We all know how popular Barcelona is for its amazing architecture, wild nightlife, warm weather, and a cool overall vibe.

What you probably don’t know is that Barcelona is also emerging as a startup scene: it was the 6th city in Europe with the largest invested capital and the 3rd European city in terms of popularity for opening a startup. I suppose the stress of being a founder is easier to take on a beach, with your laptop and a Sangria in your hand.

This was why Barcelona was chosen as a destination for START Explore 2019, a project open to students from Swiss universities who are interested in entrepreneurship and want to learn more about the startups in the destination city. And – surprise surprise – I was one of them.

So we had five days in which we jumped from place to place in Barcelona, visiting as many startups, companies and startup hubs as possible, bombarding them with questions and having a great time in between the visits with a cool bunch of people.

I’m probably not an entrepreneur at heart – I didn’t found my first business when I was 5 and I am still reluctant to do that even now, because of various reasons. But there’s something about a young company, about that environment, that you just don’t usually find in a big, established one.

Therefore, this post won’t be about the boring things you can find on the official website of the companies. It will be about the cool, between-the-lines things these companies do. About the environment and culture they build, that foster innovation. And there are some takeaways that are nice to be aware of, even if you’re not in this industry.


Hubtype

This was one of my favourite presentations, as it had a great vibe and it managed to catch my attention even at 9 in the morning after ~4 hours of sleep.

Clean (read: alcohol-free) pic from before the 4 hours of sleep

The idea is simple: chatbox tools for interacting with clients via WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and more. It also provides tools for the employees of the companies to step in the conversation with the client whenever it’s necessary.

So the idea isn’t groundbreaking, nor will it save polar bears from global warming. Why did I like it so much?

Well, Eric Marcos – the co-founder and CTO of the company – told us his story, from when he was a fresh graduate, hopping between jobs in search for something exciting, to founding his own startup while being quite clueless about its implications.

And now Hubtype is one of the around 50 official partners of WhatsApp, already has big clients and is preparing for a round of funding.

One of the things he emphasized was the just-do-it approach (he didn't actually say this, I made the name up). A lot of us think we need to check an astronomic list of competencies before doing something, whether it is applying for a job we’re unsure of or founding a business.

Truth is, we’ll probably never be completely ready for that goal (or if we are, we are celebrating our 70th birthday), so why not just jump into something and learn those skills along the way?

Group activity with Lego at Haufe: How do you see a team event? Build an object based on your vision using Lego blocks! (Photo by Nils Bircher)

Another interesting point of view was that Eric advised us to start a business with friends rather than with strangers (admittedly, not any friend, but one that you can also work well with).

This goes against the general rule of thumb that you should keep your friends and your work separate, and it’s because sometimes friends can make it easier to get over rough moments and make you also enjoy the process of building something.

If you can set aside the friendship during critical decision-making times and not let it be that crystal globe that must be protected at all times from arguments, it can probably work. I’ll certainly not dismiss this option in the future.

One last important point was the importance of networking and knocking on as many doors as possible.

Their partnership with WhatsApp wasn’t granted after one email, but after lots of them, lots of messages and invitations out for a coffee and reaching as many people working at WhatsApp as possible (through the friend of a friend of a friend…).

I’d like to think this is also the reason why he agreed to meet with around 25 students from Switzerland who had nothing to do with his business but had a genuine curiosity of learning as much as possible about it.

It’s not like he got something out of it, but building a network of people doesn’t generally start to pay off until much later (if at all) and at unexpected times.


Photo of Foodini by Natural Machines

Natural Machines

This startup creates 3D food printing machines. You have a microwave-looking machine where you put your plate, fill some tubes with the food you want to print (which must have the consistency of a paste), select a pattern and the machine will “print” it using the fillings you provided.

This sort of tool can be really handy in restaurants and bakeries, where you have cakes or cookies with intricate shapes, or in hospitals, where some patients need mashed food that may seem more appetizing if it has a bunny shape.

Emilio, the co-founder and CEO of Natural Machines, had a different story from Eric’s. He worked for quite a while in a big company before founding this startup and had a lot of knowledge about the supply chain and production of goods, so he took some well-informed decisions in his own business from the beginning.

