“We came from a time when we shared resources with each other because some of it was imposed, so we are a bit reluctant to do it today.”
This month we sat down and talked to Vlad Gliga – CEO and Co-Founder of Rubik Hub. Volvero was one of the 22 startups selected in the Rubik Garage accelerator 2022 Batch, from over 120 international applicants.
The experience was our first acquaintance with the Romanian young and thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem, which was born thanks to Vlad and likeminded people by his hand.
Read the inspiring story told us by Vlad and see how Rubik Hub takes action to promote entrepreneurship in the country.
10 min read
“We needed new laws implemented by the government and national programs that could actually contribute to our dream of having more startup support.“
Let me start with the question that probably everyone asks you. What inspired you to start Rubik Hub?
It’s a good question, indeed, I do receive it very often. Mostly not out of curiosity, but out of wondering why in Romania, why in a region that is not necessarily well developed. And the answer is actually right in the question.
In 2017, there were no initiatives in this region that were helping young people who considered entrepreneurship as a career opportunity. Most of them relocated to other regions or countries, especially the ones pursuing the idea of launching a startup.
Living in other countries and seeing the support young people receive in those ecosystems, I was always wondering why there is nothing like that happening in my hometown. So, after gaining professional experience there, I found an opportunity to do what I was dreaming of doing back home: building programs for young entrepreneurs and bringing people together to support them, and creating the community of mentors and startups we have today.
Without external support from sponsors and partners, it’s hard to survive, especially if you are equity-free and free of charge. We don’t charge anyone who goes through our programs, we believe education should be free and accessible and this is what we deliver today. In our case, it was a public-private context where we used both sectors to finance ourselves. And this is how we started. RDA Northeast is sporting the operational costs; we raised money from private companies to build a hub and support some of our programs. We always looked at the big picture and wanted to see Romania as an ecosystem where startups can start and thrive and all the stakeholders are willing to come together to make it happen.
Our community kept growing but at some point, we realized that staying only in the startup bubble is not enough. For sustainable change to happen, we needed to build the ecosystem – we needed new laws implemented by the government and national programs that could actually contribute to our dream of having more startup support. This is how we have become a startup community that is striving to build and consolidate the startup ecosystem in Romania.
“We are like a scrambled Rubik Cube in this country. Thus, we wanted to bring people on the same page, and work together towards a common goal – to twist and turn until it’s right.“
What challenges did you face on your way?
Focusing on education, we became aware of the cultural challenges that we inherited especially during the communist period: lack of collaboration, trust, and support organizations. This is actually the meaning of the name Rubik Hub: I felt that we are like a scrambled Rubik Cube in this country. Thus, we wanted to bring people on the same page, and work together towards a common goal – to “twist and turn until it’s right”.
In the beginning, most people didn’t believe this was something that Romania needed in the ecosystem, simply because most people didn’t see entrepreneurship as a way to develop Romania or to keep young people in the country. At that time, Romania was facing some dramatic trends of people leaving the country for finding better jobs or becoming entrepreneurs.
So I said: “Yes, there are no startups, and that’s the reason why we should start it, to create the context where more startups are rising and growing in Romania. People are leaving the country, and we should give them reasons to stay here.” We wanted Romania to become a place of innovation and high-value-added solutions.
Another challenge Romania had and still has nowadays is the poor road infrastructure, with only a few kilometers of highway. From an economical point of view, this is a huge challenge, especially when your economy is based on traditional businesses depending on the transportation of raw materials and the delivery of final goods. However, we do have a very good internet infrastructure, one of the best in the world. In fact, we are one of the countries with the highest number of tech engineers, with an impressive share of them working for international giants, such as Microsoft.
Anyway, in the beginning, I was fighting against a lack of confidence from people around me, and a lack of willingness to come together, form groups, and support others, unconditionally and unpaid. But I knew some people that had the same values, so we started with five people, then we went to 10, 50, 100… we grew incrementally in time. Once we had a core of people, it was easy to bring others. The most difficult period was the first three to four years when we had to build trust in the ecosystem and prove commitment.
“When I started Rubik Hub, my inspiration was Y Combinator. But you cannot just replicate Y Combinator in Romania, you have to adapt it to the local culture and current needs. “
Since you mentioned the government, what are the dynamics in the country now? Is the government doing enough when it comes to entrepreneurship development, from your perspective?
Enough? Unfortunately, no. During the last Demo Day of Rubik Garage Accelerator [Volvero took part in the Rubik Hub Demo Day on the 6th of September 2022], we had the first historical moment in our ecosystem where we had startups in the same room with top representatives of the government and top universities in the country.
