There’s no shortage of startup ‘scenes’ being talked about these days. Whether it’s in European hotspots like London, Berlin, and Barcelona, or the tech world’s spiritual home in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, entrepreneurship has scarcely been this popular since the days of the Silk Road.
One city flying under the radar is Lisbon – but that’s set to change in 2016. News that popular London co-working space Second Home will expand to the Portuguese capital this May follows an announcement that the Web Summit conference (to the startup world what CES is to oversized TVs) will relocate from Dublin to Lisbon in November.
Also set to land is the first Portuguese outpost of Impact Hub, whose global network of socially-minded co-working spaces spans some 70 cities. Opening in June, it will take over an abandoned pavilion in the Beato Marvila district, with desk rentals on offer for up to 300 entrepreneurs for a paltry €80 euros a month.
But Lisbon isn’t just about what’s coming. Web Summit and Impact Hub will join existing local startup events like the Lisbon Investment Summit, and sit alongside incubators including Startup Lisboa. Influential venture capitalist firms are also rooted in Lisbon, such as Caixa Capital – an off-shoot of Portugal’s largest bank – rounding-out the city’s growing startup ecosystem.
Web Summit’s arrival will shine the international spotlight on Lisbon, but it already has a burgeoning tech scene. So why Lisbon, and why now for companies like Web Summit and Second Home?
One obvious factor is Lisbon’s low cost of living. Various figures put rent at nearly 75 percent cheaper than London, and you’d need a take-home monthly salary of more than $7,000 to enjoy the same quality of life in New York as you could for under €2,500 in Lisbon (less than $3,600), according to Numbeo’s latest data.
And it’s not just rent that’s cheap. It’s unusual to pay much more than €1 for a coffee or beer, while grocery prices are nearly 25 percent less than in another major startup hub, Berlin.
Perversely, Portugal’s tough economic climate (particularly between 2010 and 2014) stood the capital in good stead for a tech boom. Its shrinking job market helped spawn a new generation of local entrepreneurs that, ultimately, kickstarted the city’s resurgence and imbued it with new sense of self.
Another key part of Lisbon’s allure is the work-life balance enjoyed by residents. It’s no secret that Portugal enjoys great weather year-round, and the many nearby beaches are easily accessible by public transport. Maria Almeida, the ‘Almighty Duchess of Content’ at Lisbon non-profit Beta-i – the investment group behind top startup accelerator programmes, like the Lisbon Challenge and Beta-start – explains what a typical day might look like in the Portuguese capital for an entrepreneur or startup employee.
‘It’s not uncommon to leave the office at 7pm and go surfing or go for a drink with your friends in a bar with a stunning view over the city,’ she says.
Lisbon’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is now beginning to mature. As Second Home co-founder Rohan Silva said to TechCrunch recently: ‘Lisbon feels like east London just before the tech cluster exploded… It’s a super-creative city.’
When Silva’s Lisbon space opens inside Mercado da Ribeira in May, it will join a number of co-working spaces in the city including Coworklisboa and Village Underground Lisboa. The latter – linked to Shoreditch’s iconic Village Underground – is a particularly striking space, comprising shipping containers and disused buses. Architecturally, it’s designed to encourage interaction between co-workers.
Almeida points to some of the city’s most important success stories as further evidence of its maturation: ‘Startups such as Uniplaces, Farfetch, Talkdesk, Unbabel or Feedzai are good examples of that dynamism.’
She continues: ‘The Municipality of Lisbon also pays close attention to this startup community and there are many incentives for entrepreneurs to start their companies here.’
Giving entrepreneurs a boost
Such incentives include a reduced tax rate for startup businesses, which can be as low as 7.5 percent, while investments of up to €5m can enjoy tax deductions of 20 percent. Corporate filing processes, too, have been simplified from a relatively lengthy ordeal to being executed at the push of a button.
Lisbon’s tech-friendly infrastructure
Lisbon also benefits from the presence of two major universities and one specialist polytechnic institute, which help furnish its burgeoning businesses with up to 100,000 graduates a year versed in all things design, development, and programming. Skilled graduates equate to cheap labour in the eyes of entrepreneurs, so this is another reason why new money and opportunities are flooding into the Portuguese capital.
Good transport links – the airport is just 15 minutes by taxi from the centre of town – and fast Wi-Fi speeds add to its appeal.
These are some of the reasons Dublin startup event Web Summit, which drew crowds of 30,000 in 2015, chose to relocate to Lisbon’s spaceship-like MEO Arena and FIL Feira Internacional de Lisboa.
Designed by Portuguese architect Regino Cruz for EXPO ’98, the MEO Arena and its sibling in Parque das Nações have also hosted events like the MTV Europe Movie Awards. For Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave, they are ideal spaces to start the next chapter in Web Summit’s history, with the 2016 conference capable of housing up to 80,000 attendees.
‘We chose Lisbon because of the strong infrastructure in the city, the world-class venue and the thriving startup community,’ Cosgrave told The Irish Times. ‘Investors from across Europe have started looking to Lisbon to capitalise on the low rents and affordable IT talent.’
World class architecture
Beautiful venues aren’t in short supply in Lisbon. In many cases, they just haven’t been discovered yet, even by the locals. Almeida admits she didn’t know about the 16th-century Palácio de Pombal when looking for a home for the 2015 Lisbon Investment Summit. ‘You always find interesting new places, regardless of the time you’ve been living here,’ she says. Located in the heart of the Barrio Alto district, Palácio de Pombal is one of the few conference venues where you can attend a keynote speech and then relocate to a local craft beer bar within five minutes.
Of course, Lisbon’s magnetism for startups, investors, entrepreneurs and the wider creative community can’t be pinned to a single factor, it’s the overall package that counts. The city’s intriguing architecture – where historic buildings stand beside striking contemporary additions on ramshackled streets – lends itself to constant discovery, while the low cost of living is an important part of its allure.
Now Lisbon’s burgeoning tech scene looks set to boom. That’s something we should all raise a cerveja to.