Jurgen Furian (Pioneers Festival)

- How did you get into the tech sector?

- I graduated from the Business University in Vienna. My friends and I always had some business ideas, but nothing really came out of it and, at the end of our last year at university, we wanted to have a place where people can go to and say: “This is my idea. This is what I can do. Who’s in?”. And so we created this place and named it Startup Live. On the other hand, why technology? At the spearhead, technology is always magic. It fascinates people. Star Trek is a good example. It’s fascinating to watch it because you can basically see a good part of what is possible in the future, technology-wise. And, in the end, it’s always science fiction before it becomes science.

- So you were inspired by Star trek?

- Who isn’t?

- And how did you come up with the idea of creating a conference as large as Pioneers Festival?

- Before we started Pioneers, our company was called Start Europe. We focused on Startup Live, which was our event format. We hosted our first big event, called Startup Week, in 2011 and drew 1,300 participants per day. And it was totally out of control, as 5 days and 130 speakers was way too much! We also partied every day, which is important. So we went conference – party – conference – party for five days and, at the end, we were completely exhausted. Anyway, the event was very successful, but we thought that that’s not the whole story. That was not the bigger picture. We are excited about technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship, but it doesn’t just include web and mobile startups. There is a sector of robotics, aerospace, and med-tech, for instance. There are very interesting sectors besides mobile. So we said to ourselves: “Either we do the bigger picture or we won’t do this anymore.” So we just skipped Startup Week and everything that was just focused on web and mobile and setup Pioneers Festival last year for the first time. We had a mission to bring together people from all these different technological areas. This year, for example, the main guy in robotics – Rodney Brooks – will be with us. And he will be talking with a guy who developed Siri.

- There are already a lot of big and successful conferences in Europe. Do you think Austria needs another one?

- First of all, there were previously none in Austria and there were only events that drew 50-150 people. And we started 4 years ago. There were few conferences that time, including The Next Web, Dublin Web Summit, and some others, but they were solely focused on mobile and web startups. Let’s take LeWeb as an example. I really like Loic and think that LeWeb is a great conference, but it’s focused on executives and on advertising agencies, so it’s totally different. The audience of LeWeb strongly differs from the one at Pioneers Festival. We want to have an event without a Big Hero who we should listen to, as we want to show that we are all equal. If you come at our event you see, that we are all together, we party together, we are on a first- name basis, etc. That is very important to us, as no one had done it previously. We’d like to show what’s going on outside of the internet. Look at what’s happening in aerospace. It’s incredible! But no one covers it. I don’t know why, but that’s the fact. The picture that we had in our heads was a sort of Innovation Wonderland that you enter when you open the doors of Pioneers Festival.

- How many participants do you expect this year?

- We are almost sold out [interview takes place in 3 weeks before the event – note], so 2,500. And we will never have more than that. It’s our maximum. We do not want to grow bigger with this event, as you wouldn’t get as much out of the conference as a participant if we brought in more people. If there are 10,000 people, you just are one of 10000. I personally think that even 2,500 is too much, but you also have to look at the economic side.

- Do you personally take part in any funds?

- No. At the moment, we only run the annual Pioneers Festival and its ‘little brother’, Pioneers Unplugged, which is an evening event that we run all over Europe. And we also do some sort of consulting, where we are plugging the gaps between small and big companies, startups, investors etc. But there is no fund involved.

- What was the biggest challenge in creating Pioneers?

- There have been so many… I think describing who you are. If you are a copycat startup, for example, it’s very easy to describe because you can say: “I am this for this”. Funding is always a challenge, as we are basically like a startup and we have to make money like a standalone business. Figuring out the right business model, as it’s not only about doing an event and making a lot of money. When you do the next one, you really have to figure out a sustainable business model. That’s another challenge, but there are so many more that I even don’t know where to start.

- As an organizer of a conference, you should personally know a lot of outstanding people. Among investors and entrepreneurs, who impressed you the most?

- The person that impressed me the most in recent months was neither an entrepreneur, nor an investor, but someone who is one of the top guys at NASA. There are 6-8 different NASA research centers and he runs one in Silicon Valley. And he impressed me a lot, as he doesn’t care what others think, but just says what he thinks. He might not be the nicest guy in the eyes of other people, but you can always get the truth out of his mouth, especially when it comes to technology. In the startup business, that is not happening at all. Everybody’s super friendly and super nice, but I really prefer talking to people who just say what they think. Besides that, Siri founder Adam [Cheyer – note], who is also a founder at 2 other startups. He co- founded those 3 startups simultaneously, which is very impressive. It firmly contradicts the typical industry view that it is best to focus on one thing. He has been focusing on multiple things and it has always worked out. He is one of the most brilliant minds I have ever met in my life and the thing that impressed me the most is that he is a very humble, down-to-Earth person. You can easily talk to him and he will respond. He doesn’t have to be in the spotlight, as he is a very quiet and almost introverted person. And that’s very rare in our industry.

- Have you had any communication problems with guys from Russia or Ukraine? A lot of them are not known as ‘down-to-Earth’ people.

- I am from Austria and I think that we always had quite a good relationship with all the people who live to the east of us. I personally think that there are no real Austrians, we are all the mix of everything. And I have never had any difficulties working with people from Ukraine, Russia, Poland, and whatever. Not at all. I think that Eastern guys are a bit hungrier than guys from Western Europe, which makes them even more exciting.

- And did you work with anybody from Russia and Ukraine during the preparation for the event?

- Our network of organizers spreads over multiple European countries and we always have people from Russia and Ukraine. When we started in 2011, one of the biggest groups of participants was from Russia. Maybe it was because of the geographical position, but I’m not sure. But we still have great relationships with a lot of investors. We had a very good chat with Grishin Robotics, as well as Dmitriy Grishin personally. They wanted to be with us, but they can’t attend the event this year, unfortunately. I’m pretty sure he will join us next year, though.

- And what are your plans for the future?

- We have to stabilize things. When you enter our office, you a see huge banner with the words: “If everything is under control, you’re not going fast enough”. This is our motto. We haven’t had all parts, more or less, under control for the last 2.5 years, to be honest. But at some point, we have to stabilize and make everything sustainable. It might sound a little bit boring, but that’s the next step we have to take. We should bring everything we work on in the one direction.

- If the conference is your only business, it must be profitable enough to satisfy you for the whole year. Is it?

- Yes, we are already profitable enough. And that’s the big challenge. If you do an annual event, you have one major checkpoint. It’s a cash-flow issue, as you have 3 months when the cash is coming in, while you have hardly any income over the rest of the year. So you have to generate a lot of cash during the specific period of time in order to survive the rest. Stabilizing also means professionalizing the business model. If you depend on only one cash-flow stream, it’s not really good. We want to work out various cash-flow streams. It’s always better, but it’s difficult. It’s always easier to have some other projects that generate money for you, as opposed to one annual event. It’s a huge issue in my opinion.