Athens BusinessFeatured September 14
Lazaros Mavrakis may be the editor of MOTO, Greece's premier motorcycle magazine, but he's recently been spotted moonlighting, taking tourists on motorcycle tours round the city. Passengers ride pillion on his Honda Transalp Dual Purpose 600.
Across town, Vasillis Monastirlis used to teach hairdressing, and he also styled hair for catwalks, music videos and photoshoots. Now he runs En Athenais 1928, a retro barbershop in what was once a stockbroker's office, turning up at work each day dressed like a Greek barber from the 1920s.
Nayia Kourti is an architect who missed the old Athenian hammams that went out of business in the 1960s. Failing to persuade anyone to build a new one, she raised funds privately to convert a derelict 19th-century shop into Hammam Baths, Athens' first bathhouse in 50 years.
These are just three examples of a new entrepreneurial spirit that has breathed fresh life into the city after years of darkness.
When, in 2008, the financial crisis struck, such enterprises would have been unheard of. No country in Europe was hit harder, as output shrank by almost 25%, tens of thousands of family-owned businesses collapsed and jobs disappeared overnight. In Athens, there were almost as many riots as bankruptcies, making tourists wary of the capital. Soon the once-vibrant historic centre became a wasteland of shuttered shops and silent, graffiti-sprayed buildings.
Today, however, those shutters are reopening and what's fascinating is what they're revealing inside: exciting new ventures, like bars, boutiques and high-tech enterprises. Athens, once a place of big business and big government, has seemingly reinvented itself as a hotbed of individual endeavour. And the buzz is back.
“New start-ups are happening and there is a lot of creative appetite,” says George Pagoulatos, professor of European politics and economy at the Athens University of Economics and Business. It's no surprise that this upsurge coincides with the nation's most positive economic forecast since the recession hit: the country successfully returned to international capital markets in April and growth this year is set become positive again.
In particular, many Athenians have been inspired to follow their dream of opening a shop or starting a retail brand. “Even in the middle of a crisis, opportunities appear,” says Elina Kordali, a stylist who founded Madame Shou Shou, a women's fashion house, in 2011. Today, her clothing can be found in over 100 shops across Greece.
“I think one of the reasons why this business grew fast was that it appeared at a time when all the major showrooms had closed down, mainly due to financial difficulties, and the market needed something new. Also, retailers wanted to buy things from Greek creators, even though before the crisis they preferred mostly famous international brands.”
While Kordali's chain is a national operation, the new entrepreneurs can most often be found at street level: there's the woman who has opened a shop where you can buy vintage clothing by the kilo, and the man who restores and resells vintage spectacles.
So why has this happened now? In many ways, the lack of jobs in Greece has actually spurred people into action. In particular, many young Greeks have chosen to find new ways to make money rather than wait for employers to seek them out as long-term unemployment reached record levels. According to Dimitri A Sotiropoulos, associate professor of political science at the University of Athens, this was a result of the fact Greece implemented austerity programmes faster than any other EU country. The adjustment was a success, he says, but it came at a high cost. “Not only with the recession that has been plaguing this country for six years in a row [2008-2013], but in unemployment, which climbed to 27% last year.”
The fact it's encouraged people to think more creatively about finding work could be said to be a silver lining and it's also helped repopulate the city centre.
Massive closures in the years following the 2008 crash led to a lowering of downtown Athens rents. “Suddenly, you can live in the centre for as little as €250 to €300 a month,” says Andria Mitsakos, who runs a PR business in Athens and recently opened Wanderlista Concept Stores, “and that's for a great apartment in a central location. Low rents also mean low overheads. The diaspora is returning to open businesses. I live in Acropolis, and it's amazing to walk out your front door and be in the middle of it all.
“Now, since there's nightlife and energy in the centre, people want to be there, especially the entrepreneurial set,” Mitsakos continues. “It's keeping the city buzzy. Ingenuity is paramount here - it feels like the land of opportunity.”
For Nick Drandakis, necessity was the mother of invention in the bleak summer of 2010, when he found himself in an isolated part of northern Athens, unable to locate a taxi. So he got out his smartphone and opened Google Maps. “The idea came to me that it would be good if I could see the location of taxis on my map in real time; if they themselves had a smartphone.”
So the seeds of Taxibeat were sown, an app that allows you to hail a taxi and follow it on your screen as it approaches. The service has since been exported to France, Norway, Romania and, somewhat controversially, London, where black cab drivers object to the competitive advantage taxi apps provide.
“There's a miracle going on in Athens at the moment,” says Drandakis. He's not wrong: the success of his venture has kickstarted a mini tech-start-up rush, with incubator spaces popping up around the city and a growing number of apps bursting through - many funded by a European Investment Fund-backed support scheme called Openfund II.
Tourism itself is being redefined by new tech companies like Marketing Greece, which operates tdiscovergreece.com and dopios.com. Alexandros co-founded the sites with the idea of using the web to connect travellers to knowledgeable locals who can tailor-make tours for them. Dopios began in Athens in 2011 and soon appeared in San Francisco. It's now working on covering 80 countries. Trimis is also piloting a new venture in Athens. “You can use the site welcomepickups.com to arrange for a trusted local to pick you up from the airport and make your first hour at the destination that much more interesting and informative,” he explains.
For visitors to Athens, it's noticeable that the severe economic blow to Greece's national pride has made entrepreneurs more Greek rather than less. Manas Kouzina Kouzina, a buffet restaurant that opened last year in Agia Irini Square, doesn't just display the names of the dishes it offers, but the village from which each has come. And at By the Glass (Georgiou Souri 3, Syntagma, +30 210 323 2560), a new wine bar set in a formerly derelict arcade, Fotini Pantzia sells only Greek wines, 150 of them on shelves rising from floor to ceiling. Every evening, she extols the virtues of home-grown vintages, offering introductory glasses at 50 cents each.
The recession has also forced entrepreneurs to think smarter about their existing ventures too. Chrysanthos Panas and his brother owned Island, an idyllic but struggling club on the coast outside Athens. They were aware that in the summer, everyone - tourists and Athenians alike - decamped to the Greek islands.
“Nobody would ever consider going swimming in Athens, so what did we do?” says Panas. “We created the ‘Athens Riviera' - a marketing phrase I personally coined in 2008 - and made an all-day beach club, with proper facilities and yacht access. We changed the way Athenians spent their beach time. They'd always considered us a place to see top DJs, art exhibitions or for dinner, but now we've created a destination within a destination - and we're only 25 minutes south of the city centre.”
Of course, these are the Athenian success stories. It's not party time for everyone in the capital.
Elena Panaritis, former World Bank economist and economic advisor to Prime Minister Papandreou, thinks it's too soon to talk of a New Greece: “The fact that we managed to have a [balance of payments] surplus is a superb success. However, this is far from saying that we are in a New Greece. Greece has extraordinary potential that has not been developed yet.”
Professor Sotiropoulos strikes a more optimistic note - but a challenging one: “We really are seeing a New Greece as far as the determination to implement reforms is concerned, but we also need to see a New Greece regarding the distribution of the burden of austerity programmes.”
Whether those measures can be lifted or not, and no matter what happens at the state or big-business level, Greece's energetic, innovative street-corner recovery seems set to continue. At En Athenais 1928, Monastirlis has just put up his prices, having come to the end of a two-year introductory phase. Business is good, he says: the British ambassador is now a regular. And why not? It's a unique service. Maybe Athens is at its best when it's being fully Athenian.