Today we spoke to Yannis Kliafas, a greek entrepreneur, and one of the founders of the Athens Technology Center. The ATC “for the last 30 years, has supplied and managed the appropriate technology and resources to support the entrepreneurial spirit and profitable growth of medium and large-sized companies and Government entities around the globe.”
We asked him about his education and career, the differences between living in England, the United States, and Greece, the effects of the Greek economic crisis on entrepreneurship, and his experience building a company.
Tell me a bit about your education and career path.
I did my undergraduate at Sussex University in England, where I studied Mechanical Engineering. After that, with a scholarship, I came to the US to do my Master’s and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at Berkeley. I also worked as a Research Assistant at NASA. At the time, California wasn’t as expensive as it is now, so my quality of life was so much better than when I was employed in England.
After that, I worked in Aerospace, went back to London, and became a professor at Imperial College focusing on Fluid Mechanics. But I wanted to try something different so, in 1987, I decided to start a company with a group of my academic friends called Athens Technology Center (ATC).
Tell me more about ATC and the projects you work with.
ATC focused on outsourcing software development. Most of our customers were in California at the time. Our projects were funded by European Commission, which is very different from receiving Venture Capital funding. They were mixed projects, and some encourage collaboration between different countries. An important aspect to point out is that In Europe it is more difficult to get VC money. After the companies grow, they usually spin out and sell. For example, a banking company was sold to Oracle, and a gaming division sold to UK Company Open Bet.
Nowadays, ATC works in more than 20 research projects, focusing on media. We have started working in Southeast Asia, specifically in Vietnam. Right now we have two main projects: First, a print and electronic Content Management System (CMS). Second, a project on corporate communications and press office creates an easy and low-cost solution to marketing and communications, and we signed with MIT Media Lab and Pfizer. We have 5 or 6 contracts in San Francisco at the time, focusing on New Media projects. One of these projects is a fake news verification, which launched as a separate company with Deutsche Welle, and was used in the German elections.
Where is your team from?
Our team is mostly Greek and based in Athens, and we have teams in London and San Francisco. The President of the Board is currently focusing on business development in outside countries.
What differences exist, in your opinion, between entrepreneurship in the European Union versus in the United States?
In the US, and mostly in California (although this is changing now), there exists a culture of creating startups in the US. In my opinion, it is easier to get funding, and there is also a culture that even if you fail, it’s OK, and it is part of being an entrepreneur. In Europe, it is more static. People are not as used to the failures that come with starting a company, and it is easier to find friends in the more traditional business.
Can you tell me more about the entrepreneurship scene in Greece? Was it affected by the recent economic crisis?
The technology sector, which isn’t as involved with the public sector, didn’t really feel the crisis as much. On the contrary, there was some of a positive impact for this sector given that it got many young people interested in startups. At the time I founded ATC, it was not very common to see companies such as mine.
The crisis in Greece affected pensionaries the most. One thing that is interesting to note is that yes, unemployment rates are incredibly high but not as high as numbers report because it does not count the commercial activity of the “black market” or informal economy. In Greece, sectors like tourism and shipping are significant, and the public sector has a lot of corruption which affected our economy as well.
Nonetheless, I have lived in Greece for my whole life, and I must say that things are better now even with the crisis. Joining the EU helped quite a lot for us Greeks. Oh, and even though the “anti-austerity” party won recently, they are acting the same as the previous government!
Apart from the economic crisis, how is it different to live in Greece in comparison to the United States and England?
The lifestyle is very different. There is even a saying that says that we “work to live, not live to work.” When I lived in California, I felt like everything was about work. In Greece, almost every day, people go out or go to the beach. Plus, people are very outgoing, and family is very important, which I found to be a bit different in the United States because people leave home very young and families many times live in different parts of the country.
What challenges did you face as an entrepreneur?
To be honest, to me, University studies came naturally. I went with friends, went out, and followed what my university said. But being an entrepreneur was hard and was especially difficult in the beginning. I worked very long hours, which is expected, and had to reduce my sleep. It was worth it, but for me, it was very hard at first!
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs?
If you can do work without getting VC money, do the first iterations of the product before getting funding, and then apply later so that they don’t control too much the direction of your company.
What do you like to read?
I love reading countries’ histories. Right now, I’m reading about Vietnam and Cambodia.
To learn more about the Athens Technology Center, visit www.atc.gr and