing startup ecosystem of the region and dispel any misconceptions.

Prompted by the upcoming session, we took the opportunity to delve deeper into Mergim's thoughts. Discussing the Reflect Festival, the nuances of investing in emerging Europe, and Gjirafa's journey, our conversation with him was a deep dive into the world of startups and investment in the European continent. Throughout our chat, Mergim emphasized the untapped potential of the Balkan region, its strategic importance, the hurdles of expanding basic internet services, and the value of addressing market-specific challenges. Highlighting his diverse experiences, from teaching in New York universities to his role in Gjirafa's impressive ascent, Mergim's insights paint a vivid picture of what awaits in Emerging Europe.

Mr. Cahani, how do you hope your upcoming panel discussion at the Reflect Festival will shift perceptions or misconceptions about investing in “emerging Europe”?

I believe it will be a much-needed preliminary step toward raising awareness of the region. If the panel discussion piques the interest of even a few impactful individuals and encourages them to further explore the region, then I think our objective will be achieved.

What are the key takeaways you want the audience to walk away with after the panel discussion?

There are a few points to consider:

1. The region, particularly the Balkans, is an overlooked part of Europe with opportunities for growth across various economic dimensions.

2. There are prejudices about the region, which I believe can at least be explored or clarified.

3. Understand that the region boasts a high-quality pool of talented individuals who are extremely motivated to succeed.

4. Basic internet services are lacking in the region, presenting opportunities for existing businesses to expand.

5. It has a strategic location for the rest of Europe.

Given its strategic location and the unique cultural, economic, and political context, what advantages does the region offer to tech startups in terms of market access, and what advice would you offer to those looking to establish themselves there?

People are by far the strongest asset in terms of talent, motivation, and grit. Another advantage is the region's strategic geographic location. Furthermore, the region lags behind the rest of Europe, indicating opportunities for growth in various sectors and industries. The tax system is also incentivizing.

You've been involved in various capacities, from teaching at universities to advisory roles in startups and accelerators. How did your experiences shape your vision for Gjirafa and the tech scene in Central Europe?

I've been fortunate to gain exposure to vastly different economic and cultural landscapes, ranging from the US to Europe and the Balkans. There are foundational commonalities across these markets: persistence and perseverance consistently stand out as key drivers of progress, regardless of market specifics. When such determination is present, shifts in market development, people, ideas, and sectors become almost interchangeable.

To illustrate a practical difference between developed and emerging markets, consider a simple example. Opening an online shop in developed economies, like the US, is relatively straightforward. One can set up storefronts using platforms like Shopify or its equivalents in a matter of days, and easily integrate logistics and online payments. However, attempting the same in a Western Balkan country presents more challenges. For instance, major payment systems such as PayPal or Stripe aren't operational. Conversely, while rapidly growing a Shopify store in the saturated US market is quite challenging, achieving growth in a Balkan country might be relatively easier. Every market presents its own set of opportunities and challenges. Addressing and solving these challenges is where value is added, and it's precisely what an entrepreneur is meant to do.

Gjirafa has grown tremendously, especially with its inclusion in Deloitte's Fast 50. What were the major challenges you faced during this period of rapid growth, and how did you overcome them?

We faced numerous challenges. Scaling in terms of people and operations was particularly daunting. While maintaining motivation and inspiration for a month is manageable, sustaining it for years alongside the team is tough. On the external front, educating customers about online buying behavior posed challenges, though it was also rewarding to address. Our partner cooperation evolved from informal to more structured, bringing both benefits and drawbacks. Above all, preserving the team's vision and motivation has been paramount.

What: Panel Discussion, "Why betting on Emerging Europe will pay off?"

Where: Reflect Festival, Limassol, Old Port

When: September 21, 11:20-11:50 AM

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Who: Mergim Cahani is the Founder and CEO of Gjirafa Inc - Gjirafa is one of the fastest-growing tech companies in Central Europe (Deloitte Fast 50 2021 in CE position #11), with a mission to build the Internet economy in the Balkan region. Gjirafa’s ecosystem of services encompasses e-commerce, video streaming, online marketing, cloud computing, and entertainment production, while it is one of the most well-funded tech startups in Europe. Previously, in New York, Mergim worked for Broadridge Financial Solutions (NYSE:BR), an Adjunct Assistant Professor at St. John’s University, an executive management consulting program at Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS), teaching at various local universities, the President of the Board of Governors at the American Chamber of Commerce in Kosovo, board member of ATOM Institute and GAP Institute, an advisory board member of several startups, accelerators and funds, and has over 15 years of industry experience with startups, technology, management, and investment experience. His education includes a BS and MS degree in Computer Science, an MBA in Management, from St. John’s University and New York University.