With its abandoned buildings and quiet streets, the Baixa Pombalina, Lisbon’s historic commercial district, has gone into hibernation. This once vibrant part of the Portuguese capital appears resigned to the economic chill that has descended upon the country. But at 30 Rua da Prata — the former silversmiths’ street — spring has come.
The building’s ground floor is home to a designer souvenir shop. Above the retailer are four floors crammed with offices, topped with a banner reading “Startups Lisboa”. Inside, the employees of 45 fledgling companies are busy chirping away on the phone and picking at their keyboards in this appropriately named “business incubator”.
They are, for the most part, recent university graduates. Startups Lisboa has given them a perfect place to come in from the cold and test out their ideas.
Luis Martins has a workspace on the third floor. A desk, a chair, an iMac and a handful of business cards are his only professional accoutrements. Like every other young entrepreneur who has settled here, Martins’ work is confined to the computer screen. It is not just a choice; it’s a requirement.
For a place in this incubator, a start-up must exploit the Internet and must provide services outside the offices. Martins created Zaask, a web platform that connects tradesmen and professionals to potential clients, much like the US-based site local.com.
“People are always looking for local service providers, from plumbers to web designers and photographers. The website also includes a rating system that allows providers to build their reputation online,” he explains.
Zaask has caught on, and may owe at least part of its success to Portugal’s economic downturn. “This platform would not exist, or would be less interesting, if we were not in the middle of an economic crisis. Before people didn’t need to advertise their personal skills to the world, they had a job,” Martins admits.
Yearning for Silicon Valley
The conference room in Startups Lisboa is known as the “Steve Jobs Room” — a choice that reflects both the inspiration and hopes of these young people.
Jobs, the late founder of computer giant Apple, is one of the modern-day heroes of Silicon Valley, the area south of San Francisco Bay that is home to some of the world's largest technology companies as well as thousands of small startups.
“Our model is imported from the United States. A place like this, where several entrepreneurs work side by side, it helps boost optimism,” Martin says. “It’s a kind of like an oasis in the desert of the Portuguese economy.”
Newcomers to the labour market with few chances of finding a comfortable job have been forced to take risks and to rethink their place in the workforce. In less than a year, Startups Lisboa has received more than 600 applications. Many more than Joao Vasconcelos, its president, can accept.
“There are many young businesspeople who are unemployed, who can create their own jobs and are moving into places like this one. Various studies have shown that Portuguese people are the most enterprising in Europe.” Vascocelos says.
Back to the land
A hundred kilometres from the capital, Almeirim is a small town in the Portuguese countryside. Vast plains irrigated by the Tagus River stretch out for miles. It is a far cry from Silicon Valley, but young people have also started dozens of companies here. With funds from the state and the European Union, many are turning back to agriculture. According to government data, around 260 new farms are being created in Portugal each week.
Anna Duarte is among the new generation of farmers that have settled around Almeirim. With her flowing hair, big sunglasses and chunky necklace, Duarte seems a better fit at Startups Lisboa. Only her knee-high rubber boots give away her newly adopted work sector.
Indeed, Duarte started out as a financial officer in Lisbon. But after a year at the unemployment line, she decided to head back to her roots.
“I never thought I would come back to Almeirim. I studied and lived far from here. I always pictured myself as the director of some big company; as it turns out, it will be my own company,” Duarte says.
While she admits agriculture is not her ideal field, she says she has been able to put her management and technology skills to work. Duarte is growing lettuces and cooking herbs.
"I’ve had to adapt, just like all young people. Of course this is all new for young farmers like us, but we learn together and help each other along the way,” she says.
Duarte confesses that if she had a new job opportunity in Lisbon, she would not hesitate to drop the lettuce and rubber boots. But until that day, she says she has found her place. “It’s a new phase of my life. It is also one that is quieter and less stressful.
“Sometimes you have to push people a little to get moving, but everything gets done,” she says.