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Class of 2012: Young Spaniards launch startups

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 10, 2013 at 8:31 am •  Published: March 10, 2013
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MADRID (AP) — In a cramped office in downtown Madrid, five young architects who found themselves jobless in Spain's wrenching economic crisis sit almost elbow to elbow — glued to computer screens as they create 3-D videos of construction proposals for far-flung sites in Britain, Panama, Malaysia and Zambia.

The founders of the Factoria 5 digital design company last month took home €2,000 ($2,700) each for the projects they are delivering. That's good money for professionals in a field so blighted by Spain's building bust that many of Factoria 5's fellow architecture grads are either unemployed, have given up on architecture or moved abroad. One, who considers himself lucky, became a train conductor.

Juan Francisco Lopez, one of the founders of the firm, took another path in the crisis, one that goes deeply against the grain of Spain's traditional career path: With no work coming to them, Lopez and his partners decided to go after the work, taking control of their destiny with a risky startup.

"Architecture will never come back to Spain as a business again like it was," said Lopez. "But our business has been growing little by little as Spain's economy has been falling."

By spawning astonishing 50 percent youth unemployment, Spain's crushing crisis appears to be starting to force ingenuity, innovation and creativity among young professionals who are taking risks and bucking the pattern of seeking security under the umbrella of an established business. That means embracing a more American-style entrepreneurial spirit — breathing a new spirit into the workforce of a country where "making it" typically meant a good, stable job with a blue chip company or in the family business.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the latest installment in Class of 2012, an exploration of Europe's financial crisis through the eyes of young people emerging from the cocoon of student life into the worst downturn the continent has seen since the end of World War II. Follow the class on its Google plus page: http://apne.ws/ClassOf2012

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Two members of Factoria 5 are friends of Class of 2012 participant Rafael Gonzalez del Castillo, who admires them for taking a big risk by sticking with Spain in tough times, instead of leaving to hawk their skills in booming economies elsewhere, amid a corrosive brain drain that threatens Spain's longterm future.

"We are young," said Gonzalez del Castillo, who expects to become a full-fledged architect soon with approval for his graduation project. "We are the best at creating new things because we are open-minded and that is what the world needs now: creation, change."

Spain has long been viewed as a laggard in startup entrepreneurship compared to other European countries. Startup proponents say there are encouraging signs that may be changing, though they acknowledge there are no hard numbers yet to provide strong evidence of a trend. In one positive sign, there was a big jump last year in Spanish startups seeking early stage capital funding, according to New York-based investment platform Gust LLC, which matches investors with entrepreneurs. And the number of self-employed Spaniards also rose, after successive years of declines.

"It's the mentality of the people," said Alex Barrera, a co-founder and former chief executive of the Tetuan Valley startup school in Madrid that gives 6-week crash courses to would-be young entrepreneurs. "I go to universities and this is an option students are now considering, whereas before they weren't even thinking about it. They were just thinking of working for a big company or for government. Now people realize you can build a company around a mobile app."

No one disputes that the Spanish economy is in the midst of a Darwinian phase of survival of the fittest — and those willing and able to carve out something new in the crisis may be the ones best placed to come out on top once good times return.

"There are a lot of young people and even those up to 40 or so years old who are doing new business experiments," said Jose Ramon Pin, a business management professor at the IESE Business School in Madrid. "And there's a natural selection of companies under way. Those that survive the crisis or start during it have the advantage: The market will be theirs when the economy bounces back."

When the architects of Factoria 5 started their company as Spain's economy lurched into a deep double-dip recession, some of their parents told them they were crazy. The would-be entrepreneurs, however, had all just finished their architecture degrees plus digital media masters degrees and sensed they could fill a niche by becoming high-tech content suppliers to Spanish architects who no longer had work at home but were increasingly designing projects for foreign clients. The only other option was seeking work abroad.

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