We had 70 universities and research departments present there, along with private companies and investment funds. The questions we received from the government representatives showed us how little they know about the startup world. At the same event, we launched the ROStartup reports, and we hope that they will consider studying them. The reports should give them the answer to the questions they asked in one-to-one discussions during the event.
Do you think Romania will follow the model of the latest emerging entrepreneurial ecosystems or it has its own unique way?
We are looking at all emerging ecosystems and successful ecosystems and trying to learn from each one of them. Since we started the intensive process of building the Romanian Startup Strategy (ROStartup) two years ago, we discussed with representatives from most of the ecosystems, trying to learn from their wins and failures…
When I started Rubik Hub, my inspiration was Y Combinator. But you cannot just replicate Y Combinator in Romania, you have to adapt it to the local culture and current needs.
I think the best strategy you can build to develop an ecosystem is the one that you build together with the ecosystem, where people come and share their ideas in a collective way. Yes, it is super helpful to benchmark with the most advanced ecosystem, but copy-paste will not do the work to catch up with them, you have to integrate those learnings into your own environment and find your point of differentiation at the same time.
As for today, what is the share of international vs local startups in the ecosystem, and do you have any preference in helping ones against the others?
Personally, I don’t have this prejudice. Starting here with local resources, you have to give back a lot here, but I do believe if we have this international focus, the local ecosystem will also benefit from that experience. I always believed that you don’t know what you don’t know.
Connecting with other people from other ecosystems, you will know what you don’t know in your own ecosystem. International collaboration very was important for developing our accelerator. It wouldn’t be enough to have experience only in our region and to work only with local mentors or partners. Then, it would have been only a team-developing project in northeast Romania, not an accelerator.
From the beginning, we had a global mindset and connected with mentors and startups from around the world. Our community of mentors was international from day one. As for the ratio, I found it relevant even to have 50 – 50%, even 30% local – 70% international. If we look at Startup Chile, they started with almost 100% international startups because they didn’t have local people and they grew the local ecosystem and managed to increase the percentage of local startups thanks to that.
What about investments?
In the last three years, the size and number of investment funds and the size of the tickets have grown tremendously. We had just a couple of million available back in 2017, and now we have hundreds of millions available from local VCs. But we also work with many international VCs.
Is Rubik Hub now everything you dreamed of?
I don’t think it’s everything I dreamed of, but it’s a start. I do believe progress and growth are what I try to provide to the team within Rubik Hub. Never settle, always look for growth. Therefore, our programs are growing with the people, and with the ecosystem. You do the right things at the right time, but they evolve in time.
I don’t know who I’m going to be in five years from now, and what I’m going to dream of doing, so the vision of Rubik Hub is to live in a world where everybody is reaching their best potential and has a positive impact. And one of the values we have is a growth mindset where you always have to learn new things. We don’t know when we reach our best version. We just have to keep learning, doing things, and every day discovering something new about ourselves. Today I am happy with what happens at Rubik Hub but probably “tomorrow” I will find myself willing to take up new challenges and solve other problems in this world.
Is there one startup that took a special place in your heart?
It’s a startup called Digitail that right now is growing very well in the United States. We started basically at the same time and we are growing together since then, helping each other in this process. When they needed support we were there to help. In return, they would give us time whenever we asked for office hours, mentorship, workshops, and delivery, and they never said no. So it is a success story from a business point of view, but also from a values alignment point of view.
Then of course we appreciate each startup that went through Rubik Hub, including this year’s batch. Volvero is one of the highlights, and there are at least two other startups where we managed to connect on that personal level. I’m expecting each year to have more and more valuable relationships like this one.
“We are in an economical position where we should embrace a shared economy and especially mobility because we have poor infrastructure and a high cost of maintenance.“
Thank you, we hope it will be so. As for my last questions, what do you think of Volvero’s solution and is Romania ready for sharing economy?
It’s something that I personally would love to see happening. We came from a time when we shared resources with each other because some of it was imposed, so we are a bit reluctant to do it today. But we know how to do it; we just need to develop trust.
We are in an economical position where we should embrace a shared economy and especially mobility because we have poor infrastructure and a high cost of maintenance. So, from an economical point of view, it definitely makes sense. Also, nowadays, I see that engagement is happening quite fast when it comes to new solutions, and it is a positive sign.
At the beginning of this year, I couldn’t believe I would see people riding Bolt scooters in our city, but it’s happening. The scooters are now everywhere across the city. I think what Romania doesn’t want is to be disappointed and feel someone is taking advantage of something or having hidden costs but if you’re transparent from the beginning, focusing on the customer, the growth should be great in this market.
Ekaterina Efimova, Marketing & Communications Lead at Volvero