Challengers is a new breed of a startup event held in the beautiful city of Barcelona on June 17th-18th. We sat down with the founder and the main guy behind the event, Kayvan Nikjou, to learn more about what will happen and why. Yes, they have convinced Edward Snowden to participate and we what to know more about how they did it!
AS: You have made two major changes from last year. You have renamed the conference and also relocated to another city. Could you briefly explain why?
Kayvan: Two reasons: 1) We needed an eternal name that resonates with the startup attitude, that can be universally received 2) Barcelona is the startup city of Spain, whereas Madrid is the centre of big corporates and for big money. The startup spirit and the feeling of trying and risking can be felt in Barcelona, the startup community is a tight knitted one and they strongly support each other, having a common goal: To make Barcelona the top startup city in the world, and it will happen. Also, Sonar Music Festival influenced our decision making a lot. We wanted Challengers to have a strong entertainment value with multitudes of programs happening around it and Sonar is without a doubt one of the most fascinating music festivals in the world bringing to the city (during same dates) 120,000 party goers from over 100 countries. People who were lucky enough to buy the Sonar & Challengers tickets get to see a private concert of Chemical Brothers in Sonar!
AS: What’s the goal of Challengers?
Kayvan: Not to be boring. Even if we have 90 people coming, we’ll give those 90 the best startup event experience we can. Seriously, boring tech events are the tumor of the startup community, because they attract inspiring entrepreneurs who want or have an idea of building a startup and then those aspirants go to these boring conferences and their motivation goes from 100 to minus 30. We want to bring together 1500 disrupters and challengers from around the world to share their breakthroughs and experiences on and off the stage, without hiding them in speakers or VIP rooms.
AS: We’ll see F-Secure, Rovio, YLE, Jolla and Wolt on stage. You have a very strong connection to Finland’s startup ecosystem. I know you guys are actively roaming all around Europe so you have quite good perspective on things. How would you rate Helsinki among the European startup hotspots?
Kayvan: In the top 5 (World), without a doubt. Its that special community (Talkoo) in Finland that gets things done together, this such a unique thing and so natural for the Finns, but so crucial and lays in the foundation of all Finns. Guys like Peter Vesterbacka and Miki Kuusi have helped this small city to get on the global radar in the past 5 years, from nada. Helsinki has its weaknesses, which city doesn’t, but it has this will power and the brute force of: Let’s get shit done and not complain when we hit a brick wall, that makes this a special place, even in November 😉
AS: How about Nordics vs. Spain? Do you see some synergy? What are the challenges on building the bridges between these regions?
Kayvan: Finns think Spain is all about the playa and that everyone is lazy here, and they don’t realise that this is one of the most magnificent countries in the world, with variety and richness that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Spaniards think Finns are uptight and that it’s always cold there. Obviously cultural exchanges are needed and it’s happening, but slowly.
Spain has one major leverage over all countries in Europe: The Spanish language, which is spoken by over 600 million people as their first language vs 5 million of Finnish and 12 million of Swedish language. And yet, Nordics don’t operate here as much as they should, TeliaSonera is starting to pump up here with Yoigo. There is SO much disruption needed here, especially in the telecoms, health and transportation space. Spain is one of the leading nations in smart city development (Barcelona ranks 3rd, Bilbao 8th), biotech, Robotics and sports. Also Spain has some of the most recognisable brands in the world. Who doesn’t know what Real Madrid and FC Barcelona is? I bet you knew about them before you learnt about religion.
Nordics need to realise the massive potential of operating in Spain and that catering to the Spanish consumers (top 5 Smartphone penetration in the world) could be a very lucrative business. There are more high & upper middle-class in Spain than there are people living in Finland (or close) altogether. Taxes are around 21%, living costs are fraction of Scandinavia (2 bed apartment in the third line from the beach in Barcelona is around 800-900euros per month, how much for a studio in Helsinki?) and don’t get me started on the life quality.
