Barcelona has cemented its place among Europe’s best cities for supporting fast-growing businesses, but local entrepreneurs say it still has some way to go to rival Berlin and Amsterdam.
While the coronavirus pandemic has painfully exposed the Spanish city’s overreliance on tourism, it has also exposed its transformation from a monocultural city to a multicultural city over the past 20 years – and its influx of new business talent.
“Without the tourists, you’ve noticed how many young people from all over the world live and work here, mostly in the digital economy,” says Mateu Hernández, managing director of Barcelona Global, a non-profit organization representing businesses and establishments in the world. education aimed at attracting skilled workers. “Talent is essential in technology industries and is the key factor for the fastest growing companies.”
A growing community of these workers – along with the warm Mediterranean climate, culture, good food, transport links and a lower cost of living than in London or Paris – have combined to make Barcelona an attractive base. for start-ups. The Catalan capital of around 1.7 million people is home to nine companies featured in the latest FT-Statista ranking of Europe’s fastest growing companies. This puts the city in 10th place by number of companies on the overall list, alongside Turin.
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One of these companies is Tooltester, a software testing company founded by Robert Brandl in Germany in 2009, before fulfilling his dream of moving it to Barcelona three years later.
Although Brandl finds Barcelona’s bureaucracy and banking system frustrating, he sees the number of people with language skills as a big advantage. “We have seven nationalities among our nine employees,” he says. Tooltester achieved revenue of 3.6 million euros in 2020 and a compound annual growth rate of 66% in 2017-2020, according to the ranking.
Many tech start-ups are settling in the former industrial district of Poblenou, which the city council is now promoting as a tech hub.
Sacha Michaud and co-founder Oscar Pierre chose the region when they created Glovo, the food delivery platform, in 2015.
“It’s easy to attract talent, it’s small and densely populated and it’s cosmopolitan,” says Michaud, who adds that, although there is no fast-track visa process, employees of Glovo are largely international and generally between the ages of 25 and 40. In common with other new businesses in town, the company’s lingua franca is a mix of English and Spanish.
“Barcelona should aspire to be the European technology hub,” he says. “He has everything he needs to make this happen.”
The city also offers something for companies that focus on hardware as well as software. Enric Asunción was working for Tesla when he realized that for electric cars to become mainstream, people needed to be able to charge them from home. He co-founded Wallbox in Barcelona in 2015 and the company now offers a portfolio of charging and power management products in over 80 countries, where it employs 700 people.
“Barcelona offers talent but also suppliers for [the] the automotive industry, which is important because we also make hardware and you don’t often have both in the same place,” says Asunción, who is the managing director of Wallbox.
The downside is the time it takes to set up a business in Spain: 13 days compared to one day in the Netherlands, according to world Bank The data. There are other bureaucratic hurdles such as obtaining residency papers, Asunción says.
An additional problem, he adds, is raising capital. “If you want to raise 1 million euros, it’s easy here, but it’s not possible to raise 200 million euros,” he explains. “So it’s a great place for start-ups, but when you want to grow, you’ll have to look elsewhere for the money.”
Timo Buetefisch, a German who has lived in Barcelona for 20 years, co-founded Cooltra in 2006. The company rents mopeds and bicycles by the minute, day, week or year, and now has 1, 7 million users in several European cities.
“We were pioneers in Europe when we started here in Barcelona but, because of regulations, it’s now one of our worst markets,” he says. Buetefisch complains that in 2020 the city “arbitrarily” set the number of motorcycle-sharing vehicle licenses at 6,958, then distributed about 300 licenses each among 21 competing companies “which makes no sense because no one cannot be profitable with 300 licenses”.
According to him, “the thing that would do the most to improve the business climate would be for local communities to adopt a more positive view of entrepreneurship”.
Spain is currently ranked 30th out of 190 countries in the World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business ranking reportbehind several other European nations including Lithuania, Germany and North Macedonia.
Hernández argues that Barcelona also need a ‘neutral’ tax regime – so that investors are not taxed on their overseas assets – and a ‘more flexible’ administration. He also thinks the city should standardize the use of English in education and business.
“Above all, it must project the image of a commercial city,” he says. “So far it has presented itself as a place to visit and have fun, but not as a serious place to do business.”