Keiretsu Forum SEE Aims to Revolutionize the SEE Startup Scene – Interview with Ardian Hoxha

Founded in 2000 in California, Keiretsu Forum is a global network of private equity angel investors and venture capitalists across more than 60 chapters in four continents. Members, in collaboration with Keiretsu Capital, are the USA’s top venture investors.

Recently, the Forum has expanded into Southeastern Europe. The Keiretsu Forum Southeast Europe Chapter (KFSEE) is a non-profit that reinvests all earnings and connects global investors with regional start-ups. KFSEE is active in Kosovo, Albania, and North Macedonia but eyes up to expand to the broader SEE region and to include Bosnia & Hertzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Serbia as well as Hungary. KFSEE actively collaborates with European VCs for joint ventures as of March 2023.

We had the pleasure to talk with Ardian Hoxha, Chapter President of the Keiretsu Forum’s chapter in Southeast Europe.

Ardian, can you briefly introduce us to the Keiretsu Forum concept, what is the idea behind this global community of private equity angel investors and tell us how the SEE chapter started?

Ardian: Keiretsu Forum is one of the most popular and one of the largest Angel Investor and Private Equity clubs in the world, with over 60 chapters worldwide. In the last decade, it has been no. 1 in the United States in terms of the number of investments made in startups for most of the years. In order to make faster progress and put our region on the map, I’ve decided to partner with a globally known network of investors with a proven business model globally and in this way accelerate the development of investing and startup growth in our part of the world. Southeast Europe, but especially the Balkans, have been lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of angel investment and venture capital. This in turn discouraged a lot of existing and potential entrepreneurs to work on starting companies, even if they had some great ideas. 

In Kosovo as well, just like the rest of the Balkans, there have been a number of initiatives in the past and I’ve been invited to participate in all of them. At the beginning there was so much enthusiasm, but very soon each initiative faded away because there was not a lot going on, and deal flow was close to non-existent. In 2018, I was introduced to Keiretsu Forum through a friend from Istanbul called Aydonat Atasever, who encouraged me to start a chapter in Kosovo. During the pandemic I was analyzing the reasons why previous initiatives failed in Kosovo in the region and my conclusion was that they were just local angel investor clubs. With Keiretsu Forum being a global investor club, the idea was to start a regional chapter with all the small countries in Southeast Europe that were not included in Keiretsu Forum yet. And so we started Keiretsu Forum SEE, which includes the six Western Balkans countries as well as Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary.

Is there a particular industry focus for Keiretsu Forum SEE, given the region’s strengths in both technological and non-technological sectors?

Ardian: As we are in our early stages we welcome startups from any industry and as our region grows we will narrow down our focus, thus influencing the focus of startups and entrepreneurs as well, and shape our investments in fields that our region has more talent and potential for growth.

Has KFSEE made any investments yet? And if yes, which ones?

Ardian: Yes, we have made our first investment in a FinTech company from North Macedonia called FinqUp. This not only is our first investment, but it reflects Keiretsu Forum SEE in its true sense as we have 2 angel investors from North Macedonia, 1 from Albania, and 1 from Kosovo, as well as 1 VC Fund from Bulgaria. We are very excited with its growth as well, and we look forward to making this a success story, while looking forward to making other investments in our upcoming Keiretsu Forum meeting where we’ll have more startups from the region pitching.

Just three months after starting, in June 2023, KFSEE signed an agreement with BKT Bank for financing start-ups with up to 1 million euros, raising the KFSEE capital to 2 million euros. What’s the story behind this deal, how will this partnership directly benefit start-ups in the SEE region, or is it limited just for the markets where BKT Bank operates?

Ardian: This is a great achievement on our behalf, but we are also lucky to have company leaders who share the same growth mindset as us and see the bright future as we do. Initially this fund will invest in markets where BKT operates which is mainly due to the existing legal infrastructure, however that is easy to manage as the startups can register their entities in these markets and will be able to get the funding. At some point, we believe that we can influence the Central Banks to make amendments to the laws and remove these barriers, at least for investments in the region. Our entire ecosystem in the region is at an early stage, and it’s really only up to us how fast we influence its growth and development.

You were one of the partners and contributors to the MatchIN Summit in Ohrid, how was your experience on this event and what would you say was the biggest benefit attending an annual meetup of SEE investors and startups?

Ardian: That’s true. We were so happy to be part of this amazing event, which we see growing every year in terms of attendance and quality. The biggest benefit was getting to know who’s who in the region and also showing people what Keiretsu Forum SEE is all about and what our vision is. We got to meet a lot of VCs from Southeast and Central Europe, as well as a lot of entrepreneurs and startups from the region, and I am amazed everyday more and more at the potential and talent that I see in our part of the world.

Based on your personal opinion, what unique opportunities does the SEE region present for angel investors? What are the biggest challenges that SEE startups face at the moment?

Ardian: Every country in Southeast Europe is small, and it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to have large numbers of investors and high numbers of startup deal-flow in each country individually. Keiretsu Forum SEE is a regional club as we can have a much higher number of investors as well as startup deal-flow. This way more and more investors will want to join as we can provide them with enough investment opportunities as well as networking with like-minded individuals, and on the other hand we’ll attract more startups to pitch for funding because we have more investors and more countries present in case they need support and mentoring for expansion. Moreover, we are very attractive for partnerships with VCs as well, as they need a higher number of growing companies that have received investments in earlier stages from angel investors.

How does Keiretsu Forum SEE navigate the cultural and economic nuances of the different countries, languages and politics within Southeast Europe when evaluating and working with investment opportunities?

Ardian: One of the most amazing aspects of this industry is that it attracts people who are global citizens in their mindset and who see beyond the local borders and local biased politics that don’t lead us forward. English being the language that we speak makes it even easier, as especially the younger generations don’t necessarily speak the regional languages, and people get along amazingly well and are not biased at all.

Another aspect is that everyone in the ecosystem is programmed to see and think about the opportunities rather than obstacles, and this makes it a lot easier to overcome any barriers that other people or communities might have.

Beyond financial investment, what kind of support and mentorship does the Keiretsu Forum SEE offer to the startups it backs?

Ardian: In our ever-increasing network of angel investors we have all kinds of capabilities that we can utilize to support our startups, ranging from helping startups to structure their companies and managing people and processes, to opening doors for them and connecting them with people, companies and other markets. The money is the first most important part, but the other values that we bring as just as important for the growth of the companies.

What is the vision for the Keiretsu Forum SEE over the next five years?

Ardian: Our vision is to become the main door in Southeast Europe where startups will knock for an investment. For investors, our vision is to be the best opportunity to see the best investment opportunities, share the investment risks and invest together with the most successful investors in the region, and learn every day and see the latest innovations from the brightest minds in our region and the world. We aim to have around 300 angel investors as members, as well as 50 corporate members in the next five years.

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