There can be bunch of great Synergies, I know Rovio and Nokia are doing great things here and succeeding. Hiring here is cheaper, there is abundant talent in programming and engineering available and operational costs are far lower. The challenges of building bridges is mainly around understanding each others potential. Spaniards have to learn how things are executed in the Nordics and how much attention is paid to the details (which lacks here) and the Scandinavians need to visit the Barcelona or Madrid’s startup scene, they’ll notice that something is brewing here. The Time is now to see this country rising.
AS: You have a great mix of people joining from all over Europe. In your opinion, how important it is to stir it up and facilitate cross-border collaboration?
Kayvan: Crucial. Otherwise it’ll be boring. and boredom is the worst thing I can think of. When I used to grow up in Finland I was constantly bullied for being a bit darker than other kids, for having brown eyes and for having bit more energy than the Finnish kids and a different way of looking at things. It crushed me, and my dreams, the bullying made me feel like I didn’t belong anywhere, until I went to the army (Finland has mandatory military service). In the army, you have people coming from all backgrounds, and I mean from all possible backgrounds you can think of, and at first it looks like a mismatch and that everything will be difficult, however under great leadership which unites the team and with a clear plan, things start working and making more sense. Differences become richnesses. This is the idea with Challengers, we want to build our army made out of intellectuals, doers, thinkers and disrupters from any backgrounds. Just imagine having a conversation with a Finnish lady who wants bugs to replace our meat dependency, the Spanish lady who is building a submarine and a guy who swears that he can take us to the space in a balloon within few years.
AS: Let’s talk about the program little bit. Chatham House rules. Any specific reason why?
Kayvan: Why not! I mean, lets be frank here for a second, How many tech events can you name right now (do this exercise with me) that have the exact same formats and style – keynotes, panels, demo spaces and streaming the talks with mediocre onstage appearances? Too many. Some are awesome events of course, but why do the same when there are events like Slush, Pioneers and Arctic15 who are doing it so great? Lets not just talk about being different and disruptive, but lets fucking act like it. Lets do different. CHR is an awesome tool to protect the sources of the conversations as some of our speakers are going to reveal secrets, talk sincerely onstage and debate like hell, and they don’t want any public backlashes or repercussions of any kind. Its a way of liberating the speaker and enabling him/her to release his/her inner awesomeness. Challengers, after all, is a private meeting with 1500 people. We want to build the Bilderberg group of startups and it can’t happen without privacy and focus.
AS: For this year’s topics you have chosen four verticals: Commerce, Entertainment, Transportation & Security. Give us some pointers on what to keep an eye for.
Kayvan: The audience gets to see speakers have rarely been other startup events. They’ll share their latest failures, successes, tips and personal stories. You’ll see an awesome Tech events panel, first one of its kind, bringing together the founders of: Slush, Pioneers, TOA Berlin, Webrazzi and Arctic15, to find out about their successes, failures and backstage stories on building some of the most successful startup events in Europe.
In Security vertical, Kim Dotcom will be sharing latest updates on his situation with the extradition attempts of USA pressing on, actually he might be extradited to USA, Germany or funny enough, Finland. Piratebay’s co-founder, Peter Sunde in an interview with Josh Constine of Techcrunch, will reveal his personal ordeal of going to maximum security prison and insights to his incredible life during and after Piratebay.
Jamie MacDonald will give one of the most highly anticipated keynotes on “how Larp gaming helped his sex change“. My personal favourites are the Harbingers, new format we made up where 8 individuals present during 7min a product that seems very futuristic but is available today – they are the messengers of the future. We have some insanely interesting people in Harbingers, from the guys who are building the auto-rechargeable electric scooter, Austrian team that builds military grade dome protection spheres (this is real, serious stuff) and Spanish team building indestructible, flexible and extremely thin film, which is transparent under the daylight, perfect for passports, counterfeiting and monetary purposes. You’ll hear the latest developments in these four verticals and get the chance to interact with the speakers afterwards.
