In recent years, Europe’s economy has been growing in new, and different ways. One factor in this has been the online expansion of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Google partnered with Friends of Europe to bring some shining stars from Europe’s SME scene to Brussels, where Google’s European President Matt Brittin announced plans to expand the digital skills training initiatives which have been crucial in getting entrepreneurs started.
“We’ve already exceeded that — I’m here today to tell you that we’re doubling our pledge to two million,” Brittin said.
The extension of the project means providing training for two million Europeans through methods from university courses to online training platforms in 24 markets — and the news was warmly welcomed by those at the “Digital Skills: Creating Economic Growth Across Europe” event in the Residence Palace. There, entrepreneurs in areas from German interior design curation to hot-air balloon excursions over the English countryside met to discuss what had helped them take off. On hand to listen were EU officials, lawmakers, and member state representatives.
Europe has long relied on SMEs to provide growth. From the German Mittelstand, which exports high-quality industrial goods worldwide, to environmentally-friendly boutique hotels in the Mediterranean, small companies make a big difference. In recent years, going online has given these firms unprecedented access to customers worldwide, offering a global storefront for a vast array of goods and services.
During the morning session, business owners and entrepreneurs exchanged stories, discussed challenges and shared anecdotes about what had, and hadn’t worked for them. One thing they loved: online advertising to find a new market for existing businesses. “It’s purely because of the internet that we’ve gone global,” explained Lois Allan of L’Architrave. A licensed conveyancer in Italy, she’s been finding clients their dream homes there for thirty years. Online advertising brought her Dutch and Scandinavian customers, as well as Americans inspired by currency fluctuations. “The digital stuff is essential,” she concludes.
But there’s much more to work on. One big issue was the urgent need to complete the so-called Digital Single Market within the EU, by removing barriers between countries and making cross-border trade seamless. Related to that, the SMEs mentioned high distribution costs, different tax systems and VAT rates across Europe, as well as issues with taking online payments from customers abroad. Then there are issues related to copyright and intellectual property.
Moreover, online business models are constantly evolving, meaning legislation should be kept to a minimum to ensure it is future proof, Tomasz Husak from the Commission added.
Rules and regulations vary enormously between countries and sectors, hampering online businesses which are keen to grow but aware of limitations.
“We are fifteen in our company… we have a regulation in France that we can’t have more than three interns,” explained Maeva Bessis, Deputy CEO of L’Exception, which sells over 400 French fashion brands, online and from their boutique in Paris. “We have thousands of students that are asking ‘can we come and learn with you,’ and we can’t answer, because the regulation is not right.”
Getting experience with a company is a great way to learn, and this was one of many areas raised by panelists in the day’s main session, which dealt with digital skills. Maxime Cerutti of BusinessEurope highlighted the importance of apprenticeships in the digital world, while Tano Lopez, a Spanish entrepreneur, got his student network, Fleed, started after going on an Activate course in Spain.
Activate is one of Google’s many partnership programs across Europe designed to train the continent in digital skills: in Germany, they’ve been working with Commerzbank, DHL and the University of Leipzig, while in Italy partners include the Ministry of Labour and the UnionCamere employers’ association. Helping Europeans, in particular young people, develop the digital skills necessary to take part in the online workplace is essential.
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According to the European Commission, there are currently 900,000 jobs at risk of going unfilled due to the lack of qualified staff. In a separate study, they note that between 2008 and 2014, SMEs added EUR 93 billion to the European economy. And, according the Commission’s report on SMEs, the main net job creators were often “young firms active in knowledge-intensive service sectors,” which sounds a lot like those making the most of the opportunities afforded by the web.
Overall, the entrepreneurs were excited about their success so far but keen to see the Digital Single Market completed to enable them to grow further. “There’s never been a better time to be an entrepreneur in Europe than now,” said Brittin, citing European success stories like flight-comparison site Skyscanner, “fantastic fun” French DJ app Edjing and photo editing app EyeEm. “It’s easy to be a pessimist… but I’m optimistic about Europe.”
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