An important point to remember is that startups based on hardware devices have a difficult way ahead. It is very difficult and expensive to prototype and produce – even a small error can cost you tens of thousands – and investors will be not as willing to put their money into their business, as it can be risky.

You might need to start with some of your own funds and have to be prepared to work for some time (maybe years) until you see an iteration of your product that can hit the market.

This is not to say that the future lies only in mobile apps, just that you have to be aware of the risks involved in a hardware business.


Imagin Cafe, a former CaixaBank branch transformed into a space for students

CaixaBank

No, it’s not a mistake that I’m including the 3rd largest bank in Spain in this list. That’s because CaixaBank offers support for startups in… well, what banks are mostly good at: banking services. And startups need banks, so they have a point.

But there was something even more interesting about them. Apparently, CaixaBank recently changed their approach from being more product-oriented to customer-oriented.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that they changed their interest rates and fees to be fundamentally different from other banks’ and attract more customers. Instead, they thought: given that banks offer more or less the same services, what can we do to stand out from our competitors?

Then they thought about young people. We are very sensitive to branding and the image of a company. We like companies that seem forward-looking and offer a lot of perks, even if they’re not related to the main business.

So one of the things they did is that they transformed a branch close to some university campuses into a place where students can hang out. They have a cafe, a relaxation room, occasional exhibitions, concerts or gaming events and - most importantly - free WiFi (for clients of the bank, of course).

Maslow's hierarchy of needs, millennial edition

While it’s nice to have these perks, I can’t help but think of the association fallacy that’s frequently used in marketing. A company that appears to be youth-friendly through sociocultural events doesn’t necessarily offer the best products for young people through their main business (in this case, banking packages).

Of course, they could actually offer them, but we have to go one layer beneath the surface and let our first impression aside when looking for them.

The good thing is that our preferences and interests seem to have an impact on the way companies behave. We seem to like concerts and video games, so they offer these. What if we like sustainability and transparency? Will they conform?


Glovo

Yeah, next-day delivery is kinda cool, but what if you can have even faster delivery? And not just for shopping, but for a lot of other things?

Photo by Andea Ferrario on Unsplash

Glovo set out to solve this problem using people on bikes or motorbikes mainly for food, similar to Uber Eats or Foodpanda, but also for other objects, like pregnancy tests, prescription-free drugs or that cute top from Zara that you need right now. And no, please don’t use it for live animals or drugs.

Since I was mentioning responsible decisions, one of the nice things about them is that they aim to be as environmentally friendly as possible.

First, the people that carry your packages (they call them Glovers) generally use bikes or electric scooters.

Second, as packaging is a huge problem in delivery, they aim to be completely plastic-free in a maximum of two years.

Also, they pay attention to the Glovers’ needs. For instance, they realized that a lot of people are doing this job only part-time and as a quick way of financing themselves when they are transitioning in a new country or between jobs.

Therefore, they mentioned they are looking at ways to help them perform this transition more quickly (through language courses, for instance) and offer flexibility in working hours.

We had a Pitch&Beer event during which we pitched different objects in more rounds. At one point, I had to pitch this plastic duck. Naturally, I kept it for my future rubber duck debugging sessions.

Final thoughts

It’s hard to convey the good vibe of all the companies we visited in words, so I had to shorten my list to these few.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this trip was seeing people with cool ideas and connecting to them.

Sometimes it might seem that starting a company is a privilege reserved only for those that have money or an untouchable stroke of genius. But that’s not entirely true.

If you think that there’s a problem in your field that can be solved, go for it. If you don’t have the expertise to build it, create a team. Or if you’re passionate about something that already exists, join them.

Just don’t dismiss the startup world because it has mainly failures and just a few winners. I know I used to be guilty of this way of thinking.

But there’s a value in failing. And sure, there are a lot of silly businesses, but for the few brilliant ones, I swear it’s worth it.

Please let me know if you’re interested in this topic because I have a few more related ideas in my bag that I would like to talk about.

PS. All of the companies deserve special thanks for welcoming a group of students and their (possibly annoying) nosy questions.

Also, the organizing team (NEO Network, START Global, ETH Entrepreneur Club) deserves a huge shout-out for contacting them (and many others), scheduling the visits, lunches, dinners, and parties and for being generally awesome human beings.

The cover photo of this post is by Benjamín Gremler on Unsplash