AS: Your formats are very different from a typical tech event, why?
Kayvan: We have the typical Keynotes with 15min limit after which 10min of Q&A’s will follow, Panel debates with people who are either in competition with each other or aligned in a cause (Fintech panel will see two startups taking on Spain’s 3rd largest bank), Harbingers – 7min presentations on futuristic tech, Interview grill (honest interviews), Chat Clashes where two competitors go head to head in US presidential election style, Startup Tournament with 16 startups spread into four groups where in the first round they have 3mins to pitch, from each group two best teams qualify where they have 4mins to pitch but this time they can’t use certain buzzwords until they reach the finals where they have 7mins to pitch without any buzzwords.
AS: Challengers is assembled with a bootstrapped budget. What does it mean? Give some examples of your creativity.
Kayvan: It means that we’re doing this with our own and with our friends funds and with a team of 3. We had to think how we could give the most authentic experience without coming across dirt cheap or too corporate, so we reached out to various startup communities and companies around Europe for help and boy did they deliver. Instead of hiring super expensive (and boring) catering we asked our amigos at La Nevera Roja (food delivery platform) to bring their delicious variety of local food for all guests. Same goes with mics, we didn’t want to pay for them so we asked our friends from Catchbox to give us few of their stylish mics. We also didn’t have money for furniture (who pays 70euros per day for ONE chair!?!), so we asked our buddies from Betahaus and Makers of Barcelona to pitch in. Same with name badges (Moo), WiFi (MasMovil), networking app (BeBee), beers (Estrella Galicia) and much more. We basically ask people/companies who are experts at what they do, to help us out and they usually do! We learnt that if you give startups the possibility of providing their services, people’s experience is more positive than setting up a demo space and handing out flyers. Bootstrapping is a lifestyle.
AS: What has been the biggest challenge during the last 12 months for you?
Kayvan: Convincing myself that I am doing the right thing, that I shouldn’t quit or complain when going gets hard. Turning sceptics to fans. Sustaining a normal and healthy life while running a startup (we are one!). To keep healthy and building a startup is hard, and I respect anyone who does both. Convincing Ravin Dhalani to speak at Challengers. Many of you won’t know this guy, but to me personally he’s been the man to get as his company, BQ Phones, very rarely if not at all appear in public (they don’t even do any marketing). Smooth seas don’t make great sailors – is what I learnt.
AS: If you would get to pick one challenge for the next 12 months for yourself, what would it be?
Kayvan: Not to use laptop or smartphone for 30 days.
AS: Last year you sold out the event. Is there any tickets left for those who realize now that they really should be there in Barcelona on June 17th-18th?
Kayvan: Yes there are still early birds left. Sonar package is sold out, though. Prices start from as low as €100 for startups and €160 for early birds. This gets you access to both event dates and to both after-parties, 1st nights is in a outdoor swimming pool and second night is at the beach club!
AS: Edward Snowden is participating. How on earth did that happen? What was the process of contacting and convincing him?
Kayvan: He’ll be live on video conference. His participation has been one of the most interesting challenges. It couldn’t be done without one of our speakers who has been our number 1 supporter, which I won’t name at this moment. The process was very interesting, I had to go through his representatives in US & UK. I have not been authorised to reveal details on how to reach him and if I had any contact with him. I will have the honor and privilege of interviewing him for 10-15 minutes after which he will take questions from the audience including few speakers.
AS: Any final special message for our readers?
Kayvan: There is much more than meets the eye. I dare to say that everything you know about Spain is superficial and with the age of high speed internet, you have no more excuses. Dare to be different, dare to think independently and dare to execute on your intuition. Just do it. Don’t think about it too much. One of the best tools and attributes you have is your intuition and spontaneity, use it god damn it! Come to Barcelona and help us to build Challengers into a fun-going startup experience – that should be your intuition 🙂
Thanks a lot, Kayvan! Looking forward to Challengers next week!