Once in search of life-long jobs, Spaniards begin to catch start-up spirit

Public sector employment has long been the holy grail of Spanish employment, thanks to the stability such jobs offered. But in today's more uncertain, post-crisis atmosphere, entrepreneurs are finding new success.

Juan Ignacio Llana Ugalde/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
This is the co-working space at InitLand, a project in Bilbao Berrikuntza Faktoria, an old printing factory that is now the hub of the start-up community in Bilbao, Spain.

Landing a dream job in the United States often implies a path of trial and error, fraught with peril before triumph is reached. But in Spain, the employment ideal starts with a job for life.

A stable job that allows workers to live – not live for their work – has long been valued here above all. That’s why being a public servant, or funcionario, has been the dream of generations. A contract in a large, established company ranks a close second.

But amid chronic unemployment, especially for youth, entrepreneurship is getting a rethink, and inspiring a new generation along the way.

“Before, when you asked in universities, ‘what do you want to do?’ if you asked in the UK or the US, many would say, ‘I want to create my own company. I want to do the next Facebook.' In Spain, before the crisis, nobody thought about starting a business,” says Ander Michelena, co-founder of Ticketbis, which started in Bilbao as a platform for selling and buying events tickets and was acquired by Ebay and folded into StubHub last year. “The crisis has really changed the mindset of a lot of people in Spain.”

And where Mr. Michelena and his partner, Jon Uriarte, had to rely on Mr. Uriarte's parents for office space when they left their jobs at Morgan Stanley in London to start Ticketbis in 2009, today Spain has a growing ecosystem to help start-ups thrive.

“I think the crisis has brought the best out of the Spanish people,” says Michelena, now general manager international of StubHub.

'The hard way'

A poll by the firm GAD3 in the spring showed that 25.2 percent of university students and alumni still say they want to work in the public sector, while 22.6 percent prefer a multinational. But creeping up in the polls, at 18.8 percent, are those who want to start their own companies. Twenty-seven percent say they’d be willing to do so.

A Financial Times analysis of business school alumni around the world showed that graduates from MBA programs in Spain were the most likely to start their own companies, at 26 percent. That compares with graduates in the US at 19 percent, Germany at 18 percent, and China at 16 percent.

Some of the Spanish desire for stability traces back to the country’s business culture, where historically bosses made arbitrary decisions based on favoritism, not merit, says Joe Haslam, executive director of the Owners Management Program at IE business school in Madrid. This instability made public jobs – where demands are predictable and terminations rare – that much more desirable than private ones.

And the world of start-ups can be daunting in a society where it is frowned upon to have a job that is all-consuming, and where failure isn’t necessarily seen as a positive learning moment.

“American youths were raised much more so than Europeans with the concept of a superhero,” says Alec Mian, who lived in Barcelona for 16 years and founded Curelator, a migraine-management platform in Cambridge, Mass. “We all know that they are normal, everyday, slightly weak people who succeed through persistence, so usually they fail several times first,” he says. “That kind of hero journey is not as dominantly represented in a European childhood.”

Gari Fullaondo, who worked for soccer club AC Bilbao before founding Kimet Sport, a consultancy that trains soccer teams, agrees. “We don’t digest failure well in this society,” he says. “Yet everything I have learned [as an entrepreneur] has been the hard way.”

Business schools are now more aggressively imparting these lessons. “When I did an MBA [12 years ago] most people wanted to join corporations. You went to business school almost the same way that doctors went to hospitals,” says Mr. Haslam, the co-founder of Hot Hotels, a hotel booking app. Classes in entrepreneurship were the equivalent of being asked to take pottery class, he says. “That has changed completely. No one questions the value of having to develop an original idea.”

Fostering entrepreneurship

A century ago in the Basque Country city of Bilbao, the University of Deusto and its prestigious business school La Commercial overlooked factory smokestacks. The school churned out a generation of top bankers and politicians who oversaw the city’s industrial expansion.

Today, the university looks onto the Guggenheim Museum, which ushered in Bilbao’s transformation into a service-oriented city. And it is trying to foster the same kind of reinvention it has excelled at before, this time through start-ups instead of captains of industry.

In 2008, the university opened an incubator called DeustoKabi, housed under the Deusto Entrepreneurial Centre, which the university created in part as a social mission. “Not only to run the incubator,” says Tonxtu Campos, the director of the center and former minister of Education, Universities, and Research of the Basque Government. “But to promote entrepreneurial behaviors, attitudes, and spirit among the whole community.”

Juan Ignacio Llana Ugalde/ Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Elena Fernandez left a stable job in marketing and publicity to co-found Dog Vivant, an app that catalogs how pet-friendly hotels and other public businesses are.

Part of fostering that spirit is through rigorous training, he says, and putting students in touch with peers who serve as their role models.

Now there are many more such role models throughout Spain, post-crisis.

On a recent day, the offices of Bilbao Berrikuntza Faktoria are bustling. A former printing factory on the Nervion River, the building is now a hub of the start-up industry in Bilbao. This is where the Bilbao office of TicketBis, now StubHub, is based. Below it are scores of companies being incubated by initland, an innovation project led by init Group and the University Mondragon.

“Some of my friends think I’m crazy. They say, why didn’t you buy a house?” says Elena Fernandez, who left a stable job in marketing and publicity to co-found Dog Vivant. The start-up, a year-and-a-half old, certifies the pet-friendliness of hotels and restaurants, allowing pet owners to search where they might find a water bowl or friendly smile for their mutts when they are traveling or heading out for the day. “We are a traditional society, but slowly that is changing.”

Deusto engineering student Aitziber Sasia says she understands she won’t follow the footsteps of her father, an engineer who has spent his career at a multinational. She chose to do her practical training at Deusto Moto Team, a start-up at DeustoKabi. “The future is not a job for life,” she says. “The future is to create your own business.”

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